WHAT IS THE GOSPEL?  FR ALEXANDER SCHMEMANN ON BEING TRULY ORTHODOX

WHAT IS THE GOSPEL? FR ALEXANDER SCHMEMANN ON BEING TRULY ORTHODOX

An excerpt from Fr Alexanderr's "The Mission of Orthodoxy":

Today's Orthodox young people do not have that immigrant mentality. Orthodoxy for them is not primarily the remembrance of childhood abroad. They will not keep Orthodoxy simply because it is "the faith of their fathers." Suppose we apply this principle to others: Then the Lutherans should keep the Lutheran faith, the Jews the Jewish faith, and finally, the son of an atheist should keep atheism because it was the "faith of his father." If this is the criterion, religion becomes a mere cultural continuity.

But our claim is that our Church is Orthodox, or more simply, the Church, and this is a frightening claim. It implies that it is the faith for all men, for all countries, for all cultures. And unless this implication is kept in mind and heart, our claim to be the true or Orthodox Church becomes hypocrisy, and it would be more honest to call ourselves a society for the per­petuation of the cultural values of a particular geographic region.

Our faith cannot be reduced to religious practices and customs alone. It claims the entire life of man. But the culture in which we live, the "American way of life," is something which already existed when we came here. Thus we find ourselves an Eastern Church with a total claim on our life, yet living within a Western society and a Western way of life.

The first problem can, then, be formulated very simply, although its solution is extremely difficult: How are we to combine these things? How can we live our Orthodox faith which claims the totality of our existence within a culture which also claims to shape our existence?

This is the antinomy of our situation; this is where all our difficulties are rooted. Yet unless we understand it, we will always have wrong solutions. These wrong solutions--quite popular today--follow two basic patterns.

I will call one pattern a "neurotic" Orthodoxy. It is the attitude of those who, whether they are native Orthodox or converts, decide they cannot be Ortho­dox unless they simply reject American culture, who build their spiritual home in some romantic and ideal­ized Byzantium or Russia, and who constantly curse America and decadent Western society. To them, "Western" and "American" are synonymous with "evil" and "demonic." This extreme position gives a semblance of security. Ultimately, however, it is self-destructive. It is certainly not the attitude of Saint John, who, in the midst of a violent persecution, said so simply, "And this is the victory that has overcome the world's-our faith" (1 John 5:4). And further, he said, "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment" (1 John 4:18). In the attitude of some, however, Orthodoxy is transformed into an apocalyptic fear which has always led to sectarianism, hatred, and spiritual death.

The other dangerous pattern is that of an almost pathological "Americanism." There are people who, when they hear in Church one word in Russian or Greek, react as if it were a betrayal of Christ. It is the opposite neurosis, the neurosis of those who want Orthodoxy to become American immediately.

In the first neurosis, Orthodoxy is reduced to a fanatical and negativistic sect; in the second one, "American" is falsified, for America is not at all a country which requires surrender, conformity, and the acceptance of the mainstream mentality as the "American way of life." What makes this country great and indeed unique is precisely the openness of its culture to change.

And who knows whether it may not be the real mission of Orthodoxy in America to change the American culture which has never really been chal­lenged by a different set of values? No doubt Orthodoxy has an understanding of man, life, world, nature, etc., radically different from those prevailing in American culture, but this difference itself is a chal­lenge for Orthodoxy rather than a justification for withdrawal, negativism, and fear. To avoid the two extremes, to be truly Orthodox yet fully American, seems to be the only real Orthodox tradition.

READ Fr Schmemann's entire essay "The Mission of Orthodoxy" here:  http://www.peterandpaul.net/schmemann-missionoforthodoxy

This post was inspired by a virtually identical post found on John Sanidopoulos' excellent website. 

  

 

WHAT IS THE ORTHODOX FAITH?

WHAT IS THE ORTHODOX FAITH?

Fr Thomas Hopko was a bright and shining light in the Orthodox Church, particularly in America.  His words and teaching were powerful as well as illumining, they were deep, and yet you could grasp his point, and most of all they were words that somehow drew you in and stoked the fires of curiosity in those who were listening.  In his capable hands, what might have merely remained "mysterious" about Orthodox Christianity became the riches of the Faith that so many people are seeking (as all men and women should).

Fr Hopko wrote a four-volume set of books that are part catechesis, part theological treatise, and part introduction to the "True Faith".  You can find all four volumes online, and they are freely available to read:

http://oca.org/orthodoxy/the-orthodox-faith

REGARDING BAPTISM: SOME HELPFUL GUIDELINES

REGARDING BAPTISM: SOME HELPFUL GUIDELINES

Baptism is a mystery (sacrament) of the Orthodox Church.  It is not performed lightly, nor do we baptize someone simply out of religious habit.  We become Christians through the mystery of baptism and chrismation, and we fulfill this by participating in the mystery of Holy Communion regularly.
 
Understanding the above, we can see that baptism is an “entry” into the life and the community of the Church, rather than simply a religious ritual.  When we are baptized, we are entering into the “new life in Christ” that is described in Holy Scripture:
 
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:3-4)
 
For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.(Galatians 3:27)
 
We enter into the waters of baptism in faith, having confessed our sins and asked for forgiveness by way of our repentance of our sins, and we emerge as “new creatures” in Christ: we are a new creation.
 
Because of the importance of these matters, baptism requires spiritual preparation and consideration.  Below are the guidelines that we use at St James to prepare for the Mystery of Baptism:
 
ADULTS, YOUNG ADULTS and OLDER CHILDREN:
 
•Adult baptism is administered to those adults who have either never been baptized by any Christian group or who may have been baptized, but not in a manner that the Orthodox Church can bless.  Your priest will determine how you are received into the Orthodox Church.


•All adults seeking to enter the Orthodox faith are required to attend St James catechism classes and to attend church services regularly.  These two factors— a proper catechism and participation in church services— serve to educate the candidates for baptism and prepare them for “holy illumination”.  The length of the catechumenate period is determined by the priest according to received practice and local pastoral matters.


•Each candidate must have a “sponsor” (or “Godparent”), who is an Orthodox Christian and who is currently in good standing with the Orthodox Church (regular confession, communion and participation in the life of the Church).  The role of Godparent is important in the Orthodox Church and is not simply a social honor.   The pastor of the parish must bless the choice of Godparent, and therefore it is important to discuss this with him prior to making invitations or promises.
 
CHILDREN / INFANTS:
 
•The parents of the child to be baptized should be regular, active members of the parish prior to scheduling a baptism. A period of catechism is also required of parents and Godparents for the sake of education concerning why we baptize and what it’s spiritual significance is.  Such meetings are good opportunities to ask questions and to expand the faith of the parents and the Godparents.


•The child must have a sponsor or “Godparent” who is an Orthodox Christian in good standing with the Orthodox Church (regular participation in the mystery of confession, communion and the life of the Church).  As stated above, the role of Godparent is important in the Orthodox Church and is not simply a social honor.   The pastor of the parish must bless the choice of Godparent, and therefore it is important to discuss this with him prior to making invitations or promises.


•The Orthodox parent or parents of the child, as well as his god parent/s, must participate in the mystery of confession prior to the baptism.  This is very important.  The child’s baptism often provides an opportunity for the parents to renew their own baptism through confession.


•It should go without saying, but sadly must be said, that It is expected that the parents and the child baptized will remain active members of the local parish, worshiping regularly and giving of their time, talents, and treasures for the sake of the building up of the Church.
 
Baptisms are performed on Sunday mornings, prior to the beginning of Divine Liturgy, or on a day where there will be a Divine Liturgy offered.  The newly-illumined adult or child then is able to immediately participate in the Divine Mystery of communion.
 
While the guidelines above are helpful, they are not exhaustive.  Those desiring to enter the Orthodox Church or who desire their child’s entrance to the Orthodox Church must take the time to meet with your priest well in advance of the proposed time of baptism.  Exceptions may be made, but these are all made according to the discernment of your priest.
 
If you have any questions regarding the guidelines above, please talk to Fr James.

ON PRAYER AND BEGINNING TO PRAY

ON PRAYER AND BEGINNING TO PRAY

Prayer is one of those words that is kicked around and tossed around and used in so many ways today that very often we aren’t sure what it really means in any given context.  Some people equate it to “wishing” for something.  Others see it as a conversation.  Still others look on it as some sort of religious magical mumbo-jumbo.
 
Prayer in its essence is our interaction with God Himself.  It is an act of faith, enacted by both speaking and listening.  And as we grow in our spiritual lives, it tends to become more and more about simply  listening.  We speak, but we begin to speak not simply to be heard.  We begin to build a framework for actually listening for God’s words to us.  As we see in the example of the holy prophet Elijah in 1 Kings 19 (or III Kings in the Septuagint), when the Lord speaks, it is typically in a still, small voice.  Elijah was troubled and discouraged and sought out the Lord.  The Lord sent him to a cave to wait on Him.  Three things happened, as the scriptures tells us:  a great wind tore at the mountain side, an earthquake shook the rocks and a fire came burned.  Each of these things were impressive and even shocking.  We expect God to be big, impressive and shocking like wind, earthquakes and fire.
 
And yet, as we see, God was in none of these things.  Rather, after the wind, earthquake and fire passed, Elijah heard a still, small voice speaking.  This was the voice of God.  Likewise, we must make an effort to quiet ourselves and find a quiet place where God— who feeds himself to us in small, digestible portions so that we are able to bear His glory— can speak.  Do not expect fireworks or great signs and wonders, though He may send them.  Expect rather the still, small voice.
 
As we pray, we must quiet ourselves.  We must find words to speak, or (at the very least) heart-felt “groanings” of our spirit, when we cannot find the words or when grief and distress overtake us.  The goal of all of this is to find peace: not simply a feeling of peace or peacefulness or some sort of psychological or emotional stability.  Rather, we speak and listen to our Lord in order to experience His kingdom on this earth, here and now.  His kingdom is not shaken by our troubles.  Christ conquers all.  His kingdom was revealed on the Cross, in the tomb, by the resurrection  on the third day and by Christ’s ascension into heaven, where he (having taken all of our grief, sin, brokeness, and so forth with him to the Father) sits at the right hand of the Father.  He has conquered by death, crushing death by dying himself and destroying the power of death.
 
All of this leads us back to the issue of prayer: how do we pray?  Metropolitan Anthony Bloom wrote an incredible little book called Beginning to Pray.  He speaks in it of this conversation that we have been talking about: this speaking and then this listening.  We do the hard work of finding the words to pray: words that both have meaning to us and yet are somehow not totally dependent on our own understanding.  It is a very good book, and well worth the effort to engage with his thoughts. In the book, he makes the point that one source for us to turn to when we are in need of words to pray is the Church itself.  The Church has provided us with many words, that in turn provide us with the framework for our own prayers.
 
The Psalms are the pre-imminent source for all prayer, as we see each time a divine service is celebrated.  We hear Psalms or portions of Psalms constantly.  We do well to take time to read a Psalm when we do our daily prayers.
 
Likewise, the written prayers of the Church give us a resource in time of need, in our daily struggle, in our regular devotional times and when we simply need to turn to God and say, “Help!”.
 
And by using the words of prayer in a devoted and consistent manner, God is good and blesses us so that our very lives become a prayer.  That is to say, from the most exalted and spiritual moments to the most basic, almost unconscious movements, we may experience true prayer.  The Lord is good and faithfully reveals Himself to us— if we will only “show up”.  Sadly, this is the reality behind the fact we feel like God never speaks to us.  We were the ones at fault: we failed to “show up” and listen to His words.
 
But it all begins by beginning to pray.  It begins simply and honestly, without trying to be something that we aren’t.  We are sinners in need of God’s love which he freely offers to us.  In prayer and by praying with our whole lives, we experience that love fully.  And we do this by making a beginning of it; by turning toward God and opening the ears of our hearts.
 
A good resource for the prayers of the Church can be found here: Prayers for Orthodox Christians

ON CONFESSION

ON CONFESSION

One of the most powerful and healing aspects of the Orthodox Christian faith that one encounters is the sacrament of confession.  That is, the admission and repentance of one’s sins before Christ in the presence of one’s priest.  Ideally, these are sins that one has already acknowledged in some way before God, and prior to one’s entering into the sacramental act of confession.  But often one finds that one’s sins are revealed even as other sins are confessed.  Confession is not simply an obligation or a legal admission of guilt, but rather it is a “turning away” from the path of selfish, Godless worldliness towards the Kingdom of God in all of its fulness.  We humans are meant to serve only one Master, and when we try evade that Master—our Creator and God— we fall into the trap of sin.  It is by way of confession that we admit these sins and ask for forgiveness.  In the sacrament of confession, we come to our priest having prepared ourselves by prayer and by self-examination, and we offer these sins up to God so that we might both put them behind us and that we night be healed of them.
 
This is not easy, or perhaps is only rarely easy.  Many times, our pride, shame, guilt, anger or other passions prevent us from coming to Christ in the presence of our priest to deal with sin in our lives.  We would much rather admit our sins to God in the privacy and convenience of our minds than have to admit our sins verbally in the presence of someone else.  This is understandable, and while admitting our sins to God privately is good and right, it often does not allow us to find true and complete healing.  We need to name our sins, and we need to do this in the context of a relationship with another person.  We were not made to be isolated individuals, without context to one another.  Rather we were made to exist in community, with all the joys and struggles and pains and rewards that such a life brings.  When we name our sins, out loud and in the presence of another person who loves us and cares for us, those sins quickly lose power over us.  We see them for what they are: they are like the demons in Matthew 8:28-34.  As we see in this passage, the demons sought to evade Christ, even control his decisions.  They sought to go into a herd of swine, and by doing this avoid their own judgment and destruction.  Christ permitted them to do this, and yet they were still destroyed:  the pigs bolted and ran into the sea where they were drowned.  As our Church teaches, the demons ultimately have so little power that they could not even control a herd of pigs!  Our sins, while they may be persistent and troubling, are powerless over us when we offer them to Christ in confession.
 
Confession is not an instant cure-all, but rather it is a regular remedy for us who are seeking after the Light of Christ.  I offer the following words on confession composed by Father Thomas Hopko:
 
If We Confess Our Sins – Fr. Thomas Hopko
It is not enough for us to know our sins and to hate them. We must also confess them before God and man. We must acknowledge them before heaven and earth. We must expose them to the whole of creation in order to be rid of them from within our secret hearts. Confession is part of the spiritual life. Indeed, it is part of life itself. There is no authentic existence for human beings without it. And there is certainly no authentic repentance.


If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us. (1 Jn. 1:8-10)
Some say that there is no need to confess sins openly and publicly. They say that people can confess directly to God. Such an idea is total nonsense. Confession to God in secret is no confession at all. It is simply the acknowledgment before the Lord that we know what He knows! Confession by definition is open and public. If it is not, it is simply not confession.
When the people were repenting in preparation for Jesus at the preaching of John the Baptist, it is written that they were baptized “confessing their sins” (Mk. 1:5). This does not mean that they were telling God in privacy of their hearts what He already knew. It means that they were proclaiming the evils that they had done for all to hear. And when St. James commands Christians: “Confess your sins to one another!” he is not advising them to be aware of their transgressions in the secrecy of their souls. He is ordering them to reveal their wickedness’s to each other so that they might be healed (Jas. 5:16).
If confession is by definition the open and public acknowledgment of sins, why then do the Orthodox confess privately to their priests? Because the pastors do have the ministry of witnessing the confession and repentance of God’s people, and of officially sealing that confession and repentance with the assurance of divine forgiveness through the prayer of absolution.
 
The reason why people now confess to their pastors in private is because of the weakness of the body of Christians as a whole. Confession used to be public. It was done openly in the presence of all of the members of the Church. Anyone willing to confess in this manner today is welcome to do so. But it would most likely serve only to lead others into temptation rather than to inspire prayerful compassion and sympathetic collaboration in fulfilling the Lord’s commandments. When confession is done to the priest alone, it should be understood that it is to him as if it were to all. Or, to put it another way, it is to all—God and man and the whole of creation—in the priest’s person, as the head of the church community and the sacramental presence within it of the Lord Jesus Himself.
 
Great Lent is a time for confession. All Christians should make their confession during this holy season. A person who fails to do so is hardly a Christian. He is certainly not Orthodox.
 
In his spiritual diary, Fr. Alexander Elchaninov gives advice about confession. Advice is also found in the writings of Fr. John of Kronstadt, and in such books as Unseen Warfare and The Way of the Pilgrim. Christians should read writings of this sort to help them with their confession. Theophan the Recluse advised those preparing for confession to study the Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5-7) and the first letter of John, together with 1 Corinthians 13 and Romans 12 to 14. These, and other sections of the scriptures, focus sharply on what is expected of Christians in their daily behavior. Fr. Elchaninov writes that confession “springs from an awareness of what is holy, it means dying to sin and coming alive again to sanctity.” It begins with “a searching of the heart.” It moves to a sincere “contrition of the heart.” It expresses itself in the “oral confession of sins,” accomplished “with precision, without veiling the ugliness of sin by vague expressions.” It is fulfilled in the resolution never to sin again, although realizing that we will fall because we are not God. It is sealed by our subsequent sufferings to remain steadfast in our struggle against sin. Such confession is at the heart of our spiritual efforts, especially during the Lenten spring.
 
Behold, my child, Christ stands here invisibly and receives your confession. Wherefore be not ashamed or afraid and conceal nothing from me, but tell without hesitation all things which you have done, and so you shall have pardon from our Lord Jesus Christ. Lo, His holy image is before us, and I am but a witness, bearing testimony before Him of the things which you have to say. But if you shall conceal anything you shall have the greater sin. Take heed, therefore, lest having come to the physician, you depart unhealed.