monasticism

Great Lent Week Two: Pursuing the Monastic Mindframe

One of the things that drew me to Orthodox Christianity is monasticism.  These people were,and still remain, unique examples of what it is to follow Jesus.  They attend church services, at least, two or three times a day.  They pray as they work.  Their meal time is spent with the words of scriptures and stories of saints.  Except for liturgical vestments, everyone is dressed in the same, simple garments.  Monks and nuns renounce not only sinful pursuits.  They also have rejected respectable careers, loving marriages, decent hobbies, and other things we consider good in the worldly kingdom so that they can focus solely on the kingdom of heaven.

Macarius the Great

Of course, Jesus never called everyone to this sort of lifestyle.  But, as I journey in the faith, I see tremendous value in striving to emulate those who have.  Consider how many of us are addicted to pursuing entertainment by TV.  While some programs may be educational and it is good to keep abreast of things newsworthy (not everything in the news is worthy of attention), too much of what is on television is based on sensuality and ego-driven self-help.  Refraining from television during fasting periods and replacing that time with prayer, spiritual reading, or helping people in need does our souls a far greater good than following empty comedies and meaningless dramas.  The monastic lays aside personal gain and follows the instruction of a seasoned and wise elder.  Our society is deeply committed to individualism and self confidence.  While everyone should gain some skills in their various occupations, no one ever succeeds in life by themselves.  We all need to be taught, trained, and guided.  The ability to be an effective father or mother in the faith is given by God through much patience, effort, and a humble spirit.

An Ethiopian Orthodox monk

St. Macarius is well renowned for his spiritual wisdom.  Yet, one of his prayers begins with these words,

Oh Lord, forgive me a sinner, for I have never done anything right …”

This man has fasted and prayed as much as any of the holy men of ancient Christianity.  But, he uses a language that puts himself at the same level as the tax-collector in our Lord’s parable.  Macarius also is said to have not considered himself a true monk and that there were others who have pursued the holy life with greater fervor than himself.  The mind of a monastic is always to consider one’s self as not yet attaining righteousness while doing everything to seek it.  This humble mind frame keeps us from thinking too much of ourselves and from complacency in the pursuit of God.  Let us not forget that God gives grace to the humble.

Advertisements

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.

IMGP1020

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

IMGP1022

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.

IMGP1008

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.

IMGP1015

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

IMGP1024

Christ Pantocrator at the pilgrim’s section of the church

IMGP1017

Relics of St. John the Baptist, my patron

IMGP1016

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

11/3

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.

The Transition Continues: New Structures & Old Time Reverence

My church looks more like an Erector Set with icons.  Our  choir director, Chuck Simerick doubles as the lead contractor leading the Saturday building sessions and weeknight work.  It is amazing to see how we have gutted the place and put up these metal studs.  After a while, there will be some drywall up as well.  We have all been busy giving our hands in labor.  This certainly is not an overnight process.  In fact, we won’t be finished for a few months still.  But, nothing worthwhile takes place in an instant.  Try to microwave a 4 lb. Boston Butt and smoke another for an hour per pound at 250 degrees and see which one is edible. IMGP0502 IMGP0503 IMGP0505 In speaking of new structures, the Virginia Chapter of the Brotherhood of St Moses the Black will hold its First Symposium on Saturday, September 4th at 4 pm!  I am excited that my church will be hosting the event in spite of our work.  In fact, I think it is symbolic that this movement to introduce the ancient faith to African-Americans, which is a work in progress, is having its first event in a work in progress.  I am also excited that Sub Deacon Paul Abernathy of FOCUS Pittsburgh and the St. Moses Mission will be the guest speaker.  This brother is articulate, inspiring, and filled with the grace of God!  Don’t take my word for it.  Check out the speech given a couple of years back.  Better still, meet with us at Hampton for the symposium! st moses symposium flyer Meeting Bishop Thomas last year, he said he’d be interested in an informal meeting with my (then) congregation and others in my area.  I am still very interested in forming this structure; a bridge of dialogue between the African-American Baptist and the Orthodox Church.  A Pentecostal Apostle and and Orthodox Archpriest in New York have done that with two East-West Meet & Greet sessions.  Perhaps in October, I can bring this idea up again.  We will see if God is willing. Yet, as their is a need for some new structures, I am glad to experience something that is (and should be) without change.  I remember on first Sunday mornings how my grandfather prepared the communion.  Deacon Joseph (“Daddy Joe”) didn’t say much when he did it.  It seemed that he had his mind fixed on the task at hand.  He cut the crust off of a few slices of bread and cut them in what seemed to be perfectly measured little squares.  Daddy Joe had a glass bottle with some sort of bulb and tube thing on it where when he squeezed the bulb, the perfect amount of grape juice came out into each cup.  Though a symbol of the body and blood to the Baptist, he prepared the Lord’s Supper with reverence. IMGP0512 IMGP0515 With no iconostasis blocking my view, I got a chance to watch Fr. James prepare the Eucharist.  It was as if the spirit of my grandfather was right there as Fr. carefully prayed the prescribed prayers in preparing the body and blood of our Lord.  The bread came from the oven of one of our members and was broken with the name of each one of us in mind and a few for any visiting Orthodox guest.  The wine and water mixed appropriately as prayers were constantly offered as part of the process.   Bishops and priest have been preparing the Lord’s Supper in the same spirit of reverence since the days of the Apostles. IMGP0521 IMGP0524 There is no Eucharist, Communion, or Lord’s Supper without reverence from the one who prepares and the one who receives.  It is better not to take it at all than to take the literal (or even symbolic) body and blood of Christ with an attitude of spiritual complacency.  These are holy gifts which should not be taken lightly.  That we are able to serve (ordained clergy) and receive them is of the great grace of God.  When we cheapen them by having the wrong frame of mind; we cheapen grace, ourselves, salvation, and God.  May this not be so with us.  Please, be in prayer before, during, and after partaking of this meal.  As we say in our Divine Liturgy, “The Holy Things Are For The Holy.”

The Need To Read Something Deeper

During the first 300 years of Christianity, to be a member of the clergy or known as an unapologetic Christian was a sentence to torture and death.  Early believers read and followed any papyrus or scroll written by and about  these men and women  they could find.  After the persecutions ended under Constantine, Christians who were ready to renounce the world before wild beast did so in the deserts of Egypt, Syria, and the Siberian forest.  Those who did not become monks and nuns sought their advice and were greatly influenced by their wisdom.  Despite disputes between them, Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Christians (and early Roman Catholics) held the ancient monastic writings and early church fathers in the highest regard second only to the Bible.

Unfortunately, something changed during the magisterial and radical reformations as well as the revivalist movements in Western Christianity.  There arose this idea that earthly wealth and influence was a sign that God’s favor was upon one’s life.  While the early Baptist, Methodist, Church Of God In Christ and other denominations may have intended that their churches would be among the flourishing examples of this doctrine, this concept has landed in the hands of many freelance “non-denominational” clergy who use it and the name of Jesus to reap millions of dollars from people who are unknowing about Christian history.

What I find most frightening about this earthly wealth as evidence of God’s favor doctrine is that intelligent and well-meaning people have and are falling for this trap hook, line, and sinker.  They fall for it because the TV and radio stations blast the latest sermons and Gospel hits without any meditative and  self-sacrificial lessons from the more contemporary likes of Howard Thurman or Dietrich Bonhoeffer, much less from Ignatius of Antioch or Theophan the Recluse.  Books by well publicized inspirational authors dominate bookshelves at Barnes & Nobel and Wal-Mart where profits come before investigating the roots of Christian spirituality.   No one is telling modern Christians that there is a firmly grounded, tried and true alternative to “flavor of the month” Christian preachers and writers.

What makes this trend of adhering to those who promote such a doctrine is that it ultimately fails.  There are people who have been blaming themselves for not receiving their “breakthroughs” and “shifts” saying that they weren’t faithful enough or their “season” has not come yet.  Like rain and sunshine, God allows any person who works hard and smart to get rich or go broke.  Those who fail to receive the financial promises they have been seeking for years will give up on Christianity and become bitter.  Those who do become well off in the midst of such false doctrine will become arrogant and blind to what it is to become Christ like when called to “… Go and sell all you have and give it to the poor.  Then come and follow me.”

Anthony and the Desert Fathers did what the rich young man failed to do.  And because these men and women renounced the world to devote themselves to a true and pure pursuit of God, they were and are greatly honored by Christians of many generations.  Church Fathers such as Basil and John Chrysostom did not enrich themselves in their leadership positions.  They built schools and hospitals and dressed just as modestly as a monk or reader.  The lessons of the Philokalia did not come from men who hustled for “seed offerings” to repair their private jets.  These were monks who ate little more than beans, bread, and vegetables.  None of them expected to become wealthy.  They were too busy obeying the requirements for following Christ, “Deny thyself, take up thy cross, and follow me.”

Perhaps the latest book by the latest Christian preacher or inspirational speaker may have a good quote or two.  Snack foods do have a few bits of nutrition.  But, a healthy body is the time-tested result of good meals and exercise.  Our journey with Christ should also include the time-tested spiritual writings of the Bible and the writings of those who were of the atmosphere that the New Testament books were written and compiled.  How does one find such books in the midst of  a Trinity Broadcast Network dominated Christian environment?  It isn’t easy.  But, it is possible.

 

I personally recommend Fr. Athanasius Iskander’s “Practical Spirituality According to the Desert Fathers” (it’s FREE) is a great introduction to some of the most enlightening men of the monastic world.  One need not be a church history buff to apply these ancient lessons to modern life.  The Fr’s name sake wrote a short volume “The Life of Saint Anthony,” the man who was the father of all monks and nuns.  “Early Christian Writings: The Apostolic Fathers” is a reader friendly introduction to the 38 volume set of the Early Church Fathers (which can be read by anyone online for FREE).  Orthodox Churches tend to maintain libraries as most public ones have little concerning church history and this ancient faith.  Roman Catholic sources are useful as they do point several sources older than 1054 AD (the date of the Great Schism between Catholicism and Orthodoxy).

To grow spiritually, we must not rely on recent authors alone as our source of Christian literature and teaching.  Take the time to discover ancient Christian writings and talk to a priest who is well versed in the early and monastic writings.

Songs That Moved Me: Four Cornered Room

“Go to your cell.  Your cell will teach you everything.” — St. Moses the (Black) Ethiopian

Of course, St. Moses and the other great monastics of Orthodoxy could not have had an album from War on their turn tables back in the day.  In fact, they couldn’t have had turn tables.  But, if they did, I imagine any monk or nun would have heard this song and felt it fitting in to their spiritual journey.  I forgot that I had a copy of “The World Is A Ghetto” cassette.  The whole thing is a masterpiece of 1970’s funk.  But, that fourth track, “Four Cornered Room,” strikes me as one of the best songs to prepare for daily prayers.  I would dare say it is better than most contemporary Gospel music.

First of all, War was a band that never called to make a living from the Gospel.  These were just some dudes from L.A. making songs about “Low Rider” cars, old westerns (“Cisco Kid”), and other stuff to bob your head to.  Chances are, most of us aren’t reading our Bibles and singing hymns 24/7.  We work regular jobs either as highly educated and trained professionals, something unskilled and minimum wage, or something somewhere in between.  And even for full-time pastors and church staff, chances are that your daily duties keep you from any sort of introspective time in reflective self-examination.  So, “Four Cornered Room” is not a directive from a pulpit nor a praise break by an on stage performer.  It is a hint of what needs to be done by someone as regular as you and I.  While ministers and musicians called by God do a service to mankind, there are moments when our souls are better fed by those who offer real words as they walk beside us than from occupants of honorable seats.

It was Jesus Himself that taught us the value of the “Four Cornered Room.”  While War wasn’t giving an intentional Biblical lesson, they almost parallel the Gospel:

Thinking, talking; we’ve worked out our problems – Look like we should have better days in front – Just because we took our time to think and talk – For a much better understanding  (War, “Four Cornered Room”)

and

But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you (Matthew 6:6)

Also, consider how many of our slave ancestors took the time to be one on one with God and themselves.  How else could we have heard such spiritual lyrics as:

Nobody knows the trouble I see – Nobody knows but Jesus – Nobody knows the trouble I see – Glory Hallelujah.

There is hope that comes from the Four  Cornered Room that no matter what our struggles and challenges are, if we would just get to that one place where we can be to ourselves, Someone will meet us and help us come to a better time and place.

 

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.

Revolution Calling

I used to trust the media to tell me the truth, tell us the truth.  But, now I see the pay-offs everywhere I look.  Who do you trust when everyone’s a crook?

Revolution Calling  Queensryche

So, let’s see.  The world and every agenda of it has given me a new lie to swallow.  I remember the Twana Brawley fiasco and how that propelled Al Sharpton to the national spotlight.  The football player turned war hero Pat Tillman who was shot not by the enemy in a fire fight, but by a fellow soldier.  How one girl from West Virginia refused to go along with the exaggerations of her heroism and another’s death was ruled a suicide when even Stevie Wonder could see by the evidence she was raped and murdered.  And now, I find out that the Matthew Shepherd case that had Americans thinking about homophobia and its victims was spun in a way to make him the poster child for gay hate crimes though other factors, namely drug abuse, were involved in his death.  There are plenty of other true stories that any cause could highlight for the sake of their agendas.  But, the media’s and society’s thirst for exaggeration and falsehood has obscured truth so much that many people have become calloused to one another.  A change in politics does little or no good as both those on the left and the right have proven to be liars with no sense of remorse.  Conservatism, liberalism, and even moderation are all failing and have failed our nation and humanity.

Monastic Contemplation

Anthony did well to go into an African desert to devote his life to prayer.  Seraphim of Sarov did likewise in the forest of Russia.  It was the the Son of God and the evangelist John that taught us to renounce the world ant its ways.  Perhaps if I were single and had no debts to repay, St Catherine’s, Valaam, or even Holy Cross would be good places for me to live the rest of my years.  But, total monasticism is not my calling.

Again, I started this blog as an extension of my second life character, an Orthodox monk.  In real life, I have done the unthinkable in leaving a stable Baptist pastorate to convert to the Church.  I think I should consider and commit myself even more to the faith and spend even more time in reading and studying the scriptures, desert and early church fathers, and other elements in Orthodox doctrine and practice to deepen my faith.  This world offers little truth and no hope.  There is a greater kingdom than this one.  Achieving the greater kingdom must be my ultimate goal.  I still have a job to do, a wife to love and take care of, and hobbies.  But, the kingdom of God and His righteousness is the highest goal and of greatest importance to me.

And I must do this with a sense of love and laughter.  Whenever I express my challenges and difficulties, my priest always reminds me to laugh at myself (and I give me plenty of material to do that).  I can’t be so hardcore about working out my salvation in fear and trembling to forget that (1) Jesus took care of much of the process by conquering death by His death and (2) everyone I see is an icon of God.  Thus, in my revolt against the world and it’s ways, I am called to express compassion, joy, and hope as well as to be humble, sober minded, and serious about the things of God.

“Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”  — Matthew 5:16

My First Orthodox Pilgrimage (Part 5): Wisdom From New Friends

1:00 pm – 9:30 pm/ 12 October/ Kansas City, MO

During lunch, we had round table discussion about race and the church. Sure enough, there are some Orthodox congregations who are not receptive to black converts. One of the things that has crippled the spread of the Orthodox church was the various ethnic groups kept their faith closed and did not evangelize to others of any race. Except for St. Herman and the other Russian missionaries to Alaska in the 18th century, the church made no major effort to win converts. In 1987, the Antiochians threw the doors of Orthodoxy open to all who sought the faith. But because of traditional ethnic bonds and good old American racism, there are still some Orthodox churches that keep their doors closed to African-Americas who may want to convert.

Thank God this has not been my experience. There is not one Orthodox church that I have visited that I was not welcomed. The church I attend (when I can) is in a city with a reputation for being bigoted. But, the members are from all over Hampton Roads and various ethnic backgrounds. To me, the racial divide works both ways. I think black people need to open their minds and hearts and see that the Holy Spirit is more than just clapping and shouting in church. We need to learn that Africans originally practiced liturgical worship. Even today when Ethiopians immigrate here, they don’t go to our AME, Baptist, COGIC, or any other African-American congregation. They go to any Orthodox church they can find. And if there is enough of them in a general area to have a congregation, they form a parish.

Perhaps one of the most compelling people I have met and heard is Rodney Knott. Bro. (Dortheos) Knott directs ReEngage Services, a mentoring program to encourage men to be responsible fathers and contributors to society. He has a sense of compassion and toughness that seems to be very effective. I was blessed to be in the small group discussion with him and Fr. Deacon Nathaniel. I’d love to have those two brothers come to King William and evangelize for a week. I think they could convert almost half of the men in the county to the Orthodox Church.

Again my health was not up to par, which reeked havoc on my attention span. What I did hear of Mother Katherine Weston’s talk on “Loneliness” was very interesting. I had no idea there was no such word until the 1800’s and the industrial revolution. One thing I did write down that is worth thinking about in this time of social media meanness and isolation that she said, “Real conversation can be messy.” No doubt, there can be no true community nor church unless we are willing to have compassionate dialog.

IMGP8129_edited-1 IMGP8133 IMGP8134_edited-1 IMGP8137_edited-1 IMGP8140_edited-1 IMGP8144

Actually, I was impressed with the nuns who attended the conference. These women have rejected the world’s standards of beauty of clothing, make-up, and all to live in humble simplicity. There was one younger sister, I guess mid-20’s, who could probably attract a nice young man. Yet, she has shunned human marriage for a divine, spiritual matrimony to God and the church. There is nothing like being in the presence of women monastics. They are full of wisdom and compassion.

I had been looking forward to hearing and meeting Sub Deacon Paul Abernathy.  Had he been Protestant, Paul could have started his own non-denominational church and made himself a bishop.  He could be a mega-church minister with a little time and effort.  Instead, this brother is in the Hill District of Pittsburgh “Building Community in Profound Brokenness.”  I liked what he said about not cutting ourselves away from redemptive suffering.  When we run from it, the result is fear and self hate.  When we accept it, we become one with the suffering people we serve.  I ate with him and Fr. Jerome.  I will share notes on that conversation in my final article.

Dr. Carla Thomas is a wonderful combination of brilliance and compassion.  While I am not qualified to open and run a free clinic as she did in a small town in Alabama, she does present a model for building an Orthodox community anywhere.  Meet a practical need of the people and make the prayers a part of what is done.  From her clinic, an Orthodox Church was organized.  Indeed, something similar is happening to Paul in Pittsburgh.  The goal is to bridge the faith with the needs of people.

Fr. Moses Berry uses history as a bridge.  His museum in the heart of Ozark country and traveling lectures about slavery and black communities during Jim Crow helps to break down the barriers between the races.  We tend to put up stereotypes and avoid facts.  Not Fr. Moses.  He has slave neck irons to show the pain of the brutal system and quilts that depict the fact that we are a people who (by the grace of God) constantly create something out of nothing.  I like his example.  We should talk with one another about the past in love and not accusation.

I am no night owl.  So again, I got a ride back with Mrs. Mathews and the boys.  I hope someone recorded the “Circle Wrap Up” and will post it on You Tube or Ancient Faith Radio.