Parish feast on Tuesday November 20

We will be having our parish feast on Tuesday, Nov 20. (This is actually a day early. The feast of the Archangel Michael is on Nov 21, but Archbishop Sergey gave us permission to move it one day early because Nov 20 is a public holiday)

There will be vigil on Monday, Nov 19 at 7pm, and divine liturgy at Nov 20 9am. After divine liturgy there will be a festal lunch.

 

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Dormition of the Theotokos

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Today is the feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos, one of the 12 Great Feasts of the church. This was the first time I had the privilege to attend the service, and thankfully I was able to go to both the vigil and the divine liturgy.

The vigil service especially is really beautiful, with echoes of the Good Friday service. The highlight is a procession of the Plaschanitsa around the church (a shroud with the image of the Theotokos on it, representing her body). The entire liturgy is full of solemnity and beauty.  I was not able to take any photos, but here is a photo from our sister church in Singapore (today was their church feast day-the name of the Singapore church is the Dormition of the Theotokos Russian Orthodox Church)

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This photo is of the end of the procession, where we walk back into the church under the Plaschinitsa. The service feels like a funeral, and as with all Orthodox funerals, full of hope of the promise of the resurrection.

 

Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia: New Martyr of the Communist Yoke (L. Millar)

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To learn to be an Orthodox Christian is not just a manner of proper belief, but also of proper action. So it is not enough to study theology and read the right books. We also have the example of Orthodox saints who have struggled before us, and emulate their examples. I find the lives of modern saints particularly valuable in this regard- they are some challenges we face in modern times that those living in the early centuries A.D. never had to experience.

St. Elizabeth the New-Martyr might be the most prominent of the 20th-century saints. Her life story is compelling, tragic, and thoroughly modern. She was a covert from the Lutheran church, a German noble wife of a Russian duke and sister of Empress Alexandra (wife of Tsar Nicolas II).  St. Elizabeth lived and worked in the tumult of the First World War and the Russian Revolution.  After the tragic death of her husband, St. Elizabeth left her life of privilege and comfort and instead became a nun, and founder of a unique monastic community that focused on healing the sick and helping the forgotten poor. Alas, she was killed shortly after the communists took control of Russia.

St. Elizabeth the New Martyr does not appear much in secular history books, despite how close she was to the events of the Russian revolution. This is a pity, because her story is remarkable! There are a lot of valuable primary sources in this book. Since she was a royal, a lot of her letters to friends and family were preserved. These range from fanciful writings to her grandmother, Queen Victoria, as a young girl, to deeply profound spiritual meditations written later in her life. Ms. Millar reproduces a lot of these letters verbatim, and they are a wonderful personal perspective to life in the tumultuous late 19th and early 20th centuries, and also a unique  glimpse as to how the thinking of a Godly woman matures from childhood to martyrdom. Ms. Millar also provides documents about the running of her Sts. Martha and Mary convent, and the tireless work the sisters did on behalf of the poor and ignored.

Liubov Millar has written a wonderful biography. I love how much joy permeates the pages of this book, which on the fact of it, tells a really tragic story. St. Elizabeth grew up as a princess, is widowed at a young age, has everything she built and worked for destroyed by the communists, and ends up dead in an abandoned mine pit. We see the raw pain that she goes through, but also how it compels her to go out and heal the suffering of those around her. We feel the cruelty of her tormentors, but also the depth and sincerity of her forgiveness.

I feel privileged to be able to read this story 20 years after the end of the cold war, to read in the book’s epilogue how her labors of love and kindness inspire imitators today in Russia and in the whole world, while the Soviet Union has become a forgotten relic. In our age, where the forces of cruelty and violence seem no less formidable than in St. Elizabeth’s time, her story is a crucial reminder that God is still sovereign, and those seemingly futile acts of faith, hope, and love will win out in the end.

St. Elizabeth’s story is one that all Orthodox Christians should know, and Ms. Millar’s book is a wonderful account.

 

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.

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!