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 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 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 ( 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 (  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