Month: April 2014

African Monastic Wisdom: The Pursuit of Purity

“The goal of our profession, as we have said, is the kingdom of God.  Its immediate purpose, however is purity of heart, for without this we cannot reach our goal.  We should therefore always have this purpose in mind; and, should it ever happen that for a short time our heart turns aside from the direct path, we must bring it back again at once, guiding our lives with reference to our purpose as if it were a carpenter’s rule”  — St. Moses the Black

 

First, I acknowledge my debt to Fr. Paisius Altschul, the Priest at St. Mary of Egypt Serbian Orthodox Church, for making this very powerful quote from St. Moses a part of his article “African Monasticism:  It’s Influence on the Rest of the World” (Epiphany Volume 14:4, 1995).  I am acquainted with the influential saint and his acts of forgiveness and humility.  I find these words of the article and quotation extremely timely in this era of a Christianity which chases after anointings, breakthroughs, and “favor.”

Fr. Paisius with Subdeacon John Norman at the Ancient Faith Afro-American Christianity Conference 2011

The Desert Fathers of Egypt set the tone for pursuing the Christian life at a time when the faith could have been easily swept up in common culture and popularity.  When Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity (no, he did not make it the state religion), converting to the faith became the “in” thing to do for status and upward mobility.  Three hundred years prior to this, those bold enough to declare themselves or found out to be Christian ran the risk of torture and death.  With the emperor giving a seal of approval to the Church, people accepted the faith for a variety of wrong reasons without facing any sort of challenge from the government.

The monastics  understood that there was still one horrible persecutor that had to be overcome that was more dreadful than even the worst of the previous emperors:  Satan.  They understood that to fight against this great enemy with all of their energies, they could not be distracted by the things of their world.  Even the normal and honorable pursuits of a career, trade, spouse, and family were to be shunned for the sake of seeking a pure heart and the kingdom of heaven.  Anthony the Great is regarded as the father of all who turned their backs on the world for the sake of the world beyond.  By this lifestyle devoted to prayer, these men and women received renowned wisdom and were sought after by kings and commoners alike.  They became advisers to bishops and other clergy (such as the relationship between Anthony and Athanasius).  Their influence spread from the African deserts to those of the pre-Islamic Middle East, Greek and British isles, and the Russian and Siberian forest.

And what was the guiding wisdom of these desert dwelling monks and nuns?  In a nutshell, we must constantly strive for purity and the kingdom of God.  Even though most people are not called to become monastics, they taught that Christians must set aside time for prayer, renounce the vanities of this world, and devote ourselves to becoming transformed to becoming children of God.  Such a pursuit was for whosoever would obey the command of Jesus, “if any man would come after Me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me.”

St. Macarius the Great. One of the most influential Desert Fathers.

In a Christianity of “favor ain’t fair,” I fear that the wisdom of the African monastics is sorely lacking.  In fact, such a view of God reduces the divine to being an agent of unfair earthly advantage rather than the Eternal One who commands us to conform to His will in order to enter His kingdom.  While I do not claim to be an expert on the Desert Fathers, Early Church Fathers, or the Philokalia; it is safe to say that none of the African saints taught such an idea as seeking God’s favor for earthly blessings.  These were men and women who, in best conditions, dwelled in monastery cells with a diet of whatever was in season.  The more extreme of them lived in caves and wore the same garment until it was threadbare (Mary of Egypt).  While they had no argument against those who earned reward and wealth in the world or received such things by some sort of luck, material blessings were not the point of being a Christian.  To make worldly possessions through one’s abilities and labor as evidence of possessing the grace of God will corrupt the believer into self righteousness where those who fail are considered unable or unworthy of the kingdom.  To make worldly possessions through some divine intervention without personal merit as the standard of God’s grace turns the focus of the Christian away from the kingdom of God to the kingdoms of the earth.  Purity of heart cannot be obtained through either of these paths.

Purity can only be obtained through the grace of God.  We are to be co-workers for our salvation by constantly pointing ourselves to this purpose.  While we non-monastics  live in the regular world, we must consider becoming a pure being the true point of our existence.  Sure, we should strive to do our best in our employment and studies, obtain quality possessions, develop healthy relationships of all sorts, enjoy times of recreation, and set aside an inheritance for future generations.  But, if purity is difficult to reach even for those who purposely aim for this, it is all but impossible for those who do not.  St. Anthony taught that if one were to renounce the world and live in the desert, he will overcome all temptations and would still have to conquer lust.  St. Mary of Egypt struggled against the legitimate and lustful desires of her former life for 47 years before she obtained purity of body and soul.  How much more difficult is it then for someone who desires God’s “favor” for a job promotion, fine possessions, and an attractive spouse?  Pursuing favor over purity is like pursuing alcohol instead of water.  The soul of such a person becomes intoxicated and dehydrated.  Sooner or later, the soul dies.  A sip of strong drink or wine has its place as Jesus Himself changed water into wine at the wedding feast.  Not long after that, He offered living water to a strange and sinful woman, St. Photini (yes, the Samaritan woman at the well had a name and was considered equal to the Apostles) that if she would drink of it, she would never thirst again.  If the wine of “favor” comes our way, let it come and celebrate.  But, it must never be the main beverage we seek.  We need the living water of purity of the body and soul and drink of it constantly as our entrance into the kingdom of God relies on it.

And we Orthodox Christians must be aware that we are not drunk with the wine of complacency in our faith.  It is easy to boast in the fact that, “We have seen the true light ….” as members of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.  But, unless we devote ourselves to spiritual growth,  we are no better off than our non-Orthodox neighbors and friends.  Indeed, there are many who have never heard of this ancient faith and its spiritual depth and richness who have found salvation through Jesus Christ with nothing more than the Bible and a humble and sincere walk with God.  As one Orthodox bishop noted about Protestants, “they have taken the little they had and make much while we too often take our much and do little with it.”  While the bishop was talking about evangelism, unfortunately, the same can be said for our spiritual development if we don’t take our pursuit of purity seriously.

Lessons From Lent: The Temptations

There really isn’t any point in fasting, praying, nor almsgiving during Great Lent and Holy Week if you are not trying to grow spiritually from the experience.  During this time of renewal, I ran across one of the spurious letters of St. Ignatius to the Philippians that made me take a second look at the tempting of Christ in the desert (Matthew 4).  Satan attempts to persuade Jesus into three frames of mind that would lead him into sin.

St. Ignatius of Antioch

St. Ignatius of Antioch

First, is ignorance of the word of God.  In the previous chapter, our Lord was baptized, had the Holy Spirit descend on Him, and had been announced by the Heavenly Father as the Son.  Jesus needed no other proof as to who He was.  Thus, Satan’s challenge (if you are the Son of God) fell on deaf ears as our Lord chose not to be ignorant, but to pay attention to the word of God rather than obey the legitimate cravings of his flesh.

The second dangerous frame of mind is a vainglorious relationship with God.  Here, Satan was careful to use scriptures to give Jesus a sense of assurance of safety if He would cast himself down from the pinnacle of the temple.  But, rather than fall for the seemingly legitimate bait of scripture, our Lord stood on the more humble command not to put God to the test.

The final mentality that Satan used to tempt Christ was direct rebellion against God for the sake of the world.  No doubt, the splendors of the ancient world’s kingdoms were great.  Yet, Jesus knew there was a much greater and everlasting kingdom that was not built by human conquest and construction.  Our Lord felt that this place was so great that He commanded the devil to leave him for even offering up such a choice.

Christ overcoming Satan

Considering my own struggles and temptations, I can see where every sin is linked to one of these three frames of mind.  For the sake of satisfying legitimate cravings we ignore the truth God indisputably revealed to us.  We say and act as we wish because we have adjusted the scriptures to fit our bidding rather than to submit to what the scriptures say believing we have God’s approval.  For the sake of what we can gain in the world, we gladly serve the devil himself in direct defiance that God has something greater for us if we are faithful and patient.

Pascha (Easter) is a few days away.  I anticipate enjoying every form of meat and dairy product that my palate chooses and wallet can afford.  But, I pray that I will spend times meditating on these lessons from my first Lenten Fast as an Orthodox Christian.  Rely on the word of God and forsake the flesh.  Walk with God in humility and not vainglory.  Serve God only and reject this world as it calls us to serve Satan.

A Blessed Holy Week and Pascha to all.

 

The Race of Jesus: My Two Cents

Anyone who enters St. Cyprian of Carthage Orthodox Church near Richmond will be dumbstruck at its iconography.  The patron saints, Cyprian of Carthage and Moses the Ethiopian (the Black),  are both African and are as dark as my father and myself.  The icons of Christ Pantocrator and the Theotokos are both racially ambiguous, kinda like  mixed-race “redbone” blacks.  With the exception of one or two Ethiopians, virtually everyone in the church is white of Eastern European origin or Anglo-Saxon converts.  The ancient pictures of Christian Nubia depicts brown-skinned kings, queens, bishops, and saints.  But, Jesus and Mary are depicted as pale skinned.  This can be seen as a debunking of the black Jesus idea as the native Africans who had their own kingdom and were not under the yoke of bondage did not paint Jesus as one of themselves.  How do we interpret the question of the race of our Lord when He walked the earth?

A Slavic Christ Pantocrator

First, let’s go to one point that we all should be able to agree upon.  Jesus was not of a pale skinned, blonde haired, blue-eyed, Nordic stock.  Anyone with any sense of archaeology or history knows that such people would have found it difficult to survive in the Middle East.  The Israelites spoke a Semitic language that was closer to those still spoken in the Ethiopian highlands than Western Europe.  Indeed, the earthly lineage of Jesus has no connection to any place in Europe.

Yet, the idea that Jesus was a racially pure dark-skinned Nilotic African is also  misleading.  Immediately some would like to the point out that the Pharaohs of Egypt were  black people.  It is undeniable that most of the great rulers of Egypt were black.  But, consider the fact that there was a good deal of race mixing with lighter skinned races for centuries.  The Hyksos were a Semitic people who ruled Egypt for about 200 to 300 years.  The African kings did continue to trade with the likes of the Hittites, Phoenicians, and even the Greeks blending Egyptian blood even further.  The conquest of the Persians and Macedonians pretty much ended the idea of a racially pure black Egypt before the dawn of the first century.  So, when Joseph took Mary and the Child to Egypt to hide from Herod, it was just as much out of the fact that Herod had no authority over any place outside of Judea as it was that the Holy Family would be  able to blend in with the general population, which by that time the people’s skin tones ranged from “high yellow” to Ethiopian brown with a few darker Africans and more pale European elites.

6th century Christ Pantocrator from Sinai

Early Christianity depicted our Lord and Savior in a variety of skin tones.  For the Slavic people, a dark-skinned icon of the Theotokos was well accepted as she was from a part of the world different from theirs.  To a black Nubian, anyone from north of Memphis was painted with pale skin because they would be lighter than themselves.  For the first 300 years of the faith, Christians of all races were persecuted not because of skin color but because they refused to abandon their belief in Jesus.  After the legalization of the faith, it was a deacon from Africa, Athanasius, denounced by his detractors as “the black dwarf” that led the successful argument that Jesus was co-substantial and co-equal to the Father.  His mentor, Anthony, was another African and is widely regarded as the father of Christian monasticism.  Athanasius would later become the bishop of Alexandria and write the list of books that would be canonized as the New Testament in the African city of Carthage.  Europeans knew the history and the roles their African brothers played in the establishment of the Christian faith and even through the Renaissance depicted black people with the same dignity and honor as they painted and sculpted themselves.

A 5th century mosaic of Jesus from Rome

The slave trade changed this sense of mutual respect.  Muslim Arab conquerors  began the process of dehumanizing  Africans who refused to convert to Islam. They ruthlessly persecuted Christianity in Egypt and the Middle East, conquered Christian Nubia, and left Ethiopia as an isolated Christian nation.  As Western Europeans began their age of exploration, they saw the profits that could be made in enslaving non-Christian Africans.  With the faith barely reaching beyond Ethiopia and no regard for the persecuted Orthodox believers, greedy Catholic and Protestant elites found it easy to dismiss sub-Saharan people as being subhuman.  This is where the “curse of Ham” doctrine (a lie that was never taught by neither the Desert nor Early Church Fathers) was born with the excuse that Africans were meant to be slaves.  Catholic elites quickly ignored all but a handful of their black and brown-skinned icons and any references to Christianity’s African past.  Protestants rejected icons wholesale relying only on their various interpretations of the Bible.   Even through the end of the Trans-Atlantic trade, the preferred images of a more European-looking Jesus was a tool to establish supremacy  over the darker races of the world (the slave trader John Hawkins named his ship, “Jesus,” and his coat of arms was a black man in bondage).  African-Americans have every reason to reject portraits of our Lord and savior as a blonde haired, blue-eyed, pale skinned man.

Coptic Christ Pantocrator

But, I wouldn’t necessarily endorse every picture of Jesus with dark skin, an Afro, or dreadlocks either. To display images of a black Jesus to counter the racist images that we African-Americans had grown up with makes sense.  But, there is a temptation to use the dark-skinned Christ not as a tool for healing and reconciliation, but as a wall to keep black and white Christians separated.  Someone may easily start boasting his identity with that of the Lord and consider their former oppressors ans incorrigible or too far gone to receive salvation.  Blacks are not in an economic, political, nor social position to impose on whites anywhere near the same kind of hell we went through in this country (nor would 99.9% of us want to).  But, to use the image of Jesus as an example of black supremacy is just as racist and wrong as what white society did to us.

If you are comfortable with your heritage and skin, you need not be bent out of shape with what color Jesus is.  Attending St. Nicholas Ukrainian Orthodox Church this past weekend, the images on the iconostasis were all darker than my mother.  The Slavs know that they have preserved the faith during the fall of Byzantium and spread Christianity to North America.  So, venerating images darker than they are is not a problem.  I saw a picture of an Ethiopian woman proudly displaying an icon of the Theotokos with pale skin.  For her to admire and adore this image does not threaten her noble history as the Christian kingdom that was never colonized by neither Arab Muslims nor Western Europeans.  African-Americans have experienced chattel slavery and segregation under the image of a Nordic image of Christ.  But, we also developed a reverent spirituality in the midst of our suffering and proven that the power of love and non-violence can overcome hatred.  Like the Ethiopians and Slavs, we can hold our heads up with a sense of pride.  We need not get uptight about the color of the image.  And as we are all called to the great multitude of humanity that will be saved in the heavenly kingdom, perhaps it is best for us to embrace one another’s differences as well as our unique qualities here on earth.