Tag Archives: Met. Anthony Bloom

Ivan was not ready.

This month our women’s book club at church read Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, and Sunday afternoon we met at my house to discuss it. That day on the liturgical calendar happened to be the Sunday of the Last Judgment, with the Gospel reading from Matthew 25.

In that passage, before we come to the day’s reading, Christ has been speaking privately to His disciples about the end times, and telling parables. One is about virgins getting enough oil for their lamps, and the other about servants making good use of the gifts they were given. Both parables end with someone arriving and some people not being prepared.

Ivan Ilyich was most certainly not ready for the arrival of his death. He and his friends were like many people in that they avoided thinking about that inevitability. The story opens with the fact of it, and his funeral, which doesn’t affect his friends very much, because thank goodness, it wasn’t their death, so they can go on as they were before. Then the author takes us back to see Ivan’s life over the years, and close to the end when he could no longer avoid suffering, and had to face a reality that didn’t fit into his life’s theme of doing what was pleasant.

The Gospel for the day is sobering, and our pastor reminded us of what his late father, also our priest, used to say, that the task of the preacher is always to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” This passage continues in the thread of being about Someone’s return. Christ, the Son of Man, begins to talk to His friends more directly, if metaphorically:

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.” And by what criteria exactly does He sort them? If you haven’t read that account recently you might want to look at it; the whole process is laid out with much detail in Matthew 25. Our preacher said it is like getting the answers before the final exam.

I was teaching my usual church school class afterward, and read in preparation a sermon by Metropolitan Anthony Bloom that I liked very well; I shared it with the students, too. A quote:

“We are told that when the Day of Judgment comes, those who will stand before God – and those are all of us – will not be asked about their creed, about their theological knowledge, about their theoretical convictions. They will be asked direct and concrete questions, that can be summed up in one: have you been human, or not?”

Steve Robinson wrote similarly: “The separation is this: Who was paying attention to life itself, our Life in a constant icon before us, and fulfilling the Image in which we are created? Who is, in love and sometimes even in ignorance of the Name of the Image, paying attention to what is ultimately our Salvation now, and ever, and unto the ages, even though we do not know it.”

It is the disruption of Ivan Ilyich’s pleasant life, the pain of his illness, and the growing realization that he is dying, that make him pay attention, and even pray. His prayer is along the lines of, “What did I do to deserve this?” but nevertheless: “Then he was still, ceased weeping, held his breath, and was all attention; he listened, as it were, not to a voice uttering sounds, but to the voice of his soul, to the current of thoughts that rose up within him.” 

He begins to consider that perhaps “he had spent his life not as he ought….” Eventually, Ivan “saw distinctly that it was all not the right thing; it was a horrible, vast deception that concealed both life and death.”

This idea of the right thing ties in to what we heard in the homily at church, that God’s judgment is not of the sort we exercise and endure by the same name in the world. His judgment is essentially what happens when the One Who understands everything and is perfect Love sets things right. It would appear that as soon as Ivan prayed the feeblest prayer, his Father began this process.

The end, when it came for Ivan, leads us to believe that he passed from death to life. It did not come without agonizing struggles. He had missed life while appearing to be alive, all the while not preparing for death, which turns out to be the beginning of his true life.

Until they were separated, the sheep and goats had been in the flock together, being cared for by the Shepherd. Steve Robinson points out that sheep and goats alike were clueless about how their fate had been decided; it wasn’t fear of judgment that made the sheep love their fellows and act like sheep — or leaving the metaphor, as the humans God created them to be. Neither did they see Christ in the needy person whom they clothed or fed or took into their homes, but they loved that person anyway.

Metropolitan Anthony ends his sermon with this exhortation: “One day we will stand before Him. He will meet us with His infinite love, but looking at Him we will see that He has been our victim throughout life in the person of every one whom He loved and whom we have neglected, humiliated, rejected, allowed or caused to suffer. And how terrible it will be at that moment to look at Him and know that there is no anger, no hatred in Him, but deep, deep pain. Let us think of that, and remember… if you want to be divine, first be truly human.”

Humility is the situation of the earth.

To me, humility is not what we often make of it: the sheepish way of trying to imagine that we are the worst of all and trying to convince others that our artificial ways of behaving show that we are aware of that. Humility is the situation of the earth. The earth is always there, always taken for granted, never remembered, always trodden on by everyone, somewhere we cast and pour out all the refuse, all we don’t need. It’s there, silent and accepting everything and in a miraculous way making out of all the refuse new richness in spite of corruption, transforming corruption itself into a power of life and a new possibility of creativeness, open to the sunshine, open to the rain, ready to receive any seed we sow and capable of bringing thirtyfold, sixtyfold, a hundredfold out of every seed.

-Metropolitan Anthony Bloom

 

(I stole the quote from Tavi’s Corner, from Met. Anthony’s Beginning to Pray. And I see that the general idea has been shared in slightly different words elsewhere, and credited by Met. Anthony to St. Theophan the Recluse.)

In us the dead still belong.

Today, about a week before our Orthodox beginning of Lent, is Saturday of Souls, or Memorial Saturday. In Divine Liturgy we commemorate all those who have “fallen asleep in the hope of the resurrection and life eternal.” Father Alexander Schmemann writes in Great Lent:

To understand the meaning of this connection between Lent and the prayer for the dead, one must remember that Christianity is the religion of love. Christ left with his disciples not a doctrine of individual salvation but a new commandment “that they love one another,” and he added: “By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Love is thus the foundation, the very life of the Church which is, in the words of St. Ignatius of Antioch, the “unity of faith and love.”

I was able to attend Liturgy this morning, and many things contributed to my great joy in participating. Saturday morning is not an “easy” day to make it to church, and I probably could count on one hand the number of these memorial Saturdays that I have attended over the years. They are celebrated often during Lent, and other dates on the church calendar.

Today many of us had offered our contributions to the list of names of the departed that were read aloud as we all prayed. My dear godmother was present with me this morning, which made me feel more complete 🙂 and it happened to be the exact date that my uncle was killed in a plane crash long before I was born — the uncle I wrote about once here.

Today we were also praying especially for two men who more recently fell asleep in Christ, one just 40 days previous. George and Nikolai, memory eternal! Romanian women brought koliva, one made of barley instead of wheat, and other commemorative foods.

Just to stand in church, to stand in Christ, to stand with my departed loved ones — it was awfully sweet. Because of this reality that Metropolitan Anthony speaks of in Courage to Pray:

The life of each one of us does not end at death on this earth and birth into heaven. We place a seal on everyone we meet. This responsibility continues after death, and the living are related to the dead for whom they pray. In the dead we no longer belong completely to the world; in us the dead still belong to history. Prayer for the dead is vital; it expresses the totality of our common life.

A story, and thoughts for Advent.

The greatest pleasure and thrill of Christmas can’t be had without a little waiting, something like children of yore had to do, when their Christmas trees weren’t even ready for viewing until Christmas Day.

Seven years ago Pom Pom hosted a Childlike Christmas (blog) Party, a party to which we were invited to show up via our blogs four times during December. This year she hopes we will join her every day during December, but this time it’s a more general theme: Advent Blogging. Maybe it is the child in me that is once again saying, in spite of the much greater challenge, “Sure! No problem!” I am updating this post from back then as I join in seven-years-later, partly because I wanted to retain a quote from Pom Pom’s 2011 party announcement:

“Yesterday I asked my students, ‘Why the big greed festival over the holidays? Aren’t we fine right now? Don’t we have enough?’ …Here at Pom Pom’s Ponderings, we are going to think about the simple pleasures of the holidays, the childlike wonder that doesn’t involve the ka-ching ka-ching of the cash register….four holiday Wednesdays of posts that attend to the simple childlike thrills of Christmas. ….that babe in a manger and the children He loves and cherishes.”

The babe in the manger is, of course, the One whose Advent we are anticipating, but I feel the topical field to be pretty wide open. I will be writing about whatever I am doing and thinking during this season, knowing that He is the life and breath of me and everything.

The modern world likes to jump into Christmas immediately after Halloween or Thanksgiving, but the more traditional way to celebrate involves some Anticipation and Preparation. Children might think of it as Waiting and Getting Ready. Some of us have been in Advent, which we call the Nativity Fast, since November 15th.

I’m not experienced in helping children to forgo the treats that are pressed upon them in every shop and neighbor’s house at this time of year, but even before I found the Church and its traditions I tried to keep the family thinking ahead to a special Holy Day, and not just because of the presents.

We need some weeks to sing “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel!” and for it to register in our minds that God’s people had to wait many generations and thousands of years for the coming of the Savior. A little bit of suffering in the form of doing without the usual quantity of food, or rich foods (in the Orthodox Church we eat less, and almost vegan, when fasting) can make it more real for us that the world before Christ was suffering under the curse of sin. We feel our own weakness, too, when eating less, and that can soften our hearts.

Why the photo of Holy Trinity Cathedral above? My church and sister churches sponsor Advent retreats every year, usually a day or half a day when we can hear a lecture and attend services together to help us focus on the coming feast in a fruitful way. One year I attended one at Holy Trinity and took the picture.

A children’s book that might contribute to a child’s understanding of time, and the processes that are necessary preliminaries to accomplishing a goal, in particular a few points on the timeline of our salvation history, is The Tale of Three Trees, “a traditional folktale retold by Angela Elwell Hunt with illustrations by Tim Jonke.”

Three small trees stand on a hilltop and dream about what they might do when they are grown. One wants to be a treasure chest, one a sailing ship that carries kings, and one just wants to stay where it is and point to God.

It takes many years for them to get big enough to be cut for lumber and fashioned into items that play a part in the earthly life of our Lord. The first tree is made into a manger — and this first creation of wood that the Christ Child came in contact with establishes the story as one for Christmas.

All the trees feel initial disappointment and humiliation, none more so than the one that is made into a rude cross and used for violent purposes: “She felt ugly and harsh and cruel.” But in the end all of the trees realize the blessedness of being used for the glory of God, and the young reader is reminded of the reason a Baby was born at Bethlehem.

Even our Lord Jesus went through a period of preparation, growing up as a man for 30 years before He began His ministry, but He surely wasn’t idle during that time. As we wait for Christmas we can prepare our hearts by prayer and fasting and acts of love.

Those of us with families are blessed to have many possibilities under what might be the Acts of Love category. (They might even include some noise of cash registers, but I won’t say any more about that at this party.) I know I typically have things like cookie-baking, doll-clothes-sewing, decorating and menu-planning and making up beds on my list.

The truth is, I’m not very good at being child-like before Christmas. I feel so many responsibilities that children don’t have to concern themselves with, and I get pretty busy with all the fun type of preparations, not to mention all of the usual work that doesn’t stop.

Somehow, though, all of that, when combined with participation in the church traditions and services, adds up to make me feel some of the longing and the weakness that are appropriate right now.

It’s hard to juggle everything, including trips to the post office or the extra shopping and chores, with the quietness we long for. Maybe that tale of the trees has a meaning even for me as a grownup, about being used for His purposes, and finding comfort and courage in that, even when things are crazy with hammers and saws, blood and humiliation.

One thing more about children: Their feeling about Christmas, as I have heard, but can’t quite remember, is that it takes forever to get here! For me, it comes on like a bullet train. Will I even be able to notice each day before it is gone, long enough to post something? In any case, as Metropolitan Anthony says,

“…if the time ahead has a meaning that is necessary for us, it is inevitably coming towards us at a sure and regular pace, sometimes more quickly than we could run to meet it.”

Sometimes more quickly? I just got a funny picture in my head of the children running out ahead to meet Christmas, and us adults dragging them back by their sleeves with one hand, while we try to write the last batch of Christmas cards (or today’s blog post) with the other. Here’s an idea: Let’s all stop, and sit by the fire to read another Christmas story!