He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Praying with Icons: Saint Nicholas of Myra

Pray for us, St. Nicholas, that we might
be generous with the poor, gentle with
the children and bring God's holy light
to the people of God as they seek with
holy zeal to know the Lord more fully.

Pray for us, Wonder-worker, that God's
grace protect us from the fire of heresy,
from the famine of departing the Lord's
presence by grave sins, and from softly
drowning in self-centered pridefulness.

Pray for us, Defender of the Faith, that
we might emulate your study of Sacred
Scripture, your steadfast heart while at
prayer to the glorious Holy Trinity, and
your commitment to the truth of Christ.

Note:  The above is a picture I took of an icon of Saint Nicholas which I purchased for a friend from bostonmonks.com, the website of the Holy Transfiguration Monastery.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Love it to Death: The Fast of Love

I ate very little this morning.  In retrospect, it felt very much like a fast.  And I did a 60-minute workout before getting a small meal for lunch.  The time I gained from spending less time eating was very valuable, because I was able to spend more time praying.

There are many reasons to fast.  We might fast as a form of protest against injustice, for example.  Or we might fast to lose weight because we have previously indulged in immoderate consumption.  Alternatively, we might fast because we suffer from a condition like anorexia which keeps us from recognizing our healthy bodies and drives us to starve ourselves.

There are also religious reasons to fast.  We might fast as a penance for wrongs committed.  We might fast simply because it's a religious obligation tied to a season like Lent in Christianity or Ramadan in Islam.  We might fast to save money in order to give to the poor.  We might even fast simply because the practice of self-denial helps us to become more selfless and loving.

Recently, I took a trip to Colorado to visit my god-daughter and the whole family.  I found myself fasting a lot while I was with them, not because I couldn't have gone and gotten food.  It wasn't a penance, or a season of fasting.  I wasn't trying to lose weight, nor was I protesting anything.

I fasted, and not intentionally, simply because I was experiencing the love of the family life and enjoying the time spent with them and the time spent in prayer.  I probably spent as much time praying the Rosary as I spent eating on that trip, and it was wonderful.

I spent a lot of time reading the Bible as a child and into my teenage years (and more time studying it as an adult).  One thing I noticed is that fasting is a common occurrence in Sacred Scripture, both in the Old Testament and the New Testament.

For example, the Gospel of Mark begins with the story of John the Baptist, and it mentions that he spent much of his time in the wilderness.  It also mentions that his diet consisted of locusts and wild honey, that he wore clothing made of camel's hair, and that he preached repentance.

Shortly thereafter, it tells of Jesus going into the wilderness for forty days.  It is during this time that Jesus also fasted and resisted the temptations of Satan.  He did this for several reasons: so that we might have an example of fasting to emulate, so that it could be clear that the temptations of the evil ones are to conquered with fasting and knowledge of Scripture, and ultimately so that we might be saved.

Jesus didn't fast because he really needed to learn what it was like to be hungry.  He would have already known hunger from normal life in 1st-century Judea.  God sent His only-begotten Son to become man, to live a life that was a holy example, and then die in our place so that we might share in the gift of eternal life.  Jesus's life, death, and resurrection were all the acts of Love Himself.

In short, He fasted because He loved us.  The First Lent was also the Fast of Love.

It is the fast of Love which we should emulate when we fast.  It is good to fast as a penance, and yet this fast of penance should also be undertaken because we love God so much that we want to separate ourselves from our sins by penitential acts and thereby draw closer to Love Himself.

It is good to fast to strengthen ourselves against the selfishness that so often leads us to succumb to the temptations to do evil, to do anything which is not an expression of radical love for God and our neighbor.  This fast of self-denial should always be undertaken for the sake of making ourselves more  loving, more like Christ who is the Son of Love Himself.

It is even good to fast out of obedience to the Church, the Bride of Christ who is sanctified by Christ the Bridegroom and ever seeks to lead us into ever deeper communion with Christ.  Not only should we undertake the fasts of the Church because we ought to obey Her, and because we love Her, but also because we love Jesus Christ who established the Church out of His love for us.

In this way, each fast we undertake is a fast of love, and we follow in the narrow way of the Son of God who loved us unto death.  It is in following in this narrow way of the Fast of Love that we love to death our sinfulness which keeps us separated from God.

It is the Fast of Love which helps us to love to death our selfishness that keeps us from fully participating in the self-emptying and eternally self-giving love of God shown to us in all glory and power through the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection of our Lord.

It is in the Fast of Love that we love to death our overweening pride that keeps us from heeding the words of Love Himself, "If ye love me, keep my commandments."

Note:  The above is a picture I took of a silver-plated icon of John the Baptist that I purchased from orthodoxmonasteryicons.com as a gift for my brother.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Fair Questions: What's the difference between ancient and modern ecclesiology?

A friend asked me recently to articulate what I believe to be the primary difference between ancient and modern Christianity, which I argue is the matter of what it means to be the Church.  By the Church, I mean the mystical and visible Body of Christ, the understanding of which is the pursuit of ecclesiology as a field of study.

All analogies have limits, and I propose the following analogy with that in mind.  I use it to illustrate an important set of distinctions, not to create a new ecclesiology based on an analogy that's moderately useful.  That's how too many people get into the barren and boring fields of heresy with Trinitarian doctrines, after all.

It occurs to me that the key differences between the ancient and modern Christian understandings of ecclesiology are similar to the key differences between ancient Christian and modern secular understandings of marriage.

One of the differences between the ancient Christian understanding of marriage and the modern secular understanding of marriage is that the ancient Christians understood marriage as being truly an exclusive matter.  There was one person who was truly a person's spouse, and that fact didn't change because one of them left and took another lover and they were recognized as married by the local officials.

In the same way, the ancient Christian understanding of the Church was that there is one true Church which is exclusive.  Just as you're either in a marriage to someone or you're not, they believed that you were either in the Church or not.  Large numbers of people saying that they too believed the Apostles' Creed, all the while teaching what was heretical, did not dissuade them from their belief.

This does not mean that they lacked nuance in their thinking about who might be in the Church, but it does mean that they didn't reduce it to a matter of superficial doctrinal agreement alone, or a matter of mystical participation alone, or a Neo-Pelagian sort of insistence that people who act virtuously in the classical sense are somehow in the Church by virtue of those virtues.

And there is another, related difference between the ancient and modern ecclesiology, at least in a fair number of cases (albeit not in all cases).  It too has an analogous situation in the modern understanding of marriage.

Let's consider an example.  Let's suppose that two people get married, and then get divorced.  They both then marry different people, and after a while divorce their respective 2nd spouses.  And then they marry one another again.  This does happen on a rare occasion, at least in the United States.

And it can happen because the modern conception of marriage is that it is something that can be dissolved, and then a new marriage can arise in its place, and then that can be dissolved as well, and then the old marriage can be re-established.  Marriage is no longer understood as a lifetime commitment by common cultural definition, though it may be an aspiration for some.

In much the same way, the modern conception of the Church is no longer one of a lifetime commitment.  The modern ecclesiology does not insist that we need to remain faithful to the one true Church (whatever we believe it is) throughout our lives, but rather that we need to find a church community that suits our preferences, and that we can leave and move to another one as we find it convenient to leave or find it appealing to go to the one we prefer more.

There is a third difference between the ancient and modern ecclesiology that I want to mention, and the marriage analogy can also work to explain it.

The ancient understanding of marriage was that it was explicitly hierarchical.  Whether that hierarchy was based on clan, rank, or gender, there was generally some sort of explicit hierarchy in marriage, just as there were generally explicit hierarchies in most areas of life in the ancient world.

Modern marriage, on the other hand, is increasingly without any explicit hierarchy.  That doesn't mean that there are no hierarchies in practice, or that implicit hierarchies don't form anyway based on power imbalances in the relationship, of course.  It just means that there's no common recognition of a particular hierarchy as culturally normative.  And often that's because there's a contemporary cultural imperative to eschew hierarchies.

In the same way, modern ecclesiology attempts to eschew (or at least minimize) hierarchies.  Many newer Christian communities are run democratically by the members in some form or another.  Pastors sometimes even dress down relative to the formal standards of attire, de-emphasizing their powerful role in the hierarchy that's inescapably implied by having a pastor in the first place.

As with marriage, this don't actually eliminate the hierarchies.  It simply neglects to formalize them while allowing the pretense of a non-hierarchical relationship between those who take on the role of shepherd and the rest of the flock.

Of course, the ancient ecclesiology has an explicitly defined formal hierarchy.  There are bishops who are the shepherds, and they delegate to priests, who must then faithfully implement the bishop's instructions for the parish.  And there is a Pope who functions as the primus inter pares (first among equals) for the college of bishops.

Lest anyone get the wrong idea, I point out these differences not in a triumphalist way, but rather in a philosophical way.  Though I'm a Roman Catholic and I adhere to the ancient ecclesiology, I'm well aware that many other (and some newer) Christian groups also agree with the ecclesiology I described, either in whole or in part.

Some have an ecclesiology that is almost the same as mine (e.g. Eastern Orthodox), others have an ecclesiology that has some strong similarities, but also important differences (e.g. Anglican Continuum), and yet others only have a small though important part of the ancient ecclesiology.

Regardless of these distinctions, and their importance as a barrier to unity among all Christians, I still pray after the example of Christ and Pope John Paul II that we may all be one.

By User:Julian Mendez - User:Julian Mendez, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2547972