Liturgy in the West-part 2

Schmemann, “The Spiritual Problem,” St. Vladimir’s Seminary Quarterly, 1965, Vol. 9, #4, pp. 171-193.

As much as I’ve returned again and again to Schmemann’s work, I’m always frustrated by a certain superficiality in his discussion of the problems of Orthodoxy in America.

On one level, I think he does an admirably job in describing the challenges faced by the Church in America. Where I think his work fall short, and the current article is a good example of this, is his failure to consider the history of Christianity’s growth in America. If he did, he would (hopefully) have seen that the failures or problems of the Church in America are not unique to the Orthodox Church. They are rather common to all those established Churches transplanted to America from the Old World.

Those Christian communities that grew here, grew because, as Schmemann says, they took seriously the human heart’s desire for God. And all these churches were upstart groups. Small, sectarian groups that emphasized personal repentance, a strict moral code, asceticism, rigorous worship and philanthropic commitment. To be sure these largely evangelical Christians had different views from the Orthodox Church about what all these disciplines of Christian life meant. But for all that they frequently preached a rather superficial and often moralizing view of the Gospel and emphasized an emotional style of worship, they did lead people to Christ and did so frequently at the numerical expense of those formerly established Churches.

What I think Schmemann fails to take account of is that the Church in Old World was an established Church. This meant not only that the Church was supported financially by the Empire or the State but that the Church was able to outsource much of her administrative life to the government. You see this today in Greece were (until recently) clergy were not only paid by the government but that the government protected the Church from “competition” from non-Orthodox religions.

Coming to America, and here I think Schmemann is correct, meant Orthodox Christians had to be personally responsible for all the things the State did in the Old World. If as Orthodox Christians we failed, we failed because we weren’t ready to be responsible in this way. It is because we lacked the practical experience that we failed to do all the things necessary to fulfill the Church’s mission to preach the Gospel, worship God and sanctify the whole of human life making it into the sacrament of God’s presence He intended it to be.

Or rather, we didn’t so much fail as were overcome by the myriad practical details that, until recently, were taken care of for the Church by the State. In other words, we—laity, clergy and hierarchs—were not ready for the kind of freedom , to say nothing of responsibility, America offered.

Like other formerly established Churches, religious freedom has been corrosive to the Church. Even seemingly vibrant non-Christian traditions have proven unequally to the task of freedom. It’s worth reflecting on the fact that Muslims lose an even higher percentage of young people than does the Orthodox Church. What does this tell us?

It tells me at least that neither community was ready for responsibility that comes with the freedom America offers us.

Schmemann is right to point out that if our commitment to the Orthodox Church is not personal it will not endure. No matter how beautifully or faithfully or regularly we celebrate the Divine Liturgy and the other services of the Church, if we do not preach personal commitment, if we do not help people grow in their personal commitment to Jesus Christ and the Gospel, we will fail.

Toward the end of his article, Schmemann says it is possible for the Church to exist and even thrive in America but only if we embrace the “deep sense it is freedom that constitutes the only truly ‘American way of life.’” For all their theological shortcomings, this is how early American evangelical Christians were able to take what was, in 1776, a largely unchurched America and make it a vibrant, churched America. As late as the early 20th century, Chesterton was able to truthfully describe America “a nation with the soul of a church”!

So what must we do?

First, we must reject “the superficial and oppressive conformities which have been consistently denounced and castigated by the best Americans of all generations as a betrayal of the American ideal.” In place of this we must help people understand and live out the reality that as Orthodox Christians in America we have both the freedom and “the duty, of choice and critique, of dissent and search.”

It is only in this way, that we can help each other understand that it is in the Church and through the worship of God that each of us can discover the possibility “to be himself.” I become who God has created me to be by being a faithful Orthodox Christian.

If we fail, we fail because we haven’t taken advantage of the opportunities God has given us in planting the Church in countries and cultures in which not only is the Church NOT established but frequently criticized. Or as Schmemann concludes, “there is nothing in the American culture which could prevent the Church from being fully the Church, a parish truly a parish, and it is only by being fully Orthodox that American Orthodoxy becomes fully American” or Ukrainian or German or Mexican or whatever.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Liturgy in the West-part 1

Alexander, Schmemann, “The Liturgical Problem,” St. Vladimir’s Seminary Quarterly, 1964, Vol. 8, #4,  pp. 164-185.

Schmemann concludes his article on the different challenges to the Church’s liturgical life in the West with a bold and frank statement not about liturgy but about the evangelical witness of the Church.

It is in and through liturgy that the Kingdom of God “comes with power” (Mark 9:1)—power to judge and to transform. It is liturgy which, by revealing to men the Kingdom, makes life and history, nature and matter a pilgrimage, an ascension towards the Kingdom. It is liturgy, in short, that is the power, given to the Church, to overcome and destroy all “idols”—and secularism is one of them. But liturgy is all this only if we ourselves accept and use it as power.

Earlier in this same essay, he argues that secularism is not, as we might suppose, the absence of religion or even hostility to religion. Rather it is about a certain, unwholesome “autonomy” from the Gospel.

When we have a secular worldview, we may very well believe that the Gospel “can supply life with ethical standards, with help and comfort.” What secularism excludes, however, is the very possibility of “transform[ing] life into … [the] very content is God and His Kingdom.” And so, the typical Orthodox Christian (priest as well as layperson) believes “in God and in the immortality of the soul, he can pray and find great help in prayer, but once he has entered his office and begun working, this work itself is not even supposed to be ‘referred to’ the fundamental religious realities of Creation, Fall and Redemption, but is indeed ‘self-sufficient’ or autonomous.”

The practical effect of this is that the vast majority of Orthodox Christians go through their days without any awareness of the presence of God in their lives. And without such an awareness, they are incapable of gratitude to God. As a result, they never come to see their lives—with all the accompanying successes and failures, its joys and sorrows, its hopes and frustrations—as they really are: A gift from God given to them not only for their salvation but the salvation of the world.

This is why Schmemann says people come to Liturgy on Sunday (if they come at all since less 30% of us will be there on Sunday) merely to take a break from the daily grind of work and family life. Or maybe, they see Liturgy as the Christian equivalent of a secular “safe place,” a brief retreat from a hostile culture.

In either case, they have no sense that Liturgy (to say nothing of the other services and sacraments of the Church) is the means by which they don’t just offer their lives to God but receive their lives back from Him but not only renewed and transformed. As I mentioned in the January lecture, at the Divine Liturgy, we don’t simply offer our lives to God (“Lift up your hearts to the Lord”!) but at Holy Communion receive that life back transformed by Christ into a share of His life.

I am skeptical of Schmemann’s rosy view of the liturgical of the Church in the patristic era or in traditional Orthodox countries. I’m unconvinced not because I reject his analysis of secularism but because I agree with it.

Schmemann’s analysis of secularism is, I think, the fundamental problem we face as sinners in every age and in every culture. We are always tempted to put God in a box, to limit God’s role in our lives. Think here of the hymn from Matins on Forgiveness Sunday:

Woe to thee, O my wretched soul! Thou hast received authority from God to take thy pleasure in the joys of Eden, but He commanded thee to not eat the fruit of knowledge. Why then hast thou transgressed the law of God? (Ode I)

We fell precisely because we refused to accept with thanksgiving creation and our whole of our life as God’s gift to us.

Instead, and like Adam, we try to re-arrange things according to our own will and for our own purposes. And we do this whether we are Americans or Ukrainians, whether we live in the USA or Europe or any traditional Orthodox country.

Taken together, what does Schmemann’s analysis tell us about the liturgical life of the Church?

Important as it is to celebrate the service well (“Say the black, do the red”!), this isn’t enough. Again, liturgy isn’t magic. To celebrate the services well means to celebrate them with not only with faith and understanding but also with the expectation that through our worship of God we will not only be saved but transformed. This happens because in the Church’s worship we personally encounter Jesus Christ and receive His forgiveness.

And this isn’t simply something that happens to us. Through the liturgy God the transforms and saves the world. In liturgy the creation itself is brought into an ever-greater conformity.

This means not only the material world. The social world—the world of work and family life especially—are transformed in and through the Church’s worship. If all of human life and creation are not renewed, then none of it is renewed and we are not saved.

We are not saved without the renewal of all of creation because human beings are both a microcosm and a macrocosm. To be human means that we are both an image of all creation and that all creation is fulfilled in us.

So, again, what does this mean for the liturgical life of the Church?

We must invest the time and energy need to understand the Church’s worship and what it means to worship God as Orthodox Christians. This means not only that we need to study but pray. Too often priests limit our prayer lives to our celebration of the Divine Liturgy and the other sacraments and services of the Church.

But if I only “pray” in Church, I can be sure of one thing. I don’t really pray at all. As a priest, I must daily, hourly, offer my life to God as a “sacrifice of praise.” Without this, I won’t have the grace needed to help my parishioners be themselves transformed by the Church’s worship.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Liturgy & the Spiritual Fatherhood of the Priest

Let me make a provocative assertion. The priest has nothing of his own and it is only in accepting this that he can hope to have a personally fruitful ministry.

While women are maternal by nature, men are fathers only by analogy. Motherhood—whether biological or spiritual—is inherent in what it means to be a woman. For men, however, paternity (again biological and spiritual) is not intrinsic to their nature.  A man’s fatherhood is a participation in the singular, unique and unrepeatable Fatherhood of God. As we read in Scripture: “Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven” (Matthew 23:9; see also 1 Corinthians 8:6).

Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) is Being as Communion says we call God Father because He is the Source of all. He begets the Son, He spirates (breaths) the Spirit, and He is the Creator of “all things visible and invisible” calling them “from non-existence into being.” In addition, the Father sustains all things in existence by His Word (see Colossians 1:15-18).

A priest’s spiritual fatherhood is not his but a participation (sharing) in the Fatherhood of God. While the priest is not the source of things in the parish (a sadly not uncommon misunderstanding among priests and laity alike), he is responsible for helping people come to know God Who is the source of their lives and the life of the parish. According to St Dionysius the Areopagite this is the work of illumination.  A priest reveals the hidden and unsearchable presence of God in the lives of those he serves (see Jeremiah 33:3).

Dionysius also says that to accomplish this the priest must himself have attained the second of the three stages of the spiritual life: illumination. (The first stage is purification, which is both the requirement for ordination to the diaconate as well as his primary pastoral mission. The third and final stage is theosis, which is both the requirement and mission of the bishop.) It is primarily through his liturgical ministry that the priest fulfills his task to illumine not only the life of the faithful but also events in human society and the nature of creation itself.

Or to say the same thing in a different way, ordination to the priesthood is a call to a prophetic office.

This prophetic ministry is accomplished in and through the words and actions of the various liturgical services of the Church. Through his liturgical ministry, the priest reveals for all to see (include to himself!) the will of God. For example, “the servant of God N is baptized…”; “May God now through me a sinner forgive you…”; and, of course, “take, eat, this is my Body…take drink, this is my Blood.” All of these are prophetic actions in that they reveal or manifest God’s plan to “gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth—in Him” (Ephesians 1:10).

This is why all of the sacraments of the Church include an epiclesis, an invocation of the Holy Spirit. In fact, this invocation of the Spirit is included in all the services in the prayer “O Heavenly King.”

I said above, that the fatherhood of the priest—like the fatherhood of all men—is not his by nature but only by participation in the Fatherhood of God. Likewise, liturgical ministry of the priest is not his. It is rather lent or delegated by the bishop to the priest (this is something which sadly, is not infrequently misunderstood by priests as well as the laity and even at times bishops).

Zizioulas in Eucharist, Bishop, Church points out that in the early Church, the bishop presides at the celebration of the Eucharist. While he stood in the first place (as an icon of God the Father in the Holy Trinity), he did not stand alone. Rather he was surrounded by the presbyters, assisted by the deacons and in the presence of the faithful (who are themselves not only a unique order in the Church but through baptism the first order and foundation on which all subsequent orders are conferred).

The presbyter or priest only took the first place at Liturgy when (for one reason or another) the bishop was unavailable. Especially as the Church grew this would often mean a priest would be sent to an outlying, rural community to celebrate the Eucharist and the other sacraments with them. He was sent because the bishop couldn’t go.

If in the early Church, the priest was not (to use contemporary language) ordained primarily to celebrate the Eucharist, why was he ordained? Zizioulas’s Eucharist, Bishop, Church is helpful here as well.

In addition to the biblical requirements for ordination (see 1 Timothy 3:1-7), it was expected that a candidate for the priesthood have demonstrated as a layman certain abilities (or really, spiritual gift after the pattern in 1 Corinthians 12:28, Romans 12:3-8, Ephesians 4:7-16). Specifically, the man had to be able to teach the Gospel, to offer wise counsel to the bishop to help him govern the church and to prudently and justly administer the wealth of the church.

It was because they demonstrated the ability to teach, counsel and administer in a godly fashion that men were ordained to the priesthood to assist the bishop in governing the local church. And it was because they had demonstrated their fidelity “in what is least” (governance) that they were trusted “in much” (the celebration of the Mysteries) as the need arose (see Luke 16:10).

To go back to what I said at the beginning, the priest has nothing of his own. His spiritual paternity is by participation in the Fatherhood of God. His prophetic office is fulfilled through his faithful celebration of the Divine Liturgy, the sacrament and services of the Church. And in the parishes, he speaks not in his own name but as representatives of the bishop (this is why he can only celebrate the Eucharist on an antimension with the bishop’s signature).

And yet, as St Paul says of himself, though the priest has nothing of his, in Christ he possesses everything (see 2 Corinthians 6:10) in Christ.

If I may offer a final personal word, the more I have come to understand that everything I have and do as a priest is not mine but only entrusted to me, the more I find real joy and peace not only in the liturgical life of the Church but the strength and willingness to meet the many demands and obligations of serving in the parish, teaching at the seminary, ministering to college students and representing the Church in the wider community.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

10 Lies We Tell Ourselves: Where Do We Go From Here?

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago tells us that we should make this our credo, our guiding moral philosophy if you will. “Let the lie come into the world, let it even triumph. But not through me.”

We’ve looked at 10 lies that Orthodox Christians tell ourselves. Maybe you agree with me about all 10. Or maybe you only think I got a few right. Or maybe you think I’m just wrong on all 10.

None of this matters!

What does matter is that you commit to not lying, to not doing what you know to be morally wrong.

This isn’t being passive. It rather to trust what St Gregory Palamas teaches

…the wise providence of God orders our affairs in many different ways and lovingly bestows on each one of us what is appropriate and profitable both for virtuous deeds and the mysteries of faith (Staying to the End of the Divine Services).

When I tell what I know to be a lie or do what I know to be morally wrong, I am rejecting “the wise providence” of God in my own life and in the lives of those around me.

But if I abstain for saying what I know is untrue, if I abstain from doing what I know to be morally wrong, then I make room in my life for the grace of God.

Building on this grace, we must foster in each other a sense of personal commitment to Christ and personal responsibility for the work of not just the parish but the Church in America.

The late Metropolitan Anthony (Bloom) of Surouzh, has said that this “means … working with [people] as a gardener would with flowers or other plants. He has to know the soil, the nature of the plant, the climactic or other conditions they are set in, and only then can he help. And help is all he can do because one or another plant can only grow into what it should be by nature.”

What the must we do?

We must commit ourselves to helping each other grow in our love for Christ. When we do this not only will we grow in our love for Christ, we will also grow in our love for each other.  Against this love, nothing can stand.

In my own view, what we need are more active lay ministries like AOC. While it is a good start, what we need, what I think God is asking of His Church in America, is for ALL Orthodox Christians to take seriously their personal call to follow Christ as His disciples and witnesses.

For a fuller explanation of this point, for the rest of my talk, and the Q&A that followed:

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Lies We Tell Ourselves #10: “A personal relationship with Jesus is a PROTESTANT idea!”

Evangelical Christians have certainly run with the idea of a “personal relationship” with Jesus Christ but this doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

Together with baptism, a personal relationship with Jesus Christ is the starting point of our life in Christ. This means that when we are asked by our Evangelical friends and neighbors “Have you accepted Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior?” our should be to say—truthfully—“Yes!”

But remember, this is the first step and the first step isn’t invalid because it is only a beginning.

Think of it this way.

A toddler says “Mommy I love you!” This no less valid, no less true because when that same child, now as an adult, says “It’s okay mom, you don’t need to hang on anymore. Go be with dad. Mommy, I love you!”

All starting points are deficient because they are the first step. But without that first step, our relationship God can’t blossom. We can’t grow and mature in our Christian life until we take that first step and enter into a relationship with Jesus Christ.

“From this time forth, from this hour, from this minute, let us love God above all.” St Herman of Alaska

For a fuller explanation of this and for the rest of my talk:

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Lies We Tell Ourselves #9: “But my priest is my spiritual father!”

It’s better to think of your priest not as a spiritual father along the monastic lines but as a coach. Yes, the problem we ALL suffer is we are willful but the solution is not to become will-less (i.e., “obedient”) but willing.

We need to become ever more willing and able to say “YES!” to God’s will for our lives.

In this process, our parish priest through celebrating the services, through preaching, teaching, in confession and by the example of his life is there to help us discern God’s will for our lives and then to help us fulfill that will.

But, as a priest, I can’t do this without your participation. This means more than just you, personally, coming to talk with me. To do my job as your coach, I need EVERYBODY to suit up and take to the field.

We must ALL want to know and do the will of God for our lives and we must ALL want to help each other discern and fulfill what God wants from each of us personally.

For a fuller explanation of this and for the rest of my talk:

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Lies We Tell Ourselves #8: “Well, all I really need to do is be obedient to my priest!

Let me be blunt, most Orthodox priests have little or no training in pastoral counseling or psychotherapy. Much less do must of us have any substantial preparation as spiritual fathers.

This is important because, in the hands of an inexperienced or ill-prepared priest, obedience is a recipe for great and lasting harm for the layperson, the parish and the priest himself.

So if obedience isn’t a good idea, what do we owe to our priest?

I think we owe our priest–or at least I want as a priest–is not obedience but deference. What do I mean by deference?

In the absence of compelling evidence to the contrary, I think the priest should get his way in the day-to-day administration of the parish. Why is this?

Simply because when things go south, the priest is the one who has to deal with the mess. This doesn’t mean the parish council and the parishioner don’t have a role to play. It just means that, as a rule, it is the pastor who has to keep track of things.

And in our daily lives, in our spiritual lives, what do we owe the priest? We should give due consideration to what our priest tells us. By his education and his role in the community, the priest often has insights into the spiritual life that we don’t have. But this doesn’t mean he should have the last word in our lives.

Does this mean we shouldn’t be obedient? God forbid we think this!

We must be obedient but we owe our obedience first to God, then to conscience, and finally to the Tradition of Church. And priest? His vocation is to help guide us as we learn to be obedient Orthodox Christians.

For a fuller explanation of this and for the rest of my talk:

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory




Lies We Tell Ourselves #7: “But, we called to interiorized monasticism!”

Monastic life is NOT the foundation of the Church marriage and family life are. In fact, monastic life–like the Church itself–is modeled after the family.

This means that we need are strong marriages which in turn can be the foundation of strong families. And it is from healthy expressions of marriage and family life that we can have strong, healthy parishes, dioceses, local Churches and, yes, monasteries.

St Ignatius of Antioch is a help here:

Do not err, my brothers. Those that corrupt families shall not inherit the kingdom of God. If, then, those who do this in regard to the flesh have suffered death, how much more shall this be he case with anyone who corrupts the faith of God, for which Jesus Christ was crucified, by wicked doctrine? Such a person, becoming defiled, shall go away into everlasting fire and so shall everyone that listens to him (St Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Ephesians 16).

Simply put, we corrupt families and parishes, when we make monastic life the model for our life in Christ.

For a fuller explanation of this and for the rest of my talk:

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Lies We Tell Ourselves #6: “Salvation is Therapeutic Not Legalistic!”

Unfortunately, Orthodox Christians tend to overemphasize the therapeutic nature of salvation at the expense of our own moral and legal tradition. 

This is unfortunate because Holy Tradition is deeper, broader and richer than that can be captured in a slogan.

We have a rich, legal tradition. Not only canon law to govern the internal life of the Church but also of legal theory to guide the Church in its relationship with the State. We also have well-developed moral theology that offers Orthodox Christians objective moral standards on which to base our lives.  

To all this, we have an ascetical and liturgical tradition that seeks to heal the soul of the consequences of sin, foster a life of Christian virtue and deepen our relationship with God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. But none of this makes any sense if we neglect our moral and legal tradition.

The other reasons these traditions matter is that as Orthodox Christians “therapeutic” means something very different than as we use the term today. Among other things, this means that priests are not psychotherapists in the same way as secular mental health professionals.

Finally, we need to remember that as important as it is, fidelity to the Tradition of the Church doesn’t exempt the person from the laws of human development or an evident need for psychological counseling.

For a fuller explanation of this and for the rest of my talk:

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Video: 10 Lies Orthodox Christians Tell Ourselves

Here’s the video of my talk earlier this month in Grand Rapids. It was sponsored by the Alliance of Orthodox Christians, a non-profit Orthodox lay ministry devoted to lay spiritual formation and catechesis.

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