Tag Archives: communion

Eating food that is not dead.

“Prepare yourself, my soul! Be courageous like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, that acquiring diligence and wisdom you too may meet your God. Through contemplation may you reach the awesome depths in which He dwells and in so doing become a good steward of the Lord.”

-Canon of St. Andrew

For the Orthodox, it is the first week of Great Lent, which is called Clean Week. We began the fast on Monday, after the Vespers of Forgiveness on Sunday. This year in my parish we were thankful for good weather that day, as our long line of people bowing to each other in their masks, and mostly not hugging, stretched in a long loop that went out the side door of the church and wrapped loosely around the front. We were saying, “Forgive me,” to each one, and replying “God forgives.” Many of us had not seen each other in person for months or even the whole year.

Two new frescoes had been completed just in time to take down the scaffolding and make room for Lenten services. As I took pictures of them on Sunday I realized how each of them draws me into an aspect of the season.

Christ in the House of Mary and Martha in Bethany (on the other side of the arch, not pictured, is Martha scowling) makes me want to imitate Mary and sit at Jesus’s feet. And The Feeding of the Five Thousand reminds me of various levels of meaning in the lines of the Lord’s Prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread.” As we are going without physical food in various ways during this season, that part of our prayer is extra meaningful. The most striking words I ever read on the relation of earthly and heavenly food were in For the Life of the World by Fr. Alexander Schmemann:

“The natural dependence of man upon the world was intended to be transformed constantly into communion with God in whom is all life. …He still loves, he is still hungry. He knows he is dependent on that which is beyond him. But his love and his dependence refer only to the world in itself. He does not know that breathing can be communion with God. He does not realize that to eat can be to receive life from God in more than its physical sense. He forgets that the world, its air or its food cannot by themselves bring life, but only as they are received and accepted for God’s sake, in God and as bearers of the divine gift of life. By themselves they can produce only the appearance of life.

“…Things treated merely as things in themselves destroy themselves because only in God have they any life. The world of nature, cut off from the source of life, is a dying world. For one who thinks food in itself is the source of life, eating is communion with the dying world, it is communion with death. Food itself is dead, it is a life that has died and it must be kept in refrigerators like a corpse.”

The most prominent reading during the first week of Lent is The Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete, which is typically divided into four parts sung during services of that week. This year our women’s book group also chose a book on the Canon to read during this season.

I’ve noticed that during the Compline service when the Canon is being read, year by year, there are so many Scripture passages and characters referred to, that I can’t absorb half of it in my mind. Being at the service and participating with my whole body, soul and spirit is way to do it — we humans are so much more than our thoughts! This week the Compline hymns have been the sweetest part for me, and as usual, a phrase or two from the Canon about a particular sin or person in the Bible will also grab my mind and stick. I seem to have the opportunity for more contemplation generally these days, which is why the lines at top made their impression.

Psalm 69/70 is part of Compline, also, and a few lines from it will help me end this ramble.

“Let all those that seek thee rejoice and be glad in thee: and let such as love thy salvation say continually, Let God be magnified.

“But I am poor and needy: make haste unto me, O God: thou art my help and my deliverer; O Lord, make no tarrying.”

My non-philosophy that is reality.

Karl Jaspers

Why would a Christian like me want to read a whole book about existentialism? At least a few of my readers are confused about that. I may in the future share more of my gleanings from this book as it helps me understand this modern age that we live in, but now let me just clarify that it is the enlightening presentation by William Barret that I find beautiful, not the anxiety and “spiritual homelessness” of the Europeans whom he includes in the lonely camp of existentialists.

In contrast to their interesting but ultimately unsatisfying way of thinking, Father Stephen Freeman writes about our existence in a non-existentialist way. If I hold to a philosophy, it is this non-philosophy, which is reality, my life in God:

“The modern movement of secular thought has been to move existence into an independent and self-defining realm, relegating God and religion to a specialized interest of those who find themselves religiously minded. This is the death of religion – or rather a religion of death. For as soon as our existence is moved away from God and grounded in something else, God Himself has been abandoned. It is not possible for God to be a lesser concern. Either He is the very ground of our existence or He is no God.”

“As Met. John Zizioulas has famously stated, ‘Being is communion.’ In such a context we are able to move towards authentic existence – a mode of being that is not self-centered nor self-defined, but that is centered in the Other and defined by communion. Sin is removed from its confines of legalism and mere ethics and placed at the very center and character of existence itself. Sin is a movement towards non-being. In contrast, to know God is to love and its greatest test is the love of enemies. As St. Silouan taught: ‘We only know God to the extent that we love our enemies.’”

“Christ is, as He said: the Way, the Truth and the Life. His death and resurrection are the movement of God’s love to rescue humanity from a self-imposed exile from true and authentic existence which is found only in communion with God… It presses the question upon us all: ‘What is the truth of my existence?'”

 

Born into everyone’s business.

Encounters with strangers often leave me feeling deeply connected at the fundamental level of our common humanity. People you don’t know, who may be needy themselves, or may help you in an emergency, or with whom you share a crisis, are often easier to feel close to than your dearest friend or your cousin you’ve loved since you were children. That is because you have nothing but your humanity to connect with. No offenses given or received have been stuffed into your baggage regarding that person.

Like the Indian woman I once sat next to, so very close to, on a plane from Mumbai to Frankfurt. She actually had been seated behind me when we first boarded, but before we were told to fasten our safety belts the man next to me, I guessed he was her son, traded places with her, perhaps so she could sit by a woman. I don’t know, but she and I liked each other, we could tell by our smiles, though we said not a word to each other during eight hours, not knowing the words.

Today in the Orthodox Church we enter Great Lent with the Vespers of Forgiveness, when we also connect with many people we hardly know, on the ground of our fallen humanity. We admit with a bow and a kiss that we have sinned against them, whether we’ve ever spoken to them or have even seen them before. We exchange the words, “Please forgive me!” with each person in the service in turn, and each of us responds, “God forgives!”

Why? Because, as Elder Sophrony said, “Every sin, manifest or secret, committed by each one of us, affects the rest of the universe.”

I’m sure many of us find it difficult to comprehend, but going through this exercise every year will help us learn the truth in our hearts. Father Stephen Freeman helps, too, in passages like this:

The universe as an event of communion, a reality in which we literally participate, is quite foreign to the modern mind. The fiction of our radical individualism is an invention designed to promote the most irresponsible account of human freedom possible. It tells us that our lives “are our own,” and that we can act without consequences for anyone other than ourselves. “It is none of your business!” is the heart-cry of modernity. But this is simply not true.

We are born into everyone’s business and everyone’s business sets the stage and the very parameters of our existence. The language we speak, the thoughts we think, everything in our lives comes to us already burdened with the history and experience of the world around us. The saints treat this reality in the strongest possible sense. “My brother is my life,” St. Silouan says. By this, he does not mean simply that he cares strongly about his brother. He means it in its most literal sense. Not only is my own life not my own, but the life of the other is, in fact, my true life, or my true life certainly has no existence or reality apart from the life of the other.

Read the rest of the article: Why We Forgive

And if you are keeping Lent, I pray that through your efforts and God’s grace you and we all will grow in understanding of this life that we share. God bless you!

Seoul, Korea

*pictures found online

It’s my love language, too.

remembering the departed in Orthodox Chrisitian Church - offering bread, boiled wheat and red wine that are blessed by the priest

I want to share an article that is a kind of conversion testimony; it was published earlier this year with the title For the Love, on the blog Persona. The author well conveys the gratitude I also feel for the Church that encourages us above all to love people, and gives us tools for doing that. Tools? What am I saying? The Church gives us The Holy Spirit, a Person of the Holy Trinity Who live in Love, who are the source of any love.

Soon we will be remembering my goddaughter in prayer and song, on the one-year anniversary of her repose in the Lord. These days it is natural for me to think often about the dead, and not only my husband. For that reason I also appreciate what what Fr. Stephen Freeman has to say about our relationship to the departed, and  how, “With the radical individualism of the modern world, the mystery of communion and true participation (koinonia) have been forgotten….” 

The witness that follows is of someone who is discovering koinonia. I join with the writer of Persona in thankfulness for the ways the Church helps me to continue loving my dear Kathleen.

FOR THE LOVE

I attended my first service in an Orthodox Church in December of 2010. In April of 2012 I was chrismated (confirmed) in the church. What I don’t know about the Church could still fill several books, and I’m not very good at being Orthodox.

It’s a tradition that appears confusing and Byzantine to outsiders, with all of its incense and strange pictures, its standing and prostrating and crossing oneself. It seems legalistic, with all of the fasting and written prayers and candle-lighting. Praying to saints and the Virgin Mary? To Protestants, these things are often red flags, warnings of impending Catholicism.

I was frightened when I was first exposed to Orthodoxy. I was educated in a Protestant seminary, where I took classes on the theology of Martin Luther and the spiritual development of women as my electives (I have layers). I found it much easier to read about spirituality than to actually pray. I calmed my doubts with well-reasoned arguments, and I weighed and measured every sermon I heard to assess the soundness of its doctrine. I loved God with my mind.

Yet what drew me to Orthodoxy was not, ultimately the soundness of its doctrine or the reasonableness of its apologetics. From my earliest exposure to the tradition I acknowledged that it was quite likely the oldest expression of Christianity. But what ultimately brought me into the church was not a well-reasoned argument on the merits of prayer to the saints or an articulate defense of the use of icons and veneration of the Theotokos (the Virgin Mary). What ultimately brought me to the church was, quite simply, love.

As I participated in the life of the church, I was moved again and again by the love of the people. Yes, I was attracted by the love shown to me by the priest in my parish, and the new friends I made there. But what changed me, what won me over was realizing that at the root of all the practices that I didn’t understand, that seemed superfluous or legalistic, was love.

The Orthodox do not pray to saints because they feel that they cannot go directly to God. They don’t venerate the Theotokos because they feel that Christ alone is not enough. They don’t prostrate or light candles or fast because they feel they must earn their salvation. The Orthodox Church does what it does because they love – the Trinity, each other, the departed, saints – the Church loves them all. More than that, the church understands that we all love, and it gives us concrete ways to express ourselves.

For me, this all became very real a few months before I became a catechumen and began my (formal) journey towards Orthodoxy. When I was a teenager, someone very close to me passed away. The anniversary of her death approached, and I was sad. When I told my priest, he told me that the Church gives us a prayer service that we can pray on the anniversary of a loved one’s death. I went to the church and we lit a candle and prayed for her, and those of us who loved her.

koliva with roses 4-15

The Orthodox Church understands that we love people. It encourages us to love deeply. And then, when they’re gone, to be comforted by the love the Church has for them, and for us. At the death of a member of the church, listen to how they are spoken of – in glowing terms, seeing only the best, most beautiful parts of the brother or sister in the faith.

The Church invites us to look upon the saints with a similar love. They are not only examples to follow, but as beloved family members. Prayer, lighting candles, keeping their feast days are the ways that we express our love across time, across the chasm of death.

I told my mother recently that Orthodoxy speaks my love language. In Orthodoxy, faith moved from an intellectual proposition that I accepted to a radical love that changed me. I want to love in the way that the Church loves its people. I want to look at others and see the beautiful image of God and love them with fire and determination. I want to feel the genuine affection that I see for bishops and priests and monks. I want that love to move me outward, to serve and pray and be a better version of myself. I want others to know that they are loved.

I fail all the time. I’m not very good at being Orthodox. But I’d rather try and fail at this than succeed at almost anything else.

–from the blog Persona