Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Some sound direction for you and me

Living In the Silence

Fr. Stephen FreemanOne of the few blogs I keep an eye on is that of Father Stephen Freeman, a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, serving as Rector of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series. I have reproduced the following essay from his blog GLORY TO GOD FOR ALL THINGS because of its importance to us. Go there to the blog and read the comments. Indeed, this blog is worth subscribing to!    

The word is usually translated “silence.” It also carries the meaning of “stillness.” It is a quiet, not just of the mind but of the body as well, the silencing of the noise within us. It is Hesychia. The practice and understanding of hesychia is termed Hesychasm. Alexandre Kalormiros wrote:

Hesychasm is the deepest characteristic of Orthodox life, the sign of Orthodox genuineness, the premise of right thinking and right belief and glory, the paradigm of faith and Orthodoxy. In all of the Church’s internal and external battles, we had the hesychasts on one side and the anti-hesychasts on the other.

The very fabric of heresy is anti-hesychastic.

Hesychia is by no means a passive approach to the world. However, it prefers the sound of God and the work of God to that of the self or humanity in general. It listens. This listening lies at the heart of the Church’s perception of Tradition. That which we have, we have received; it is handed down to us. In order to receive what is handed down it is necessary to listen and pay attention, to be willing to accept what is given. It says ‘yes’ to God and ‘yes’ to life.

Modernity is, by its very character, in opposition to tradition. Among many modern errors is the assumption that what has gone before is wrong and in need of correction. It values youth and new opinions over those of the past, regardless of the inexperience involved. Of course, this aspect of modernity is deeply deceptive. Something much darker is at work.

Selling Modernity
In the 1950’s the phenomenon of youth burst into American culture with the so-called “Baby Boom,” the massive number of children born in the post-World-War-II era. The first discovery of the power of this new demographic appeared in the hottest selling item of the 50’s: coonskin caps. Disney made a tv show with Davy Crockett wearing a raccoon hat. A demand across the country among children made coonskin caps the first great Baby Boomer fad. Marketing directors took note.

America did not fall in love with youth: it was made to fall in love with youth. Being young, thinking young, looking young was marketed. Jack Kennedy was elected President in 1960, projecting an image of youth, though he was, in fact, but 4 years younger than Richard Nixon, his opponent. He looked young. He looked “cool.”

The youth movement of the 60’s, born in a reaction to various elements of mainstream culture, was quickly gathered up by marketing forces who made it the “mainstream.” The sexual revolution, often identified with the 60’s, was much more a “revolution” within marketing than a cultural thing. Sex sells.

And, of course, all of this is very “noisy.”

The Noise of Dissatisfaction
Among the characteristics required to constantly move towards that which is new and young, is a dissatisfaction with that which is old. The 1950’s was a decade in which American cars sought to maximize this experience by cosmetic design changes in cars every year. An astute eye at that time could discern year model and make with perfect accuracy. A car that was 3-years old always seemed “out of style.” I need a new one.

Dissatisfaction is a noisy way to live. You cannot be still and dissatisfied at the same time.

To live a life designed by a marketing firm is deeply sad. It also makes very good sense in a culture that is defined by consumerism. However, the Kingdom of God is not for sale, nor is Christianity a lifestyle.

The dissatisfied life is a breeding ground for heresy. It asks the wrong questions, and only hears wrong answers. Dissatisfaction is not the path to progress or satisfaction. It is a habit of the heart contrary to the Kingdom of God.

A word that properly accompanies silence is “contentment.” Contentment is not the same thing as approval, satisfaction or happiness. It is the willingness to be present to whatever circumstances are at hand without anxiety, anger or shame. It does not mean a declaration that the circumstances are good or that nothing needs to be done. But there are many forms of “doing.”

Many people experience a sort of paralysis when facing a large or complicated task. Indeed, even small tasks can take on a sense of largeness and complication if they are added to all the tasks of a day. Invariably, such an inner sense of what is to be done leaves us exhausted, trying to do the “whole” thing with every small thing. There is no contentment in the effort.

The modern world lives in a mode of information overload. The briefest encounter with a day’s news, or social media’s reaction to the news, can only overwhelm. The news is not designed to create contentment. Anxiety, anger and shame are required emotions for the continued march of a consumer culture branded as progress.

Hesychia is “stillness.” Anxiety, anger and shame are the enemies of stillness. St. Paul writes: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” This might not seem a matter of stillness at first glance. However, it goes to its very heart. What do we want to curse? Everything that we dislike; everything that opposes us; everything that we insist on controlling and changing. We are discontent. The noise of discontentment drowns out the silence and we search, not for silence, but for the constant change that is simply more noise.

Hesychia comes by the quiet of the heart. The noise of the passions, the little thoughts that distract with their condemning and judging voices, will likely continue, regardless of stillness. They are like the sound of the wind or the rustling of leaves – noises in the background that can and should be ignored. Such voices are artifacts, akin to muscle aches and pains: they should not be described as thoughts, per se. The quiet of the heart is found in staying put, blessing whatever situation confronts us. It is possible only because Christ is risen from the dead.

Hesychia is a characteristic of love. When we read that “love is patient and kind” (1Cor. 13:4), we are seeing a description of God Himself (who is Love). Our anxiety and shame cause us to be angry with God (and one another) and despair that He allows the world to be as it is. Hesychia is patient and kind, even to the “evil and the ungrateful” (Luke 6:35).

It generally seems to us that the nature and pace of modern life make stillness impossible. But this is not the case. It is possible to live in a consumerist culture and not be a consumerist. It is possible to live in a culture that is anxious and angry, in need of control and “progress,” and yet be content. To a great extent, the practice of stillness comes by paying attention to what is actually at hand (rather than what we imagine to be at hand) and blessing it.

I have calmed and quieted myself, like a weaned child with its mother. Like a weaned child, I am content.
Shhh. Peace. Be still. It will be alright. God is good.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Film on the life and work of Fr Alexander Men (1935-1990)

I have previously shared with readers the story of Father Alexander Men (1935-1990), an influential parish priest in Russia who wrote, lectured widely, eventually appeared on radio and television and became a nationally known figure. He started the first Russian Sunday-school as soon as the communist persecution ceased, established a university, made a film, and started volunteer work at a children's hospital. He personally baptised thousands, and though he had a huge following of ordinary people he was called “the apostle to the intellectuals.”

He was assassinated in 1990.

I share with you here a short film on his remarkable life and ministry, which contains many pointers for us as we seek to worship the Lord, proclaiming and living the Gospel in the post-Christian West today.

You can go to a website dedicated to Father Alexander Men HERE. Of particular note is the article by Irina Yaziova We are Moving into an Age of Love summarising his life and work.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

God and Man - S. Ephraim the Syrian on the Divine and Human Natures of Christ

“If he was not flesh, 
who was lying in the manger? 
And if he was not God, 
whom did the Angels come down and glorify?”

S. Ephrem wrote many works to teach the Gospel and to defend the Faith of the Incarnation against Arian and Gnostic ideas. He did so with great imagination, making full use of his poetic and musical gifts, often composing poems and songs which the people would sing at home and in the fields while they worked. A number of his poems became part of the liturgy of the Syrian Church. St Ephrem, in fact, became known as the Lyre of the Holy Spirit. His profound love of the Scriptures permeated all his works. He died in 373 A.D., and was proclaimed a Doctor of the Church in 1920.  Those with a bit of extra time will enjoy reading Mary C. Sheridan’s article,  "St Ephrem - Faith Adoring the Mystery.”  

With acknowledgment to Fr Aidan Kimel's blog, I have reproduced here a piece by S. Ephrem the Deacon. Ephrem (or “Ephraem”, or "Ephraim"). was born around 306 AD at Nisbis in the Roman province of Syria, near present-day Edessa, Turkey, not far from the border of Iraq. He became a disciple of S. James, Bishop of Nisibis, and seems to have accompanied him to the Council of Nicea in 325. When Nisibis was conquered by the Persians in 363, Ephrem fled to a remote cave in Edessa where he did most of his writing. We know that he visited S. Basil at Caesarea in 370.

What follows is Ephraim the Syrian on the Divine and Human Natures of Christ, an excerpt from his Homily on the Transfiguration: 

The facts themselves bear witness and his divine acts of power teach those who doubt that he is true God, and his sufferings show that he is true man. And if those who are feeble in understanding are not fully assured, they will pay the penalty on his dread day.

If he was not flesh, why was Mary introduced at all? And if he was not God, whom was Gabriel calling Lord?

If he was not flesh, who was lying in the manger? And if he was not God, whom did the Angels come down and glorify?

If he was not flesh, who was wrapped in swaddling clothes? And if he was not God, whom did the shepherds worship?

If he was not flesh, whom did Joseph circumcise? And if he was not God, in whose honour did the star speed through the heavens?

If he was not flesh, whom did Mary suckle? And if he was not God, to whom did the Magi offer gifts?

If he was not flesh, whom did Symeon carry in his arms? And if he was not God, to whom did he say, “Let me depart in peace”?

If he was not flesh, whom did Joseph take and flee into Egypt? And if he was not God, in whom were words “Out of Egypt I have called my Son” fulfilled?

If he was not flesh, whom did John baptize? And if he was not God, to whom did the Father from heaven say, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased”?

If he was not flesh, who fasted and hungered in the desert? And if he was not God, whom did the Angels come down and serve?

If he was not flesh, who was invited to the wedding in Cana of Galilee? And if he was not God, who turned the water into wine?

If he was not flesh, in whose hands were the loaves? And if he was not God, who satisfied crowds and thousands in the desert, not counting women and children, from five loaves and two fishes?

If he was not flesh, who fell asleep in the boat? And if he was not God, who rebuked the winds and the sea?

If he was not flesh, with whom did Simon the Pharisee eat? And if he was not God, who pardoned the offenses of the sinful woman?

If he was not flesh, who sat by the well, worn out by the journey? And if he was not God, who gave living water to the woman of Samaria and reprehended her because she had had five husbands?

If he was not flesh, who wore human garments? And if he was not God, who did acts of power and wonders?

If he was not flesh, who spat on the ground and made clay? And if he was not God, who through the clay compelled the eyes to see?

If he was not flesh, who wept at Lazarus’ grave? And if he was not God, who by his command brought out one four days dead?

If he was not flesh, who sat on the foal? And if he was not God, whom did the crowds go out to meet with glory?

If he was not flesh, whom did the Jews arrest? And if he was not God, who gave an order to the earth and threw them onto their faces.

If he was not flesh, who was struck with a blow? And if he was not God, who cured the ear that had been cut off by Peter and restored it to its place?

If he was not flesh, who received spittings on his face? And if he was not God, who breathed the Holy Spirit into the faces of his Apostles?

If he was not flesh, who stood before Pilate at the judgement seat? And if he was not God, who made Pilate’s wife afraid by a dream?

If he was not flesh, whose garments did the soldiers strip off and divide? And if he was not God, how was the sun darkened at the cross?

If he was not flesh, who was hung on the cross? And if he was not God, who shook the earth from its foundations?

If he was not flesh, whose hands and feet were transfixed by nails? And if he was not God, how was the veil of the temple rent, the rocks broken and the graves opened?

If he was not flesh, who cried out, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me”? And if he was not God, who said “Father, forgive them”?

If he was not flesh, who was hung on a cross with the thieves? And if he was not God, how did he say to the thief, “Today you will be with me in Paradise”?

If he was not flesh, to whom did they offer vinegar and gall? And if he was not God, on hearing whose voice did Hades tremble?

If he was not flesh, whose side did the lance pierce, and blood and water came out?And if he was not God, who smashed to gates of Hades and tear apart it bonds? And at whose command did the imprisoned dead come out?

If he was not flesh, whom did the Apostles see in the upper room? And if he was not God, how did he enter when the doors were shut?

If he was not flesh, the marks of the nails and the lance in whose hands and side did Thomas handle? And if he was not God, to whom did he cry out, “My Lord and my God”?

If he was not flesh, who ate by the sea of Tiberias? And if he was not God, at whose command was the net filled?

If he was not flesh, whom did the Apostles and Angels see being taken up into heaven? And if he was not God, to whom was heaven opened, whom did the Powers worship in fear and whom did the Father invite to “Sit at my right hand”. As David said, “The Lord said to my Lord, sit at my right hand, etc.”

If he was not God and man, our salvation is a lie, and the words of the Prophets are lies. But the Prophets spoke the truth, and their testimonies were not lies. The Holy Spirit spoke through them what they had been commanded.