Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Making an Important Acquaintance

Reflections by Brother Luke

            We recently celebrated the Feast of Pentecost, which brings the Paschal season to a close. Connected with that feast is the celebration of the Holy Trinity, since Pentecost marks the coming of the Holy Spirit and sometimes is referred to as the birthday of the church. Since the Trinity is the centerpiece of both of these feasts, the liturgical texts and scriptural readings for the octave (8 day) celebration highlight this theme, and both the Pentecost and Trinity icons will be prominently displayed in the church. From Genesis 18:1-8 we read about the Lord appearing to Abraham at the Oak of Mamre. This text is often pointed to as the source for the Trinity icon, which shows three figures around a table with the head of the calf in the center on the serving dish. Of note is the care taken in preparing to receive these visitors.

            In 2002, we had to prepare for an important visitor as well. Our Church had recently elected a new Metropolitan as head of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA). Since New Skete is a Stavropegial Institution, which means we are administratively located under (the cross of) the Metropolitan of our church, this meant that we had a new bishop to report to. Metropolitan Herman, formerly Archbishop for Eastern Pennsylvania and Abbot of St. Tikhon’s Monastery, was now our immediate superior in the church administration, and he had never visited New Skete. We did have one connection. Brother John had known Metropolitan Herman from his youth because their families knew each other in Pittsburgh. But other than that, the relationship between New Skete and Metropolitan Herman was tabula rasa. We wanted to be sure as best we could that we began writing on this clean slate in as positive a way as possible.

            We discussed this upcoming meeting in Synaxis and decided to write a document for the Metropolitan describing our community’s life and history.  To do this we organized ourselves into several working groups to write the report. The topics included New Skete’s mission, values, monasticism, liturgy, and work. Each topic was addressed by a separate group, and throughout this process we were to keep in mind that we wanted to convey to our bishop our charism, the values we cherish and the manner in which they are lived in our communal life. Each drafting group worked on its own section, and the Synaxis reviewed the entire final document.

            Over the previous months we had been engaged in very serious and intense discussions about all these issues, with a variety of viewpoints emerging on many of them. When we came together to review this final compilation, we were surprised to see that we had produced a document that we could all agree to without major changes. We surprised ourselves. We also surprised the Metropolitan. He and the chancellor joined us in our classroom for the presentation. A member of each group rose to give the presentation for each section of the report. And at the end we gave him a bound copy of all the texts. He was astonished but also pleased. For us, one of the most memorable moments was when we discussed the nature of the relationship between our communities and the Metropolitan, and he asked us how we would describe it. We gave him a copy of our Typicon and referred him to the passage that dealt with this issue, and he was completely satisfied with what it said.

            Up to that moment, we had been on a bumpy road in our relations with the central church over a number of issues. However, this open discussion and our honest representation of our community’s life and vision, together with Metropolitan Herman’s pastoral concern for us and his willingness to engage with us, put these issues to rest. The preparation for this meeting was the key. Holding the meeting in an atmosphere of respect and openness was also critical. Indeed, the image of the Trinity is unmistakable in all this. Just as Abraham prepared for his visitors and showed them respect, the Trinity itself is an image of mutual respect and love. It is good that each year the church gives us this feast to remind us of this lesson.

The Man Born Blind

by Sister Cecelia

The Man born blind 5 17 15 1 Pt 3:13-22, Ac 9:32-43, Jn 9: 1-39

We just heard the evangelist refer to the believers as Saints. The Greek word Hagios is frequently translated ‘holy’, but the root of the word means different. The Hebrew people were different set apart from the other people of this world. They were chosen to do the work of God. The Hagios are specifically a holy people. They are a different people chosen for the special purposes of God. Christians became the people who are different. That difference does not give us greater honor or prestige but does require of us a greater service. What might that service be? The greatest service we can give is to be the saint we are meant to be. A saint is someone whose life makes it easier for others to believe in God. Are we a living example of Jesus in how we live?

In Acts this morning, we witnessed that Peter did not say I heal you, but Jesus Christ heals you. And when he approached Tabitha he prayed for her to be healed. He did not say “be healed.”Anything we achieve comes from God. We need to give serious thought to what in Jesus we are striving daily to imitate. We believe many things about the Christ, about our God. Give some thought to why those things are believed. We believe in many mysteries of our faith. Think about why we believe them.

There are many things about Jesus which are not mysteries, many things about goodness, that we believe. Take the time to examine why you think they are true and why others might think so. For your own sake and for the sake of others who might someday ask why your belief, it is good to ponder these things. Be open to the Spirit when considering them. Reflecting on these things will help us to remember that we are grace-bearing creatures, commanded to be the salt of the earth and to be a light for those around us. If we obey this divine command of service offered to our community, lovingly, patiently, gently, through prayer, kindness, integrity, fidelity and all the rest that goes with being witnesses of Christ, healing will come through us to others.

If our hearts are set on earthly things, possessions, pleasure, good health, prestige, ease and comfort we are very vulnerable to unhappiness. Any of those things can be lost at any moment.

If the relationship with God is of the highest priority, our blessedness is secure. Even when we are suffering we can remember to unite our own suffering with Jesus’s sufferings and can attain peace. Sometimes we might be suffering because of less than smart decisions we have made, sometimes it is just due to the human condition. None of these sufferings can touch that which matters most –our union(relationship) with God.

We can often find ourselves stumbling in this world as if we were blind. We grasp and search for truth and wisdom in so many places, usually not seeing Jesus himself right in front of us. if we would focus our life on Christ and keep our minds focused on the one needful thing then we would see, we could affirm as did the blind man, “Lord, I believe.” Let us pray that Christ will illumine the way to that pearl of great price.—the source of all.

Christ is risen!!

Our faith is not a body of written down beliefs but a living example of Jesus in our life.

A Visit from Abroad

By Brother Stavros

On Pentecost Monday, New Skete had the honor of a visit from the 103rd Archbishop of Canterbury, now Lord George Carey, and his wife, Lady Eileen. They were here in the area to be with the Community of St. Mary, who have a convent near Greenwich and are celebrating the 150th anniversary of their founding, and Mother Miriam, their superior, was eager to show the archbishop their monastic neighbors. The party included Fanuel Magangani, Anglican Bishop of Northern Malawi, from central Africa, and two other nuns from St. Mary’s.

They stopped first at Our Lady of the Sign Monastery, where Sister Cecelia, prioress, showed them around the sisters’ monastery. They were very taken with the cheesecake bakery!

On arriving at Holy Wisdom church at New Skete, the monks and nuns sang some Pentecost hymns as the two bishops were led by Brother Christopher, prior and priest-monk, into the altar, where they venerated the Holy Table.

Brother Christopher gave a brief welcome, and Lord Carey responded, noting with pleasure the depiction of his predecessor, Archbishop Michael Ramsey, who with Popes John XXIII and Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras I of Constantinople worked boldly for the reconciliation of the historic Christian Churches. New Skete intoned the customary “Many Years,” then Brother Stavros gave the visitors a detailed tour of the temple. The party, escorted by the monastics, continued the tour through the monastery library and residence.

The archbishop’s party and monastics, Orthodox and Anglican, assembled informally in the trpapeza (dining room) for some refreshment and fellowship.

Lord Carey spoke of his frequent contacts with various Orthodox Churches during his tenure, and he remembered fondly a pilgrimage of 1,000 Anglican youth he led to Taizé.

Some of the German Shepherds mingled with the guests to add their furry welcome.

The visit, coinciding with Pentecost on the Orthodox calendar, made the scripture and hymnology of the feast more poignant, for they bid us to be reconciled through the power of the Holy Spirit, and reconciliation begins with hospitality and mutual love and understanding.

When God most high confused our human tongues, this divided all the nations. But, in sending forth to Christ’s friends parted tongues of flame, he called together all humankind, that with one accord, we might worship his all-holy Spirit. (Kondakion of the feast)

Bad News, Good News, Three Prayers

By Brother Stavros

The recent shooting of church members gathered in the sacred precincts of their historic church for a Bible Study session is yet another episode of hate, intolerance, and violence that afflicts our culture with frightening regularity. For the victims and their friends and families, for the city of Charlestown, we pray:

Be patient, Lord, with our slowness to repent; dispel our blindness to human need and suffering and our indifference to injustice and cruelty; save us from false judgments and prejudice and from contempt for those who differ from us, for all of us are your children; we beseech you, hear us and have mercy.
We cannot exclude the perpetrator from our prayers, that he may find repentance and forgiveness, and not serve as an incitement to others:

Merciful Savior, move us to new and creative efforts to uproot all traces of hatred, arrogance, lust for power, and fanatical absolutes, beginning with whatever lurks in the hidden corners of our own minds and hearts. Lead us to true justice that is tempered by humility and honesty, and grant the world the compassion for one another and the peace that comes from your heavenly Father through you in the Holy Spirit.
And the good news was that Pope Francis took the courageous position to remind all of us that stewardship of the earth is our joint moral responsibility, superseding all politics, financial advantage, and notions of entitlement. He stressed that action is imperative now if we are to avoid suffering which will fall disproportionately on the poor and disadvantaged the world over.

In our Orthodox communion Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople has been outspoken, and his commitment to environmental activism is deeply serious, earning him the nickname the Green Patriarch. He has preached that caring for the environment is a religious imperative, and for more than a decade, he has made a point of bringing together theologians and scientists like Dr. Jane Goodall for debates and briefings.

In September 2012 he published a strongly worded encyclical calling on all Orthodox Christians to repent “for our sinfulness” in not doing enough to protect the planet. Biodiversity, “the work of divine wisdom,” was not granted to humanity to abuse it, he wrote; human dominion over the earth does not mean the right to greedily acquire and destroy its resources. He singled out “the powerful of this world,” saying that “they need a new mindset to stop destroying the planet for profit or short-term interest.” (Marlise Simons, New York Times, December 3, 2012).

In acknowledgement of these efforts by His Holiness, the Patriarch, his emissary, Metropolitan John Zizoulas, gave an address at the Vatican news conference that coincided with the publication of the pope’s encyclical, entitled “Laudato Si,” on June 18 of this year. And for this we offer a final prayer:

Hear us, O God our Savior, the hope of the very ends of the earth and of those far beyond the seas. Though we all miss the mark in many ways, we have come to know and to believe in the love you have for us. Pardon our transgressions. Reconcile us and unite us more firmly to you. For our waste and pollution of your creation and our lack of concern for those who come after us, forgive us in your love, ever-merciful Lord, and have mercy on us all.

Journal Review: The Wheel

by Brother Stavros

The Wheel is a journal of Orthodox Christian thought. Its mission is to articulate the Gospel in and for the contemporary world. By embracing contributions on Orthodox theology, spirituality, and liturgical arts alongside serious engagements with the challenges of contemporary political ideologies, empirical science, and cultural modernism, The Wheel aims to move beyond the polarizations of much current debate in the Orthodox Church. The journal is intended to be of general interest to a wide circle of readers. It will appear on a quarterly basis in both printed and electronic formats, along with an accompanying website.

What a breath of fresh air. The journal is inviting in its shape and feel and, once opened, spiritually enticing. It was hard to pick which article to read first. I settled on "They Never Met" by Sergei Chapnin. It was a good litmus test of the quality of this publication. I applaud the honesty and the clarity of the piece; it is like an ecclesiastical "emperor's new clothes" parable. Even as a distant observer, with insights gleaned from other insiders' candid observations, the conclusions of "They Never Met" ring tragically true. The author assays the Putin–Patriarch cooperation, from the Pussy Riot incident down to the blood-letting in Ukraine (unfortunately not envisioned in Chapnin's piece): "the price of that partnership…is unthinkably high,"  and adds the lament that "the Church opted to borrow the lens from the State" rather than the lens of the Gospel. One might ask, where is an Ambrose, a Philip, a Tikhon?
            Of course, we here in America, preparing for approach of the OCA's All-American Council, should ask this same question. I found Father Arida's reflections, “How to Expand the Mission” as honest and forthright as the above, and in many ways they speak to the same question. His is an invitation to avoid the Russian quagmire of tradition-at-all-cost, as well as the American posture, also hankering for a state partnership characteristic of Christian fundamentalism, wherein "the biblical, patristic, and liturgical pillars of our tradition are being toppled by a hermeneutic that precludes dialogue, nuance, and change."

My hope is that The Wheel is able to stay the course, provoke thought and metanoia, dialogue and inspiration. I feel considerably cheered in mind and soul by its timely arrival.