Monday, December 13, 2010

Orthodox Elder on the Benefit of Suffering in the Process of Healing and Transformation



Self-Love and Secular Psychology

A story entitled, "It's All About Me: But is Narcissism A Disorder?" has been posted on NPR.org.  The discussion about narcissism as a disorder within the realm of Secular Psychology reveals the severe limitation of Psychology as a discipline.  Psychology is based on observation of fallen human beings in a corrupted world. There is no knowledge of what an unfallen, perfect person looks like.  A "normal" person from a psychological perspective is still extremely spiritually, psychologically, and emotionally ill from a theological perspective.  Orthodox theology possesses a vision of who we are intented to be and who we may become, and provides the therapy necessary to acheive good health deep within the soul.  Self-love is at the root of our sickness.  It is indeed a curable disease.

For more on the myth of Narcissus, check out the Wikipedia entry.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Friday, May 7, 2010

St. Tryphon

St. Tryphon of Lampsacus is one of the Unmercenary Physicians of the Church.   Listen to an account of his life on Ancient Faith Radio.  

A written account of his life is available on the OrthodoxChristian.info website.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

St. Mary of Egypt: A Story of Tranformation

There are so many men and women in our generation who suffer from enslavement to the pleasures of the body.  The story of our Holy Mother Mary of Egypt shows us the symptoms and effects of such illness, the reality that spiritual therapy can be difficult and take a long time, the connection between fasting from food and control of other aspects of one's life, and the depth of healing and transformation available through the Orthodox Way of Life.  You can hear an audio account of St. Mary's life on Ancient Faith Radio.  A written account of her life is available on the website of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese of North America.  Another icon of her can be viewed on the same website.  Here is an article I wrote on St. Mary of Egypt a few years ago:

A hiermonk (priest-monk) named Zosimas walked deep into the Palestinian desert to spend several weeks alone in prayer and fasting. While there, he hoped to find a man of superior holiness who could help him with his own spiritual struggle. On his twentieth day in the wilderness, as he was praying, he saw a creature whose form resembled a human being. It was thin and naked. It had dark skin that looked as though it had been darkened by the sun and white hair that fell just below the shoulders. It was a woman. He ran after her. When he approached her she told him that she couldn’t turn around because she was a woman and naked. Zosimas gave her his cloak. After covering her body she turned around, addressed Zosimas by name, and recognized him as a priest, although he was dressed in the simple clothing of a monk.

Believing that God had led him into the desert to meet her, Zosimas begged the woman to tell him her story. Although ashamed of her past, she spoke to him about the life she once lived and how she came to reside in the desert.

She was a native Egyptian. Leaving her parents at the age of twelve, she traveled to the city of Alexandria, where she lost her virginity, became enslaved to lustful passions, and gladly fed her all-consuming desire for sexual pleasure. Her income came from begging and spinning flax, not prostitution. Even though men offered to pay her for her services she refused the money. She didn’t sleep with them for the money. She enjoyed it.

One summer she saw a group of Egyptians and Libyans heading toward the shore to board a ship that would carry them to Jerusalem where they could venerate the Precious and Life-giving Cross upon which Jesus Christ had been crucified. She wanted to go on the trip, not as a spiritual pilgrimage, but to find more men with whom she could satisfy her appetite for sexual pleasure. Since she didn’t have any money, she offered her body as payment. Not only did she seduce men onboard the ship, but after reaching land she continued to seek out lovers among both the residents of Jerusalem and foreigners who were visiting the city. Even on the holy feast day of the Exaltation of the Cross she was still looking for young men to take to bed.

She noticed that the people around her began making their way to the church to see the lifting up of the Precious Cross. She followed them there, but when she tried to enter the church she was stopped by an invisible force. Unable to pass through the door, she was swept aside by the crowd. Thinking that her problem was caused by some kind of womanly weakness, she tried using her elbows to push her way through the people. Again, while everyone else passed beside her to go inside, she was unable to enter as though a detachment of soldiers were guarding the way. After three or four attempts, exhausted, without strength for another try, she walked to the corner of the porch and stood alone.

Why couldn’t she enter the church to see the Life-giving Cross? The reason became apparent to her. She had been barred from the church because of her sinful lifestyle. The filth of sin had polluted her soul. As the eyes of her heart opened to see her shameful way of life, she cried tears of repentance and beat her breast in deep sorrow.

Looking up, she saw above her an icon of the Virgin Mary. In desperation she prayed,

O Lady, Mother of God, who gave birth in the flesh to God the Word, I know that it’s no honor or praise to you when one as impure and depraved as I am looks upon your icon, O ever-virgin, who kept your body and soul in purity. I justifiably inspire hatred and disgust in the presence of your virginal purity, but I’ve heard that God, who was born of you, became a man for the purpose of calling sinners to repentance. So, help me, because I have no other help. Order that the entrance of the church be opened to me. Let me see the Tree, worthy of honor, on which He who was born of you suffered in the flesh and on which He shed His holy blood for the redemption of sinners and for me, unworthy as I am. Be my faithful witness before your Son that I will never again defile my body by the impurity of fornication. As soon as I have seen the Tree of the Cross, I will renounce the world and its temptations and will go wherever you will lead me.
After her prayer, she walked into the crowd. The same force which once prevented her from entering the church seemed to clear her way. She explained to Zosimas what she saw when she entered the church: “I saw the Life-giving Cross. I also saw the Mysteries of God and how the Lord accepts repentance.”

When she left the church, she asked the Virgin Mary to lead her down the path to repentance. She heard a voice speak these words: “If you cross the Jordan you will find glorious rest.” Leaving behind her sinful life, she began living a life of repentance motivated and guided by the Holy Spirit.

By the time Zosimas met this woman, whose name was Mary, she had lived in the desert beyond the Jordan River about forty-seven years. During her first seventeen years in the desert she fought the wild beasts of her passions, the self-centered desires for pleasure that once kept her heart far from God. He past life haunted her. Those old unspiritual songs she once sung with enthusiasm remained fresh in her memory. They confused her mind. Sometimes she was tempted to start singing them again. The sexual appetite she once glutinously satisfied sought to regain control of her soul. “A fire was kindled in my miserable heart that seemed to consume me and to make me thirsty for embraces.” Through a spiritual lifestyle, including fasting and prayer, she overcame the evil passions, was healed of her self-inflicted wounds, and received the purifying grace of God.

St. Mary of Egypt, who fell asleep in the Lord in 522 AD, is a woman that our generation should get to know. So many young men and women in our own time can relate to her before she turned her life around through repentance. How many Americans are inflicting spiritual wounds upon themselves, desecrating the sanctity of their bodies, defiling the image of God within them, and following self-centered passions that lead them farther and farther away from the beauty of Paradise? There are so many young people in America who accept lustful passions and behaviors as “natural,” although they are really corruptions of our human nature that are contrary to sexual wholeness and spiritual life. Our culture, ignorant of the true and living God, accepts and promotes sexual sins that damage the soul, while ridiculing the pure and innocent. The sickness of American culture has caused a great deal of confusion and pain in our generation.

The life of St. Mary offers hope for those who have ripped and stained their virginal purity and lay in despair. Through repentance, turning to the loving God who heals, restores, and transforms, they can throw off their ruined garments and be clothed once again with the radiant garments of purity and holiness. No matter how distant they find themselves from God and how much they have been enslaved to sinful passions, God will meet them where they are and set them free. They can leave behind their sins and begin a life renewed by the Spirit. Through a lifestyle of repentance, the passions calm so that the temporary pleasures of the body lose their luster compared to the pleasure of union with the One who bestows every good and perfect thing upon us.

St. Mary was led into the desert. Does this mean that everyone who leaves behind a lifestyle of sexual sin will need to live the rest of his or her life alone in a deserted place? No, the desert is not for everybody. Perhaps God will lead some people in our generation away from society into the wilderness to live alone as hermits. Maybe He will draw some into monastic communities to fast and pray with others dedicated to the same kind of life. As God knew what St. Mary needed to overcome her sins, He knows what each one of us personally needs to overcome ours. Most people will probably live their lives of repentance while remaining in society. Instead of escaping to the wilderness or a monastery, some will remain unmarried, finding refuge in the life of a parish. For others, a marriage blessed by the Church and nurtured within the Church will be their path of salvation. Marriage is a relationship in which a husband and wife can repent of their past sins together and express their sexuality with one another in love and purity, without sin or shame.

St. Mary’s personal story involves repentance from sexual sins in particular, but she’s a model of repentance in general. Her life encourages us to repent of every kind of sin that afflicts us and draws us from God, in whose image we have been made. No matter what particular sins we find ourselves committing, repentance leads us to healing and wholeness. St. Mary shows us how to leave behind everything that hinders our spiritual health and growth, and to stay on the path to Paradise. Although she struggled violently against her former ways of thinking and acting for many years before she overcame them, she kept the Faith, remained in prayer, and stayed on course, guided and strengthened by the Holy Spirit. Healing sometimes takes time, but the Great Physician of our souls is always with us to care for us through the process. Let’s follow St. Mary’s example and ask her to prayerfully intercede with Christ, our God, on our behalf.

O Thou who searches the depths of our heart, who hast foreseen all things concerning us before we came into existence, Thou hast delivered from a life of bondage the woman who fled to Thee, O Saviour; and with never-silent voice she cries out to Thy tender love: ‘O ye priests bless Him, and ye people exalt Him above all for ever.’

O holy transformation, that brought thee to a better way of life! O godlike love that hated carnal pleasures! O burning faith in God! We bless thee, Mary worthy of all praise, and we exalt thee above all for ever.

O holy Mary, thou hast received the recompense for thy toil, and the due reward for all the labours whereby thou hast cast down the vengeful enemy. And now thou singest with the angels, crying aloud with never-silent voice and exalting Christ above all for ever. (Triodion)
The complete story of St. Mary of Egypt, as recorded by St Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem, can be found at monochos.net. An abbreviated version of the story is printed in First Fruits of Prayer by Frederica Mathewes-Green, Paraclete Press, 2006.

Copyright © 2006 by Dana S. Kees. (The verses quoted at the end of this essay are from Vespers and Matins of the Fifth Sunday of Lent on which we celebrate the memory of Our Holy Mother, Mary of Egypt, canticle 8, 2nd canon, taken from the Lenten Triodion, St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 2001. The icon of St. Mary of Egypt is from the IconoGraphics ColorWorks Library, Theologic Systems, Theologic.com. Used by permission.)

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Theology and the Limitations of Psychology

Orthodox theology is revealed knowledge acquired through the experience of God.  Theology shows us what a whole, healed, perfect human person looks like.  This is the image given to Sts. Peter, James, and John on Mount Tabor. (1)  The Orthodox Way shows us who human beings were intended to be in the beginning, who we are now, and who we can become.  By way of experiential revealed theology, not speculative rational philosophy or theorizing, we know the ultimate cause of our problems and the most thorough cure for the healing of the human person.

Secular psychology is quite limited.  It is based, not on revelation, but on the observation of fallen humanity (that is, human beings who are afflicted by death and its symptom - the sickness of soul and body).  A “normal” person through the perspective of psychology is still a person suffering from sickness, corruption, and death.  "Normal" in a secular sense is far from perfection.

While the Orthodox understand human behavior and the cure of the human person from within the  revealed Tradition, which has been passed down and lived through the centuries from generation to generation, secular psychology is constantly observing human behavior and rationally speculating on causes for behaviors and methods for treatment.  While the methods of secular psychology can help people to some degree on a psychological (rational) and emotional level, it can never reach far enough to heal the soul on the spiritual level, where the root cause of sickness lies. The Orthodox Way, on the other hand, penetrates deeply into the soul to cure the entire human person.  

Theories of secular psychology cannot be effectively grafted onto the inexhaustible Mystery of the Orthodox Church.   The social sciences, including psychology, like the hard sciences, are by nature always open to change.  No scientific theory based on human ideas about the created universe should be dogmatized, but all theories, models, and views may be challenged, changed, or discarded in light of new evidence.  Revealed divine theology, which remains constant and abides in fullness within the Church, can never be tied to or integrated with humanly-made scientific theories or philosophies that progress and change over time.  Secular psychology has nothing to teach the Church, which is the “pillar and ground of truth” and fountain of healing.  Orthodox mental health professionals may, however, find helpful techniques developed within secular psychology based on observation of human behavior that could prove useful when firmly planted in the phronema (mind) and life of the Orthodox Church, the healing context of the Orthodox Way.  

A lay Orthodox mental health professional, dedicated to prayer, can make known the active presence and unconditional love of God to those who seek healing.  Some patients will be open to pursuing the deepest healing within the life of the Church, while others may deny the spiritual reality or resist addressing spiritual issues.  Even in secular facilities, Orthodox therapists may be permitted to ask clients about their religious/spiritual backgrounds and may endeavor to help the person understand who the true God is while guiding them toward an understanding of God's  love for us.  In our society, people (including atheists) tend to have a concept of God based to Western ideologies.  A mental health professional can perhaps share parables about the kingdom of heaven from the Holy Gospels and passages from the writings of the Fathers.  Hopefully, many Orthodox mental health care centers will be established wherein patients, Orthodox Christians and non-Orthodox people, can receive quality care according to the Orthodox ethos within the context of the life of the Church.


Orthodox mental health professionals who wish to be the offer the best care must pursue their own salvation with humility, prayer, and repentance.    


(1) See a sermon by St. Gregory Palamas on the Transfiguration on the OCA website.


Saturday, March 6, 2010

Elder Porphyrios: Overcoming Depression

"Nowadays people often feel sadness, despair, lethargy, laziness, apathy, and all things satanic.  They are downcast, discontent and melancholy.  They disregard their families, spend vast sums on psychoanalysts and take anti-depressants.  People explain this as 'insecurity.'  Our religion believes that these states derive from satanic temptation. 

Pain is a psychological power which God implanted in us with a view to doing us good and leading us to love, joy, and prayer.  Instead of this, the devil succeeds in taking this power from the battery of our soul and using it for evil.  He transforms it into depression and brings the soul into a state of lethargy and apathy.  He torments us, takes us captive and makes us psychologically ill.

There is a secret.  Turn the satanic energy into good energy.  This is difficult and requires some preparation.  The requisite preparation is humility.  With humility you attract the grace of God.  You surrender yourself to the love of God, to worship and to prayer.  But even if you do all in the world, you achieve nothing if you haven't acquired humility.  All the evil feelings, insecurity, despair and disenchantment, which come to take control of the soul, disappear with humility.  The person who lacks humility, the egotist, doesn't want you to get in the way of his desires, to make any criticism of him or tell him what to do.  He gets upset, irritated and reacts violently and is overcome by depression.

This state is cured by grace.  The soul must turn to God's love.  The cure will come when we start to love God passionately.  Many of our saints transformed depression into joy with their love for Christ.  That is, they took this power of the soul which the devil wished to crush and gave it to God and they transformed it into joy and exultation.  Prayer and worship gradually transform depression and turn it into joy, because the grace of God takes effect.  Here you need to have the strength to attract the grace of God which will help you to be united with Him.  Art is required.  When you give yourself to God and become one with him, you will forget the evil spirit which drags at you from behind, and this spirit, when it is disdained, will leave.  And the more you devote yourself to the Spirit of God, the less you will look behind to see the spirit that is dragging at you.  When grace attracts you, you will be united with God.  And when you unite yourself to God and abandon yourself to Him, everything else disappears and is forgotten and you are saved.  The great art, the great secret, in order to rid yourself of depression and all that is negative is to give yourself over to the love of God.

Something which can help a person who is depressed is work, interest in life.  The garden, plants, flowers, trees, the countryside, a walk in the open air -- all these things tear a person away from a state of inactivity and awake other interests.  They act like medicines.  To occupy oneself with the arts, with music and so on, is very beneficial.  The thing that I place top of the list, however, is interest in the Church, in reading Holy Scripture and attending services.  As you study the words of God you are cured without being aware of it.

Let me tell you about a girl who came to me.  She was suffering from dreadful depression.  Drugs had no effect.  She had given up everything -- her work, her home, her interests.  I told her about the love of Christ which takes the soul captive because the grace of God fills the soul and changes it.  I explained to her that the force which takes over the soul and transforms the power of the soul into depression is demonic.  It throws the soul to the ground, torments it and renders it useless.  I advised her to devote herself to things like music which she had formerly enjoyed.  I emphasized, however, most of all her need to turn to Christ with love.  I told her, moreover, that in our Church a cure is to be found through love for God and prayer, provided this is done with all the heart."

A selection from Wounded by Love: The Life and the Wisdom of Elder Porphyrios, trans. by John Raffan (Limni, Evia, Greece: Denise Harvey, 2005), 178-179.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

What is "the West"?

Orthodox Christians sometimes refer to "the West" in contrast to the Orthodox Way of Life.  By the term "the West," we don't mean simply the Western world in a geographic sense, but rather the Western culture as it developed following Western Europe's separation from the Orthodox Church.  By "the West," I am referring, in part, to Roman Catholicism and Protestantism.  Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, which hold much in common, may be grouped together under the heading "Western Christianity."

In The Foundations of Christian Bioethics, H. Tristram Engelhardt, MD, PhD wrote about his use of the terms "Western Christianity" and "Traditional Christianity" (Orthodox Christianity).  This is a helpful definition for understanding the meaning of "the West":
 
In this volume, "Western Christianity" identifies the cluster of religions that emerged in the West from the 9th century onward.  These compass the Roman Catholic church and its various schismatic offspring (e.g., the Old Catholics), along with the thousands of Protestant groups, which have in multiple ways dialectically determined each other, with the result that those religions are closer to each other than to traditional Christianity from which they sprang.  These Christianities are marked in various measures by a confidence in discursive reasoning or an emphasis on individual spiritual judgment isolated from a community of Christians, which experiences itself as one with the Church of the Councils.  On the one hand, the context of tradition is evacuated by rationality; on the other hand, tradition is abandoned to individual choice.  In this volume, "traditional Christianity" in the strict sense identifies Christianity that is at one with the Church of the first millennium and that recognizes itself united over the centuries by the Holy Spirit in right worship and right belief.  Traditional Christianity in this sense is materially equivalent to the Orthodox Church. (fn. 15, p. 49)

My point in referring to "the West" is to emphasize the significant difference between the Orthodox Way of Life and the ideologies present in Western culture, influenced by Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, secularism, and other Western philosophies. 

The Orthodox Church is sometimes called the "Eastern Orthodox Church."  "Eastern" is descriptive when used to contrast the Orthodox Way from "the West," but the Orthodox Church is not just for the the East.  There is only one Orthodox Church. the original Church founded by Christ 2,000 years ago for the healing of all.


Image: The Crowning of Charlemagne, 15th Century

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Flame of Divine Love: The Last Judgment

In Western society, many people tend to think of God and theology in legalistic terms. We may encounter those who think that God is an angry Judge waiting to punish them for breaking His laws. Contemporary movies and television programs have contributed the erroneous popular vision of God, judgment, Heaven, and hell. American misconceptions regarding hell likely find root, directly or indirectly, in the picture presented in Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy and religious ideas generally present in Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. Within the Orthodox Way, however, theological understanding is primarily rooted in the Inexhaustible Love of God.  By teaching the true Orthodox vision of the Kingdom of Heaven and hell, inasmuch as we can comprehend it, within a culture that tends to compartmentalize knowledge and disconnect theological ideas from every-day life, we can help people to acquire an understanding that fits harmoniously within the whole Orthodox theological worldview, embodied in the comprehensive spiritual life of the Church.

Before the beginning of Great Lent, a period of preparation for Holy Pascha (Easter), we commemorate the Last Judgment when we all will stand before God:

When the thrones are placed, and the books are opened, and God sitteth for judgment, O what a fearful sight, as the angels stand in fright, and thy river of fire floweth by! What then shall we do, we men who have come under condemnation by reason, of the multitude of our sins? And as we hear him call the blessed of his Father to his kingdom, and send the sinners to punishment, who will bear that terrible verdict? Wherefore, O Savior and Lover of mankind, alone King of the ages, hasten to me before the end with repentance, and have mercy upon me. (1)

Before we commemorate the Last Judgment, we are prepared by the Sunday of the Tax Collector and the Pharisee, reminding us that the person accepted by God is not the outwardly religious Pharisee, who is filled with pride and judges others as worse sinners than himself, but the humble soul who, feeling the depth of his own spiritual sickness, sincerely and prayfully turns his heart to God in repentance.  We are also prepared by the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, which teaches us that no matter how far we drift from God and squander the good things we have received, if we repent (turning away from what is unnatural toward God), our Loving Father is ready to run toward us, warmly embrace us, and receive us back with joy.

God is Unconditional Love and God is a Consuming Fire.  God is Love and is Fire.  Love and Fire are One.  There is no contradiction here. God's Uncreated Love is Uncreated Fire.  In the prayers of the Church, we ask God not to consume us because of our sins, but to consume our sickness, our deadness, "the thorns of our transgressions," and to purify and illumine our souls.  For those who seek healing, the Uncreated Fire is purifying and transformative.  The Fire consumes all that is unhealthy and barren.  The Fire of God's Love does not cause pain for the purified and illumined, but is the moist breeze of Paradise and refreshing River of Life that brings everlasting joy and peace.

Those who are full of selfishness and pride will not experience God's Love as Paradise.  The unloving will be consumed by Pure Love.  St. Isaac the Syrian explained that

those who are suffering in hell, are suffering in being scourged by love.... It is totally false to think that the sinners in hell are deprived of God's love. Love is a child of the knowledge of truth, and is unquestionably given commonly to all. But love's power acts in two ways: it torments sinners, while at the same time it delights those who have lived in accord with it. (2)

St. Gregory the Theologian wrote from the same perspective, “O Trinity, Whom I have been granted to worship and proclaim, Who will some day be known to all, to some through illumination and to others through punishment!” (3) Likewise, St. Basil the Great said,

I believe that the fire prepared for the punishment of the devil and his angels is divided by the voice of the Lord.  Thus, since there are two capacities in fire, one of burning and the other of illuminating, the fierce and scourging property of the fire may await those who deserve to burn, while illuminating and radiant warmth may be reserved for the enjoyment of those who are rejoicing. (4)

Those whose hearts have been purified, their souls healed, and are filled with divine love become flames united with the Uncreated Flame of Unquenchable Love.  Our goal in this life is summarized in the words of an ancient spiritual father, Abba Joseph, who said, "If you will, you can become all flame."

As the unloving, proud, and impure will be tortured by the presence of Divine Love, they will also be abused by their own souls, a result of their refusal to accept the healing offered to them by their compassionate Creator and Physician. In his “Letter to Publius,” St. Ephrem the Syrian noted that “the gehenna [hell] of the wicked consists in what they see, and it is their very separation that burns them, and their mind acts as the flame.” (5) He explained that “the hidden judge which is seated in the discerning mind has spoken, and has become for them the righteous judge, who beats them without mercy with torments of contrition” and “saliently accuses and quietly pronounces sentence upon them.” (6) The “inner intelligence has been made the judge and the law, for it is the embodiment of the shadow of the law, and it is the shadow of the Lord of the Law.” (7)

The Last Judgment is a reality for each of us, but we are reminded of this reality within the Church as we are also reminded of the Way of the eternal kingdom of God: humility, repentance, love, and prayer. God has planted the Church for the our healing so that we may be united with Him and become radiant torches of Divine Love, Peace, and Joy. For those seeking the healing of their souls and union with God, the images of the Last Judgment assist us in finding humility and focusing on the condition of our own souls with rather than judging others.  Pride is a great enemy that keeps us from seeing ourselves as we really are with sobriety.  We live in a culture wherein we are constantly being tempted to act and think in ways unnatural to our human nature and that are contrary to the path of good health.

The fear of hell can serve to bring us to repentance.  The highest reason for pursuing salvation is love for God, not fear of punishment, but because of our spiritual delusion and the sickness in our souls, fear of separation from God in hell can serve as motivation to overcome our laziness and pursue the Way of spiritual healing that God has given us.  Always being mindful of God's love, we should remember the words of St. Silouan the Athonite, "Keep your mind in hell and despair not."

Since the Last Judgment is a reality, we should not downplay the necessity of repentance as an essential aspect of the healing process in this life.  When someone is facing physical sickness and death, they may be more receptive to hearing about repentance than at other times. Within an Orthodox context, we can help patients facing physical sickness and death achieve deep healing in their souls so that they may experience the Kingdom of Heaven (even in this life) and be resurrected in their physical bodies, not to judgment and spiritual death, but eternal life and joy in body and soul.

While some may not give much thought to the Last Judgment until they face their own mortality, others may possess a rational fear of hell, but without knowledge of God's love.  They may see God as a Judge, but not as a loving Father.  (Perhaps their concept of God has been twisted by exposure to heretical doctrine and/or unhealthy human relationships.)  In such cases, we must help these individuals learn about God's unconditional love for mankind (philanthropia), the Orthodox Way as the path of healing, and our goal of becoming purified, illumined, and united through the unquenchable flames of Divine Love.


(1)  Glory at "Lord, I have cried," Vespers, Sunday of the Last Judgment

(2)   Alexander Kalomiros, The River of Fire, presented at the 1980 Orthodox Conference, sponsored by St. Nectarios American Orthodox Church, Seattle, WA (Seattle: St. Nectarios Press, 1980), quoting St. Isaac the Syrian, Homily 48. The text of The River of Fire is available at http://www.stnectariospress.com. See also Lazar, 8-9.

(3) Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos, Life After Death, trans. by Esther Williams (Levadia, Greece: Birth of the Theotokos Monastery, 1996), 259, quoting St. Gregory the Theologian, Or. 23.13, On peace 3, PG 35, 1165B.

(4) Archbishop Lazar Puhalo, On the Nature of Heaven and Hell According to the Holy Fathers (Dewdbey, Canada: Synaxis Press, 1995), 9, quoting St. Basil the Great, “Homily on Psalms,” 28.6; See also Met. Hierotheos, 257.

(5) Ibid., 7-8, quoting St. Ephrem the Syrian, “Letter to
Publios,” para. 21-23. 

(6) Ibid., 8

(7) Ibid.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

St. Sampson the Hospitable of Constantinople

"Sampson was born of wealthy and eminent parents in old Rome where he studied all the secular sciences of that time and dedicated himself particularly to the science of medicine. Sampson was compassionate and an unmercenary and administered cures to the sick, both body and soul, counseling everyone to fulfill the requirements of the Christian Faith. Afterward he moved to Constantinople where he lived in a small house from which he dispensed alms, comfort, counsel, hope and medicine to all just as the sun disperses its rays of light and, in general, gave help to the helpless, both spiritually and physically. The patriarch heard of the great virtues of this man and ordained him a priest. At that time, Emperor Justinian the Great became ill and his illness, according to the conviction of all physicians, was incurable. The emperor prayed to God with great fervency and God revealed in a dream to him that Sampson would heal him. And indeed, when the emperor learned of Sampson, he invited him to his court and just as the elder placed his hand on the ailing place, the emperor recovered. When the emperor offered him enormous wealth for this, Sampson thanked him and did not want to accept anything saying to him: 'O Emperor, even I had gold and silver and other goods, but I left all for the sake of Christ in order to gain eternal heavenly goods.' But when the emperor insisted on doing something for him, holy Sampson implored the emperor to build him a home [hospice] for the poor. In this home Sampson served the poor as a parent serves his children. Mercy toward the poor and the helpless was natural to him. Finally, this saintly man, completely filled with heavenly power and goodness, reposed peacefully on June 27, 530 A.D. and was interred in the church of his relative, the holy martyr Mocius. After his death, Sampson appeared many times to those who called upon him for assistance."

This account of the life of St. Sampson is from The Prologue of Ohrid (June 27), Serbian Orthodox Diocese of Western America website. 

You can also hear about the life of St. Sampson on an Ancient Faith Radio podcast.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

St. Symeon the New Theologian: Overcoming Depression

Listen to Fr. John McGuckin speak about St. Symeon the New Theologian on the Orthodox Christian Network (OCN).  Fr. John comments on St. Symeon's very simple instructions for overcoming depression through prayer.

You can read about the life of St. Symeon the New Theologian on the OrthodoxChristian.info website.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Confusing Science with Philosophy in our Secular World

In our secular Western world, the distinction between science and philosophy (in the Western sense) is often confusingly blurred.  What some consider to be science is not really science, but is actually philosophy, including the philosophy of scientism.

Dr. Clark Carlton's podcasts on God and Science and God and Science Part 2 address the limited scope of science and the difference between science and philosophy. 

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

St. Innocent of Alaska - Spiritual Sickness, Pain, and Healing

"Finally let us say why we cannot possibly avoid the narrow way into the Kingdom of Heaven.  a) Because in every man there is sin, and sin is a wound that does not heal by itself, without medicines; and in the case of some people this wound is so deep and dangerous that it can be healed only by cauterization and amputation.  That is why no one can be cleansed of his sins without spiritual sufferings.  b) Sin is the most horrible impurity and abomination in the eyes of God; but nothing abominable, vile, and unclean can enter the Kingdom of Heaven.  Wherever you put a person suffering from an internal disease or oppressed with cruel sorrow, he will suffer, even if he is put in the most magnificent palace; that is because his disease and sorrow are always and everywhere with him and in him.  It is the same in the case of a sinner who is impenitent and not cleansed of sins -- wherever you put him, he will suffer even in Paradise itself, because the cause of his suffering (i.e., sin) is in his heart.  To a sinner everywhere will be hell.  On the other hand, whoever feels real, heartfelt joy will rejoice both in a palace and in a hut, and even in prison, because his joy is in his heart.  So too for a righteous man whose heart is filled with consolations of the Holy Spirit, wherever he may be, everywhere will be Paradise because the Kingdom of Heaven is within us (Luke 17:21).  However much you cut off the branches of a living tree, it will not die, but will against produce new branches and in order to destroy it completely you must tear it out of the ground by its roots.  In exactly the same way, you cannot destroy sin from the human heart by lopping off or giving up a few vices or habits; and therefore whoever wishes to destroy sin from the heart must tear out the actual root of sin.  But the root of sin is deeply embedded in the human heart and firmly attached to it, and therefore it is quite impossible to eradicate it without pain.  And unless the Lord had sent us the Great Physician, Jesus Christ, no one could have destroyed the root of sin, and all efforts and attempts to do so would have proved absolutely futile."

This selection is from Indication of the Way into the Kingdom of Heaven by St. Innocent of Alaska (Jordanville, NY: Holy Trinity Monastery, 2006), 29-30.  This text was originally written in the Aleut language.

Read about the life of St. Innocent of Alaska (OCA.org) or listen to an account of his life on Ancient Faith Radio.


The above icon of St. Innocent is from the website of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA.org).  The OCA is a jurisdiction of the Orthodox Church with strong historical and cultural connections to the Russian Orthodox Church.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Harmony of Orthodox Theology & Science

A mistake often made by Westerners is the misguided attempt to study Orthodox theology through scientific approaches or philosophical models (including metaphysics).  Orthodox theology exists outside of the limited scope of scientific inquiry as well as the speculative arguments and rational categories of Western philosophy (and secular religious studies).  Science and Western philosophy are concerned with the knowledge of the rational mind, but theology is concerned with gnosis, the knowledge of the heart (nous), the spiritual intellect.  Science and philosophy are based on humanly-derived principles and theories.  Orthodox theology is rooted in divine revelation.  Philosophy and science deal with concepts.  Orthodox theology is a Mystery beyond concept.  Scientific study and philosophy are limited to the creation.  Theology involves experiencing the Uncreated.  In the West, a "theologian" is an educated scholar who knows about religious beliefs, ideas, and practices.  In the Orthodox Church, a theologian is one who acquires divine knowledge in the heart through humility, repentance, and prayer.

While scientific understanding of the creation and technology have progressed through the centuries, the dogma of the Orthodox Church does not change or develop. Scientific theories and Western philosophical ideas are adaptable and constantly change in light of new evidence and ideas, but theology is unalterable.  This is why the same theological experience is expressed through the writings of the Fathers of the Orthodox Church from the 1st century to the 21st century.  (Remember that the dogma of the Church is not just a collection of philosophical propositions to be rationally accepted, but boundaries to keep us on the path of authentic theological experience, which is the Way of personal knowledge, healing, and transformation.)

In the West, the boundaries between science and philosophy (secular and religious) are blurred.  Philosophy of science is mistaken for science and religious philosophy is mistaken for theology.  In such an environment, spirituality and science may be considered incompatible approaches to life.  No such contradiction exists between Orthodox theology and science, properly understood.  In an article published in Christian Bioethics (Oxford Journals/Oxford University Press), Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos (Greece) wrote,

As Christians, particularly as Orthodox Christians, we are certainly not opposed to research and progress.  Nor do we want the Western conflict between the Christian faith and science to be repeated.  To avoid this, science itself ought to set limits and conditions for research, and theology should be occupied with giving meaning to human life and guiding people toward putting right their relationships with themselves, their fellow human beings, creation, and God.  The aim of science is to improve human life, and the aim of theology is to help human beings acquire existential peace, freedom, and knowledge of themselves and God.  When both sides stay within these boundaries, there can be no conflict between theology and science. (1)

(1) Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos, "Christian Bioethics: Challenges in Secularized Europe," 30, Christian Bioethics, 14(1), 29-41, April 2008.

Image: NIH/Public Doman

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Understanding the Human Person Through Christ

Christ is the God-Man. He is perfect God and perfect Man.  When we approach Christ's humanity first, we try to understand him psychologically.  We say, 'This is a man.  How is He also God?'  If we try to understand Christ first according to anthropology and not Christology, we will also then understand ourselves psychologically first.  We will never understand Christ or ourselves in this way.  We must begin with Christ’s divinity first to understand who He is.  We must also begin with the human person on the deep spiritual level, not just on the psychological and emotional levels.


(Based on notes taken in a Patristics class at St. Tikhon's Orthodox Theological Seminary)

Friday, January 29, 2010

Kh. Frederica on the Sanctity of Life

Listen to Kh. Frederica Mathewes-Green's presentation for the Pan-Orthodox Sanctity of Life Sunday on Ancient Faith Radio.

You can also read Kh. Frederica's articles, "Three Bad Ideas for Women," "Post-Abortion Men, Natural Consequences," "Abortion Politics and the 'Rape and Incest' Exception," and others on her website (frederica.com).


Sunday, January 17, 2010

St. Nektarios the Wonderworker

St. Nektarios the Wonderworker is an Orthodox Saint whose intercessions are sought by those seeking healing from cancer.  You may listen to an account of his life on Ancient Faith Radio.  A brochure on "St. Nectarius the Wonderworker: Patron of Cancer Sufferers" is available from the All Saints of North America Orthodox Church (OCA) in Ontario, Candada.

Saint-Nectarios-of-Aegina.org has provided several valuable resources, including a biographical account with photos and the text of Saint Nektarios: The Saint of Our Century.

Part of a Paraclesis (supplicatory service) to St. Nektarios sung by the Boston Byzantine Choir can be found on Youtube.

Here is a selection from the "Akathist to St. Nectarios, Wonderworker of Aegina and Pentapolis":

Kontakion 12
 
Multitudes of the faithful from all lands continually flee to your shrine, O holy one, and from your precious relics faithfully obtain divine grace and answers for their every petition. O Father, as you know how, fulfill you also the petitions of those who now cry: Alleluia!

 
Ikos 12
 
Singing praises we glorify you, O all-praised Nektarios; for in you God Who is glorified in the Trinity is wonderfully glorified. But even if we were to offer you a multitude of psalms and hymns composed from the soul, O holy wonderworker, we should do nothing to equal the gift of your miracles, and amazed by them we cry unto you:
Rejoice, you who conquered all the snares of the Evil One;
Rejoice, you who were sanctified both in soul and body!
Rejoice, speedy helper of those in need;
Rejoice, restoration of health to the sick!
Rejoice, healer of diseases by the Grace of God;
Rejoice, helper of those that suffer cruelly!
Rejoice, O Father Nektarios, model of patience and lover of virtue.

 
Kontakion 13 [3 times]
As a partaker in the life of heaven and a dweller with the angels, O Father Nektarios, in that you labored to please God, accept our present offering, and unceasingly intercede for your flock and for all the Orthodox who honor you, that we may be healed of all diseases of both body and soul, that together with you in the eternal Kingdom we may unceasingly cry: Alleluia!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

"Care at the End of Life"

"Care at the End of Life: What Orthodox Christianity Has to Teach"
by His Grace Bishop THOMAS

I. Making Decisions at the End of Life in a Post-Traditional Culture: Finding One’s Way to God

Orthodox Christianity offers orientation in the cosmos. More precisely, it leads us away from our passions and purifies our hearts so that we can be illumined by the uncreated energies of God and come into union with Him. (1) Contemporary man finds himself bereft of such orientation. Both his life and his death tend to be trivialized, reduced to what can make sense without any recognition, much less experience, of transcendent mean­ing, purpose, and obligation. As a consequence, much reflection on end-of-life decision-making gives priority, if not exclusive attention, to com­fort care, death with dignity, and the preservation of personal autonomy until death. All of this is done without ever asking the foundational ques­tion, What was life really all about? much less the foundational spiritual question of how I should and can repent from a life that was poorly lived so as finally to turn in repentance to God. Properly directed care at the end of life is care that focuses on repentance. To talk about end-of-life decision-making and not to place centrally the urgent is­sue of repentance is to miss the target completely. Care at the end of life should offer a final opportu­nity to the dying person to find orientation. That is, end-of-life care must bring the dying person to repentance through a recognition of how the holy, indeed, God, defines the meaning of the right, the good, and the virtuous. Good end-of-life care can­not be the product of a secular or philosophical bioethics. It must be the proclamation of a liv­ing theology. Orthodox Christianity teaches how to become oriented in life and to achieve a good death. What is important to be said cannot be stated adequately in secular terms.

II. Against the Grain of Secular Culture: Re­membering That One’s Religion Is Not a Per­sonal Matter

We live in a world that increasingly accepts pas­sive euthanasia in the sense of withdrawing or withholding treatment with the intention to bring about an earlier death. More and more, this world accepts not only active euthanasia (for example, the use of analgesics to hasten death), but also physician-assisted suicide and blatant voluntary active euthanasia. All of this is exactly what a bad death is about: it is focused on the willful con­trol of the end of one’s own life, rather than on humility and repentance. Orthodox Christianity brings a quite different message. Orthodox Chris­tianity teaches repentance, conversion, and the importance of turning to God. It surely does have concerns with the good, with justice, and with protecting life. But these concerns are set within concerns for the holy. Orthodox Christianity is not against making the world better; indeed, it knows that in the end the world will be made better after Christ comes in judgment (Revelation 21). In the meantime, the Orthodox Church must remind the world that the first Orthodox Christian convert to enter heaven was the thief on the cross, who did no good thing save to repent and convert (Luke 23:39–43). The thief had no opportunity after his conversion to accomplish anything worthwhile. Literally at the end, however, he turned to holi­ness, which holiness is personal: the triune God. Orthodox Christians, too, realize that truth is not propositional, but personal. Because of his con­version, the thief on the cross had a good death. Orthodox Christianity has to teach first and fore­most that we should turn to that Truth and, in so turning, we will come to know holiness. This fact of the matter, that truth exists and is personal, should orient our lives and our deaths, and should direct all end-of-life decision-making. It should help us to see the death of the thief as the icon of a good death.

The personal character of the truth is one of the central distinguishing marks of Orthodox Christian theology. To begin with, those who are theologians in the strict sense are not those who merely know about God, but those who know God: they are holy Fathers. At least half of the great Orthodox theologians of the twentieth cen­tury were not academicians; many never attended a university. Yet they had noetically experienced God. They had come to know God. (2) This is why the Orthodox Church rarely, and only for rhetori­cal purposes, gives proofs for the existence of God. Otherwise, such endeavors would be some­thing like a wife developing five proofs for the existence of her husband with whom she lives. Offering such proofs would be a hint that she is alienated from her husband, that she no longer experiences his presence. Because we experience God, we do not believe in his existence as one might believe in a philosophical proposition. His presence is realized in our lives and in our deaths. For this reason, instruction in how to die well is not derived from manuals and treatises, but from accounts of the lives and the deaths of saints. We look to the models of proven successful dying. This point of attention always directs us beyond the good towards the holy.

Because it is central to understand the good, the right, and the virtuous only with reference to God, Orthodox Christianity refuses to accept the dilemma that Plato (428–348 B.C.) develops in his dialogue, Euthyphro. In response to the question as to whether the good is good because God approves of it, or whether God approves of it because it is good, Orthodox Christianity real­izes that the good, including the good of a good death, can never be understood adequately apart from God. It is something like not being able to understand the orbits of the planets without ref­erence to the sun. Orthodox Christianity refuses to reduce theology or moral issues to natural-law reflections or discursive philosophical analyses and arguments. It focuses instead on the kind of person we should be for eternity. It does this in the face of a Truth that it is absolute and endur­ing: the Persons of the Trinity.

In contrast, spiritual character-building in our contemporary culture is frequently regarded as a do-it-yourself task, like the assembly of a meal in a cafeteria. The result is that one examines vari­ous moral and religious positions as if they were dishes from which one could sample and choose on one’s own, composing in an aesthetic and will­ful fashion one’s own life and one’s own death. Orthodox Christianity, in contrast, reminds per­sons that they must rightly orient their life-and­death choices through ascetically directing their lives to the meaning of the universe, Who is God. Orthodox Christianity is thus not simply pro-life, but pro-life directed to God, which direction in our lives and deaths is only achieved through ascetic struggle. One can only have a rightly-ordered ethic of life through turning rightly to God. The good cannot be understood apart from the holy. A philosophical analysis and refl ection will never be enough. (3) Orthodox Christianity, as a consequence, does not offer an ethic of life, but a way of rightly and theologically living one’s life. There can be no adequate understanding of rightly directed decision-making at the end of life, absent an adequate theological orientation.

Although life in general, and dying in partic­ular, are ascetic struggles, one should note that Orthodox Christianity recognizes the importance of pain control and comfort care. In particular, Orthodox Christianity has from the beginning ap­preciated that pain and distress can bring the dy­ing to temptation and despair, thus leading them away from a wholehearted pursuit of salvation. St. Basil the Great (329–379) therefore notes with approval that “with mandrake doctors give us sleep; with opium they lull violent pain.” (4) In­deed, twice in each Liturgy, the Church prays for “a Christian ending to our life, painless, blame­less, peaceful, and a good defense before the fear­ful judgment seat of Christ.” (5) This prayer empha­sizes the goodness of a death that is painless and peaceful. In so doing, however, it does not lose sight of the great offering to God made by the death of martyrs. In all these cases, a blameless death is like the death of the thief, repentant and marked by confession of Christ. As a result, there is nothing more frightening than the prospect of dying peacefully in one’s sleep without warning, without a final opportunity for prayer and repen­tance. In summary, with regard to decision-making at the end of life, there must be a focus on God, and this can require withholding and withdrawing treatment when such would distract from turn­ing wholeheartedly to God. The focus remains on wholeheartedly aiming at repentance.

III. Seeing the Big Picture

Life lived fully within the horizon of the finite and the immanent has a trivial character in contrast to a life lived in recognition of God. So, too, does end-of-life decision-making remain radically mis­directed and incomplete, no matter how much it might be embedded within a concern for death with dignity or directed by an ethic of life. Set within the horizon of the finite and the immanent, reflections on one’s death and decision-making at the end of life highlight creature comforts for a creature who thinks of himself as about to go out of existence. One is blind to the earnestness of taking advantage of final opportunities rightly to orient one’s life towards the future beyond death, that is, to God. Orthodox Christianity has the task of pointing out this big picture: the significance of death and the nature of the truth. As to the latter, Orthodoxy reminds the world of Who this Truth is. Only oriented to the Triune God can one in the end understand the meaning of life, the signifi ­cance of death, and the goal to which one should direct one’s decisions at the end of life.


ENDNOTES

1 The final stage beyond illumination (theoria or union with God) is what is achieved by true theologians. “The mysti­cal and perfecting stage is that of the perfected ones, who in fact become the theologians of the Church” (Hierotheos, Bishop of Nafpaktos, Orthodox Spirituality, trans. Effie Mavromichali, [Levadia, Greece: Birth of the Theotokos Monastery, 1994], p. 50).

2 “The theologians of the Church are only those people who have arrived at a state of theoria, which consists in illumi­nation and theosis. Illumination is an unceasing state, ac­tive day and night, even during sleep. Theosis is the state in which someone beholds the glory of God, and it lasts as long as God sees fit” (John S. Romanides, Patristic Theology, trans. Hieromonk Alexis [Trader], [Goldendale, Washing­ton: Uncut Mountain Press, 2008], p. 50).

3 Orthodox Christianity has an attitude towards philosophical reflection like that of St. Paul’s: “Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the dis­puter of this age? Did not God make foolish the wisdom of this world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world knew not God through its wisdom, it pleased God through the foolishness of the preaching to save those who believe. For indeed, Jews ask for a sign, and Greeks seek wisdom, but we proclaim Christ Who hath been crucified; to the Jews, on the one hand, a stumbling block, and to Greeks, on the other hand, foolishness” (1 Cor 1:20–23). This Pauline in­sight is often reinforced by the Fathers. One might consider the rather critical things St. John Chrysostom has to say regarding secular Greek philosophy. See, for example, his first Homily on the Gospel of Saint Matthew and his second Homily on the Gospel of Saint John.

4 St. Basil the Great, “The Hexaemeron,” Homily 5, §4, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, eds. Phil­ip Schaff and Henry Wace (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hen­drickson Publishers, 1994), vol. 8, p. 78.

5 The Liturgikon (Englewood, New Jersey: Antakya Press, 1989), pp. 281, 299.


(The article is by His Grace Bishop THOMAS, Diocese of Charleston, Oakland, and the Mid-Atlantic, Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America. Used by permission.)

Monday, January 11, 2010

"Orthodoxy & Heterodoxy" Podcast Series

Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy: "Discover how Orthodox Christianity and non-Orthodox doctrine differ and why it matters to your spiritual journey."

I previously posted my article, "Medicinal Dogma (in a 'spiritual, but not religious' culture)" about the significance of dogmatic theology for good health and healing.  As an introduction to the specific differences between the Orthodox Christian Faith and various non-Orthodox groups, I recommend listening to Fr. Andrew Damick's Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.  The series covers the following topics:

* Understanding the Terms
* The Essentials of Christian Doctrine
* Orthodox and Roman Catholic Differences
* The Classical Reformation
* The Radical Reformation
* Revivalism
* Non-Chrisitan Religions
* Non-Mainstream Christians

Handouts relevant to the presentations are available on the St. Paul Orthodox Church (Emmaus, PA) website. Before listening to the podcast series, read Fr. Andrew's "Reflections on Non-Ecumenical Podcasting" on his Roads from Emmaus blog.


Thursday, January 7, 2010

Medicinal Dogma (in a "spiritual, but not religious" culture)

Medicinal Dogma (in a “spiritual, but not religious” culture)

by Fr. Symeon Kees

Whenever an Orthodox Christian has a conversation about dogma with those who have bought into the ideology of secularism, he may discover that the secularist prefers language that deemphasizes the difference between the Orthodox Christian Way and other religions and philosophies in our culture. The secularist may either consider all religions meaningless or think that all the different “religious traditions” are nearly the same and point to common truths. To those who don’t understand the Orthodox Way of Life, our dogmatic statements and detailed explanations may seem like legalistic doctrinal definitions that unnecessarily divide people instead of bringing them together. Some people prefer to talk about “spirituality” instead of “religion,” but when the word “spirituality” is disconnected from the Church and her dogma, the word may be defined so vaguely that it is rendered hollow and meaningless. There is a reason that Orthodox Christians emphasize Orthodox Christian healing instead of just speaking about “spirituality” in a general sense or “Christianity” in a broad, “inclusive” sense.

Orthodox Christians share a common Way of Life, the life of the Church. We possess one Faith, the Tradition rooted in the primal spirituality of the human race that has been passed down in its fullness from generation to generation since the time of the Apostles. We outright reject attempts by others to treat the Orthodox Church as one of many denominations, to treat the Orthodox Way as a humanly-derived religion that is one of many legitimate spiritual paths, or to treat the dogmas of the Orthodox Church as rational speculations invented to answer interesting philosophical questions. Simply stated, the Orthodox Church is the Church, the original Church planted on earth by Jesus Christ, the Son of God, for our healing and good health. The Orthodox Way, the Way of health and healing, involves the personal experience of God. The dogmas of the Orthodox Church are expressions of the unchanging Faith that lead man to transformation and keep him on the path of Life.

“Orthodoxy” means both right faith and right glory. The Orthodox Church emphasizes the importance of believing correctly because we know that what a person believes is not just a matter of opinion, but affects his spiritual health. The reason that the Orthodox Church treats heresy so seriously is that heresy leads people to spiritual sickness, which also results in psychological, emotional, and relational problems.

St. Ignatius of Antioch, the second bishop of Antioch (Syria) who lived during the time of the Apostles, instructed early Christians to avoid the false teachings of heretics. In his Letter to the Trallians, he wrote,

I exhort you therefore—not I but the love of Jesus Christ use only Christian food and abstain from every strange plant, which is heresy. For they mingle Jesus Christ with themselves, feigning faith, providing something like a deadly drug with honeyed wine, which the ignorant man gladly takes with pleasure; and therein is death. (1)

St. Ignatius also warned the Christian in Ephesus, writing,

For there are some who maliciously and deceitfully are accustomed to carrying about the Name while doing other things unworthy of God. You must avoid them as wild beasts. For they are mad dogs that bite by stealth; you must be on your guard against them, for their bite is hard to heal.

There is only one Physician,
who is both flesh and spirit,
born and unborn,
God in man,
true life in death,
both from Mary and from God,
first subject to suffering and then beyond it,
Jesus Christ our Lord. (2)

As heresy leads toward spiritual sickness, the dogmas of the Orthodox Church guide people along the path of healing. They are medicines for the soul. Dr. Harry Boosalis explained,

This aspect of dogmas as medicines by which we are cured and reach divinization (or theosis) is of central significance to Orthodox Tradition. As a result of the Fall, all mankind suffers from spiritual illness. From the ecclesial perspective, every man is sick and is suffering. There is not one who is spiritually ’normal’ or healthy, except of course for the Saints, who have attained theosis—that is to say, they have been granted the gift of participation in divine life, for which man was originally created: ‘So in the Church we are divided into the sick, those undergoing therapeutic treatment, and those—saints—who have already been healed.’ Orthodox theology thus provides a therapeutic method or process whereby one is healed through the purification of passions, experiences divine illumination, and ultimately attains theosis: ‘Theology is a therapeutic treatment. It cures man.’

Herein lies the importance of Orthodox dogma. The aim of Orthodox dogma is not to subject man and to confine him within the borders of a particular religion. Rather it is to help him to be healed. Dogma leads man to therapy. It leads to the cure of the fallen human person.

However, it must be emphasized that dogmas in themselves do not heal man; they simply show the way. An intellectual acceptance of the letter of dogma is not an automatic guarantee of being healed. It is not a matter of simply agreeing with the wording; one must experience the spirit of Orthodox dogma by means of a living faith within the therapeutic life of the Church. Dogmas are truly meaningful ‘only for those who have encountered the Living Christ…and are dwelling by faith in Him, in His body, the Church.’ Cut off from the ecclesial experience, dogmas remain dry, empty, and abstract formulae. Dogmas are thus not ends in themselves; they are guides that point the way toward the therapy of authentic spiritual life in Christ. The purpose of Orthodox dogma is to heal.

Heretical teachings, on the other hand, always arise from those who do not know or follow, or who have deviated from, the Church’s therapeutic process. Whenever a heretical innovation is manifested within the Church, it results directly from the fact that the one introducing this innovation neither has a correct understanding of dogma, nor has he truly experienced the proper therapeutic process of the Church. This is what led the Church to define her dogmas—in order to protect and preserve the truth of her therapeutic method of purification, illumination, and theosis. (3)

Heresies have arisen throughout the history of the Church. When the false teachings of heretics have flared up, the Church has responded. The dogma of the Orthodox Church is unchangeable. We preserve the Faith handed down to us bythe Apostles, the Faith confirmed by the experience of the Church, which is the temple of the Holy Spirit and the “pillar and ground of truth,” in every generation. In response to heresy, the Church sometimes expresses the dogma of the Church in new ways to explain with enhanced clarity what the Church has always believed. Ultimately, the Church’s motivation for expressing dogma is the healing (salvation) of people.

The Church is Mystery and theology is the experience of the Mystery. The dogmas of the Church are not attempts to define the Mysteries of the Faith which is far beyond explanation, but they draw a line across which one leaves the experience of the Mystery and enters the realm of heresy, delusion, and spiritual sickness. Here is an example of the place of dogma within the Mystery of the Church: The Church distinguishes between the three Persons of the One Uncreated Essence in this way: The Father is Unbegotten, the Son is Begotten (eternally of the Father), and the Holy Spirit Proceeds (from the Father). This definition provides a boundary across which one will fall into heresy. These distinctions between the undivided Persons are not intended to do what they cannot - to contain or express the fullness of the Mystery of God. As St. Gregory the Theologian wrote:

What then is Procession? Do you tell me what is the Unbegottenness of the Father, and I will explain to you the physiology of the Generation of the Son and the Procession of the Spirit, and we shall both of us be frenzy-stricken for prying into the mystery of God. And who are we to do these things, we who cannot even see what lies at our feet, or number the sand of the sea, or the drops of rain, or the days of Eternity, much less enter into the Depths of God, and supply an account of that Nature which is so unspeakable and transcending all words? (4)

The Orthodox Church calls all into her open arms, including all those who have wandered onto the treacherous, poisonous path of heresy back to the life of true personal spirituality, healing, transformation within the life of the Church. For us, the ecumenical movement is not an occasion for us to minimize what separates us from the non-Orthodox, but an opportunity to teach others what the Orthodox Church is, the only Church founded by Christ, and to invite everyone into the Church, where right belief and right worship have been preserved as our Way of Life for 2,000 years.

An important note: The Orthodox Christian defense of Orthodox dogma must never be reduced to arguments fueled by arrogance over doctrinal positions. In the West, “theologians” are considered to be scholars who hold advanced academic degrees and teach theological concepts. A true theologian in the Orthodox Christian sense, however, is not a scholar educated by books, but one who personally experiences the Existing One, the true and Living God, through a life of prayer and repentance. To know God in the Orthodox Christian sense means to know God by experience and, therefore, to manifest His radiant divine love, humility, and peace. Proclaiming Orthodox dogma and pointing out heresy is good when motivated by love and accomplished with humility and prayer. Arguing about theological ideas intellectually without personally striving to be a theologian, acquiring humility and love in the heart through prayer, is anti-theological. The Orthodox Way is not about being right, but being good and loving.

Prayer, repentance, love, and humility were essential for the Fathers who carefully expressed the Mystery of the Church through dogmas during the past centuries. Let’s follow their example and remember this:

In fact, the [Orthodox] Christian religion transforms people and heals them. The most important precondition, however, for someone to recognize and discern the truth is humility. Egotism darkens a person’s mind, it confuses him, it leads him astray, to heresy. It is important for a person to understand the truth. (5)

When the dogmas of the Orthodox Church are kept in our minds and the theology expressed by them is known within our hearts, they serve to keep us all, including health care providers, on the Way of healing. It is not enough for health care providers to rationally know about Orthodox dogmas, intellectually agree with them, and try to follow them as objective guidelines. That is not sufficient. Health care providers who truly desire to care for others within the context of the Orthodox Christian Way must immerse themselves in the healing life of the Orthodox Church, remaining obedient to their bishop, learning as much as they can, worshipping attentively, prayerfully repenting, and regularly seeking the guidance of their spiritual fathers. We must all strive to fully participate in the inner life of the Orthodox Church so that we may become true theologians who, with pure hearts full of love, know God and serve Him humbly. A health care provider who is a theologian through prayer can best offer complete healing care, guide patients toward treatment options, and help the infirm derive spiritual benefit from the experience of sickness and suffering while pursuing good physical health. All this is accomplished, of course, alongside the ministry of our bishop, priests, and deacons within the life of the Church.


(1) St. Ignatius of Antioch, The Apostolic Fathers, ed. by Jack N. Sparks, “Letter to the Trallains,” par. 6-11 (Minneapolis, MN: Light and Life, 1978), 94-95. Another translation of the above text is available for free at this address: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.txt

(2) St. Ignatius of Antioch, The Apostolic Fathers, ed. by Jack N. Sparks, “Letter to the Ephesians,” par. 7 (Minneapolis, MN: Light and Life, 1978), 79-80. Another translation of the above text is available for free at this address: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.txt

(3) Harry M. Boosalis, “Life-Giving Dogma: An Orthodox Approach to the Study of Dogmatic Theology,” St. Tikhon’s Theological Journal, vol. 3 (South Canaan, PA: St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 2005), 29-67.

(4) A free copy of the above text from The Fifth Theological Oration is available at the following address: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf207.txt

(5) Elder Porphyrios, Wounded by Love: The Life and the Wisdom of Elder Porphyrios, trans. by John Raffin (Limni, Evia, GRE: Denise Harvey, 2005/Originally published in Greek by the Holy Convent of the Life-giving Spring: Chrysopigi, GRE, 2003), 94.


Copyright © 2010 by Fr. Symeon Dana Kees

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Blessing of Water on the Feast of Holy Theophany

"When Thou, O Lord, wast baptized in the Jordan, worship of the Trinity wast made manifest; for the voice of the Father bore witness to Thee, calling Thee His beloved Son. And the Spirit in the form of a dove confirmed the truth of His word. O Christ our God, Who hath appeared and enlightened the world, glory to Thee."  (Troparion of Theophany)

Listen to an explanation of the Feast of Theophany on Ancient Faith Radio.  Visit the Antiochian Archdiocese website for information about the icon of the Theophany.  Information about the Feast and the icon is also available on the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese website.

On the Feast of Holy Theophany, water is sanctified for use throughout the year.  During the Theophany season, priests visit the faithful to bless their homes.  Here is a brief selection from the Service of the Great Sanctification of Water celebrated on the Feast of Theophany that expresses the healing effect of Holy Water:

"And grant it the grace of redemption and the blessing of the Jordan. Make it a fount of incorruptibility, a gift for sanctification, a redemption for sins, a elixir for maladies, a destroyer of demons, unapproachable by the adverse powers and full of angelic powers; so that to all who drink there from and receive thereof it may be for the sanctification of their souls and bodies, for the healing of sufferings, for the sanctification of homes and for every befitting benefit."

(The full text from which this was taken is available from the Diocese of LA and the West, Antiochian Archdiocese.)

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Emergence of Local Orthodox Christian Societies in America

An article entitled "The Emergence of Local Orthodox Christian Societies in America" has been published on the website of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese.  The article, which I co-authored, pertains to health care in the context of the Orthodox Christian community.  One section specifically addresses medical care, but all aspects of a local Orthodox society are interconnected and relevant to personal health.

UPDATE (2/2010): "The Emergence of Local Orthodox Christian Societies in America" has been published in the February 2010 issue of The Word (Magazine).

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Mental Illness & Demonic Possession / Life Before Birth

The May 2009 issue of The Word includes the article, "Insanity and Demonic Possession in Patristic Thought," by Mother Melania (Salem). 

The article, "Orthodoxy and the Unborn Child," by Christopher Humphrey, Ph.D, can be found in the same issue.
 
This entire issue is available as a pdf file on the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese website.