Monday, September 1, 2014

What Does God Look Like?

A common question people ask a priest goes something like this: “If God is real, why isn’t it obvious to everyone?”

One way I begin to answer such questions is by saying something like this: God is obvious to everyone—as obvious as the air we breathe. But just as we easily take for granted and no longer notice the air we breathe (unless there are some unusual pollutants in the air or we are having trouble breathing), so too we easily ignore the obvious reality of God. The only exception to this tendency to ignore the obvious, is when we intentionally pay attention. When I intentionally pay attention to my breathing, I notice the air. Similarly, unless I work at paying attention to God, I can easily ignore Him.

Many of us, however, would rather that God’s presence be less easy to ignore. Like Isaiah, we want God to tear open the heavens so that no one can deny the reality of the Creator. But this is the very thing God does not want to do. Archimandrite Vasileios says that “He exists as if He did not exist. He intervenes as if He were absent, out of respect for His creature.” God respects His creation so much that He treats the creation as He Himself would be treated: with freedom. God does not come to us in any way that would overwhelm us, that would strip us of freedom and force or coerce us to obey and love him. In fact, once obedience is forced, it ceases to be obedience—not the obedience of relationship, the obedience that a mother wants from her child or a lover expects from his beloved. Forced obedience is mere conformity to outer criteria. God does not want that, for it is no foundation for genuine relationship.


How do We Pray the Psalms?

How do we pray the Psalms? We should surely take our lead from the Holy Fathers of the Early Church and learn from their wisdom. Whilst researching the origins of the Jesus Prayer, I came across some fascinating insights in psalm-commentaries accredited to Fathers of the third, fourth and fifth centuries. These insights and the understanding of the Psalms which they promote, would have been available to the earliest monks and nuns of Egypt, from where the Jesus Prayer is believed to have emerged.

The most important of these insights presented to us by the Holy Fathers is that praying the Psalms involves us with an ongoing conversation with our Lord Jesus Christ. Over and over again, we find the writers of these commentaries interpreting the various verses of the Psalms Christologically – seeing in the Psalm-text a clear reference to Jesus. It is not an exaggeration to say that these Fathers make a habit of identifying the God of the Psalter with the Person of Christ.

St. Athanasios of Alexandria (296-373) regularly finds references to Jesus in such phrases in the Psalms as the “name of God” and the “face of God.” For example, “Let them acknowledge his great name, for it is awesome and holy” in Psalm 98.3 (99.3) he takes to mean the name of “Jesus,” with an implicit reference to Philippians 2.10-11. Again, with regard to Psalm 4.7, “The light of your face was made to shine upon us, O Lord,” he understands face to mean Christ, for, he says, “Christ is the Light of the World.”


The Dark Ages: Who Turned Out the Lights?

Among the literature of those who make it their main business to vilify the Christians, perhaps no concept has served a more useful purpose than the idea of “the Dark Ages.” The Dark Ages, according to this reading of history, were those centuries in which the Church was culturally ascendant, with the inevitable result that civilization sunk into superstition, ignorance, obscurantism, and moral decadence. Here everything that was bad about the world is laid at the Church’s door, especially the decline of Science (with a capital “S”), which apparently had been going great guns until the Church took over.

As evidence of the Church’s war against Science, enlightenment, tolerance, and reason in general, the name of Galileo is usually bandied about, along with the notion that everyone in the Dark Ages thought that the world was flat. It was from this ecclesiastical abyss that Science eventually pulled us all out, saving the world from the Church and restoring civilization. But as we talk about the Dark Ages, it is worth asking how the Roman Empire of the west came to be so dark in the first place? (Of the Roman Empire in the east, usually known as Byzantium, the vilifiers seem to know precious little. Their world is a western world.) In other words, who turned out the lights in the west?


Congratulations! You are being Cremated Today!

My bishop is probably not going to believe this.

Recently, a member of our congregation was very upset. She heard that the new priest was planning to cremate a young couple, right there in church, on the solea, during Great Vespers on the next Saturday night.

“Doesn’t the Orthodox Church forbid cremation?” she asked her friends. No one had ever heard of such a thing. Exciting gossip began to make the rounds during coffee hour.

No wonder she was concerned. This particular young couple was very promising. Charming and intelligent, they had come to us especially looking for an Orthodox church in the area. Although both had been baptized, they were reared without any particular faith; the young man’s parents were atheist, as was the woman’s mother until recently. Now they had decided to become Orthodox Christians, and to be married sacramentally in the Church. They had their whole life ahead of them…until now.


Saturday, August 30, 2014

Reclaiming tale Beard on Behalf of Christianity

Cathie Adams, former chairman of the Republican Party of Texas, stated recently in her speech "Radical Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood" that a beard is a sign of a man's Muslim identity.

In the speech, which is posted online by the Far North Dallas Tea Party, Adams can be heard saying that Grover Norquist, a conservative Republican and founder of Americans for Tax Reform, is showing signs of being Muslim, citing his beard as evidence. Norquist is "trouble with a capital T," Adams added, "As you can see he has a beard, and he's showing signs of converting to Islam himself."

Adams highlights an important stereotype: that having a beard means that you are a Muslim. I am frequently confronting this stereotype because while I am not a Muslim, I do have a beard. As a doctoral candidate who researches the experiences of young Pakistani men in Dublin, Ireland, and Boston, Mass., I am often asked if my beard is a sign of my "Muslimness." Even my family and friends have wondered if my ever-growing beard is a sign of my conversion to Islam.

A recent article in the Guardian by actor Alex Andreou sums up my experiences of having a beard. Andreou, who grew a beard for an acting job, wrote about an experience in getting on a bus, at which point passengers gave a collective "oh crap" roll of the eyes. One woman even pointed at him, leaned over and said: "Stop it, or I'll call the terrorist." Feeling like the "monster under the bed," Andreou experienced emotions which many people with a "Muslim appearance" deal with regularly.

My beard, like Andreou's, is not a sign of my Muslim identity, but rather a different identity. For me, it's a Catholic identity. That's right, my Catholic identity. In fact, there is nothing wrong with a Catholic or any other Christian man having a beard.

The Bible and other artifacts of Christian history show us the long history of the beard in Christianity. The most clear biblical passage to condone beards comes from Leviticus (19:27): "You shall not cut the hair on the sides of your heads, neither shall you clip off the edge of your beard." To cut off another man's beard, according to Samuel (10:4) is an outrage.


For those of my readers who are Orthodox, beards are always present. Our clergy usually have beards as do some of our laity. It has pretty much always been this way (not including that one time in Russia). It was part of Christian culture to have a beard. If you look at icons of our saints most men are sporting beards (with some notable exceptions). We are accustomed to seeing beards on Christians because the earliest Christians had beards.

For my non-Orthodox readers, Christians have always worn beards (except that one time in Russia). I know that you aren't use to the sight of beards on men. It's ok. I know that beards are coming back into fashion (or perhaps falling out? I don't really keep up) so it's going to be a little more normal to see beards on men than a few years ago. But just know that in the West there was this cultural phenomenon where beards were not ok for some reason, so they were done away with. Clergy as well as laity are usually clean shaven. This gave rise to a fear of all things bearded back when the war on terror started; I remember my brother telling me a story of how a priest in Florida was mistaken as a terrorist and beaten.

I wish I could say that beards are just one of the many things that Muslims stole from Eastern Christians (like prostrating for prayers, praying at certain times, chanting, facing a certain way whilst praying, etc.) But truth be told that wearing a beard is part of the overall culture of the area where Christianity and Islam both grew it's roots. I mean obviously Christians did it first as we were around before the Muslims were, but it's part of the culture. That culture became part of Christianity and also Islam.

Wearing a beard does not make one a Christian or a Muslim, it just means the man has good sense. That shouldn't hinder Christians from wearing them as we have always done (except for that one time in Russia).

Friday, August 29, 2014

Iraqi Christian Village: From Sanctuary to Ghost Town in 2 Months

By Peter Kenyon
The northern Iraqi village of Al-Qosh was humming with activity — and some jitters — when NPR visited back in June. The Assyrian Christian villagers had opened their schools and homes to Iraqis fleeing the takeover of nearby Mosul by Islamist fighters calling themselves the Islamic State.

But these days, most of Al-Qosh is as silent as the 6th-century monastery overlooking the village from a hill. A few Kurdish security men guard the entrance to the village, primarily concerned with keeping potential looters away from the tidy stone and cement homes.
The villagers fled en masse in early August, when Islamist fighters made a move in Al-Qosh’s direction. Now, as Kurdish forces begin to retake territory around Mosul, including the strategic Mosul dam, some families have begun to trickle back to Al-Qosh. Most stay only during daylight hours, however, afraid to stay overnight with Islamic State forces a mere 20 miles away.


Beheading of the Holy and Glorious Prophet, Forerunner and Baptist John

On August 29, we commemorate Beheading of the Holy and Glorious Prophet, Forerunner and Baptist John: