Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A Metropolitan gives advice to the young - and food for thought for all at the turning of the year

I found this meditation by a Ukrainian Metropolitan online. Regardless of our state in life (or age) this reflection should provide moments of penitent reflection for all. Especially as many consider "resolutions" for the new year, would we not all benefit from repentance over our sins and a true commitment to living the Christian life of love, charity, and virtue in the upcoming year?

Metropolitan Anthony (Krapovitsky) of Kiev

Ask the person confessing whether his conscience does not accuse him either of some crude outrage or insult against his parents or else of constantly offending them in small ways. Let him not think that this is an everyday triviality in family life. The Lord said to Moses, "He that curses his father or mother shall surely be put to death" (Ex. 21:16). This death sentence for one who reviles his parents is confirmed by the Saviour as being a commandment of God (Mt. 15:4; Mk. 7:10), although not in the sense of a criminal law concerning the death penalty, but in the sense that it is a mortal sin. This then is what the priest should say to an adolescent who is guilty of this: "When you grow older and, perhaps, bury your parents, then, believe me, on remembering such occasions, even while by yourself, you will blush from shame right up to your ears and wring your hands, wishing in vain to make amends for the sin which now seems so insignificant to you. For, although you cannot understand it now, when an insolent son or daughter grieves his loving parents with malicious words or rude disobedience, it is like thrusting a sharp knife into their breasts. You will understand this when you have your own children, but then in all probability it will be too late to wipe out your guilt before your deceased parents." The same thing, or nearly so, is experienced by teachers when their pupils are insolent to them; as a result of this, many become embittered and the sacred task of teaching becomes a torment both for the teachers and for the pupils. However, it is much easier for the latter to change this situation for the better, than it is for the former.

Guided by the desire to awaken or strengthen in the penitent a feeling of his guilt before God, put questions to him about which he probably does not think, but which reveal the wounds of his soul to him. To this end it is more profitable not to continue your questions in the accepted order of sins against God, against one's neighbour and then against oneself, but rather to ask them in the order which is most likely to awaken his conscience. You see, our contemporary flock has almost forgotten about its direct relationship to God. What sense is there in asking a person about going to church regularly or attention to prayer if he forgot the way to God's church years ago, and never so much as makes the sign of the cross in the morning or in the evening? "I am not used to praying," such people boldly answer, "but I live honorably and do no harm to anyone; but there are many who pray to God and devour people." If a spiritual father has managed to dislodge a sinner from such a self-satisfied position by using the basic questions we have indicated above, then let him thank God. However, it is still useful to continue asking questions in the same order, according to the degree in which the conscience of contemporary people is sensitive to them" i.e., first ask about sins against one's neighbour, then about sins against the Person of God and finally about sins which derange the inner life of the sinner himself.

And so, if a Christian thinks that he has never offended his neighbour, tell him: "That is good, but we must understand "offense" not only in the sense of what makes a person angry, but even more in the sense of what causes him harm. Thieves are strictly punished by the law and despised by people, but man has pleasures that are far more significant than money or things" his soul and his purity. Have you advised people to do anything evil or depraved? Have you made fun of any one's chastity or modesty, or of their obedience to their elders, their honesty at work or in their studies? When young people lose their innocence, modesty and obedience to their parents and even their honesty, it is always under the influence of bad examples and evil advice, but those who have turned them away from the good path entirely forget about them and about the evil they have done to them. They have sinned terribly before God, far worse than thieves and robbers. But far more criminal are those who, not content with giving treacherous advice when they are asked, also make efforts on their own initiative, sometimes over a considerable period of time, to lure an innocent person into a sin from which he will probably not be able to free himself for a long time, or even for his whole life. How many such tempters there are in any school, who will not be content until they have dragged their comrade into a public house or acquainted him with corrupt people. Nevertheless, who does not know Christ's words: "Whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in Me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea." (Mt. 18:6)? So, haven't you committed this sin? Have you purposely sowed the seeds of doubt in your neighbor's heart? Have you made fun of his piety? Have you driven him away from prayer and church? Have you sowed the seeds of discord between brothers, between husband and wife, between co-workers or comrades? All those who do things like this will understand how far from the truth is the prejudice that has long been commonplace in society" that prayer and religion in general are the helpers and servants of the devil. The devil acquires great power over them, since they have surrendered themselves to his will. The same fate awaits those who sin by slandering their neighbour, either in conversation or in print; it also awaits those who condemn their neighbours without being sure that they are guilty of anything.

Perhaps you have no opportunity to tempt or grieve your neighbor or lead him into disaster, and do not even wish to do so, but nevertheless, if you find out that some misfortune has befallen him, you glory over it rather than feel compassion for him. If this is so, see how black your soul is, and what a dangerous path you are on, for the Scriptures say that "Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer" (1 John 3:15). But you are not guilty of this, glory to God. However, are you not given up to remembrance of wrongs, even if it is not expressed as a desire for revenge? According to the words of our Lord, this makes your prayers quite worthless, and shows that your heart is filled with great self-love and self-justification. You are guilty of the same thing if you have the spirit of disobedience in the family, at school or at work; if you fulfill your obligations only when you can be made to answer for them and find satisfaction in doing something your own way. It was through this disobedience that sin came into the world, and it is precisely from this that criminals begin their sinful exploits" guided always by the spirit of self-justification. This demonic spirit leads them through the following steps: disobedience, laziness, deception, outrages against their parents, seeking sensual enjoyment, theft, rejecting the fear of God, leaving their father's house, robbery and murder and denial of the faith itself. When the person confessing hangs down his head, and you hear the voice of penitence in his speech and also that he is frightened by his sins, then tell him that these evil feelings of disobedience and especially of remembering wrongs and gloating over others misfortunes, grow up in a soul which likes to condemn everyone. This is sinful because a feeling of pleasure at others shortcomings always develops together with the habit of judging people without need. After this comes the desire not to recognize anything good in them, and this is already near to gloating over their misfortunes and even nearer to remembering wrongs. In secular or worldly society all this is considered praiseworthy " people openly make fun of obedience, or even become indignant at the very mention of it, expecting, on the contrary, that every subordinate, every soldier, workman, official and especially every professor should demand freedom upon freedom. This is expected especially of students and even of school boys. This spirit has even moved into the country and the parish, and even into the family, where only a strong paternal hand and the threat of being thrown out or of hunger can uphold that small amount of order that is left, which still protects the home from destruction. The last two years have shown where this foul teaching of self-will has led. Not to mention the fact that people have become villains almost to a man, they are also dying of starvation, going about in ragged clothes, are deprived of the possibility of studying and communicating with each other by letter " in a word, they have returned to the state of savages. How, through what struggle did our Saviour lead people out of their former life and make them righteous and intelligent? Through obedience! Through the obedience of one, many were justified.And even up to our days the highest form of piety, monasticism, consists primarily of obedience.

And so, young Christian, the priest will say, if you wish to be a good, intelligent person and not just a stupid sheep, another member of the flock, then do not agree with the crowd of your contemporaries who are perishing spiritually and physically, do not go by the path of self-will, but by the path of obedience.

Only then will you be a person; then, perhaps, of your many comrades you alone will not be a syphilitic at the end of your studies, will preserve your faith and your heart uncoarsened; truthful in word and honorable in soul, you will not be battered and storm-beaten like a weather vane, as are the majority of our contemporaries. But now you must know that, as you have admitted, you have already sinned much against God, and I am glad to see that you are filled with grief at the picture of your not insignificant sins, which have now been revealed to you and about which you probably did not even think previously.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Psalms – Comfort and Challenge in Hard Times

It is almost clich├ęd to the point of triteness to say that the recent past has been a season of fear, uncertainty and confusion. The world seems to be crumbling day by day into an economic crisis the likes of which have not been seen since the 1930’s. In such anxious times, the need to find perspective and spiritual focus, while perhaps no greater than in times of luxury and earthly peace, is at least more apparent. Fear over declining finances strips away the false faces of fashion, the immodesty of obsession with ‘taste’ and preference, and the scandalous delusion of self-sufficiency. The precariousness of societal instability inevitably leads to the recognition that only inner spiritual strength can provide the means to tread forward through this vale of fears.

It is therefore worthy to become reacquainted with the Psalter. The Psalms have been central to Christian worship and prayer since the time of our Lord and the Apostles. This may strike one as odd, given that the Psalms are hymns and reflections firmly rooted in the liturgical life of the Jewish Temple. Yet, the Church appropriated the Psalms as prototypical sources of spiritual nourishment from the beginning. Until a hundred years or so ago priests and Monastics of all the Churches of Apostolic origin were required to read the entire Psalter every week. Even today, the Psalms form the backbone of the Roman Church’s Liturgy of the Hours.

In the Byzantine Tradition, while much of the actual recitation of the Psalter on a weekly basis has given way to only chanting the troparia and other hymns that once functioned as spiritual reflections and elaboration, references and allusions to the Psalter still permeate the hymns and common texts of the Divine Liturgy and other services. And in a welcome advancement, many Byzantine Christians and others recently have turned again to include the recitation of the Psalter as a constituent part of their daily devotions. This is a highly commendable development.

Our Lord frequently quoted the Psalms, and the Apostles came to understand that these millennia-old hymns reveal essential insights into the human condition and man’s relationship with God. The Psalms speak of devotion to God, fear of enemies, sorrow for sin, humble acceptance of God’s justice, and longing to understand in times of confusion and doubt. These are universal themes of human existence. By meditating on the Psalms the Christian finds continuity between his own experiences and those of the shepherd tending his sheep four millennia ago.

Over the years, your rambling host has found the Psalter an inexhaustible and indispensable source of spiritual strength. Having used different versions and several different methods, I have witnessed that my devotions and confidence in God’s mercy and protection can only be sustained through close contact with the Psalms. They are at once intimately personal and concretely universal, providing comfort and challenge to live a more Christian life.

In this light, I recommend two resources that have recently proven most valuable to me. The first is The Psalter According to the Seventy, published by Holy Transfiguration Monastery Press. HTM is a traditionalist monastic community in Brookline, Massachusetts. The monks have been engaged in a now decades-long task of translating the entire corpus of Byzantine hymnody and service materials into English. Their aim has been accuracy and attention to the need for chantability. While the language is “classical”, which may not speak to everyone, their works will long be remembered as foundational in the history of Byzantine Christianity in the English speaking world.

The Psalter According to the Seventy is beautifully printed and bound in two editions; a large print edition suitable for the psalterion, and a ‘pocket size’ edition perfect for personal use. The large edition includes the traditional Byzantine Scriptural canticles. The pocket edition features end notes explaining the Kathisma system for weekly recitation.

The second resource is the translation of the Psalter Translated from the Greek Septuagint by Baron Jose De Vinck. This nicely-bound edition follows the artistic format of Byzantine Daily Worship; the translation being an elegant contemporary English, without the use of jargon. For those in the Melkite Tradition, the translation has the benefit of being familiar due to its inclusion in Byzantine Daily Worship. The only drawbacks are the exclusion of Psalm 151, the use of ‘double numbering’ when the division differs between the Greek and the Masoretic versions, and the lack of noting the Kathismata divisions. Nonetheless, while it is often hard to find, this edition is well worth the effort.

For those who prefer to utilize their time in the car for spiritual reflection, there are also two versions of the Psalms available for careful drivers. The first is an intoned reading by one of the monks of the Hermitage of the Holy Cross simply entitled The Psalter, utilizing the aforementioned Holy Transfiguration edition. This version has the benefit of being divided into the Kathismata, allowing one to program the particular Kathisma or Kathismata for a given day and time-period.

The second version uses the King James Version of the Psalter and is recited by Alex Jennings entitled The Psalms and available from Naxos. This version is beautifully read by Mr Jennings, an accomplished Shakespearean actor, and brings out the drama and pathos in the readings. Here and there, short pieces of classical or choral music punctuate the readings.

As both of these versions utilize translations in "classical" ("Church") English, the listener who finds "Thou shalt make me to lie down in green pastures" an awkward phrasing may not benefit from them. Others will find either edition worth using as an aid to devotion and reflection. Those wishing for a version that easily allows for listening according to the days and times of the Byzantine tradition will prefer the Holy Cross Psalter. Those preferring a more nuanced reading will prefer Jennings.

Whatever version or edition one chooses, the Psalter - prayed daily - will reward the seeker with deeper spiritual insights, greater appreciation of the universality of human nature, and a renewed sense of confidence in facing the vicissitudes of life. The words of the psalmist will seep into the heart, and references and allusions in the Liturgy will becoming striking both during the Divine Service and during the psalm reading. Slowly but surely, one will find one's layers of would-be and want-to-be falsehoods flaking away as the person God created and loves come more clearly into view. At the same time, knowledge and, more importantly, intimate acquaintance with God is fostered through these timeless meditations.

For true inspiration in these troubled and confused times, make the Psalter a priority on your reading and devotional list.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Benedict on Original Sin

Sandro Magister reports on Pope Benedict's recent teachings on Original Sin. The Eastern Churches have always viewed Original Sin in different terms than the Roman Church. Indeed, it has been a topic of much polimical debate - although I have always found a congruence between the two understandings, which the Holy Father seems to balance in his catechesis. It will be interesting to see the reactions to his teachings from the various proponents of the differing interpretations.

Here is a snippet...

God created everything for existence, and in particular he created the human being in his own image; he did not create death, but this entered the world through the envy of the devil, who, rebelling against God, also drew men into deceit, inducing them to rebel (cf. Wis. 1:13-14; 2:23-24). This is the drama of freedom, which God accepts completely for the sake of love, while promising that there will be a son of woman who will crush the head of the ancient serpent (Gn. 3:15).
For the rest, go here.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Pope Benedict XVI's Condolences for Death of Patriarch Alexis II

VATICAN CITY, 5 DEC 2008 (VIS) - Benedict XVI has sent a telegram of condolence to the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church for the death of His Holiness Alexis II, Patriarch of Moscow and All the Russias.

"I was profoundly saddened to receive news of the death of His Holiness Alexis II, Patriarch of Moscow and of All the Russias, and with fraternal affection I wish to convey to the Holy Synod and to all the members of the Russian Orthodox Church my most sincere condolences, assuring you of my spiritual closeness at this very sad time. In my prayer I beseech the Lord to welcome into His Kingdom of eternal peace and joy this tireless servant, and to grant consolation and comfort to all those who mourn his passing, Mindful of the common commitment to the path of mutual understanding and co-operation between Orthodox and Catholics, I am pleased to recall the efforts of the late Patriarch for the rebirth of the Church, after the severe ideological oppression which led to the martyrdom of so many witnesses to the Christian faith. I also recall his courageous battle for the defence of human and gospel values, especially in the European continent, and I trust his commitment will bear fruit in peace and genuine progress, human, social and spiritual. At this sad time of loss, as his mortal remains are consigned to the earth in the sure hope of the resurrection, may the memory of this servant of Gospel of Christ be a support for those who are now in sorrow and an encouragement for those who will benefit from his spiritual legacy as leader of the venerable Russian Orthodox Church".

For his part, Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, has issued a note expressing his own sadness at the death of the patriarch, who "was called to guide the Russian Orthodox Church in a period of great change. ... His leadership has enabled that Church to face the challenges of transition from the Soviet era to the present with renewed interior vitality".

The cardinal recalls his "many meeting with His Holiness, who always made a point of expressing his goodwill towards the Holy Father and his desire to strengthen collaboration with the Catholic Church. His personal commitment to improving relations with the Catholic Church, in spite of the difficulties and tensions which from time to time have emerged, has never been in doubt".


Memory Eternal

Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Alexy II dies

Associated Press Writer

MOSCOW (AP) -- Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II, who presided over a vast post-Soviet revival of faith but was accused of making the church a force for nationalism, died Friday at age 79, the church headquarters said.

The Moscow Patriarchate said he died at his residence outside Moscow, but did not give a cause of death. Alexy had long suffered from a heart ailment.

Alexy became leader of the church in 1990, as the officially atheist Soviet Union was loosening its restrictions on religion. After the Soviet Union collapsed the following year, the church's popularity surged. Church domes that had been stripped of their gold under the Soviets were regilded, churches that had been converted into warehouses or left to rot in neglect were painstakingly restored and hours-long Masses on major religious holidays were broadcast live on national television.

By the time of Alexy's death, the church's flock was estimated to include about two-thirds of Russia's 142 million people, making it the world's largest Orthodox church.

But Alexy often complained that Russia's new religious freedom put the church under severe pressure and he bitterly resented what he said were attempts by other Christian churches to poach adherents among people who he said should have belonged to the Orthodox church.

These complaints focused on the Roman Catholic Church, and Alexy refused to agree to a papal visit to Russia unless the proselytization issue was resolved.

"Patriarch Alexy II was tasked with leading the Church at a time of great transformation," the secretary of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, Monsignor Brian Farrell, told the ANSA news agency. "He was able to carry out this task with a great sense of responsibility and love of the Russian tradition."

Alexy lived long enough to see another major religious dispute resolved. In 2007, he signed a pact with Metropolitan Laurus, the leader of the breakaway Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, to bring the churches closer together. The U.S.-based ROCOR had split off in 1927, after the Moscow church's leader declared loyalty to the Communist government.

Alexy successfully lobbied for the 1997 passage of a religion law that places restrictions on the activities of religions other than Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism. Under his leadership, the church also vehemently opposed schismatic Orthodox churches in neighboring Ukraine, claiming the Ukrainian church should remain under Moscow's control.

He was born Alexei Mikhailovich Ridiger on Feb. 23, 1929 in Tallinn, Estonia. The son of a priest, Alexy often accompanied his parents on pilgrimages to churches and monasteries, and he helped his father minister to prisoners in Nazi concentration camps in Estonia. It was during those visits that Alexy decided to pursue a religious life.

Under Soviet rule, this was not an easy choice. Lenin and Stalin suppressed religion and thousands of churches were destroyed or converted to other uses, such as museums devoted to atheism or, in some cases, stables. Many priests and parishioners were persecuted for their beliefs.

The persecution eased somewhat during World War II, when Stalin discovered that the church could be used as a propaganda tool in the fight against the Nazis. But the Soviet authorities never fully loosened their grip, penetrating the church at the highest levels.

Alexy was ordained in 1950, progressed through the Orthodox hierarchy, and was consecrated Bishop of Tallinn and Estonia in 1961.

The British-based Keston Institute, which monitors religious freedom in former Communist countries, has cited research suggesting that Alexy's career may have been aided by assistance he gave the KGB while a young priest in Tallinn. Orthodox Church officials vehemently denied the allegations.


Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Alexy II died

05.12.2008, 13.11

MOSCOW, December 5 (Itar-Tass) -- Tolling of bells in the bell-towers of Moscow City's 600 or so churches has officially announced to the lay the passing away of the Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia, His Holiness Alexy II.

The bells were tolled in strict comformity with the regulations the canon of the Russian Orthodox Church envisions for such cases.

Patriarch Alexy II took office in 1990, when resurrection of the Church and spiritual life in Russia was just at the beginning. During his stay at the helm of Moscow Patriarchate, this country has seen a de fact rebirth of the Orthodox Christian faith, as thousands of churches and monasteries were restored from complete decay or built anew, millions of people got baptized and the Church re-emerged as a full-fledged social and juridical organization.

He died at the age of 79 Friday morning at this residence in Peredelkino, to the southwest of Moscow. According to medical reports, he suffered from a number of chronic illnesses.


Head of Russian Orthodox Church Dies at 79

5 December 2008, Friday

Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Alexy II, died at his home outside Moscow on Friday at the age of 79, the church reported.

"This is an irretrievable loss for all Russian Orthodox people, wherever they live," speaker of the upper house of the parliament, Sergei Mironov, declared.

Patriarch Alexy II was an establishment figure who restored the authority of the church after decades of Soviet repression and had been a moral authority among millions of Russian believers.

The patriarch had led the world's biggest Orthodox church since 1990.

and also

Russian Orthodox Church leader Alexy II dies

05/12/2008 12:57 MOSCOW, December 5 (RIA Novosti) - Russian Patriarch Alexy II, who led the Orthodox Church for almost 20 years, died at the age of 79 in his residency near the Russian capital on Friday morning, a Moscow Patriarchy official said.

The cause of death has not been reported, but the patriarch was known to have suffered from heart disease.

On Thursday evening, Alexy II held a church service in one of Moscow's central cathedrals to mark a major religious holiday.

The church's ruling body, the Holy Synod, is due to gather for an urgent meeting in Moscow on Saturday following the patriarch's death.

Alexy II suffered a severe stroke in 2002. In April 2007, media reports said he was in a Swiss clinic in a serious condition or even dead. Church officials then confirmed the patriarch had undergone medical treatment in Switzerland, but denied the seriousness of his condition.