Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Double Adventure is About to Begin!

by Brother Luke

A big thank you to all who responded last month with names beginning with F for my new puppy. I must admit that I was leaning towards Fritz, which several people mentioned. But in the end, I decided to name this boy Fintas. I picked the name for its sound, not for its meaning. In Arabic, it means water tank. If he ends up being a big boy, then maybe tank will fit. Of course, you can find meanings for Fintas beyond size, as one friend commented:

“Fintas!  It's an honorable name—after all, water tanks are sturdy, reliable, and often life giving! I look forward to getting to know him, and Mishka's little female.  Every new dog is a new adventure.” 

So, it’s Fintas. Finty or Finn for short. I often call my dogs by a variety of names, which is probably contrary to proper protocol. Even so, it’s how it works out for me. So, Shems is often Shemsi and Kahn is Kahn-man or Kahn-ster. Sometimes it’s just Mister Kahn. Well, you get the idea.

            And yes, there is another puppy in my near future. One of the females from the Mishka litter. Those pups are three weeks younger than Fintas, but soon that won’t matter. We haven’t decided which female puppy we will keep. There are five to choose from. The litter carried the letter “I” so the name for the girl will begin with an I. And I already have the name in mind: Iris. She will continue the line from Bella, through Raisa and Mishka. Years ago, I raised two pups from the same litter. That was also an "I" litter, and their names were Iris and Iraj. Neither one made the program in the end. I think Iris had a structural issue, and Iraj ended up with too many allergies. He just passed away a few months ago.

Four of the five of Mishka's girls

Taking on two new puppies means that my girls Jaci and Shems will go to others: Jaci to Sister Cecelia, whose dog Panja was retired, and Shems to Brother Thomas, whose girl Bora is being retired (she doesn’t produce sufficient milk). Bora just had a litter of four puppies, but with no milk we had to use another bitch to nurse them. We lost one Bora puppy because we didn't realize her milk was insufficient until too late. We normally weigh the pups on day three, but the puppy died during the night before day three. Jaci was nursing a litter of seven puppies, so in this emergency, we used her to help nurse Bora’s remaining three puppies. Fortunately, Jaci always produces plenty of milk. Raisa was also due to give birth, but as it turned out she had only one puppy, and it died of complications before birth. So, we transferred Bora's puppies to Raisa, who accepted them as her own. We were lucky she did. All those puppies are now doing fine.

In addition to raising the two puppies from the previous “I” litter, I also raised two puppies from two proximate litters: Raisa and Qamar. Qamar did not make the program; Raisa did, but she is now about to be retired. So, taking on new puppies also often means saying good-bye to other dogs. However, my Kahn remains the constant in my canine life. Even so, he is beginning to show his age. He's nine, and he is feeling the arthritis in his joints a bit. Otherwise he is doing OK. Soon he may not think so, however, when these puppies enter into his life. The book on Kahn is that he really doesn’t like puppies. The fact that Fintas is Kahn’s son means nothing to him. And of course, Iris will just be one more troublesome annoyance. Once they grow up a bit and can be playmates, then his attitude will change. As the months unfold I will give updates on how my two new charges are doing. I am already spending some personal time with Fintas and even introduced Kahn to his son. In a couple of weeks, when the boy moves in and the puppy crate appears in my room, the adventure will really begin.  If that doesn’t shake up Kahn, three weeks later Iris will! But Iris will also have Fintas to torment so Kahn may see Finty as his friend in this new troika. But we are getting ahead of ourselves….

A warning for Kahn?

Monday, June 26, 2017

In Memoriam: Patriarch Lubomyr (Husar), Primate of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, died on May 31 at age 84. +Memory Eternal

By Brother Stavros

Tragically, there are many crisis zones simmering or flaring around the globe. Ukraine at the moment is simmering: a young country, as nation-states go, with many centuries of border shifts and what we now term occupation. It has a proud history uncomfortably shared with Russia. Both nations emerged from 12th and 13th century Rus’ as a fusion of South Slavic and North Viking tribes. Kiev (Kyiv) is its capital on the banks of the Dnieper River.

The penetration of Christianity was a momentous pivot in European history. Kievan Rus’ quickly became a commonwealth of culture and commerce as well as a citadel of education and monastic spirituality. Western Europe, by comparison, was just emerging from the Dark Ages.

Some weeks ago at Pentecost this bruised nation mourned the passing of the “spiritual father of today’s Ukraine.”

We ourselves remember him. His Beatitude (also known as Cardinal Husar) was born in Lviv. It is important to remember him in this context. He lived as an exile in Austria and then in the United States. When he was appointed Major Archbishop, he was able to bring a democratic breeze to a country stricken by about 40 years of Soviet propaganda. When Cardinal Husar spoke, he was able to speak with the authority of those who have experience in the world. Everyone recognized it, whether they were believers or non-believers, Roman Catholics or Orthodox.

Taxi drivers, hipsters, the young and old, business persons and artists, practicing parishioners and those who were not members of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church listened to Husar’s audio and video broadcasts. The cardinal contributed to rapprochement between Ukrainians, Poles, and Jews. He dreamed of the end of the war and peace with Russia.
But above all, he was a man of prayer, a monk thirsting for communion with God. As a priest, archimandrite, and hierarch, he prayed ceaselessly to be in union with the Lord and to lead others toward this communion. His prayer gave him the fortitude and peace necessary to endure many physical ailments. He was functionally blind for the last 12 years of his life. Most people were not fully aware of his handicap. He never complained.
He communicated with ease with the everyman, in many different languages, in different countries and continents. His conversation was embellished with pearls of self-effacing humor. Lubomyr knew how to laugh—and to laugh at himself. This humor reflected his intimacy with God, for humor and mystery are cousins of the sacred and the sacramental. His humor often carried a strong social and moral message. Asked how the oligarchs of Ukraine could be reformed, Husar replied, “They should attend more funerals.”
Thanks to his irenic spirit, the confrontation on the Kiev’s Euromaidan through the winter of 2013-2014, which gathered as many as 100,000 protesters, a spontaneous buffer between the people and government soldiers was established by Orthodox, Greek Catholic, Latin Rite clergy, and even Protestant  ministers all leading the people in prayer. Without their witness there might have been a bloodbath.
There is no space to sketch his biography, which traces the arc of the slow-motion martyrdom of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in the mid-20th century and its resurrection in the 21st. I should, however briefly, note the highlights of his life in service to the Church, and a personal note of how our paths crossed.
From 1958 to 1969 he served as teacher and prefect at Saint Basil’s Seminary in Stamford, Connecticut, and ministered in Kerhonkson, New York, as the pastor of the Soyuzivka youth camp in Ellenville, New York. I spent the academic year of 1962-1963 at the Stamford seminary.

He returned to Europe in 1972, entering the Monastery of Saint Theodore (Studite monks) in Grottaferrata, Italy. A few years later he became Archimandrite.

On April 2, 1977, he was ordained a bishop, but in camera because of the adverse situation in the Soviet Union. On January 26, 2001, at an extraordinary Synod of Bishops, he was elected Primate of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine and the diaspora; a month later, he was appointed by Pope John Paul II a cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church. He transferred his primatial cathedral from Lviv in Western Ukraine to Kyiv on August 21, 2005.

On February 10, 2011, the Vatican announced that Pope Benedict XVI had accepted his resignation as head of the Ukranian Greek Catholic Church because of his blindness and his desire to hand over leadership to a younger man.

I had Father Husar (as he was then) as a professor and a volley-ball coach for my time at St. Basil’s. Brother Marc and the late Brother Elias also knew Vladyka from the seminary. I had great respect and fondness for him. In fact, he was the one priest on the faculty with whom all the students felt a special rapport.

He served the offices and Divine Liturgy with exceptional grace and attention and had an amazing baritone voice. His speaking voice sounded like a more mellow Henry Kissinger. He made recordings of the special music for Presanctified Liturgy in Lent that helped revive its use in parishes throughout the States.

At St. Basil’s Seminary, I was in my second year of college and my first away from home. I am not Ukrainian and had no connection to Slavs except for a year of Russian at Georgetown’s School of Languages and Linguistics. This proved more of a handicap, given the general hard feelings between Russians and Ukrainians culturally, politically, and ecclesially. Father Lubomyr helped me fit in, often with his characteristic good humor. When we had a volley-ball match, we had to make all the calls in Ukrainian. I had enough trouble concentrating on the ball; in addition, I am short at 5′5″. Once I meant to call out zminyti to indicate a change of serve, but cried zmiya instead: snake! to the merriment of my teammates and a beaming grin from Father Lubomyr.

Father Lubomyr and some of Brother Stavros' classmates

Patriarch Lobomyr and his successor Archbishop Svyatoslav,
Archbishop of Kyiv-Halyč
Eight or nine years ago, by now Metropolitan Lubomyr  (generally called “patriarch” in Eastern Europe and “cardinal” in the West) made one of his pastoral visits and was also raising funds to build a new cathedral in Kiev (where he is now buried in its crypt) and made a stop nearby at St. Nicholas in Watervliet, a 100-year-old parish on the west bank of the Hudson River. Brother Elias and I decided to attend the occasion. After the liturgical service of welcome for His Beatitude, there was a traditional program in the church auditorium. We happened to be seated just two rows behind him, so when the time came for refreshments, we went up and introduced ourselves and received his blessing. We were wearing our monastic riasa and skoufja; the Metropolitan was in a simple gray tunic, leather belt, and black skoufja. Naturally he would not recognize our monastic names, so he asked what our names were at Saint Basil’s, and I said “Harry.” “Oh yes, Haaary,” he repeated with a chuckle. We presented him with our edition of the Psalter and yielded to the crowd forming behind us waiting to greet the archbishop.

Thanks to the internet, our community was able to watch portions of the patriarch’s state funeral, starting in the medieval city of Lviv, with its narrow streets, then to the much larger boulevards of Kiev. It was very moving to hear again the funeral chants I had learned nearly 60 years ago.

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Ukraine is fractured into three divisions: one subject to the Moscow  Patriarchate, an autocephalous group, and the self-styled Kievan Patriachate, which is seeking recognition from the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople in Istanbul. The latter was represented at the funeral rites in the new Resurrection Cathedral by Patriarch Filaret (Denysenko).

As we pray for eternal memory for this humble and courageous man, may his example strengthen his country by Christian example, pastoral devotion, and personal integrity that blazed a way into the momentous uncertainty of the 21st century. And may the small steps in bridging the often bitter gaps confounding a shared history embolden us to make longer strides to love one another as Christ loves us.


More Puppies for Jaci

By Brother Luke

Jaci’s latest litter of 7 puppies was born overnight on June 7-8. This time the process started in the kennel, not in my room. That at least saved me some extra clean-up work. The first puppy was born just before midnight, and almost like clockwork they came out at 1-hour intervals. Only puppy number 6 was a little problematic. The sac was broken, and I saw the tail coming out, but before I could get hold of the puppy it went back up into the track. So, I decided to give Jaci a small dose of Oxytocin. It was at a time when that posed no danger to her or the pup. It worked, and the puppy came out alive. Number 7 followed 30 minutes later.

Jaci is a Mom on the move. If you have seen any of my videos of her playing, she is always the first of my dogs to retrieve the chuckit ball, and she can outrun all the other dogs. That characteristic doesn’t go away in the whelping pen. She often moves the whelping pool away from the wall so she can circulate around the outside of the pool in addition to nursing and cleaning the pups normally in the pool. After the whelping process is finished it takes her some time to settle down into calm Mom mode. This time she was moving the puppies around a little frantically, so we decided to mask her for a few hours to let her settle down.

By Thursday evening I thought she was doing fine, but to be sure we kept the mask on overnight. The next day we took it off, and I asked Dave Bentley to watch her and if he heard any puppies crying to check in on the situation and put the mask back on if needed. Dave is our kennel attendant, and he does a super job keeping the kennel clean. He helps out with many other tasks as well. What happened that morning was amazing. Unfortunately, we did not get it on video.

            While Dave was outside cleaning Jaci’s pen he heard a pup cry. Each pen has a small window to allow for observation either from the inside out or the outside in. So, he looked in the window and saw Jaci with a pup in her mouth, and she was circling around the outside of the pool, as she is wont to do. When the pup stopped crying, she got back into the pool and put the pup down. Another pup cried and she did the same thing. Picked up the pup in her mouth and circled around outside the pool until the pup stopped crying. When it stopped crying she put it back down in the pool. In both cases, the pups immediately began nursing when back in the pool. When Dave told me about this he remarked that humans do the same thing. They can take a crying child up and caress it, walk with it, or even take it for a ride in the car.  Jaci caused no injury to the pups at all.

            Now the pups are a couple of weeks old. They are all doing well and growing normally. I’m keeping a close eye on one of the boys. Jaci had two boys and five girls. The sire was Kahn, and we would love to have a male pup from this litter grow up to be the new Kahn.  Keep a good thought that this happens. My Kahn is now 9 years old, so we know we don’t have a lot of time to plan for his successor.

            I don’t usually do this, but maybe some of you have names you’d like to suggest for the new Kahn.  The only stipulation is that the name has to begin with an F, since this is litter F-22. Obviously, we make the final decision, but input would be great.

            Jaci spends the first 4 weeks with her pups, and then they are weaned from her. However, this time, rather than returning to me, she will become Sister Cecelia’s dog and so she will move down to the Nuns of New Skete Monastery. Her new pal there will be Jessie, and I am sure they will be great playmates and good companions for the sisters. Kahn, Shems, and the pup will be keeping me occupied

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

How to Make Friends in Just Three Days

By Ida Williams, Director of Marketing and Communications

How do you make new friends in just three days? 

1. Use the enticement of dogs.

2. Engage with the mystique of the Monks of New Skete. 

3. Indulge with monastic hospitality.

That is what happened this past weekend at New Skete’s The Art of Living with Your Dog Seminar.   Twenty-eight guests, dubbed the Storm Troopers,* left on Sunday afternoon sharing hugs, email addresses, and a few tears.  (Oh, wait.  The tears were mine.)

The first thing we all had in common is dogs.  The guests love dogs, the brothers love dogs, the staff and volunteers love dogs.  What were we talking about?  Oh, yeah, DOGS.  Photos of dogs were shown on smartphones, and dog stories were shared.   There were dogs in the classroom, dogs being trained in the room next to the classroom, dogs lying next to our feet while we ate lunch under cover of a tent, and eight puppies in the puppy kennel.  So the dogs are definitely the ice breakers when making these new friends.

Then there are these mysterious monks who live and care for these dogs.  They have written books about dogs, raised hundreds of dogs, and trained thousands of them.

What is their deep connection to creation, demonstrated in their knowledge of dogs and how they live their lives with them?  What is the spiritual connection they seem to have with their canine companions?  Will they really share this information, their secrets?  Yes!

Brother Marc started the weekend with a talk about the beginning of New Skete and the introduction of their first German Shepherd to the monastery.   Brother Luke divulged that before coming to New Skete he had no interaction with dogs and was, in fact, a little afraid of them.  Today he is the director of the breeding program.  He then went on to describe how the monks socialize puppies so that when they go to their new families, they have been exposed to different experiences and stimuli.  Not only did the attendees hear about socializing puppies, there was a demonstration with two puppies with very different personalities, and handouts to take home.  Brother Christopher tied the entire seminar together with these topics: “How to Live Intentionally with Your Dog and Have the Dog of Your Dreams” and “The Spiritual Dimension in the Human/Dog Relationship.” 

In a round-table discussion dealing with dog behaviors, guests shared their problems and solutions.   Another round-table topic was balancing work, family, and dog.  In this forum, the guests exchanged information on finding a good doggie day care, whether dog parks are a good option, and setting boundaries within your life in order to strike the balance you need to have a great companion.   The conversation turned to the heartache of losing our beloved canine friends.  This is one topic we all have experience in.

To host a seminar at the monastery, the brothers must open their home.  Meals are shared, recipes exchanged.  Laughter is heard and conversations had.  Tours are given and selfies made.  Relationships are formed and relationships renewed.  Hugs and thanks are given and hugs and thanks received.  One new friend wrote this on Facebook:

DEEPENING OUR RELATIONSHIPS - We encourage individuals, couples and families to attend the 3-day program on "The Art of Living with Your Dog" with the Monks of New Skete. Highlights include a deep dive on meaningful relationships, proven training methods by the Monks of New Skete that will help you, your family, and pets become AMAZING companions that you can be for each other.
Deb and I departed better people, a better couple, and better listeners for our family and our furry friends.
Big thanks to my wife Deb for leading the way and to the Monks (and staff) of New Skete for the great work that you do for both people and our furry friends.”

*Thursday night a storm caused widespread power outages.  The monastery, guesthouse, and surrounding area were without power for over twenty hours.   

Ascension: A Crowning Glory

A homily by Brother Marc
Isaiah 2:1-5; Acts 1:1-12; Luke 24:36-53

When I try to feel what the followers of Jesus must have felt at the death of Jesus, I am thrown back onto my old memories of dispiriting situations.
When my mother’s father was living with us after my grandmother died in December 1950, he never spoke to us about his service as a soldier fighting with the Austro-Hungarian armies. Now he was particularly isolated with those experiences, living in the United States, no longer in his own home, with his wife gone, away from buddies who spoke the same language and could understand how it was fighting in North Africa. He spent a lot of time sitting outdoors gazing over the large meadows and broad horizons where we lived. Of course we tried to understand and were sympathetic; we were especially intrigued to learn of the bullet wound in his shoulder, physical proof he had really been there. He let me have his only souvenir from World War I: his old enamel-coated water canteen, shaped like a large flask, with its canvas carrying pouch.
My grandfather died peacefully as we stood around him waiting and praying.
I can just picture the gospel situation of the disciples, long after the original dislocation of being called to follow Jesus, having traveled back and forth on country roads with him for three years, being confronted with the trauma of the arrest, trial, crucifixion, and burial—but now receiving the unimaginable shock of the resurrection. I can hear them begin to come back to life themselves, babbling about the future, wondering when Israel’s time will come, and asking endless questions about what this all meant, barely waiting to hear the answers. I wonder how much they and Jesus were able to reflect on the recent past. Did they think or feel, as they might have a few months earlier, that these present moments might be the greatest moment of their lives? Or were they much more sober, scared but excited, self-conscious with guilt, but wiser? Amazingly, they were still all together, though some had to continue as fishermen.
Jesus must have told them what had happened to him. He instructed them and answered their questions. They would not have the time-line for a messianic restoration. He showed them his vision of the future. He blessed them. The he reassured them and left them once again, but on much different terms this time.
These apostles needed to reach a deeper self-respect and healing. Those forty days from the Resurrection to the Ascension seem to have been like an extended and intense retreat for them. It served as a preparation, but not quite a training, for what lay ahead.
This was a pivotal time for learning who they were, what they were, where they stood in the grand scheme of things. It was also a crucial time for Jesus, to fully demonstrate to them and to Israel, to those who heard the gospel and to the world, his true and eternal stature in the eyes of God.
They were to be the shoots of a new world, time, creation, humanity, relationship with God. Most importantly, they were assured that this was all in fulfillment of the Mosaic Law, the prophets, and the psalms. The scriptures would be a witness for them and continue to give them an authentic way to understand and talk about the reality of Christ and the true meaning of messiah.
Jesus told them to stay, pray, and wait. They were not yet able to appear in public. He promised soon to send the Advocate, counselor, and consoler to empower them for a new mission. They would be given the confidence and the authority they needed.
This Ascension, he said, and my physically leaving you, is the crucial moment to set things aright. You will inherit the 12 judgment seats of Israel, you will tell all about me to every nation starting here, and bring the message of survival and salvation in the face of what is coming. I am going to take up my position in heaven, and today is the authentic revelation and confirmation of who I am in eternity. My work was completed on the cross, and today this will all be fulfilled before your very eyes and in your hearing. Tell everyone what you see.

For now, first of all wait and pray together; that is where you will continue to find me, until I return as I am now. 

Thursday, April 27, 2017

John Benson

 Brother Stavros

John Benson and Jeanette Warner first came to New Skete from reading In the Spirit of Happiness in 2000.  After their first visit with the Companions at Emmaus House, they started going to St. Nicholas Parish (OCA) soon afterward, where they were pleased to learn of Fr. George Gray's connection with New Skete. Fr. George was ordained in our Transfiguration church here at New
Skete some thirty years ago. He came to know the monastery through his wife, Daria, whose school chum was a daughter of one of New Skete’s earliest families.

John and Jeanette were core members of the New Skete Synaxis at St. Nicholas. They considered becoming Companions in residence at New Skete, and although moving from the Pacific Northwest did not prove realistic, they did make frequent visits and became especially close to Sr. Melanie and Br. Stephen, the last resident members of Emmaus House. John had a professional landscape business in Portland and helped Sr. Melanie with the gardens at Emmaus House. The results were stunning. As one might expect for a man of that profession, John loved the outdoors and his visits often afforded the chance to hike in the Green Mountains or the Adirondacks, which bookend Cambridge. It was my great pleasure to develop a close friendship with him on those occasions. Hiking afforded us time to discuss theology, liturgy, books, photography, and poetry, and to groan at John’s cleverly outrageous and relentless puns.

On my first visit to Portland, John took me snowshoeing on Mt. Hood. It was February, and I had never experienced something so gigantic as that 11,000-foot volcano, a short drive from the city. When we were done we had a great lunch at a roadhouse redolent with northwestern ambience. Then he drove around the mountain counterclockwise to show me the Columbia River Gorge and the Multnomah Falls (a color poster now adorns my armoire door).

I led a special retreat for the Synaxis at Jeanette’s oceanside cabin on Cape Meares. It was my first sight of the Pacific. The dramatic coastline and the mountains got me thoroughly hooked, enthralled; and in the decade since I have managed a few more visits to the region, always including some time with John and Jeanette.

This February was my first opportunity after hearing about John’s surgery to remove a brain tumor to see how he was doing. On an unbelievably clear and sunny day, John and Jeanette took me for lunch at “Salty’s” on the Columbia, then on a scenic drive upriver with Mt. Hood blanketed in luminous snow in afternoon golden light ahead of us to the East.
We then headed back to their home off Hawthorne Avenue, and given how sunny it was, we stopped for a walk around the pond in Laurelhurst Park. I felt a shadow of melancholy, for while John’s sense of humor was engaged, when I asked him the name of some trees he said he had lost all his horticulture vocabulary. “Gees, I used to know all these names, but now it’s just gone.”

On the phone and in person he was at ease talking about his condition, without bitterness or anger; rather he seemed at peace about the inevitable. This manifested his deep trust in God and firm attachment to Christ. John’s perception was that suffering crashes the gates of most people’s lives, and if we are wise, we let God in through those gates.

It was difficult to say goodbye. The three of us were aware that it most likely was a last farewell.
Thank you, John, for your joie de vivre, for your courage and faith, for your sense of fun. Your life has touched me deeply and leaves me humbled and inspired. You have had the last laugh.

Memory eternal!       Stavros

John Benson (left) with Brother Stavros.
Mount Hood is in the background.

Tuesday Morning Dog Training Meetings

 Ida Williams, Director of Marketing and Communication

On Tuesday mornings I meet with the brothers who run the training program for our weekly dog training meeting.  At these meetings, we review the week’s schedule: dogs being dropped off, picked up, any calls to be made.  The brothers review applications, answer questions from training clients, and direct me on any correspondences that need to go out.

Dog training meetings are held after Matins.  Brother Christopher typically grabs a quick breakfast of toast with almond butter, and Brother Thomas has a cup of coffee.  Bora (Brother Thomas’s dog) joins us.  Brother Christopher sits on my right at the head of the table, and Brother Thomas across from me.  The meetings are so familiar that if the brothers switched chairs, I would feel that I must have shown up to the wrong meeting.  Each meeting starts with a prayer.

“…let us be mindful of your presence... Amen.”

I am going to make a jump here so you know where I am going with this story.  Recently at my church, we experienced a terrible loss.  Our associate pastor’s 32-day-old son died of SIDS.  When I relayed to my senior pastor that the monks and nuns were including the family in their prayers, his response was “those are some good praying guys up there.”
They are professional dog trainers, cheesecake bakers, writers, but when it comes to praying no one can hold a candle to the monks and nuns of New Skete.

What if I took a cue from these “good praying guys” and started different parts of my day with that prayer?  

A few days later, as I got into my car, I prayed “God, let me be mindful of your presence as I drive to work.”  I got behind a car doing 40 miles an hour in a 55-mile-an-hour zone.   My impatience started to grow, and I was set to berate the driver who was going to make me late for my meeting; then I remembered that God was present.  I didn’t want God to hear me fly off the handle, especially after the prayer I had just prayed.   So instead I said, “God, I don’t know where this guy is going so slowly, but I hope he makes it there safe, and if by chance he turns off at the next intersection that would be great.”  I smiled and felt better about the drive.  He did not turn at the next intersection.  I was not late.

Last month, a blizzard had me a little behind on preparations for the Lenten Retreat.  When I arrived to work two days before the retreat, I prayed that I would be mindful of God’s presence throughout the day.  As soon as I walked in the door, all those little things that have a tendency to pop up when you are already stressed did just that. Pop, pop, pop.  There was a phone message from a training customer that needed to change their drop-off date, another message about attending the retreat, a check on my desk with a note that said “I found this in the cash drawer but it was not put through point of sale,” the computer and phone were not working at the training center so the clients who dropped off their dogs needed to be contacted, there were questions that needed to be answered before a new website for the cheesecakes could go live, a missed and extended deadline for a newspaper ad, and the classroom still had packing materials that were supposed to have been moved out by Monday.   I grumbled, wanted to scream, felt like crying.  Where was God’s presence?  Karen cut the bookmarks/agendas for the retreat, Brother Gregory alphabetized the nametags and assembled the journals and pens, and Josh moved tables and set up chairs.  Ah, God’s presence.

I am not sure this is what the brothers and sisters mean when they pray “Let us be mindful of your presence,” but it works for me.

This morning as Brother Christopher, Brother Thomas, Bora, and I gathered for our Tuesday morning dog training meeting, Brother Christopher prayed “…let us be mindful of your presence... Amen.”  I giggled.  Not because of the prayer, but because even though Brother Thomas was sitting across from me with his cup of coffee, and Brother Christopher was sitting on my right at the head of the table, he had switched his breakfast.  He had two pieces of toast, one with almond butter, and two small oranges.  Was I at the right meeting?

Book Review: Chemo Pilgrim: An 18-Week Journey of Healing and Holiness

 by Brother Christopher

            Cancer is a word that immediately scares us. While all of us understand intellectually that many people have to deal with various types of cancer and their treatment, few of us sit around thinking of the time when our number will be called. Instead, we go on with our lives, try our best to live as healthfully as possible, and don’t stress over whatever frightening possibilities may occur down the road. Some may deem this a subtle form of denial, but it is how most of us cope with life while still being able to celebrate the joyful, beautiful, and humorous moments of each day. And it is entirely understandable.

            However, all of this changes when the “C” word is spoken to us personally, in the form of a diagnosis perhaps, or the news of a close friend or family member having to suddenly face such an illness. Cancer is then brought to an intensely personal level, and one’s life can easily be swallowed by fear and uncertainty. Where does one turn for the support that is so essential if the experience is to be something more than simply a terrifying chapter of “will I live or will I die?”

            Cricket Cooper is an Episcopal priest and a Companion of New Skete who was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma in 2012. She has written an intensely personal account of the process she went through in her medical treatment, while at the same time using her illness as the basis for a spiritual pilgrimage that re-frames the process into a spiritual journey filled with danger, hope, renewal, and surprise. Chemo Pilgrim: An 18-Week Journey of Healing and Holiness, is an utterly unique look into how Cricket deals with her illness while using it as a means for spiritual growth and enlightenment.

            Cricket is a very accessible and amiable writer, and the reader of this book will soon be enchanted with her unique and uncanny way of looking at reality. She moves gracefully through moments of utter vulnerability and fear, to laugh-out-loud moments that shine the light on the weirdness of the human condition. Throughout the whole of the book she doesn’t take herself too seriously, even in the face of circumstances we all know to be utterly serious. 

            One of the distinctive aspects of this book is how she alternates chapters between honest descriptions of her cycle of treatments and accounts of pilgrimages she makes to various monasteries, both Christian and non-Christian, in between. Full disclosure: one of the places she spent on retreat was New Skete, and Cricket has since become a close friend of the community. But her descriptions of the monastic pilgrimages are interesting and revealing, and provide effective means of balancing the more medical chapters that describe her chemotherapy. Throughout all of it she writes with a sure hand that is unsentimental and insightful.

            This is a book that is more than just a “cancer book.” While giving the reader an intimate picture of one person’s dealing with illness, it also shows how the process can become the means to deeper spiritual wisdom and personal transformation. It will be relevant to those dealing with cancer, to those who may know someone with cancer, and to those who seek to understand how to deal constructively with adversity of any kind. It is an inspiring book that I recommend to anyone looking for a deeper perspective on the mysterious character of life.  

Brother Luke

If There Is Life I Want to Live It. Nikolaos, Metropolitan of Mesogaia and Lavreotiki. Montreal: Alexander Press, 2015. 120 pages. Series: Orthodoxy in Dialogue with the Modern World, Volume 11.

It is sometimes easy to imagine that people in the “Old Country,” in this case Greece, are somehow born into their national religion. To speak of Greece is to imagine not only the Parthenon and ancient times, but also Mount Athos, and all the beautiful Orthodox churches and chapels scattered all over the mainland and the Greek Islands. One might assume that Orthodoxy is somehow in the peoples’ blood; an unquestioned reality that all accept. But this is the 21st century, and many people in Greece, as in all of Europe, are imbued with the secular spirit and see the church as an antique, a cultural relic, but hardly something that offers anything of value to help people negotiate the unstable reality of this century. And yet they often see something missing in their lives and want to find a deeper meaning to life.

            Into this environment steps an Orthodox bishop with a personal story that attracts the attention of even the most skeptical. Metropolitan Nikolaos (Hatzinikolaou) has degrees in physics, astrophysics, mechanical engineering, biomedical engineering and applied mathematics, theological studies, and theology. He earned a PhD in Theology from the University of Thessaloniki on Orthodox Christian Ethics and Bioethics. He has worked as a researcher and scientific partner in hospitals and as a scientific advisor in Space Medical Technology in the United States. He returned to Greece in 1989 and was tonsured a monk on Mount Athos. Now he is a bishop. He founded the first hospice in Greece under church auspices and has authored many theological and scientific articles. The present book is the product of many conversations with a variety of people who have crossed his path. He has assembled some of these dialogues here to answer a series of 100 questions about faith and the search for God. His approach is to connect the stories of others to his own journey of faith. He is not trying to convince anyone or increase the followers of the Orthodox faith. As he says in the introduction:

I welcomed them with my whole heart, and my only concern was to embrace their whole being, to share the pain of their search for faith, to recognize the uniqueness of their inner world, to together lift the burden of our human nature. … I never let myself think that I had arrived and they were only just setting out. I always felt that I was with them, a fellow traveller on the wonderful path of the search for God. (p. 5)

To give you a taste of the dialogue, here is part of the exchange concerning the bishop’s choice to become a religious rather than remain engaged directly in scientific research. Did he make the right choice?

If science and research are delight, a life of complete dedication to the Church is enchantment and ecstasy, it is life. … If God exists – and of course He does – then what is greater? Communion with his person, or the study of his works?” … if science is based on the discovery of the truth of the created world, and healthy and true religion is based on the revelation of the truths of God, then wherein lies the problem? Problems emerge when science is dominated by arrogance, and religious thought by narrowness. (p. 13) 

Metropolitan Nikolaos argues that we all believe in gods, little gods that we make into big gods. We often accept what we hear others say without questioning. We may assume that what we hear is true because we believe the source to be reputable. However, we have not done the scientific research ourselves, so we have faith in what others have done. So, he asks, is it possibly time to change our gods? (p. 43)

The conversations also raise questions about the integrity of the Church and its leaders, and even its believers. Metropolitan Nikolaos meets this head-on, asking his interlocutors what they want to see in the Church. Here is one response:

I would like the Church to give me hope, not to constantly be critical and judge… I would like it to contribute to progress and development, to embrace the suffering, those dealt injustice, and young people. I would like it to be more modern and rejuvenative, and not full of words and excuses – nor for it to speak only of God, but to speak of man also. (p. 48)

Bishop Nikolaos agrees but questions the remark about not speaking of God too much. He says:

But that is the Church. In speaking of God it speaks of man. … The Church puts forward the person of God and the road to Him. It cannot happen without boldness, freedom, integrity and constant renewal. There is no message more bold, rejuvenative, pure and free than the word and way of life of the Church. … [and] in the lives of some of her true and faithful members, of her saints. … Hypocrisy, and riches, ossification, fanaticism and narrowness of heart – of course these are not the Church. They are the non-Church. … As for the bad image presented by the clergy, … if you suffered from a lung complaint and your doctor smoked, would you condemn pulmonology and refuse treatment? (pp. 48-9)

His call is not to turn away from the church but to come to understand what it is in essence and to see it as the true path to the freedom to which God is calling us. Although some of the Church’s teachings about Christ’s resurrection and the Holy Spirit are hard for some of his questioners to accept, even so, they are attracted to Christ’s “wonderful teachings.” So, starting from that place, Metropolitan Nikolaos suggests: “Why not first live out his teachings and then see if one is led to faith.” (p. 54) His is a refreshing voice in the sometimes-heavy world of Orthodox theology. I think many will find his approach worth reading and pondering.

            This book is part of the series Orthodoxy in Dialogue with the Modern World, published by Alexander Press of Montreal. Metropolitan Nikolaos has two other books in that series: Investing in the Kingdom of God (Vol. 5) and When God Is Not There (Vol. 8).

Friday, March 24, 2017

Vatican Uncovered

By Brother Stavros

Over a decade ago I spent several days in Rome. I did not come to like the city, but one quirky experience remains vivid in my memory. I wanted to visit the Ethiopian College, the only one established within the Vatican walls. To attempt this required that I approach a Swiss Guard and ask if it were possible, a rather formidable hurdle. They are big guys with a wicked weapon in hand, and the Michelangelo uniform commands respect and wonder.

I was told to approach within a yard from his boots and state my business. Then he instructed me what gate to enter to reach the bureau where my request would be considered. It was a different experience from just being in a crowd in the basilica or on the piazza. This brought me within the walls of this micro city-state, a hundred square acres and fewer than a thousand inhabitants.

A HBO miniseries, The Young Pope, and a novel, The Fifth Gospel, both depend on the intrigue, history, hopes, and machinations played out in the creative imaginations of Paolo Sorrentino and Ian Caldwell. Bizarre, jarring, surreal, and irreverently comic, compassionate, challenging and utterly iconoclastic, Sorrentino’s mix won’t be for everyone.  The young New Yorker Lenny Belardo becomes Pius XIII and is prophetically more like President Trump than Pope Francis. “Tolerance doesn't live here anymore; it’s been evicted” is one of His Holiness’ first “tweets.”

Jude Law as Pius XIII a.k.a. Lenny Belardo

A gathering of Patriarchs of the Orthodox Church

The real pope is content to ride in a second-hand Volvo, while Pius brings back the sedia gestatoria (a throne carried on the shoulders of papal ushers). In another telling exchange, his Secretary of State, Cardinal Voiello (Silvio Orlandothe perfect foil) rebukes him: “You may be as handsome as Jesus, but you’re not actually Jesus.” Jude Law, brilliantly cast, coldly replies, “I might be more handsome.”

Weird leitmotifs: chain-smoking prelates, nuns hanging out laundry, a kangaroo interloper in the papal gardens, pepper every episode. Contemporary figures provide well-sculpted cameos, i.e., the Italian Prime minister, the Patriarch of Moscow (they did not get his klobuk right). Psychological crevasses from childhood abandonment and a very high-profile crisis of belief provide depth and vulnerability to his character with insecurity and narcissism flooding in to occupy the vacuum they create.

It’s a long series,10 episodes, which garnered the highest viewer rating for pay TV in Italy. The Young Pope is not your BBC in style. This is distinctively Italian, with homage to Fellini and the brooding introspection a la Scorsese and world-class acting.
With religious bigotry and sectarian fanatics at large in our world, this series gives us pause to ponder which of our own ideals about Church comport with reality and what constitutes evasion and denial.
Castel Gandolfo, southeast of Rome,17th-century 135-acre papal palace ceded by Pope Francis as a museum

Then there is the NY Times best-seller, The Fifth Gospel by Ian Caldwell, also set on the Vatican campus, plus some action at Castel Gandolfo.  Its jacket blurb bills it as an “intellectual thriller, a feast of biblical history and scholarship and moving family drama.” It is all that and more, in one of the few works in secular culture to grasp some understanding of and sympathy for Orthodox-Roman Catholic shared history and millennial estrangement, with a good degree of sensitivity to the facts as Eastern Christians have perceived them since the time of the Crusades. Caldwell’s use of a narrator who is a Greek Rite Catholic priest  with a priest father, and himself with an inquisitive son and estranged wife, will baffle Roman Catholics and make the reality of Eastern Church clerical life more than just a footnote.

A fatal shooting drives the plot. It occurs at Castel Gandolfo, the pope’s handsome mountain villa by a lake, with subplots involving cardinals in competition for power as John Paul II’s disease progresses to end stage. They are as vividly portrayed as in The Young Pope, where transition to a new and utterly unpredictable administration has its own unique Machievellian twists.
The fulcrums of all this intrigue are a newly discovered Syriac Diatesseron (2nd-Century Gospel harmony) and the well-known  (but recently de-authenticated) relic of Christ’s Passion, the Shroud of Turin.

Mandylion and icon of King Abgar of Edessa holding it.

The meticulous research by Ian Caldwell lends a certain historicity, absent say in other best-sellers like The Da Vinci Code, but it remains a work of fiction. I was puzzled by his liberty in conflating the shroud and the Mandylion, or face towel bearing the image of the Lord’s face sent to King Abgar of Edessa in Syria according to 4th-century historian Eusebius of Caesarea. It is known in the Orthodox world as the Image “not-made-by-hand.” A feast for this icon on August 16 commemorates its removal from Edessa to Constantinople. Likely it was plundered or destroyed during the 4th Crusade; such speculation underpins part of the plot. The early Middle Ages saw the profusion and even invention of many Passion relics: the Holy Spear, the Crown of Thorns. But the shroud is another artifact or relic entirely.

Again, in Byzantine Churches, at about the same period, a shroud-like image of Chris laid out in death came to be the chief focus of the high drama of the offices of Good Friday and Holy Saturday. So in a way every church boasted a “Shroud of Turin.” The image is sacred not for the cloth itself but for its very subject. Its spread as an object of veneration probably began with an appliqué icon on the large veil covering the chalice and diskos carried in procession over the heads of the clergy in the Divine Liturgy. The shroud Ἐπιτάφιος, or Плащаница, still is carried today (see photo) in a similar fashion.
Russian Orthodox Good Friday service

Good Friday at New Skete

The sympathy of the author for the restoration of communion between the Eastern Orthodox Churches and the Roman Church is touching, but the fictional embodiment of a break-through is realistically improbable. However, the author’s decade-long project effort may in some way advance the cause of reconciliation that has fallen prey to a contemporary mix of angst and apathy infused with the realpolitik of Russian ambition and the isolationism of some of the smaller Orthodox national Churches.

In Caldwell’s book it is a sanctified aspiration, whereas Sorrentino skirts the subject with little more than a walk-on, more dismissive perhaps than the actual meeting of Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow in Cuba last year.

Almost fifty years ago, Morris West’s novel The Shoes of the Fisherman was made into an American film starring Anthony Quinn as a Ukrainian Archbishop who becomes Patriarch Kirill I at a crucial flashpoint in the Cold War. Its quixotic plot is revisited or re-imagined by these current dramas.  I think they have something to say, and I commend taking them in for the enjoyment they afford and the insight they foster at a time when we can certainly benefit from anything that draws us more together.