Posts tagged ‘church’

November 29, 2016

I certainly can’t conceive … any grosser abuse of language than to call a discussion a meditation

Delightful collection of “less commonly used quotes” from the letters of C.S. Lewis:

  • Many men of our time have lost not only the supernatural light but also the natural light which pagans possess.
  • I certainly can’t conceive any less suitable preparation for Holy Communion than a discussion or any grosser abuse of language than to call a discussion a meditation.
  • I really believe I would have come to Christianity much less reluctantly if it had not involved the Church.
  • There is much to be puzzled about. There is nothing to be worried about.
  • It has been my experience that the rich of any country are usually the least attractive specimens of that nation.
June 11, 2016

Myrrh, Mercy, and Oil: Deciding What to Do with It All

I don’t know what to do with two small zip-lock baggies of myrrh that my wife and I collected last Sunday (June 5, 2016) from a miraculous myrrh-streaming icon of the Theotokos in Taylor, PA. These two swabs of white cotton soaked in a bright yellow-orange oil are shut up tightly inside plastic, but they still give off a pungent, sweet fragrance that definitely includes rose blossom (along with other scents that are less easily discerned, such as two that my children suggested: “honey comb” and “new doll”).

On the Sunday of Orthodoxy this year (March 20) my kids and I went to church, and the priest said that he had thrown out the notes for his homily yesterday evening after he participated in the Triumph of Orthodoxy vespers at a neighboring parish where several churches from the region were gathered together. During this joint prayer service (which celebrates the restoration of icons after a dispute about them within the early church), my priest witnessed the myrrh-streaming icon of the Theotokos that was visiting from Taylor, PA. In addition to watching sweet smelling oil flow from its surface, he heard stories of the many blessings and healings associated with this icon. For several years, visitors to this icon had been healed from cancer and other diseases that doctors had declared incurable by medical means. My priest is Father Peter of St. John Chrysostom Antiochian Orthodox Church in York, PA, and the priest visiting with the the myrrh-flowing Kardiotisa (“The Tender Heart”) icon was Father Mark of St. George’s Orthodox Church in Taylor, PA. (See image of the Kardiotisa icon at bottom of this post.)

One story told by Father Mark touched Father Peter in particular. It was about a teenage girl who struggled with a horribly negative self-image and who faced harsh bullying at school. When anointed by myrrh from the icon, she was delivered from thoughts of self harm and became a strong and confident young lady who was filled with thanksgiving for God, her family, and her friends. Father Peter also relayed how God clearly did not discriminate between various types of believers when it came to granting mercy through this icon. Those healed included Christians from many traditions as well as Muslims and others. Father Peter had seen many other myrrh streaming icons over his decades of ministry, but this experience had clearly moved him in a fresh way.

While he spoke, I was thinking of my mother who was diagnosed over a year ago with stage four breast cancer that doctors said could never be eradicated by medical means. My eight year old son was evidently thinking of my mother as well. He leaned over to me and whispered, “We should take grandma to see this icon.” After the service, he and I joined the line of those going forward to be anointed with the sweet-smelling oil collected from this icon.

As I said, that was March 20, and it was June 5 before we made it there with my mother. Our visit to St. George’s Orthodox Church in Taylor, PA was rescheduled twice. Then, on the morning of the visit, it was difficult to get up on time, to pack up and clean the house where we were staying for the weekend as an extended family, and to keep our cool while following GPS directions that took us via an extremely strange and circuitous route. (Truth be told, I did not fully keep my cool during this last leg of the road trip.) We made it to the Sunday morning service (called the Divine Liturgy) about half way through (near the end of the sermon), and my extended family followed me quietly into seats within the first two rows of pews on the far right side of the sanctuary. We did our best to pray and sing our way through the remainder of the highly elaborate and largely unfamiliar service. Visiting along with my mother and I that morning, there were also my wife and two children, my father, my young twin sisters (the same age as my daughter), and two of my grown siblings, a brother and a sister (a mother of five) who had her baby boy along with us.

At the end of the service, Father Mark had a lengthy announcement about the proposed purchase of a walk-in freezer for the congregation as well as comments about a recent chemical analysis of the myrrh from the streaming icon (an analysis by a Ukrainian association of chemists that had not been sanctioned by the bishop but that had produced some fascinating results that Father Mark detailed quickly to his congregation). He finally concluded the service by inviting anyone to come forward and to receive an anointing with myrrh from the icon. Every member of my family and extended family came forward, and a visiting priest gave the blessing and the anointing, placing a small dab of myrrh in the sign of the cross on each of our foreheads with his thumb. As we were all going up front for this, my wife checked that all of our family members had noticed the location of the streaming icon near the center of the sanctuary. Its entire surface was visibly wet with myrrh, and some oil could be seen on the outside of the icon’s protective case.

My mother needed to use the restroom after this, and I hung out near the sanctuary hoping to catch a word with Father Mark, who I had corresponded with several times over the past few weeks in preparation for this visit. He was busy with a portion of his congregation offering a prayer service for a recently departed member of their church. I checked on my family situated in the social hall attached to the church and returned to the sanctuary, where I waited and finally had an opportunity to greet Father Mark. He was praying with a devout and emotional young couple who were clearly also there to seek help from Mary at her myrrh-streaming icon. Father Mark was also busy with some of his deacons and several remaining members of the congregation, lifting the protective cover from the icon and examining the cotton swabs packed into a tray along the icon’s bottom edge to collect the myrrh. He and several others were expressing joy at the quantity of myrrh as it dripped from the protective case itself, and one woman reached out to catch the drops before they fell to the floor.

With some persistence, I was able to get Father Mark’s direct attention and introduce myself. He seemed to vaguely remember corresponding with me, and then he warmly welcomed my entire family and extended family. He asked each person to hold out their hands as he held up the icon and waited for one drop of myrrh to fall into the hands of my father, mother, four siblings, wife, son, and finally my little nephew. My daughter quietly declined. During this time, as the drops fell one-by-one into outstretched hands, two older women from the congregation were alternately praying out loud and chattering with members of my family (telling them many stories about the icon). Father Mark invited us to leave any written prayer requests in little decorated blue boxes at the back of the church. These requests would be read out loud in the sanctuary and placed into a large wooded chest that was kept near the icon. One of the elder ladies explained that a member of the congregation had given this chest to the church for this purpose and let us know that hey had another chest stored within their altar area that was already filled with paper slips holding prayers from previous visitors. In one last effort, I asked Father Mark if he would pray specifically for my mother right then and there. He agreed and prayed for her out loud before the Mother of God’s myrrh-streaming icon. Father Mark was a generous and unassuming man who radiated simple joy and good humor. I felt bad to ask for so much, but he gave graciously.

As we were finally leaving, several members of the congregation came forward to receive pieces of cotton that were torn off, one-by-one, from the larger swabs that were packed into the trough at the base of the icon. These were soaked with myrrh and were placed in small zip-lock bags for members of the congregation to take with them. My mother and sister hesitated at first. However, Father Mark was clearly liberal in the distribution of these bags, and they each ended up with one. My grown sister overheard Father Mark telling a little girl in the congregation to take one with her and teasing the girl by telling her to go and tell her brother that Father Mark said he couldn’t have one today. My wife and I each got a separate bag as well.

Scripture is full of references to oil used for cooking, with sacrifices, and for anointing. All four Gospels speak of the myrrh bearing women who came to anoint Jesus with the same kind of expensive perfumes that Mary had poured over his feet and wiped off with her hair not long before his crucifixion. These ladies are described beautifully in the book Christ in His Saints by Patrick Henry Reardon. He explains that they spent a lot of money and some no doubt risked the wrath of their unbelieving husbands to get up before sunrise and take this myrrh to anoint the dead body of their Messiah whom they had seen placed within a cave behind a massive stone and under the watch of a professional Roman guard. How they planned to move the stone and get past the soldiers is unclear, but one thing is clear: they had not imaged the possibility of a resurrection. When they arrived, however, the stone was gone, and they met angels instead of soldiers. Reardon ends his account of these devoted women with an intentional note of irony by asking us to consider “all of that myrrh gone to waste.”

In 1 Kings 17 and then again in 2 Kings 4, we read of first Elijah and then his disciple Elisha making a jar of oil flow continually in the service of God as well as an old widow who is seeking to care for her destitute family. In a vision from Zechariah 4, we again see an endless supply of oil. In this account, two olive trees provide a continual stream of oil to keep a beautiful lamp stand alight with seven flames (like the lamp in the tabernacle and temple as well as the seven lamps that represent each of the churches written to by Jesus Christ at the beginning of St. John’s Apocalypse).

In many of these Biblical references, the oil is connected to the Spirit of God bringing light and life to all His creatures. And there is also another theme, one of anointing with medicines and perfumes. The word “mercy” in English is the translation of the Greek word eleos. This word is based on an older Greek root meaning olive oil, a substance that was used as a soothing agent for bruises and wounds (as we see in the story of the Samaritan who was a good neighbor).

Keith Green sings: “My heart is hard, my prayers are cold / And I know how I ought to be / Alive to You and dead to me // Oh what can be done for an old heart like mine / Soften it up with oil and wine / The oil is You, Your Spirit of love.”

And before this, Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote within an astounding poem: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God. / …It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil / Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?”

This song and this poem both capture a lot, in different ways, about God’s presence as it has been mediated to us all daily, in unexpected ways. After writing all this, however, I am not much closer to making a decision about what to do with my bag of myrrh. My wife and I have shared a few ideas with each other, both immediately afterward and in the following days. Regardless, I am simply grateful to have had its beautiful smell in my home for this week and to be faced with the strange dilemma that it brings. I’ll probably try to share my myrrh somehow (the wise men gave away all of their myrrh after all), and I will also seek ideas from others who are older and wiser than myself. And your suggestions, dear reader, are welcome too.

[Note: shown in the photo at the top of this post are the two bags that I mention, containing cotton swabs soaked with myrrh. Also in the picture is my son’s small prayer book (a recent gift to him from my mother) and two small (prayer-card-sized) icons gifted to us by friends about a year ago (depicting Hawaii’s Myrrh-Streaming Iveron Icon and Saint Elizabeth the New Marty who is a granddaughter of Queen Victoria).]

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September 7, 2015

dreaming what is true

I remember once as a child dreaming that my mother came into my bedroom and sat down in a chair in the corner and folded her hands in her lap and stayed there, very calm and still. It made me feel wonderfully safe, wounderfully happy. When I woke up, there she was, sitting in that chair. She smiled at me and said, “I was just enjoying the quiet.” I have that same feeling in church, that I am dreaming what is true.

From Gilead by Marilynne Robinson.

October 18, 2013

spiritual dew will envelop your soul

Just as a calm and sheltered harbour provides great security to the ships moored there, so does the temple of God: when people enter it, it snatches them away from worldly affairs as from a storm, and gives them the capacity to stand and listen to God’s words in calm and security.

This place is the bedrock of virtue and the school of spiritual life…. You need only set foot on the threshold of a church and at once you are liberated from the cares of daily life.

Go on into the church, and a spiritual dew will envelop your soul. The stillness there moves you to awe, and teaches you how to live spiritually.

It elevates your thoughts and prevents you from remembering things or matters belonging to the present life. It transports you from earth to heaven.

And if there is such great gain from simply being in church when no service is going on, then how much benefit will people derive from being present … when the holy Apostles proclaim the Gospel, Christ stands in our midst, God the Father receives the Mysteries that are performed and the Holy Spirit gives His own joy.

Attributed in several online sources to St. John Chrysostom (although I have been unable to find the work from which this is taken).

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September 7, 2013

the battle cry of that revolution is the Magnificat of Mary

There is this identification of the kingship of God with the indwelling and the presence of the Holy Spirit. …So we have this foretaste of the kingdom in the church. That’s why many of our church fathers would simply say that the church is the kingdom of god, by faith and grace and the sacraments. Not the members or the Holy Synod or the Patriarchates or stuff like that, not the institutions but the content of church as a mystical reality is the presence of God’s kingdom in this age through the Holy Spirit where Christ is reigning.

…You have a much greater revolution going on here! And here the battle cry of that revolution is the Magnificat of Mary. …This kingdom is going to come on earth through the slave of God … who is Mary’s child. It’s a very political statement. …This whole thing has got to be on this earth, but it’s got to be the kingdom that is not of this earth that is of the God who is love.

Fr. Thomas Hopko speaking in a ten-part lecture series about the Lord’s Prayer (two paragraphs from separate lectures and in reverse order).

September 3, 2013

as powerless as God

It seems to me, and I am deeply convinced of this, that the Church should never speak from a position of power. It should not be one power among others operating in one state or another; it should be, if you will, just as powerless as God, Who does not use force; Who only beckons us, opening up the beauty and truth of things without imposing them; Who is like our conscience, telling us the truth while leaving us free either to listen to truth and beauty or to reject them. It seems to me that the Church should be precisely like that; if the Church should gain the position of a powerful organization, one with the ability to coerce or direct events, then there will always be the risk that it will want to wield power; but as soon as the Church begins to wield power, it will lose its deepest essence: the love of God and an understanding of those whom it is called to save, not to destroy and remake.

From Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh (Vladyka Anthony) in an interview with M.B. Meilakh in London (which was printed in Literator, an organ of the Leningrad Writers’ Organization, on September 21, 1990).

October 22, 2012

joy of recovered childhood

The liturgy is, before everything else, the joyous gathering of those who are to meet the risen Lord and to enter with him into the bridal chamber. And it is this joy of expectation and this expectation of joy that are expressed in singing and ritual, in vestments and in censing, in that whole beauty of liturgy which has so often been denounced as unnecessary and even sinful.

Unnecessary it is indeed, for we are beyond the categories of the “necessary.” Beauty is never “necessary,” “functional” or “useful.” And when, expecting someone whom we love, we put a beautiful tablecloth on the table and decorate it with candles and flowers, we do all this not out of necessity, but out of love. And the Church is love, expectation and joy. It is heaven on earth, according to our Orthodox tradition; it is the joy of recovered childhood, that free, unconditional and disinterested joy which alone is capable of transforming the world.

“…It is in the highest sense the life of a child, in which everything is picture, melody and song. Such is the wonderful fact which the liturgy demonstrates: it unites act and reality in a supernatural childhood before God.”

From chapter two in For the Life of the World by Alexander Schmemann (29-31), with the last portion being quoted from Romano Guardini’s 1950 book The Church and the Catholic, and the Spirit of the Liturgy (180-181).

October 17, 2012

their faces reflected the light

The early Christians realized that in order to become the temple of the Holy Spirit they must ascend to heaven where Christ has ascended. They realized also that this ascension was the very condition of their mission in the world, of their ministry to the world. Fort there–in heaven–they were immersed in the new life of the Kingdom; and when, after this “liturgy of ascension,” they returned into the world, their faces reflected the light, the “joy and peace” of that Kingdom and they were truly its witnesses. They brought no programs and no theories; but wherever they went, the seeds of the Kingdom sprouted, faith was kindled, life was transfigured, things impossible were made possible. They were witnesses, and when they were asked, “whence shines this light, where is the source of this power?” they knew what to answer and where to lead men. In church today, we so often find we meet only the same old world, not Christ and His Kingdom. We do not realize that we never get anywhere because we never leave any place behind us.

From chapter two in For the Life of the World by Alexander Schmemann (28).

April 26, 2012

under the direction of the Great Architect

From Divine Craftsmanship by Jean Hani (compare to this poem):

To say that God is the only architect can be understood in a yet more precise fashion in the case of the construction of the temple. Here, God is more directly the architect of His own abode. …The earthly temple is realized according to a heavenly archetype communicated to men through the intermediary of a prophet or other sacred figure. (46-47)

…The Heavenly Jerusalem, which descends from God, and the shape and dimensions of which were also taught to St John by an angel, is the model of the Christian temple, as is amply proved by the layout of the later, and affirmed by its ritual consecration. (47)

…Now this archetypal building, by its very nature, reproduces the architecture of the universe in such a way that its base corresponds to the earth, its intermediate space to the air, and its roof to the heavenly vault.

From this it follows that the house is a symbol of the universe, which, in a way, is the primordial House of Man; and, as a result, the building of a house will also reproduce or imitate the creation of the world. (48)

…The text from Job evokes the splendor of the original world, spoilt by sin. But God decided to rebuild it. And this new world in the making is the Church, both the earthly and heavenly. The Church is the Holy City, ‘the masterpiece’ of the divine Artisan. ‘It is God who builds Jerusalem’ (Psalm 46). (49)

…The unfolding of this story appears as the spiritual construction of a new world, the New Jerusalem, which under the direction of the Great Architect, is the work of all. It unfolds in three phases. In the first, Christ comes to earth to lay the first or foundation stone, upon this foundation, of which Simon Peter is the visible substitute, the Temple is built with living stones, which are the believers. Finally, in the third phase, the building is completed with the placing of the keystone of the vault, which is again Christ, the Beginning and End, Alpha and Omega. Then the whole building undergoes a glorious transmutation, the stones becoming precious and shining in the Divine Light. At this point, the Heavenly City appears in all its splendor…. (54)

November 3, 2011

side-by-side splendors and terrors of heaven and hell

We think the church is already the kingdom of God and, if only better organized and motivated, can conquer the world. But nowhere in Scripture or history do we see a church synonymous with the kingdom of God. The church in many instances is more worldly than the world. When we equate the church and the kingdom and the identity turns out to be false, we feel “taken in.” Little wonder that anger and cynicism are epidemic behind the smiling veneer of American pastors. We need refresher courses in Barthian critiques of religion and Dantean analyses of sin….

Early church Christians believed that the resurrection of Jesus inaugurated a new age. They were in fact – but against appearances – living in God’s kingdom, a kingdom of truth and healing and grace. This was all actually present but hidden from unbelieving eyes and inaudible to unbelieving ears. Pastors are the persons in the church communities who repeat and insist on these kingdom realities against the world appearances, and who therefore must be apocalyptic. In its dictionary meaning, apocalypse is simply “revelation,” the uncovering of what was covered up so that we can see what is there. But the context in which the word arrives adds color to the black-and-white dictionary meaning, colors bright and dark – crimson urgency and purple crisis. Under the crisis of persecution and under the urgency of an imminent end, reality is revealed suddenly for what it is. We had supposed our lives were so utterly ordinary. Sin-habits dull our free faith into stodgy moralism and respectable boredom; then crisis rips the veneer of cliche off everyday routines and reveals the side-by-side splendors and terrors of heaven and hell. Apocalypse is arson – it secretly sets a fire in the imagination that boils the fat out of an obese culture-religion and renders a clear gospel love, a pure gospel hope, a purged gospel faith.

From Eugene H. Peterson’s The Contemplative Pastor.

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