Month: November 2014

Keep the Nativity Fast for the Nativity Feast

Dear Christian Friends,

About this time of year we post messages of all sorts showing our disapproval of the continuing secularization of the celebration of the birth of our Lord and Savior.

KEEP CHRIST IN CHRISTMAS

JESUS IS THE REASON FOR THE SEASON

I agree that there is way too much focus on the decorating, materialism, and non-religious attitudes that are condemning this time of year to being the “Winter Holiday.”  But, I think that striving to keep Christ and remember Jesus without some sort of inward spiritual process isn’t doing anyone any good.  In fact, the more we proclaim such slogans aloud without the inward spiritual process, we are probably turning more people off to the Christian faith than we are leading people to salvation, which is our purpose as believers in Jesus Christ.  If all nominal and secular Christians and non-believers hear from us are slogans and they don’t see us striving to better ourselves in preparation for this great holy day, we are (as St. Paul described) clanging brass and tinkling cymbals.  People are justified and right to ignore annoying noises.

An Ethiopian icon of the Nativity of Our Lord

For a couple of thousand years, the original expression of Christianity, the Orthodox Church has observed the Feast of the Nativity of Jesus Christ (later “Christ Mass” by the Roman Catholics) with a 40 day fast in preparation for the feast.  We do not consume meats, dairy products, olive oil, and alcoholic beverages.  According to what jurisdiction we are under (Ethiopian, Greek, Russian, etc), we begin the fast on different days and with different rules concerning fish with backbones (some permit fish on certain days with shellfish throughout the fast). Except for the elderly, young children, pregnant or nursing women, and those under medical supervision; all Orthodox believers are expected to maintain this dietary rule.  Along with the fasting, we have special prayers that we add to our individual disciplines and a special prayer service at the church during the week to help us focus on the meaning of this great and holy feast day.  As the Nativity of our Lord is of great importance, we continue to eat as we wish for 12 days and observe Theophany, the Baptism of our Lord.  Thus, we have 40 days of preparation and over a week of celebration of Jesus Christ coming into the world and the revelation of the Holy Trinity that is the focus of our Christian faith.

I am sure that some of you scoff at the idea of such fasting and the use of ancient written prayers as a “tradition of men” and that no such fast is defined in the Bible.  Yet, there is no scripture that tells us that Jesus was born on December 25th (or January 6th for our “old calendar jurisdictions like Ethiopia and Russia).  So, if we trust the “tradition” of early Christians to give us the date to observe the holy day, why not trust the tradition of prayer and fasting as well?

When one buys a pizza, who scrapes off the cheese, sauce, and toppings just to eat the crust?  Nobody, we eat and enjoy the whole thing.  The same can be said for this season we are entering and the Christian faith.  Protestant reformers and modern Christianity has scraped off the spiritual nutrition of prayer and fasting in preparation for the holy feast and left us with the empty crust of one single Christmas Day.  While many of us Orthodox Christians are guilty of the consumerism and materialism of the age, at least we have the fullness of the tradition of our seasonal fast and prayers to return to.  We have the whole pizza of the Nativity Fast and Feast.  The empty crust of Protestantism has invited Satan to pile on his toppings of covetousness, greed, lack of concern, selfishness, and other elements of our consumerist and materialistic society.  No matter how much good Parmesan, red pepper, and Italian seasonings we sprinkle on in the form of charity; the bad toppings on the empty crust has caused society to ignore the day of giving thanks to God for what we have so that we can go out and spend more money.  No amount of empty slogans will change the toxicity of the once scraped off pizza crust of American Protestant Christmas.  Thankfully, we Christians can start with ourselves and get a whole pizza.

The Nativity of Our Lord

Talk to an Orthodox priest or knowledgeable layperson about what this season means to us.  Look up information about the prayers and fast online or in the library.  Make the time to attend our weekday and Sunday worship whenever possible.  Take small steps by increasing time in personal prayer and use some of our prayers in conjunction with your own.  Also, as it is physically possible, cut back on meat and dairy consumption if but for no other reason but to reward yourself later.  Use this season not to shout mere slogans.  Do something constructive for your spiritual journey as we anticipate the celebration of our Lord’s birth and the revelation of the Holy Trinity.

My Second Orthodox Pilgrimage: Monasticism for the Rest of Us

I like reading the works of the Desert and Early Church fathers.  Chrystostom’s  “Poverty and Wealth” seemed very relevant to today’s social-political issues.  I am a bit surprised that I started reading “Seraphim Rose:  His Life and Works.”  Sure, he is well renowned for his translation work and wisdom.  But, I guess I was a bit biased about reading him as he was ROCOR and his discussions of “toll houses” really aren’t major when it comes to Orthodox doctrine.  But, glancing through a bit of his biography, I confess that I admire the man.  Eugene Rose was a promising student and scholar in late the late 1950’s.  By 1960, it seemed he’d have a great career as an academic and dated a lovely lady.  Not only did he convert to Russian Orthodoxy, Rose completely walked away from the world to become a monk.  While the counter culture movement grew, Seraphim offered a counter to the counter culture and modern Protestantism.  I can’t help but to wonder if he foresaw the coming train wreck that was the sexual revolution.

I hope to get this for Christmas

I was also struck by what Abbess Ariadna said about Orthodoxy in a sermon she preached in memorial of St. John Maximovich, “… Accept entirely and wholeheartedly what the Church hands down to us … and not to choose for ones self what is important and what is dispensable.”  Here is the challenge for me as an African –American who wants to introduce more of my people to the Orthodox Church.  As a product of the black church, I know and love the value of the spirituality I was raised in.  I still remember Dianah Gresham and Lillian Washington leading the hymn, “Wade In The Water,” on Baptism Sunday and the prayers of one of the old deacons at St. John’s Baptist Church.  Nearly everyone came out to the one Sunday a month Communion Service if they didn’t come to church any other Sunday.  While Byzantine chant, liturgical prayer, and other cultural elements in Orthodox Churches are wonderful to participate in, I think there are things about the church experience I grew up in that are just as unique.

Then again, one of the reasons I left the black church is because it is not the same as the church that it used to be.  For decades, the Baptist conventions and seminaries have been encouraging churches and ministers to be non-traditional, innovative, and relevant.  In the midst of this push, the Baptist Articles of Faith were removed from the denomination’s hymnals.  Thus, no one has the doctrine readily available.  My father’s father reverently prepared the communion and my mother’s mother made the communion wine.  Now they are moving to these pre-sealed cups of some purple stuff that might be grape juice and a mini rice wafer thing or some other unleavened bread that Christ and His disciples did not use during the Last Supper.  And as far as music is concerned, the old Negro Spirituals have been relegated to Black History Month and the favorite contemporary Gospel hit that everyone is singing now will be replaced in five years or less.

Indeed, I saw the church striving to become more and more Pentecostal where true worship was becoming defined by how many people “got happy” and “shouted” during a song or (most importantly) the sermon.  When I discovered the presence of African saints and the spirituality they practiced in Eastern Christianity, I felt that we need to move away from worship based on what was current and popular to that which is older and more authentic.  What that sort of black church would look like, I wasn’t quite sure.  But, I was willing to continue to look toward Orthodoxy for Christian inspiration.  It was made clear to me that others in my former church family weren’t willing to go that direction.  Thus, I decided to go alone.  I hope soon to work more closely with Fr. Moses Berry, Dr. Albert Rabeteau, Mother Catherine Weston, and others who have been black and Orthodox longer than I have and with Fr. Alexi, Heiromonk Seraphim Damascne, and some of our bishops to better see what in African American Christianity can be seen as a part of Orthodox practice.  Just as Sts. Herman and Innocent found the best of Native American spirituality and brought it and many Alaskans to the faith in the 18th and 19th centuries, the same can and must be done  with us.  But, I am getting off of the subject.

Holy Cross is a self sustaining monastery where they monks raise much of their own food in their gardens.  They also have Nubian goats to produce milk that is used for making soaps and lotions, in which they have a very good soap maker.  They also make incense there as well.  I was impressed with the outdoor chapel.  Many Orthodox Christians east of the Mississippi come to Holy Cross for pilgrimages and holy days.  I have seen videos of people under large tents erected for such occasions.  Thankfully, their gift shop is online.  I do intend to shop there this season.  I am very inspired by the library.  I have turned what was once a spare junk room into something of a man-cave.  When I am done with it, it will be the only Orthodox library in the town of West Point.

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St. Anthony the Great, the Egyptian father of Christian monasticism (from the church)

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Theotokos (from the pilgrims’s section of the church)

Dining with monks is an experience not to be missed!  Firstly, if you brought your wife and daughter with you, they can’t eat at the same table in the same room with you.  They eat in a separate section for women (men catch it too at women’s monasteries).  If you are not accustomed to prayer before or after a meal (I used to pray after a meal when I over-ate), you will be quickly introduced to the practice.  Dinner-time conversation about last night’s game or the latest movie is null and void.  While everyone is eating, no one is talking except the monk who is reading the scriptures or stories about a saint.  And while he is reading, you had better be eating.  Because when he stops, the abbot and priest will make announcements of who needs prayer and what needs to be done around the monastery.  Then it’s the after meal prayer and time to go.  There is no lounging around the table and savoring the wonderful meal you are taking your time on.

Monks themselves are terrific people to meet.  They are patient with newcomers and willing to share their stories of how they came to the faith.  I met a former Southern Baptist Hieromonk from Texas.  I also met Bishop George of the ROCOR Diocese.  Like many of the monks, he is a former Protestant.  Also, he lives at the monastery.  His house is larger than that of the others.  But, it is far from one of the multi-million dollar homes that modern day television evangelist own.  The fact that he is here at Holy Cross when he is not on the road tending to his parishes or engaged in some other duties somewhere shows that he is a very humble man.  I think it was Kippling who said that a man is one who can “dine with kings and never lose the common touch.”  No doubt, he and other bishops like my Sayedna Thomas do meet with bankers, philanthropist, and politicians of all stripes.  Yet, in Orthodoxy, the highest of bishops is a humble monk and priest at heart.

The Hospitality of Abraham icon (from the incense workshop)

The Hospitality of Abraham icon (from the incense workshop)

The bell tower

The bell tower

Bishop George with Frs. Andrew and James with Lilly

Bishop George with Frs. Andrew and James with Lilly

The Outdoor Chapel

The Outdoor Chapel

For my Protestant friends who declare themselves to be “prayer warriors,” I recommend you spend time with these black cassock wearing, long beard growing, icon venerating, incense burning, Jesus Prayer praying while they are working, standing in prayer vigils for hours at a time monks and nuns to learn how those of the ancient faith fight the good fight.  And even then, modern monks and nuns of today will tell you that the saints of old are far greater than they are.  I don’t doubt anyone’s sincerity when it comes to spending time with God for themselves or interceding on behalf of others.  But, to give up pursuing a gainful career and a Christian marriage and family life to devote one’s entire being to repentance and being in the constant presence of God is beyond what most of us are willing to do for the sake of the Gospel.  The monks and nuns keep the traditions of simple living, honest work, and celibacy.  This is the way of John the Baptist who prepared the way of the One who was greater than himself.  (I do recommend that before going to a nightly service at a monastery that you attend a couple of Divine Liturgies at a Church that has no pews, or if your church does have them, opt to stand until the priest motions you to be seated)

Members of St. Basil Antiochian Orthodox Church at Holy Cross John, Gary, Lilly, Fr. James, Rhonda, and Chris

Members of St. Basil Antiochian Orthodox Church at Holy Cross
John, Gary, Lilly, Fr. James, Rhonda, and Chris

So, now I have returned with a deeper appreciation of monasticism and its role in the body of Christ.  Would I ever become a monk?  If I were a widower, I’d certainly see if God has called me to such a lifestyle.  Until then, I guess it is right that I have entitled this blog, “The Modern Monastic Order of Saint Simon of Cyrene,” and that I have written about “Monasticism for the Rest of Us.”

My Second Orthodox Pilgrimage: The Need for a Monastic Model

The trip began with making confessions with Fr. James.  This is a preliminary step before visiting a monastery.  The crew was Chris & Rhonda, Gary, an Episcopalian priest Fr. Andrew, Fr. James and his daughter Lilly.  Fr. Andrew has been teaching and inviting Orthodox speakers into his congregation, much like I intended to do at Trinity had I stayed.  Chris and Rhonda have been very active at St. Basil since their conversion last December and Chris and Fr. Andrew are taking the St. Stephen’s course in Applied Orthodox Theology.  Gary was catechized with me and sings in the choir.  Fr. James has been to Holy Cross before and is friends with Hieromonk Hillarion.  Like the rest of us, it was Lilly’s first trip there.  I think we all came on the journey searching for something to help us in some facet of our faith.  For me, I wanted motivation to deepen my prayer life and see first hand how monasticism plays a role in the life of the Church.

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Waking up on Friday

We didn’t make it in time for the evening Vespers due to a couple of stops and not leaving Hampton until about 10.  So, we got to the guest house and Fr. James led us in the Akathist to the Sweet Lord Jesus from the Russian (Jordanville) prayer book.  The guest house has four fully loaded bookshelves.  Because Orthodox converts tend to be bookworms, we all found something too our likings.

Hermitage of the Holy Cross

Hermitage of the Holy Cross

Me, I picked up “On Wealth and Poverty” by John Chrysostom.  I have heard that the saint was no fan of luxurious lifestyles and opulence.  But, in the first of his seven sermons from the story of the rich man and Lazarus he honors the fact that Lazarus never complained about his lot in life nor did he curse the rich man for not coming to his aid.  Of course, there is no excuse for the “haves” of this world not to share their wealth with the “have-nots.”  But, for the poor to curse the wealthy is also wrong.  Martin Luther King Jr. was always cautious to teach protesters not to hate the people who sought to maintain segregation.  Unfortunately, due to our “winner take all” culture, I am afraid we are losing the message of Chrysostom and King.  It is too easy to vilify the rich and oppressive and not see them as human beings just as it is too easy for them to look at those who protest as being losers and moochers.  I doubt St. John sought the Roman government to bring economic equity to all.  And although King supported the idea of a living wage, I highly doubt that he encouraged people to throw away their work ethic.  In a monastery, everyone shares in labor, food, and prayer.  While the bishop or abbot may have a larger hermitage, all share in equal resources.

The next morning, we began the day with a 5 am Orthros (Morning Prayer).  Even though Hieromonk Hillarion permitted me to take photos, I felt it best not to.  For one thing, my camera could not drop to a 3200 or 6400 ISO.  Even if my camera had that ability, I thought it best to focus on the service and not getting shots.  It seemed as if the Christ Pantocrator icon in front of me was encouraging me to get my nightly prayer discipline together.  The presence of the monks was also impressive to me as these men had forsaken even godly lives in the world to detach themselves from the world.

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l to r: Gary, Fr. James, Chris, and Hiermonk Hillarion

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Christ Pantocrator at the pilgrim’s section of the church

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Relics of St. John the Baptist, my patron

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The Theotokos icon above the collection of holy relics

I think this is one of the greatest errors of Protestantism, they have no monastic communities and life-long celibacy is not encouraged.  The presence of communities of men and women who leave the “normal” world and it’s pursuits behind to pursue a life of prayer serves as a role model for the rest of us.  Monks and nuns are the front line in the spiritual life of the Church as they are the examples for the rest of us to follow as closely as possible as we all follow Christ.  Not everyone is going to stand at 3 hour prayer vigils and pray the Jesus Prayer under our breath at every waking moment.  But, each of us can maintain regular times of prayer and take breaks for prayer during the day.  There is neither television nor popular music to distract one from a life of prayer.  Neither is there the pursuit of politics or sports to keep the monks seeing others and each other as the icons of God – made in His image.  This is not to say that they are perfect people, for no man is perfect.  But, a monastery is a place where perfection can be achieved.  To the degree that is possible, all should strive to have their homes a bit of a monastery.

Without looking to monastic communities as the role model of focus on prayer and repentance, Christianity pays less attention to God and more attention to divisive and narrow ideologies.  It is only natural for some people to lean a little more to conservatism and others to liberalism.  When people of divergent opinions come together constantly with Christ and the kingdom of God as the center, we rise above these two imposters and find a harmonious balance.  However, where there is no such center, we see each other as enemies and dehumanize those whom we disagree with.  There is no doubt in my mind that we need fewer politicians and politically driven media outlets.  We need more monasteries, monks, and nuns.

My Second Orthodox Pilgrimage: Monday Prelude

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So, here it is once again.  You remember, the last time I went on a journey into Orthodoxy was my death knell to being a Baptist pastor.  At least I won’t have to worry about losing a job this time.  In fact, I may be gaining one instead.  Depending on how my interview goes, I may be working at the McDonald’s in Toano when I return.  Not a bad little part-time gig.  As far as church is concerned, I won’t have to worry about making my congregation upset with me.  My priest is driving us.

A couple of weeks ago, I got the news that I wasn’t selected for a job in my career field I interviewed for.  It took a couple of days.  It took a few days to get over that.  I was sorta thinking the job and the salary could be a spring board for me to afford to take the St. Stephen’s Course for a MA in Applied Orthodox Theology and evangelize in the Northern Neck.  I had dared to think to start a mission parish there.  A person must be Orthodox for at least 5 years before he is considered for the priesthood.  I was thinking I’d spend a year getting my secular career down pat and then begin my studies.  Then again, my walk with God has proven to me that His plans and mine can be a heck of a miss match.  Apparently, He has something else in mind.

Holy Cross Monastery (Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia)

This trip is to the Hermitage of the Holy Cross in Wayne, West Virginia.  We are going to be with men who have committed themselves to prayer and repentance.  Instead of me plotting and planning, I need to do more of what they are doing.  I have my own personal demons that I have not been the most diligent at fighting.  I follow my nightly prayer rule about as consistently as Liverpool have been winning matches this season.  And my uncertainties and insecurities plague my mind.  I don’t expect any of the monks to put a cloak around me to make me invincible.  But, if someone could help point me in the right direction, that would be great.  Oddly enough, I think God has already sent someone my way to do just that.

St. Moses the Black (aka, the Ethiopian, Robber, and Strong)

I have this icon of St. Moses the Black with him holding up a scroll.  These are the words:

Let us force ourselves a little and let us never be slothful.  O Brethren, that we may receive forgiveness of sins.

I am kind of like that cigarette smoker who has tried time and time again to quit, but has not.  And to have this 2,000 year old brother to tell me to fight my temptations is a bit annoying, especially since in my 40 plus years of being a Christian, I have only learned of this African saint a couple of years ago.  I know this man’s story of how he was a former slave and gang leader who was convicted by the Holy Spirit through the loving hospitality of the monks that he attempted to rob. Moses, probably of Nilotic-southern Sudanese stock, was humble almost to a fault.  He considered himself to be the lowliest of the monks and did a lot of menial task for those who couldn’t.  He struggled with his personal demons for years.  When he was called upon to help judge a sinful brother, he carried a leaking basket of sand over his back to show how he left his sins behind him and is in no position to judge his fellow man.  So, when I see the icon of this brother telling me to keep pushing myself to do better spiritually, it is kinda hard for me to disregard him or make excuses.

I think this is the advantage of a holy icon and the Bible rather than just the scripture alone.  I can read about the Apostle Paul and his encouragement to fight the good fight and not to be weary of well doing until my  eyes roll out of my head.  And certainly I can read what Jesus taught about righteous living, “go and sin no more,” and his death, burial, and resurrection.  The icon puts a face on the lesson.  The life of the saint is the story of another person’s carrying of his (or her) cross that can’t be ignored.  “Well, all I need is Jesus!  I don’t need them ‘saints.’”  Maybe you don’t.  But, I do.  If the scripture is true, “There is nothing new under the sun,” I want to know who else got sunburn and how did they manage to heal and find shade.  Jesus was fully human.  But, He was also fully divine.  I want to know what other humans denied themselves, took up their crosses, and followed Him so that they could put on divinity as well.  I know that paint and wood, ink and paper, is not a god to be worshiped.  But, these representations of Christ, the Theotokos (Jesus is God the Son, Mary gave birth to Jesus, this makes her the mother of God; deal with it.), and the saints are reminding windows that there is a higher human existence to strive for.  Thus, I find it necessary to worship with and venerate holy icons as they represent the cloud of witnesses that surround me.

Along with the icons there is confession.  It is much easier to belong to a church that does not encourage this sacrament.  One can confess simply to himself and God with no priest around.  One may not need human accountability and encouragement on the journey of faith.  Again, I need this.  I am a part of the body of Christ and while only the priest needs to hear my issues, other members of the body can see that I am striving to do better in my walk as I see others.  And we confess not to put on a show of holiness, but it is an encouragement to come to this hospital for sin sick souls.  “Well, Jesus is my doctor!  He is all the doctor my soul needs!  I don’t need no priest standing beside me and putting his robe on me and praying on me!”  And what doctor doesn’t have a nurse on his staff?  Confession is done before the Lord.  The priest is an assistant and coach in this process and has the power to forgive sins just as Jesus gave that authority to his disciples (apostolic succession, as with the Theotokos, deal with it).   All Christian churches expect believers to improve spiritually.  Confession is a very effective tool for such growth as I admit my failures before God and receive encouragement and prayer from my priest.

I have to get some ducks in a row before I  leave.