Tag Archives: St Sophia Orthodox Seminary

Learning to Be Made New

As the Church grew and went from being an outlawed sect to a religion favored by the Empire, a problem arose. What was the Church going to do with those Christians who apostatized during the recently ended persecutions?

Added to this was the challenge that emerged as the Church began to baptized more and more people. While many of the newly baptized were sincere in their faith it also became clear that more than a few became Christian to gain a social advantage. As result, there were Christian who after baptism committed very serious sins such as fornication, adultery, and even murder.

So like with those who apostatized the question arose: What is the Church to do with those Christians who fell into very serious sins?

One approach was simply to say that those who fell from grace were condemned and could not be reconciled. This was based on a text in St John’s First Epistle:

If anyone sees his brother sinning a sin which does not lead to death, he will ask, and He will give him life for those who commit sin not leading to death. There is sin leading to death. I do not say that he should pray about that (1 John 5:16).

Since reconciliation wasn’t possible if they committed serious sin, many catechumens (maybe most famously, St Augustine) would wait until late in life before being baptized. The thinking was as the person got older he or she was less likely to fall into serious sin. Or more cynical view was that we ought to have our fun when we were young and repent when it was time to settle down.

There is a parallel here with how we see young adults falling away from the Church is clear. “Don’t worry, they’ll come back when they want to get married and start a family.”

But delaying baptism so that people would sin in their youth with the expectation that when they were older they could repent and go to heaven isn’t the Gospel. As you can imagine, this resulted in the faithful becoming laxer as a group. So rather than solving the problem, not reconciling those who fell into serious sin actually made the problem worse!

Again, we see this with our tolerance of young adults dropping out of the church of a season. It signals that the Gospel is optional. But if the Gospel is optional, it isn’t true so, why bother coming back? Not surprisingly, more and more young adults are NOT coming back as the ranks of those with no religious affiliation (the “Nones”) continues to grow.

Reflecting on the power the apostles received on Pascha to forgive sins (see John 20:19-25), the Church slowly came to the awareness that even serious committed after baptism sins could be forgiven. It was from this awareness that the sacrament of confession (or penance) develops.

Most of us, thank God, don’t commit “sins unto death.” This, however, doesn’t mean we don’t commit other less serious sins. And all of us have bad habits and tendencies that if left unchecked will lead us to fall away from Christ and the Church.

Like a failed marriage, our relationship with Christ doesn’t just end out the blue. Our friendship with Christ fades away from neglect. Very few of the “Nones” are hostile to Christianity. They are simply indifferent.

This is where confession becomes important.

Confession is the sacrament that strengthen us. Like all the sacraments of the Church, it is a work of the Holy Spirit. And, like all the other works of the Holy Spirit, confession transform us, helps us become more fully the person God has created us to be.

But our transformation doesn’t happen overnight but slowly over time.

This is why I stress with penitents that we need to think about confession as a skill. It’s something we need to learn how to do and this takes time and practice.

Not only does the penitent need to learn how to examine his or her conscience and make a good confession, the priest needs to get to know us, know our strengths and weakness, or natural talent and spiritual gifts, the ways in which we typically stumble and how we respond to failure as well as success.

In other words, I say to people, you need to learn how to go to confession and I need to learn how to hear your confession. And we can only do this together.

This means that in confession priest and penitent need to get to know and, more importantly, to trust each other. Above all, they need to learn how to stand together before Christ and ask for His wisdom and mercy.

This means, and this has been my experience as a priest, confession doesn’t just change the penitent, it changes the priest.

This is what makes confession a great adventure! Just as the priest has an important role to play in helping us follow Christ as His disciple and witness, we have a role to play in helping the priest become a more faithful disciple and witness.

Confession, in other words, is never simply about my sin. It is rather part of our shared journey as brothers and sisters in Christ. Yes, we each have our own role. But priest and penitent need each other and neither can be who they are called to be in Christ without the other.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Am I Ready to Be Made New?

What are we to make of the Eucharist?

The great theological debates in the West are certainly interesting. And contrary to what we sometimes might think, they aren’t wholly without value for us as Orthodox Christians. It can be helpful for us to remember, that at least through Reformation, Christians East and West, Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant (Lutherans and Calvinists) all agreed that the Eucharist is the Body and Blood of Christ. Yes, we debated among ourselves how bread and wine became the Body and Blood of Christ but we all agreed that there was a change.

These theological debates, however, rarely matter all that much to most people. What does matter is what it means to receive Holy Communion?

In many parishes, it isn’t uncommon for very few—if any—people to receive Holy Communion. In other parishes though, it seems as if it is expected that everyone receives. Neither of these extremes is helpful. We don’t want to make receiving Holy Communion a rare occurrence. But neither do we want to take receive the Body and Blood of our Lord something we take for granted.

So, what can we do to help especially children and young adults understand the Eucharist?

I find the best thing to do is to have children look at the text of the Divine Liturgy. Ask them what they think it means, for example, when the priest says “Take, eat this is My Body broken for you for the forgiveness of sins”?

Or later when he says “Send your Holy Spirit down up us and upon these gifts…”

We hear several things here simultaneously.

Yes, we are sinners but Jesus comes and dies for us sinners.

And yes, the bread and wine are transformed in the Divine Liturgy but so are we.

It is the rare child who doesn’t grasp that he or she is a sinner. Even if they are too young to understand theologically, even young children know that they can hurt others or that they can disappoint their parents or fight with their siblings.

We need not only help children understand how they fail but also about what it might mean to be transformed. Ask them what they think it means to be not just a sinner but forgiven? And not just forgiven but transformed?

The heart of the matter is, is that in the Eucharist Jesus doesn’t just forgive us but transforms us, makes us new. This is something we often overlook. One of the reasons Liturgy can seem boring and repetitive is because we don’t think about it as God coming to transform us.

With older children, say middle school and up, I will ask them to think about what it means when the priest tells us to “Lift up your hearts.” He doesn’t tell us to praise God or thank God. Much less does he say we need to be happy or sad. He simply says that we are to lift up our hearts. We are to offer our to God whatever is in our heart at that moment.

For older children especially, the idea that in the Eucharist we offer ourselves to God and that we do this together with Jesus can be a powerful insight. Just as God accepts Jesus, He accepts us, He accepts me.

And God’s acceptance and love is dependent on what might be going on in my life at any moment. God wants my bored, irritated heart as much as He wants my joyful, thankful heart.

And not only does God accept each of us as we are, in Holy Communion He gives us back to ourselves but when He does, we are changed. Remember, it isn’t just bread and wine that are transformed, we are too.

When we receive the Eucharist, together with Christ we receive our own lives as well but as they have been made new by grace. This is what we are preparing to do when we celebrate the Eucharist and this is what we do when we receive Holy Communion.

So, the question becomes (for all of us) how do we prepare ourselves to be made new in Christ? That’s the question that we are asked every time we participate in the Divine Liturgy and every time—“with the fear of God and with faith”—we come forward to receive Holy Communion.

Am I ready to be made new?

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Almsgiving & Manual Labor

When we discuss the ascetical life, we’re generally pretty comfortable with prayer and fasting. In fact, not all that uncommon for Orthodox Christians to brag about the length of our services and the strictness of our fasting–even if we, personally, don’t attend the lenten service or keep the fast all that closely!

But in the tradition of the Church, asceticism isn’t simply prayer and fasting. Almsgiving and manual labor are (or should be) essential ascetical disciplines.

Building on the sacraments, the goal of the ascetical life is to restore us to the beauty we had in the Garden before the Fall of our first Parents. To borrow from the Canon of St Andrew that’ll we’ll hear soon, asceticism is meant to lift from my heart the “heavy burden” of sin and reveal “the beauty of my original image” created to reflect God’s glory.

Asceticism liberates us and makes us beautiful!

Like I said, we usually limit our conversation about asceticism to prayer and fasting and neglect almsgiving and manual labor. But we should introduce young people all four ascetical disciplines. Why do I say this?

Through prayer and fasting, I reshape my heart and make it more sensitive and responsive to God’s grace. The ascetical disciplines of manual labor and almsgiving allow me to shape the world around me and my relationship with others— including the poor— in a manner that reflects Christ. Just as prayer and fasting sanctify soul and body, almsgiving and manual labor are the means by which I sanctify the material world and therefore human society as well.

Look at the desert fathers. What did those great ascetics do?

They would often live in places where they had access to palm leaves. The monks would weave these leaves into mats and baskets while they prayed, then sell their handiwork to support themselves. Whatever was not needed to meet their own, minimal expenses would be given to the poor. So for these first monks, prayer, fasting, almsgiving and manual labor, all work together.

Introducing young people to almsgiving and manual labor helps them understand that they can, personally, make a contribution that helps others.

Asking young people to work is very different than asking young people to raise money through raffles or selling candy. Asking them to work to raise money to help those in need communicates to them there is something noble to work.

It also can help young people understand that beyond meeting our own needs, work is something we do for others. I don’t just work to make my life better; I work to make your life better as well.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

The Jesus Prayer

When I talk with people about their spiritual lives I often come away with the impression that they don’t think praying counts unless it hurts. So many of us think we need to stand at attention to pray; so many of us undermine our own spiritual lives because we act like a soldier on guard duty rather than like a small child on our Father’s lap.

This anxiety about prayer isn’t helpful. “Prayer,” says St Isaac the Syrian, “is a joy that gives way to thanksgivings.” As we cultivate inner stillness, we become aware of the presence of God in our lives and the myriad small blessings He has bestowed on us. So how can we begin to pray?

I like to teach young people to say the Jesus Prayer.

St Porphyrios says that “There’s no need for any special concentration in order to say the Jesus Prayer.” He goes on to say that the Jesus Prayer “doesn’t require any effort if you have love of God.” What make the Jesus Prayer especially valuable for young people is that, as the saint says, it is a prayer you can say “Wherever you are, on a stool, a chair, in a car, anywhere, on the road, at school, in the office, at work, you can say the prayer: ‘Lord Jesus Christ have mercy upon me’.”

Prayer requires silence and silence requires privacy. So we first need to help young people a cultivate a healthy sense of privacy, of being alone. In time, and by God’s grace, privacy grows into solitude—of being alone with God.

And with solitude comes a sense of atonement of being of “at one”-ment, of being reconciled with God in and through the Person of Jesus Christ.

But being alone, and especially being alone without distractions can be hard for all of us but especially for young people.

When I’m alone my thoughts tend to intrude. At first, my thoughts are pleasant, or at least not unwelcome. But very quickly they turn morbid. I recall past sins—mine or my neighbors—and I’m tempted to forget that God is man befriending and easy to be entreated.

The more we focus on human sinfulness, the more we forget that God loves us. This is why in the Jesus Prayer I ask Christ for mercy BEFORE I confess my sinfulness: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”

It is in that last phrase, “a sinner” that my solitude opens up to embrace all humanity. I’m not “the” sinner, much less the only sinner. I am “a” sinner surrounded by sinners and all forgiven by the mercy of God.

This doesn’t mean that we don’t have our struggles. It doesn’t mean that we don’t fail or aren’t at times treated unjustly.  What it does mean, is that we need to help young people experience God’s love for them. This is a great blessing of the Jesus Prayer.

In teaching, young people the Jesus Prayer (or really any form of prayer) need to remember what we heard from St Porphyrios

There’s no need for any special concentration in order to say the Jesus Prayer. It doesn’t require any effort if you have love of God. Wherever you are, on a stool, a chair, in a car, anywhere, on the road, at school, in the office, at work, you can say the prayer: ‘Lord Jesus Christ have mercy upon me’.

So, I’ve included for your consideration, a short video about the Jesus Prayer that might make a good introduction for young people. How might we go about helping young people learn to cultivate silence and begin to including the Jesus Prayer in their own spiritual lives?

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory