Against The Normal

Within the Christianity of our time, the great spiritual conflict, unknown to almost all, is between a naturalistic/secular world of modernity and the sacramental world of classical Christianity. The first presumes that a literal take on the world is the most accurate. It tends to assume a closed system of cause and effect, ultimately explainable through science and manageable through technology. Modern Christians, quite innocently, accept this account of the world with the proviso that there is also a God who, on occasion, intervenes within this closed order. The naturalist unbeliever says, “Prove it.”

The sacramental world of classical Christianity speaks a wholly different language. It presumes that the world as we see it is an expression of a greater reality that is unseen. It presumes that everything is a continuing gift and a means of communion with the good God who created it. The meaning and purpose of things is found in that which is not seen, apart from which we can only reach false conclusions. The essential message of Christ, “The Kingdom of God is at hand,” is a proclamation of the primacy of this unseen world and its coming reign in the restoration of all things (apokatastasis, cf. Acts 3:21).

The assumptions of these two worldviews could hardly be more contradictory. The naturalistic/secular model has the advantage of sharing a worldview with contemporary culture. As such, it forms part of what most people would perceive as “common sense” and “normal.” Indeed, the larger portion of Christian believers within that model have no idea that any other Christian worldview exists.

The classical/sacramental worldview was the only Christian worldview for most of the centuries prior to the Reformation. Even then, that worldview was only displaced through revolution and state sponsorship. Nonetheless, the sacramental understanding continues within the life of the Orthodox Church, as well as many segments of Catholicism. Its abiding presence in the Scriptures guarantees that at least a suspicion of “something else” will haunt some modern Christian minds.

An assumption of the secular/naturalist worldview is that information itself is “objective” in character: it is equally accessible to everyone. The classical worldview assumes something quite different. “Blessed are the pure in heart,” Christ says, “for they shall see God.” The Kingdom of God is not an inert object that yields itself to public examination. The knowledge of God and of all spiritual things requires a different mode of seeing and understanding. St. Paul says it this way: “But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1Co 2:14).

This understanding disturbs the sensibilities of many contemporary Christians. Some go so far as to suggest that it is “gnostic” (by this they mean that the very notion of spiritual knowledge that is less than democratic is suspect). Sola Scriptura is a modern concept that posits the Scriptures as subject to objective interpretation. The Scriptures thus belong to the world of public, democratic debate, whose meaning belongs within the marketplace of opinion. The Scriptures are “my Bible.”

The classical model is, in fact, the teaching found in the Scriptures. It utterly rejects the notion of spiritual knowledge belonging to the same category as the naturalistic/secular world. It clearly understands that the truth of things is perceived only through the heart (nous) and that an inward change is required. It is impossible to encounter the truth and remain unchanged.

The classical model, particularly as found within Orthodoxy, demands repentance and asceticism as a normative part of the spiritual life. These actions do not earn a reward, but are an inherent part of the cleansing of the heart and the possibility of perceiving the truth.

The rationalization (secular/rationalist) of the gospel has also given rise to modern “evangelism.” If no particular change is required in a human being in order to perceive the truth of the gospel, then rational argument and demonstration becomes the order of the day. Indeed, modern evangelism is largely indistinguishable from modern marketing. They were born from the same American social movements.

The classical model tends to be slower in its communication, for what is being transmitted is the fullness of the tradition and the transformation of each human life. Evangelism, in this context, has little to no relationship with marketing. The primary form for the transmission of the gospel is the community of the Church. The Christian faith, in its fullness, is properly only seen in an embodied community of believers living in sacramental union with God through Christ by the Holy Spirit. In the early Church, the catechumenate generally lasted for as much as three years. The formation that took place was seen as an essential preparation for the Christian life. “Making a decision” was almost beside the point.

The struggle between classical/sacramental Christianity and modernity (including its various Christianities) is not a battle over information. The heart of the struggle is for sacramental Christianity to simply remain faithful to what it is. That struggle is significant, simply for the fact that it takes place within a dominant culture that is largely its antithesis.

A complicating factor in this struggle is the fact that the dominant culture (naturalistic/secular) has taken up traditional Christian vocabulary and changed its meaning. This creates a situation in which classical Christianity is in constant need of defining and understanding its own language in contradistinction to the prevailing cultural mind. The most simple terms, “faith, belief, Baptism, Communion, icon, forgiveness, sin, repentance,” are among those things that have to be consistently re-defined. Every conversation outside a certain circle requires this effort, and, even within that circle, things are not always easy.

Such an effort might seem exhausting. The only position of relaxation within the culture is the effortless agreement with what the prevailing permutations tell us on any given day. Human instinct tends towards the effortless life – and the secular mentality constantly reassures us that only the effortless life is normal. Indeed, “normal, ordinary, common,” and such terms, are all words invented by modernity as a self-description. Such concepts are utterly absent from the world of Scripture. Oddly, no one lived a “normal” life until relatively recently.

That which is “normal” is nothing of the sort. It is the purblind self-assurance that all is well when nothing is well.

God have mercy on us.

Father Stephen Freeman is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, serving as Rector of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.

The photo shows a marginal pen-and-ink drawing from a letter by Olaf Stapledon, written to his fiance, dated October 3, 1918.

Divine Impassibility

It is fascinating how the ever-changing needs of the times often call us to tread again the same ground once covered by the Fathers. In their day the need was to show how the Scriptural account of God’s self-revelation was consistent with a more Hellenistic and philosophical view of the impassable divine nature.

Such a project was required in their day if they were to commend the Hebrew Scriptures which the Church received as divinely-inspired to the wider pagan audience which viewed the divine nature as eternal, impassable, transcendent, and unchanging.

The problem, of course, is that this philosophical view of divinity didn’t seem to line up with what people read about the Hebrew God in the Hebrew Scriptures.

People believed—correctly—that the divine nature was unchanging and unchangeable, that it was eternal and untroubled. Or, in the words of St. John of Damascus, that “He is invariable and unchangeable, and it would not be right to speak of contingency in connection with Him. [The divine nature is] uncreated, without beginning, immortal, infinite, eternal, immaterial, good, creative, just, enlightening, immutable, passionless, immeasurable, unlimited, undefined, unseen, unthinkable, wanting in nothing” (Exact Exposition, book 1, chapters 13, 14).

St. John Cassian said the same thing at an earlier time: The idea that God has physical limbs “cannot be understood literally of Him who is declared by the authority of Holy Scripture to be invisible, ineffable, incomprehensible, inestimable, simple, and uncompounded, so neither can the passion of anger and wrath be attributed to that unchangeable nature without fearful blasphemy” (Institutes, book 8, chapter 4.)

What both John of Damascus and John Cassian meant was not that the Scriptures were unreliable, but that they needed interpretation. For if one read the Hebrew Scriptures with a simple heart and insufficient subtlety, one might come away with an erroneous view of the Hebrew God.

One might imagine that Yahweh had a short fuse, that He sometimes lost His temper and needed calming down, that He did not know everything in advance, and sometimes needed to find things out by investigation and then might need to change His mind.

They might imagine that mere human beings could ruffle the divine feathers and get Yahweh worked up, and that He was subject to passions and emotions such as jealousy, uncontrolled rage, as well as bouts of happiness, and that His emotions could see-saw between extremes of happiness and sadness.

Even simpler readers might conclude that Yahweh had arms, fingers, eyes, ears, and a mouth because the Scriptures spoke of these things.

And some people even justified their own human rage by referring to the divine wrath mentioned in the Bible: “We have heard some people trying to excuse this most pernicious disease of the soul [i.e. anger] in such a way as to endeavour to extenuate it by a rather shocking way of interpreting Scripture: as they say that it is not injurious if we are angry with our brethren who do wrong, since they say God Himself is said to rage and to be angry” (Institutes, book 8, chapter 2).

These overly-simple interpretations of Scripture flew in the face of what an intelligent pagan audience believed about the divine nature, and led a number of them to dismiss the Scriptures and the Church which received them as infantile and unworthy of true philosophy.

Of course, they said, the divine nature cannot be subject to such human passions. In fact, the Church had been saying the same thing about the pagan gods for some time, pouring scorn on the pagan myths and stories of Jupiter becoming angry and lustful.

But if it was true, as the Church always taught, that divine nature was essentially impassable and beyond the reach of change and passion, how could the Church’s Hebrew Scriptures have any credibility when they seemed to present a very changeable and passionate God? That was the problem that the Fathers had to grapple with as they presented the Christian Faith to a pagan world.

The Fathers’ solution is well known: they affirmed the philosophical view of God and interpreted the Scriptural account of God’s limbs (such as His mouth, eyes, and hands) metaphorically, as well as the Scriptural narratives about God’s wrath and seeming changeability.

St. John Cassian again: “By God’s mouth we should understand that His utterances are meant…by His eyes we can understand the boundless character of His sight with which He sees and looks through all things. By the expression ‘hands’ we understand His providence and work”.

But the Scriptural references to His divine wrath, though they should not be understood as declaring that God is subject to the passion of anger or that our sins cause Him to throw a fit, are not to be explained away.

Thus Cassian: “When we read of the anger or fury of the Lord, we should take it not according to an unworthy meaning of human passion, but in a sense worthy of God, who is free from all passion, so that by this we should understand that He is the judge and avenger of all the unjust things which are done in this world, and by reason of these terms and their meaning we should dread Him as the terrible rewarder of our deeds, and fear to do anything against His will.”

It is clear therefore that God still has wrath against sin, in that He will judge and avenge human wrong. Because of this divine vengeance we should “dread Him and fear to do anything against His will”.

The Fathers do not declare that God has no wrath, but only that His anger is just and not the result of fits of passion or pique. God’s anger is not like human anger, and is consistent with the divine impassibility. God is always good, and His beneficence never changes.

Whether or not we experience His kindness or His severity (see Romans 11:22) depends not upon His shifting moods, for He is not subject to shifting moods. Rather it depends entirely upon us and how we live.

St. Irenaeus said as much even earlier still: “As many as according to their own choice depart from good, He inflicts that separation from Himself which they have chosen of their own accord. But separation from God is death and separation from light is darkness and separation from God consists in the loss of all the benefits He has in store…It is in this matter just as occurs in the case of a flood of light: those who have blinded themselves are forever deprived of the enjoyment of light. It is not that the light has inflicted upon them the penalty of blindness, but it is that the blindness itself has brought calamity upon them.” (Against Heresies, book 5, chapter 27).

God’s unchanging nature remains light; those who experience calamity and the divine wrath do so because of their own actions, not because God is no longer light or willing to enlighten.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose: in the Fathers’ day, many took offense at the Scriptural teaching about the wrath of God, saying that this was incompatible with the divine nature, the objection taking its force from the philosophical conviction that divine nature cannot be subject to emotions of any kind (including presumably nice emotions, such as happiness).

Today also many take offense at the Scriptural teaching about the wrath of God, saying that this is incompatible with the divine nature, the objection taking its force from our modern conviction that a loving God could not also have wrath.

We have seen that the Fathers’ teaching overthrows both objections. The Fathers agree that God’s nature is good and unchanging and unaffected by our sins. They also assert that the Scriptural teaching about God’s wrath is true, and that God will one day act as “the judge and avenger of all the unjust things which are done in the world”.

The modern attempt to deny this latter truth by appeal to God’s good and unchanging nature cannot be sustained, and those who attempt to use the truth of divine impassibility to deny the truth of divine wrath are in error.

I suggest that those making this attempt are not motivated by the venerable philosophical appreciation for the doctrine of divine impassibility so much as by a very modern squeamishness about the doctrine of divine wrath.

The Fathers affirmed both divine wrath and divine impassibility, and we must tread in the way that they walked, following along the path they blazed for us.

Father Lawrence Farley serves as pastor of St. Herman’s Orthodox Church in Langley, British Columbia, Canada. He is also author of the Orthodox Bible Companion Series along with a number of other publications.

The photo shows, “Moses on Mount Sinai,” by Jean-Léon Gérôme, painted ca. 1895-1900.

The Book Of Tobit And Its Recensions

The book of Tobit is one of those books Catholics would call the Deuterocanonicals and non-Catholics would label the Apocrypha.

Basically, it’s about a pious old man from the tribe of Nephthali named Tobit exiled along with the other Israelites in Nineveh who goes blind after bird droppings fell on his eyes (!). One day Tobit decides to collect money he had once deposited to an acquaintance named Gabael in the land of Media and sends his son Tobias (aka Tobiah) to do so.

Along the way, Tobias is accompanied by a guy who passes himself off as a kinsman of his named Azariah, and a dog who doesn’t do anything in the story except to be mentioned briefly at the very beginning and the very end of the journey. Arriving in Media, Tobias gets the money from Gabael, and marries the latter’s daughter Sarah, who was tormented by a demon named Asmodeus, who had killed every man she married.

Tobias succeeds in driving Asmodeus out by burning, under Azariah’s advice, the liver and heart of a rabid fish he had encountered during the journey. Tobias, Sarah, and Azariah return to Nineveh, where Tobit was cured of his blindness by the gall of the same fish. ‘Azariah’ eventually reveals himself to be the angel Raphael, sent by God to cure Tobit and Sarah of the afflictions they had, and goes back to heaven.

Years pass, and Tobit finally dies, but not before warning his son to leave Nineveh before God destroys it according to prophecy. After burying his father, Tobias and his family then go away and settle at Media, where the tale ends.

That’s the main gist of the story. But here’s the thing. Those of you who like to read from different translations of the Bible might have already noticed this, but if you compare the book of Tobit as it is in three different translations – the Douai-Rheims, the Revised Standard Version, and the New American Bible – you’d notice that the text of each is radically different from one another.

I encountered some people from time to time who tried to follow the daily readings, only to find that the version they found in their Bible is totally unlike what’s read out in church.

This is much more evident if you read from the Douai-Rheims. The book begins like this in the NAB version: “This book tells the story of Tobit, son of Tobiel, son of Hananiel, son of Aduel, son of Gabael, son of Raphael, son of Raguel, of the family of Asiel and the tribe of Naphtali. During the days of Shalmaneser, king of the Assyrians, he was taken captive from Thisbe, which is south of Kedesh Naphtali in upper Galilee, above and to the west of Asher, north of Phogor.”

The RSV version is pretty close, if shorter (for instance, it omits “son of Raphael, son of Raguel” and simply mentions Thisbe as being “to the south of Kedesh Naphtali in Galilee above Asher.”)

But if you pick up the DR, this is what you’ll find: “Tobias of the tribe and city of Nephtali, (which is in the upper parts of Galilee above Naasson, beyond the way that leadeth to the west, having on the right hand the city of Sephet,) when he was made captive in the days of Salmanasar king of the Assyrians, even in his captivity, forsook not the way of truth, but every day gave all he could get to his brethren his fellow captives, that were of his kindred. And when he was younger than any of the tribe of Nephtali, yet did he no childish thing in his work.”

Totally different, isn’t it? What’s going on here? The answer’s simple: all three translations use three different source texts.

The first thing to understand is that there’s no single, standard version of the book of Tobit. Instead what you really have is different versions of the same work circulating in different languages like Greek or Latin or Hebrew or Aramaic or even Ethiopian.

There are at least two or three versions of Tobit in Greek. The shorter one, found in virtually most surviving Greek manuscripts, is called Greek I (G1). The longer (containing 1,700 more words than G1) version found only almost fully in the 4th-century Codex Sinaiticus, and partially in a couple other manuscripts, is Greek II (G2). Sinaiticus uniquely preserves most of G2 – albeit riddled with scribal errors – except for two lacunae (4:7-19b and 13:7-10b).

Fortunately, an 11th century manuscript (Mount Athos, MS 319, aka Vatopedi 913) gives the G2 text from 3:6 to 6:16 (while giving the G1 text for the rest of the book), thereby filling one of the two lacunae.

The third version, Greek III (G3) is fundamentally related to G2, but is not dependent on the version contained in Sinaiticus. G3 exists only partially (covering only 6:9-13:8) in three cursive manuscripts, which all reproduce G1 for the rest of the book.

As for Latin, there are two main versions of the book. To be more precise, one of the two is more like a family of different versions.

The various versions of Tobit made before St. Jerome translated biblical books into Latin are mainly related to G2, to the point that it can be used to understand and correct its text via comparison, although from time to time they do exhibit some differences from the text in Sinaiticus (more on these later). These so-called Vetus Latina (VL) versions are not all of one type, though.

As of now, there is still no critical edition of the VL version (or rather, versions).

The next best thing is an 18th century text assembled by French Benedictine monk Pierre Sabatier in the Bibliorum sacrorum latinae versiones antiquae, seu Vetus Italica (pp. 706-743), mainly based on two 9th century Latin manuscripts: Q (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale, fonds lat. 93, aka MS Regius 3564) and P (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale, fonds lat. 11505, aka MS Sangermanensis 4) along with readings from G (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale, fonds lat. 11503, aka Sangermanensis 15 or Sangermanensis 1), which contains the text up to 13:2, and W (Rome, Bibliotheca Apostolica Vaticana, Regin. lat. 7, aka Codex Reginensis), which contains the text only as far as 6:12, the rest being a copy of the Vulgate version (see below).

Since then, two other manuscripts have been found and studied, which illustrate the lack of ‘one type’ of the text: the 10th century R (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale, fonds lat. 6, aka the Ripoll Bible), and the 9th-century X (Madrid, Biblioteca Univers. Cent. 31, aka Codex Complutensis I).

Both of these have been published by the Italian scholar Francesco Vattioni in the 1970s, who also published the readings of the Tobit text found in a work attributed to St. Augustine known as the Speculum de sacra scriptura (Mirror of Holy Scripture).

The text of Complutensis I is very paraphrastic, representing a much expanded form of the text found in Sabatier. Besides these, other important sources for the VL Tobit are quotations from early Church Fathers.

The text translated by Jerome and included in the Latin Vulgate, meanwhile, is interesting in itself, because it is a free translation of a translation.

This is how he explains the translation process in his preface to the book: “I have persisted as I have been able, and because the language of the Chaldeans is close to Hebrew speech, finding a speaker very skilled in both languages, I took to the work of one day, and whatever he expressed to me in Hebrew words, this, with a summoned scribe, I have set forth in Latin words.”

Apparently, Jerome did not know ‘Chaldean’ (Aramaic) – although he does note that the language is similar to Hebrew (answer being that both are Semitic languages), which he is thought to have known – that he needed someone to translate the Aramaic version of Tobit he had acquired. The translation work was apparently very quick – according to Jerome’s words it only took him, his scribe, and his Aramaic-speaking translator “the work of one day.”

The Vulgate version (which is apparently of the same general family as Greek I, though not similar to it) was once the dominant version of the book in the West before more use was made of Greek manuscripts in biblical translations starting from the Renaissance onwards.

We don’t know for sure whether the Aramaic text used by Jerome is descended from a Semitic forebear or was based on the Greek. The Vulgate text’s relation to the Greek versions and even to the VL recensions is really problematic, since it exhibits some considerable differences from them (although some scholars suspect that Jerome was apparently at the same time dependent on the VL versions).

These differences might stem in part from the version Jerome and his bilingual acquaintance were translating from, but perhaps also in part due to Jerome’s possibly rather free translation method (he admitted that his translation of Judith, which was like Tobit also from an Aramaic version, was magis sensum e sensus quam ex verbo verbum “more sense for sense than word for word;” it could very well be the same case here).

The general impression one could get from Vulgate Tobit is that it is more moralistic and didactic compared to the more straightforward other versions – I’d even say quite preachy. Compare Raphael-as-Azariah’s advice to Tobias on their way to Media in the Vulgate to, say, the G2 version (NAB):

Then the angel Raphael said to him: Hear me, and I will shew thee who they are, over whom the devil can prevail. For they who in such manner receive matrimony, as to shut out God from themselves, and from their mind, and to give themselves to their lust, as the horse and mule, which have not understanding, over them the devil hath power. But thou when thou shalt take her, go into the chamber, and for three days keep thyself continent from her, and give thyself to nothing else but to prayers with her. And on that night lay the liver of the fish on the fire, and the devil shall be driven away. But the second night thou shalt be admitted into the society of the holy Patriarchs.

And the third night thou shalt obtain a blessing that sound children may be born of you. And when the third night is past, thou shalt take the virgin with the fear of the Lord, moved rather for love of children than for lust, that in the seed of Abraham thou mayst obtain a blessing in children.”
(Douai-Rheims, Tobit 6:16-22)

Raphael said to him: “Do you not remember your father’s commands? He ordered you to marry a woman from your own ancestral family. Now listen to me, brother; do not worry about that demon. Take Sarah. I know that tonight she will be given to you as your wife! When you go into the bridal chamber, take some of the fish’s liver and the heart, and place them on the embers intended for incense, and an odor will be given off. As soon as the demon smells the odor, it will flee and never again show itself near her. Then when you are about to have intercourse with her, both of you must first get up to pray. Beg the Lord of heaven that mercy and protection be granted you. Do not be afraid, for she was set apart for you before the world existed. You will save her, and she will go with you. And I assume that you will have children by her, and they will be like brothers for you. So do not worry.” (NAB-RE, Tobit 6:16-18)

For a long time, only G1 and the Vulgate text were the only ones readily available to translators: Sinaiticus was only found in the early 19th century and Oxyrhynchus (where a 6th century fragment containing the G2 version of Tobit 2:2-5, 8 was found – one of the three manuscripts containing G2) wasn’t excavated until 1896.

And even after Sinaiticus was discovered to have a different text of the book, scholars at the time still considered the its text to be secondary to G1’s. Reason being the adage (well-known in textual criticism) of lectio brevior lectio potior, “shorter reading is the better reading.”

That, and the fact that G1 enjoys more attestation than G2, which was – back then – only represented in a single manuscript. They assumed that G1 was the original version, while G2 was an expansion of it.

Aside from G1, Sinaiticus, and the Vulgate, people before the mid-20th century were aware of a number of other versions of the book in Hebrew (and one in Aramaic), although all of these were late, medieval texts that are deritative of the Greek or the Vulgate versions.

  1. The Münster text (HM), first published in 1516 in Constantinople, then reprinted in Basel by Sebastian Münster in 1542. Said to be a 5th century version, this text is generally based on G2. This version was reproduced in the London Polyglot.
  2. The Fagius text (HF), said to date from the 12th century and first published in 1519 (reprinted by Paul Fagius in 1542). This version is also found in the 1657 London Polyglot. This text is usually judged to be a paraphrastic translation or a free recasting of a Greek text like G1 made by a medieval Jew from Western Europe. This version is noted for its introduction of OT phraseology into the text. The Haydock Commentary often alludes to this version along with the other ones named here.
  3. Gaster’s text (HG), another translation derived from from a 15th century Midrash on the Pentateuch that condenses and greatly abbreviates the narrative found in the medieval Aramaic text, with which it otherwise largely agrees. The narrative in 1:1-3:6 is again in the third person; much of the dialogue and the prayers are eliminated. The text lays a huge emphasis on tithing, a reason why it was introduced into the pentateuchal midrash.
  4. Cairo Genizah T-S A 45.25, 45.26 and 45.29 (Cambridge University Library): Fragmentary texts dating from the 13th-14th century. The earliest of these, 45.26 is of the same recension as the 1516 Constantinople text, while the latter two agree with Fagius’ version.

In the 19th century, Adolf Neubauer also discovered a 15th-century Aramaic text of Tobit in the Bodleian library at Oxford (Hebrew MS 2339).

The text, written in late Aramaic, seems to have been derived from G1. Some peculiar quirks of this version include: (1) agreement with the Vulgate in telling the story of Tobit in the third person in chapters 1-3; (2) omission of the dog, which is mentioned in most other versions; (3) abbreviation of chapter 12, omission of chapter 13 and most of 14 (the remaining part of which is highly condensed); and (4) a short epilogue in Hebrew.

At that time, Neubauer expressed his opinion that this text “Chaldee text in a more complete form was the original from which the translation of the Vulgate was made,” an opinion which was eventually critiqued as being unsubstantiated.

The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the 1950s, however, would change long-held assumptions. But that’s for next time.

Patrick lives in Japan. He supports the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite according to the Missal of Bl. Pope John XXIII.

The photo shows, “Tobias Saying Good-Bye to his Father [Tobit],” by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, painted in 1860.

Tsar Nicholas II And Thailand

An Orthodox parish appeared in the Thai city of Hua Hin about seven years ago. Hua Hin is situated near Bangkok and it is one of the residences of the King of Thailand. When the members of the Russian Orthodox mission were discussing who to dedicate the new church to, the Orthodox community from the island of Phuket proposed that the church be dedicated to the Royal Martyrs.

When St. Nicholas II was the tsarevich (crown prince), he visited the Kingdom of Siam during his Eastern journey, which makes him the only Orthodox saint who has ever trod this country so far. The factors contributing to the dedication of the church in honor of the Royal Family were: the importance of the monarchy for the Thai people, the Russian monarch’s holiness, and the status of the city as a royal residence. Another weighty argument was the fact that the parish on Phuket suggested donating relics associated with the Royal Family to the new church, namely a medallion which belonged to Princess Tatiana Nikolaevna and the cross that she used to wear on her neck (these were bought by Sergey Yefremov, a parishioner, at an Armand Hammer Auction).

The rector of the Holy Trinity Church on Phuket painted an icon of the Holy Princess Tatiana and donated it to the new church in Hua Hin, and Sergei Yefremov sent them another present from Russia, namely a small icon of the Protection of the Holy Theotokos from the Church of the Feodorovskaya icon in Krasnoye Selo near St. Petersburg (also from the Armand Hammer collection).

Although the community is small, the church started holding interesting annual public and church meetings and concerts, along with other events with the participation of the Russian Federation’s Ambassador Extraordinary to Thailand. Last year there were also Church-wide festivities on the occasion of the centenary of the Royal Family’s martyrdom.

Pilgrims from across Thailand came in buses and their own cars, and at least half of them were Thais—most probably because the tourist season had ended long before and all who remained in Thailand were its permanent residents and a handful of tourists.

Of all the Thais who were present at the church service, one elderly couple stood out: the former commander-in-chief of the Thai Royal Navy, Admiral Varong Songcharoen, and his wife, Vorasulisi (Bhakdikun) Songcharoen, who is related to the New Martyr Nicholas Johnson. Admiral Varong and his spouse had recently returned from Russia where they had participated in an international conference dedicated to the memory of Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich and St. Nicholas Johnson.

The service was solemn, with an assembly of priests in the altar, and a male choir singing in the church which was packed. After the service Archimandrite Oleg (Cherepanin) delivered a sermon on the podvig of the last tsar and his family and on how much the monarchical system in Thailand should be valued.

After the sermon the choir performed the anthem of the Russian Empire, “God Save the Tsar”, as well as the royal anthem of Thailand, Sansoen Phra Barami [meaning, “Glorify His Prestige” in Thai.—Trans.]. Fr. Oleg spoke on the New Martyr Nicholas. Most of the parishioners knew nothing about him, and the presence of this saint’s Thai relatives in the church was both stirring and mysterious—you immediately wanted to know them better.

When all the prayers were over, the celebration continued in a freer atmosphere—during the festal meal, the choir of St. Nicholas Church sang songs, and students of Sunday schools from Pattaya and Samui Island gave performances.

The program concluded with the launch of a Thai book that was published especially for the feast. The book was composed of selected letters and diary entries of the Holy Emperor Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra. The purity of love and faith and the high standards of family relations in their correspondence demonstrates to us an example of family holiness.

The greatest impression came from the illustrations: the photographs of the Royal Family, skillfully colored by the well-known photographer Olga Shirnina (aka Klimbim). The book was launched by the project manager Xenia Bychkova who expressed her gratitude to all those who had worked on this book. The launch in Thai was prepared by a student of the Orthodox theological college in Phuket, Karl Ratchanont Teikoksung. Fr. Oleg presented each Thai who attended the service with a copy of the book.

Reflecting on the Orthodox community in Thailand, I asked myself the following questions: Do we and the Thais understand the meaning of today’s celebrations? How can residents of Thailand, a monarchical state, mark the martyrdom of a monarch of their friend-state?

Some reflections…

Hieromonk Micah (Phiasayawong), the first Laotian Orthodox priest: Today we commemorate Tsar Nicholas and his family: how much they did for the Church and the people! Both the tsar and the tsarina faithfully accepted their crosses. Apart from having the power of the State in their hands, they believed in God, and they taught us to believe in God also. This day is a sad one and a happy one at the same time. When we look at their example of a holy life, it gives us joy, but when we recall how they were killed we feel sorrow. They were the father and the mother of the entire Russian land, and now they are saints and all of us (not just Russians) love them.

People in Thailand know about St. Nicholas II as he did much to help Thailand avoid French and British colonization—he is perceived as the defender of Thailand’s independence. As for Laos, no one knows about the tsar there. Laos is a Communist state, and they have a negative attitude towards royal authority (The last King of Laos, Savang Vatthana, abdicated the throne, after which he and his family were sent to the “Re-education camp,” where all of them perished in about 1977).”

Nicholas Thanaboon Kebklang, a student of the Orthodox theological college on the Island of Phuket: “July 17 is a sad day for the Russians. Exactly 100 years ago [this article was published in Russian in 2018 for the tragedy’s centenary.—Trans.] they lost their beloved state—Russia. Tsar Nicholas II was brutally murdered together with his family. Some may perceive it as a shocking and tragic event—and it is really so. But the tragedy of that fateful day is our today’s joy. Tsar Nicholas and his family became holy martyrs for the Church, and this is a victory, a triumph in Christ. Who is our God? Blessed are ye, when men shall hate you, and when they shall separate you from their company, and shall reproach you, and cast out your name as evil, for the Son of Man’s sake. Rejoice ye in that day, and leap for joy: for, behold, your reward is great in Heaven… (Lk. 6:22-23).”

Archimandrite Oleg (Cherepanin), Dean of the Patriarchal Parishes in Thailand:Today in Hua Hin, apart from the exploit of the martyred Royal Family we honor Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich, Many consider him the last Russian monarch, although he was never crowned. He was executed by firing squad in the city of Perm a month prior to the martyrdom of St. Nicholas II’s family. His faithful secretary, who didn’t leave the Grand Duke even in the hardest of times despite mortal danger, was martyred with him. He remained wholeheartedly faithful to Michael Alexandrovich both in the good times and during persecutions even to the point of death. This man’s name was Nicholas Johnson. The Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia canonized him as a new martyr. His icon lies on the analogion. It turned out that some of his relatives are Thai and reside in Thailand. Notably, one is Mrs. Vorasulisi Songcharoen, the spouse of the Thai Royal Navy Admiral Varong Songcharoen. Two months ago the couple emailed me and then came to the church on Saturday to pray at a memorial service for the repose of St. Nicholas Johnson. However, we didn’t have a memorial service because he is already ranked among the saints; instead, we held a service of intercession. It was then that the couple said that they wanted to attend the celebrations in Hua Hin.”

Vorasulisi (Bhakdikun) Songcharoen, the New Martyr Nicholas Johnson’s great-niece: “My great-uncle, Nicholas Nikolaevich Johnson, the secretary of Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich, was executed with him on the night of June 13, 1918, in the city of Perm, and was recognized as a new martyr afterwards. We learned about his tragic death not long ago, and on the 140th anniversary of his birth we asked Fr. Oleg (Cherepanin) to conduct a memorial service. Fr. Oleg kindly explained that we shouldn’t pray for his repose now because he is already a saint and what we can do is ask for his blessing. Fr. Oleg helped me understand and accept this tragedy from a more spiritual point of view, even if we are very sorry and sad. Now they are saints of God, and we can no longer think of them the way we would think of all other people. Fr. Oleg helped me perceive this feeling and accept this way of thinking, and I enormously appreciate that. Earlier I had thought desperately: “What a terrible tragedy! Why did it happen?” and so on. Instead of dwelling solely on the tragic aspect of the subject, we all should take into account that it was one of the most important lessons of history we must learn.

“Three weeks ago, I attended events organized in Perm to commemorate Grand Duke Michael and my great-uncle St. Nicholas Johnson. The procession of the cross walked from the city to the chapel built on the hill where the Grand Duke and his secretary are believed to have been killed. It was explained to me that it was a procession of repentance. In my view, the penitential nature of this procession is very important. With so many people and so many priests participating, it was a religious procession of people who had the same sense of remorse for what happened 100 years ago…

“I have been to Russia on three occasions: during the first visit I tried to find my mother’s grave; the second trip was last year because my son wanted to see Moscow; and this year we travelled to Perm in connection with the centenary of my great-uncle’s martyrdom. So, we walked in a cross-procession to the chapel—the supposed place of his execution, then we were present at the ceremony of the unveiling of a plaque in the building where the Grand Duke was seen for the last time; next we took part in the planting of a tree and visited a museum dedicated to the story of Grand Duke Michael and St. Nicholas Johnson. We also participated in an international conference where the tragic events of 100 years ago were discussed in detail from different perspectives: historical, legal, archeological, social and so on. It was also mentioned that it would be more correct to call Grand Duke Michael “Tsar Michael II” because in fact he was the last Emperor of Russia.

“The remains of the Grand Duke and my great-uncle haven’t been found yet, but the search will continue using the most advanced technology and instruments. My cousin and I have provided our DNA samples so the remains could be identified once they have been found. I was happy to have a chance of offering my mite and I pray that the bodies of the Grand Duke and my great-uncle could be discovered and buried in an appropriate manner.”

The original Russian version of this article was translated by Dmitry Lapa, and appears courtesy of Orthodox Christianity.

Why Eastern Europeans Do Not Want Islam

Why Eastern Europeans are much more reluctant to accept Muslim migrants than their Western counterparts can be traced back to circumstances surrounding a pivotal battle, that of Kosovo, which took place on June 15, 1389, exactly 630 years ago today.  It pitted Muslim invaders against Eastern European defenders, or the ancestors of those many Eastern Europeans today who are resistant to Islam.

Because the jihad is as old as Islam, it has been championed by diverse peoples throughout the centuries (Arabs in the Middle East, Moors (Berbers and Africans) in Spain and Western Europe, etc.). Islam’s successful entry into Eastern Europe was spearheaded by the Turks, specifically that tribe centered in westernmost Anatolia (or Asia Minor) and thus nearest to Europe, the Ottoman Turks, so-named after their founder Osman Bey.   As he lay dying in 1323, his parting words to his son and successor, Orhan, were for him “to propagate Islam by yours arms.”

This his son certainly did; the traveler Ibn Batutua, who once met Orhan in Bursa, observed that, although the jihadi had captured some one hundred Byzantine fortresses, “he had never stayed for a whole month in any one town,” because he “fights with the infidels continually and keeps them under siege.” Christian cities fell like dominos: Smyrna in 1329, Nicaea in 1331, and Nicomedia in 1337. By 1340, the whole of northwest Anatolia was under Turkic control.  By now and to quote a European contemporary, “the foes of the cross, and the killers of the Christian people, that is, the Turks, [were]  separated from Constantinople by  a channel of three or four miles.”

By 1354, the Ottoman Turks, under Orhan’s son, Suleiman, managed to cross over the Dardanelles and into the abandoned fortress town of Gallipoli, thereby establishing their first foothold in Europe: “Where there were churches he destroyed them or converted them to mosques,” writes an Ottoman chronicler: “Where there were bells, Suleiman broke them up and cast them into fires. Thus, in place of bells there were now muezzins.”

Cleansed of all Christian “filth,” Gallipoli became, as a later Ottoman bey boasted, “the Muslim throat that gulps down every Christian nation—that chokes and destroys the Christians.” From this dilapidated but strategically situated fortress town, the Ottomans launched a campaign of terror throughout the countryside, always convinced they were doing God’s work. “They live by the bow, the sword, and debauchery, finding pleasure in taking slaves, devoting themselves to murder, pillage, spoil,” explained Gregory Palamas, an Orthodox metropolitan who was taken captive in Gallipoli, adding, “and not only do they commit these crimes, but even—what an aberration—they believe that God approves them!”

After Orhan’s death in 1360 and under his son Murad I—the first of his line to adopt the title “Sultan”—the westward jihad into the Balkans began in earnest and was unstoppable. By 1371 he had annexed portions of Bulgaria and Macedonia to his sultanate, which now so engulfed Constantinople that “a citizen could leave the empire simply by walking outside the city gates.”

Unsurprisingly, then, when Prince Lazar of Serbia (b. 1330) defeated Murad’s invading forces in 1387, “there was wild rejoicing among the Slavs of the Balkans. Serbians, Bosnians, Albanians, Bulgarians, Wallachians, and Hungarians from the frontier provinces all rallied around Lazar as never before, in a determination to drive the Turks out of Europe.”

Murad responded to this effrontery on June 15, 1389, in Kosovo.  There, a Serbian-majority coalition augmented by Hungarian, Polish, and Romanian contingents—twelve thousand men under the leadership of Lazar—fought thirty thousand Ottomans under the leadership of the sultan himself. Despite the initial downpour of Turkic arrows, the Serbian heavy cavalry plummeted through the Ottoman frontlines and broke the left wing; the Ottoman right, under Murad’s elder son Bayezid, reeled around and engulfed the Christians. The chaotic clash continued for hours.

On the night before battle, Murad had beseeched Allah “for the favour of dying for the true faith, the martyr’s death.”  Sometime near the end   of battle, his prayer was granted. According to tradition, Miloš Obilić, a Serbian knight, offered to defect to the Ottomans on condition that, in view of his own high rank, he be permitted to submit before the sultan himself. They brought him before Murad and, after Milos knelt in false submission, he lunged at and plunged a dagger deep into the Muslim warlord’s stomach (other sources say “with two thrusts which came out at his back”). The sultan’s otherwise slow guards responded by hacking the Serb to pieces. Drenched in and spluttering out blood, Murad lived long enough to see his archenemy, the by now captured Lazar, brought before him, tortured, and beheaded. A small conciliation, it may have put a smile on the dying martyr’s face.

Murad’s son Bayezid instantly took charge: “His first act as Sultan, over his father’s dead body, was to order the death, by strangulation with a bowstring, of his brother. This was Yaqub, his fellow-commander in the battle, who had won distinction in the field and popularity with his troops.” Next Bayezid brought the battle to a decisive end; he threw everything he had at the enemy, leading to the slaughter of every last Christian—but even more of his own men in the process.

So many birds flocked to and feasted on the vast field of carrion that posterity remembered Kosovo as the “Field of Blackbirds.” Though essentially a draw—or at best a Pyrrhic victory for the Ottomans—the Serbs, with less men and resources to start with in comparison to the ascendant Muslim empire, felt the sting more.

In the years following the battle of Kosovo, the Ottoman war machine became unstoppable: the nations of the Balkans were conquered by the Muslims—after withstanding a millennium of jihads, Constantinople itself permanently fell to Islam in 1453—and they remained under Ottoman rule for centuries.

The collective memory of Eastern Europeans’ not too distant experiences with and under Islam should never be underestimated when considering why they are significantly more wary of—if not downright hostile to—Islam and its migrants compared to their Western, liberal counterparts.

As Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán once explained:

“We don’t want to criticize France, Belgium, any other country, but we think all countries have a right to decide whether they want to have a large number of Muslims in their countries. If they want to live together with them, they can. We don’t want to and I think we have a right to decide that we do not want a large number of Muslim people in our country. We do not like the consequences of having a large number of Muslim communities that we see in other countries, and I do not see any reason for anyone else to force us to create ways of living together in Hungary that we do not want to see….  I have to say that when it comes to living together with Muslim communities, we are the only ones who have experience because we had the possibility to go “through that experience for 150 years.”

And those years—1541 to 1699, when the Islamic Ottoman Empire occupied Hungary—are replete with the massacre, enslavement, and rape of Hungarians.

This is an excerpt from Raymond Ibrahim’s book, Sword and Scimitar: Fourteen Centuries of War between Islam and the West, which was also reviewed in the Postil here.

The photo shows, “The Kosovo Maiden,” by Uroš Predić, painted in 1919. The scene illustrates a scene from the poem, “The Kosovo Maiden,” from the Kosovo-cycle of Serbian poetry.

Alfred The Great

In a new endeavor for the Postil, we will publish interesting works which have been passed over by the hurrying flow of years. We believe that such works still have the ability to teach and please, and thus deserve an afterlife. Our first offering is by John Henry Haaren (1855-1916), who a native of New York, a teacher, and president of the Brooklyn Institute. This brief biography of Alfred the Great was published in 1904.

I

The Danes were neighbors of the Norwegian Vikings, and like them were fond of the sea and piracy. They plundered the English coasts for more than a century; and most of northern and eastern England became for a time a Danish country with Danish kings.

What saved the rest of the country to the Saxons was the courage of the great Saxon king, Alfred.

Alfred was the son of Ethelwulf, king of the West Saxons. He had a loving mother who brought him up with great care. Up to the age of twelve, it is said, he was not able to read well, in spite of the efforts of his mother and others to teach him.

When Alfred was a boy there were no printed books. The wonderful art of printing was not invented until about the year 1440—nearly six hundred years later than Alfred’s time. Moreover, the art of making paper had not yet been invented. Consequently the few books in use in Alfred’s time were written by skillful penmen, who wrote generally on leaves of parchment, which was sheepskin carefully prepared so that it might retain ink.

One day Alfred’s mother showed him and his elder brothers a beautiful volume which contained a number of the best Saxon ballads. Some of the words in this book were written in brightly colored letters, and upon many of the leaves were painted pictures of gaily-dressed knights and ladies.

“Oh, what a lovely book!” exclaimed the boys.

“Yes, it is lovely,” replied the mother. “I will give it to whichever of you children can read it the best in a week.”

Alfred began at once to take lessons in reading, and studied hard day after day. His brothers passed their time in amusements and made fun of Alfred’s efforts. They thought he could not learn to read as well as they could, no matter how hard he should try.

At the end of the week the boys read the book to their mother, one after the other. Much to the surprise of his brothers, Alfred proved to be the best reader and his mother gave him the book.

While still very young Alfred was sent by his father to Rome to be anointed by His Holiness, the Pope. It was a long and tiresome journey, made mostly on horseback.

With imposing, solemn ceremony he was anointed by the Holy Father. Afterwards he spent a year in Rome receiving religious instruction.

II

In the year 871, when Alfred was twenty-two years old, the Danes invaded various parts of England. Some great battles were fought, and Alfred’s elder brother Ethelred, king of the West Saxons, was killed. Thus Alfred became king.

The Danes still continued to fight the Saxons, and defeated Alfred in a long and severe struggle. They took for themselves the northern and eastern parts of England.

Moreover, Danes from Denmark continued to cross the sea and ravage the coast of Saxon England. They kept the people in constant alarm. Alfred therefore determined to meet the pirates on their own element, the sea. So he built and equipped the first English navy, and in 875 gained the first naval victory ever won by the English.

A few years after this, however, great numbers of Danes from the northern part of England came pouring into the Saxon lands. Alfred himself was obliged to flee for his life.

For many months he wandered through forests and over hills to avoid being taken by the Danes. He sometimes made his home in caves and in the huts of shepherds and cowherds. Often he tended the cattle and sheep and was glad to get a part of the farmer’s dinner in pay for his services.

Once, when very hungry, he went into the house of a cowherd and asked for something to eat. The cowherd’s wife was baking cakes and she said she would give him some when they were done.

“Watch the cakes and do not let them burn, while I go across the field to look after the cows,” said the woman, as she hurried away. Alfred took his seat on the chimney-corner to do as he was told. But soon his thoughts turned to his troubles and he forgot about the cakes.

When the woman came back she cried out with vexation, for the cakes were burned and spoiled. “You lazy, good-for-nothing man!” she said, “I warrant you can eat cakes fast enough; but you are too lazy to help me bake them.”

With that she drove the poor hungry Alfred out of her house. In his ragged dress he certainly did not look like a king, and she had no idea that he was anything but a poor beggar.

III

Some of Alfred’s friends discovered where he was hiding and joined him. In a little time a body of soldiers came to him and a strong fort was built by them. From this fort Alfred and his men went out now and then and gave battle to small parties of the Danes. Alfred was successful and his army grew larger and larger.

One day he disguised himself as a wandering minstrel and went into the camp of the Danes. He strolled here and there, playing on a harp and singing Saxon ballads. At last, Guthrum (Guth’-rum), the commander of the Danes, ordered the minstrel to be brought to his tent.

Alfred went. “Sing to me some of your charming songs,” said Guthrum. “I never heard more beautiful music.” So the kingly harper played and sang for the Dane, and went away with handsome presents. But better than that, he had gained information that was of the greatest value.

In a week he attacked the Danish forces and defeated them with great slaughter in a battle which lasted all day and far into the night. Guthrum was taken prisoner and brought before Alfred.

Taking his harp in his hands, Alfred played and sang one of the ballads with which he had entertained Guthrum in the camp. The Dane started in amazement and exclaimed:

“You, then, King Alfred, were the wandering minstrel?”

“Yes,” replied Alfred, “I was the musician whom you received so kindly. Your life is now in my hands; but I will give you your liberty if you will become a Christian and never again make war on my people.”

“King Alfred,” said Guthrum, “I will become a Christian, and so will all my men if you will grant liberty to them as to me; and henceforth, we will be your friends.”

Alfred then released the Danes, and they were baptized as Christians.

An old road running across England from London to Chester was then agreed upon as the boundary between the Danish and Saxon kingdoms; and the Danes settled in East Anglia, as the eastern part of England was called.

Years of peace and prosperity followed for Alfred’s kingdom. During these years the king rebuilt the towns that had been destroyed by the Danes, erected new forts, and greatly strengthened his army and navy.

He also encouraged trade; and he founded a school like that established by Charlemagne. He himself translated a number of Latin books into Saxon, and probably did more for the cause of education than any other king that ever wore the English crown.

The photo shows King Alfred, from a 14th-century roll chronicle.

Yoga Of Deception

What attracts people to yoga? In my case, it was a thirst for something mysterious, some teaching that would allow me to develop some superpowers, such as telepathy, breath-holding, etc. I discovered yoga as a primary school student back in the early 1980s thanks to my elder cousin.

I would sit in the lotus position at the lessons, and the teacher would rebuke me, telling me “to sit like a human.” And my last mentor was a yoga fitness instructor, under whose guidance between 2008 and 2009 I refreshed my skills in the fundamentals of Ashtanga yoga that I had largely forgotten over the years of my office work. And there were a great number of books, groups, seminars, and teachers between these two “mentors.”

When I was in my thirties, I wanted to comprehend the essence of yoga, and I was more interested in meditative practices than in physical exercises (asanas). The fact is that if someone starts yoga and doesn’t quit it, sooner or later he will find that it is boring to sit in the same positions and do the same exercises day in and day out.

One day he will inevitably ask himself: “Why do I need all of this”? And this is precisely what happened to me: I wanted to find the meaning. And at last I discovered the concept of pralaya in Hinduism which (to put it simply) means “cyclical destruction of the universe.”

No matter what you did (whether you practiced yoga or something else), what you strove for, how many times you were born, which class or caste you belonged to, all the souls (whether they like it or not) will ultimately unite into one “golden egg”, into which the whole universe will contract, once one “day of Brahma” has changed into a “night of Brahma” next time. It will be the end of the universe, and all will disappear.

From the yogis’ point of view, there is no such thing as immortality of an individual soul because with the beginning of a “new day of Brahma” the souls will come into being again, but these will be absolutely different souls (not those destroyed). Only Brahman, the impersonal absolute, is immortal.

There are many similarities between all of this and the materialist conception of the world, the “pulsating universe theory”, and so forth. However, there are quite a few tendencies in Hinduism (of which yoga is a part), from atheistic and agnostic to pantheistic, those recognizing many deities and close to paganism.

Then what is the object pursued by a yogi? He seeks to attain the state of Moksha, or Samadhi, approximately meaning “being released.” This is the “liberation” from the cyclic existence, this suffering-laden cycle of life. A yogi believes in reincarnation, in the rebirth cycle, but he tries his best to avoid this continued suffering.

When I came to realize that, according to yoga, death awaits you in any case (both the physical death and the death of your soul, once it has escaped the vicious birth-death-rebirth cycle and united with the indifferent absolute), I lost interest in this teaching.

Later, in the summer of 2010, I ended up at the Monastery of St. Paphnutius in Borovsk [in the Kaluga region south of the Moscow region] completely “by chance” (in fact, providentially), and my life was gradually transformed.

But why not practice yoga as we do gymnastics, without becoming absorbed in its mysterious and occult depths? I am quite sure that this is impossible (except when someone is fortunate enough in having a transient passion for yoga). Yoga is part of the Hindu religion, and there’s no getting away from it.

The very word “yoga” derives from the Sanskrit root word “yuj”, meaning “to yoke”, “to unite”, “to join.” Meanwhile the word “religion” derives from the Latin verb “religare”, meaning “to tie”, “to bind together.” In both cases you connect to God or some other invisible forces that interact with you. So at very least it would be illogical to state that yoga is not religious as the words “religion” and “yoga” are almost synonyms. The problem is that people seldom take the trouble to grasp the hidden meaning of words.

Websites dedicated to yoga often contain quotations from the Gospel and portray Christ as a yogi. This “message” is addressed to the nominal, unchurched “Orthodox” who make up the vast majority in Russia.

According to the statistics, between seventy and eighty percent of Russian residents call themselves Orthodox; those who take Communion at least once a year make up less than thirty per cent; and the true children of the Church, who know the Creed by heart, are fully integrated into Church life, and regularly take Communion make up less than five per cent.

Of course, yogis make use of some similar element in Christian teaching and the teaching of yoga to attract these “liberal faithful” who consider themselves Christians and may sincerely want to be followers of Christ, wear crosses on their necks, but know virtually nothing about Christ and His Church.

The question of the key difference between Orthodoxy and yoga really concerned me after my visit to the Monastery of St. Paphnutius in Borovsk. I kept asking the spiritual fathers there: “May I practice yoga? Why is it a bad idea?” While they answered the first question with confidence, they skirted the second one. So I wanted to find out the truth for myself.

It eventually became the subject of my seminary thesis and even developed into the book, An Orthodox Perspective on Yoga, which was published by the Simvolik publishing house not long ago.

On the face of it, yoga’s ethical principles are very similar to the commandments of the Bible. Thus, the principle of Ahimsa (“not to injure”, “nonviolence”) seems to be equivalent to the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” Brahmacharya (“continence”) is consonant with the commandment, “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” Asteya (“non-stealing”) is in harmony with the commandment, “Thou shalt not steal.”

But this is what the Holy Hierarch Gregory Palamas said about similarities like these: “A lie that is not far from the truth gives rise to a double delusion. Since a tiny difference escapes the majority’s notice, they either take the lie for the truth or, on account of its closeness to the lie, take the truth for the lie, in both cases completely falling away from the truth.”

These words are true about Christianity and yoga: The difference becomes manifest when you make it as simple and clear as you can.

Yoga has no principle of humility at all, though this fact is often overlooked. Yogis will argue with this statement, but the collections of Yoga Sutras, the main sources of yoga, don’t say a single word about humility, whereas in Christianity the commandment of humility is the greatest one. Blessed are the poor in spirit (Mt. 5:3) – the Savior’s Sermon on the Mount begins with these words. No virtue has any value without humility.

From personal communication with adherents of yoga whom I held in respect I was convinced that the absence of pride is fine for yogis, but they won’t need it until they reach the “spiritual heights.”

While they are on their way “to the top”, they need to be motivated by pride (among other things) to speed up their progress. Thus ego becomes an “engine of progress.” Although humility is essential, they will first “achieve holiness” and then get rid of their pride. But will they succeed?

That is why Christians start with humility, relying on the will of God and not their own will.

However, someone can argue and say that while pride moves you to pursue new goals over and over again, traditional yogis aim to reach nothingness—a goal that seemingly has nothing to do with pride.

It should be stressed that classical yoga no longer exists—one won’t find it, not only in Europe, but also in India, the motherland of this teaching. I concede that there may be two or three gurus in the Himalayas preaching “true yoga”, though that is very unlikely.

As a matter of fact, yoga is a motley collection of various schools and tendencies. Some of them do understand that gaining supernatural powers feeds your pride and hinders your spiritual growth. Then the question arises: when do the Yoga Sutras devote so much attention (a special section) to these supernatural abilities?

Back in the 1960s, the documentary, “Indian Yogis, Who Are They?” was released in the USSR. Its authors presented yoga as a philosophy, a moral teaching, and health and fitness gymnastics. This film contributed to the popularization of yoga in the Soviet society, as did some publications in Soviet popular science magazines, The Razor’s Edge science fiction novel by the Soviet writer Ivan Yefremov (1907-1972), along with a number of other arts and cultural events in the Soviet Union.

And what is interesting is that the modern sequel of that film, “Indian Yogis, Who Are They? Forty Years Later”, tells the viewers plainly that yoga “is a tool for awakening of your energy potential and obtaining super-normal powers.” Formerly this side of yoga was not emphasized, but it is obvious that today this way of advertising yoga works.

Man wants to become like God. It is a matter of the path he chooses. If Adam had obeyed the commandment of God, he would have remained immortal and with time could have become like God, cultivating and caring for the Garden of Eden with which God had entrusted him and growing in love. But Adam preferred the easy path, namely “to become like gods”, by eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It was “magic”, something that was not blessed by God and “outside” God.

Many people see yoga precisely as entering the spiritual world “from the backdoor.” They think: “In Christianity I am obliged to obey the moral commandments, keep the fasts, go to church and so on. But why? I would rather go to a yoga center, perform asanas and pranayamas, and will get what I need!”

Nevertheless, I do hope that one way or another the Lord will bring the yogis who sincerely seek Him to His Church, the only ark of salvation. I believe that even committed adherents of yoga have simply strayed from the right path while searching for the true God. I have a feeling that many of them may become devout members of the Holy Church. After all, they are seekers of God and are not lukewarm (cf. Rev. 3:15-16).

The main area of divergence between Christianity and yoga is dogmas. What is a dogma for the majority? It is something the Church calls on them to believe in, while giving no proof of it. But yogis have their own dogmas, something they unconditionally believe in, too. And their basic tenets are very different from Christian ones.

Though it is hard to perceive it, Christians confess the faith in the God Who is one in essence and three in personhood: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit—the Consubstantial and Undivided Trinity. He is the Triune, One, Personal God. It is extremely difficult for Christians to comprehend the mystery of the Trinity, to say nothing of yogis and Hindus, for many of whom the Supreme Being cannot be personal. Hindus recognize the existence of rational spiritual beings and even refer to some of them as to “gods”, yet they see the absolute, Brahman, as impersonal.

The concept of reincarnation that is prevalent among yogis contradicts all the Christological dogmas and is in opposition to the Christian doctrine that life is given to us only once, and it will be followed by death, resurrection, and judgment (cf. Heb. 9:27).

The Holy Church has never raised this very important idea to a dogma because there has never been a slightest doubt about this in the minds of Christians. The first argument that proponents of reincarnation usually put forward is that the belief in metempsychosis is widely spread and its origins allegedly date back to ancient times. They contend that “Christianity appeared only 2,000 years ago, whereas people had believed in transmigration of the soul for thousands of years before Christ was born.”

However, insofar as we can judge from surviving monuments, neither (traditional) ancient Greeks nor ancient Romans believed in reincarnation. We can trace back their beliefs concerning afterlife from their mythology, the earliest monuments of which go back to the time of Homer and Hesiod [c. 750 B.C.].

According to them, after death people descend to the underground kingdom—a dark place known as Hades, Erebus, and Tartarus in different traditions—where they drag out a “shadowy”, joyless, miserable existence. In fact the idea of metempsychosis didn’t appear until the time of Pythagoras and Plato (that is, the sixth to fourth centuries B.C.) and it was adopted only by some representatives of a number of schools of philosophy.

Ancient Egyptians mummified the corpses of dead people, hoping that in the future their souls would be reunited to their bodies.

Ancient Hebrews believed in the resurrection of physical bodies as well, as evidenced by the famous prophecies of Ezekiel about the valley of dry bones, which will be joined together and come to life again (see Ezek. 37:1-14); the prophecy of Isaiah about the rising of dead bodies (Is. 26:19); and the prophecy in the Book of Job about the restoration of bodies from dust (Job 19:25-27).

Thus, neither ancient Egyptian books nor the books of the Old Testament mention transmigration of the soul.

We can judge the Christian attitude towards incarnation by the Parable of the rich man and Lazarus: And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried; And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom (Lk. 16:22-23).

The narrator, our Lord Jesus Christ, made it clear that after death human souls don’t transmigrate from one body to another; rather, as St. Nicholas (Velimirovich) of Serbia said, “They proceed to the abodes that they have deserved by their deeds on earth.”

Interestingly, the notion of metempsychosis didn’t exist among the ancestors of Aryan people either. At least the Rig-Veda [the oldest and principal of the Vedas, composed in the second millennium B.C. and containing a collection of hymns in early Sanskrit] has no mention of rebirth.

Let us once again return to the question of the purpose of life. The ultimate goal of Hinduism is to stop suffering, while Christians aspire to everlasting and happy life with God. The idea of theosis (union with God) which is central in Orthodox Christianity is based on awareness that both God and man are persons. Given this, our union with the Creator by no means implies that we are becoming a part of His body or a cell in His organism. Rather, we can potentially contemplate God and be in communion with Him.

But someone will surely exclaim: “I don’t care about philosophy, religious systems and other intricacies! I am interested in yoga solely as a set of physical exercises and a fitness training system which give a practical result! Can I practice yoga as mere exercises?”

The point is that yoga is not limited to only physical exercises. The fact is that when you come to a yoga center, you not only begin to train your body and practice yoga poses, but you also should be prepared for “expanding your consciousness” through special exercises, breathing exercises and meditation. Yoga practice presupposes mandatory meditation.

Can we practice yoga without all this “spirituality”? Yes, we can, but it won’t be yoga in this case. There are numerous similar types of exercises directed towards increased flexibility, muscular strength, and organism’s resistance to pathogens—in a word, towards health improvement. What about Pilates, stretching, and so on? If you are interested exclusively in physical training, you’d better opt for one of these instead of falling for yoga with its “spirituality”, which smells like sulfur…

The Russian original of this article was translated Dmitry Lapa, courtesy of Orthodox Christianity.

The photo shows the goddess Chhinnamasta, with his severed head. She is the essence of the yogic force, kundalini. The painting, in the Pahari style, dates to ca. 1750.

Nahum The Carpenter: The Sixteenth Epistle

The boys were happy their parents were considering moving from just outside Jerusalem into the country.

The raids by the Romans on the Jews in Jerusalem were escalating, with some people predicting a complete devastation of Jerusalem if the new Roman emperor had his way. People were very scared and helpless against the powerful Roman army.

Interestingly, the new Jesus people, Christians, were not bothered as much by the Romans, but unfortunately some Jewish followers were angry at the Christians for believing in this man Jesus and forgetting their Jewish beliefs. Some Jews were hunting, persecuting, torturing and killing the Christians.

Jesus had taught his new followers this was going to happen: You suffer because of me if you follow me.

One of Jesus apostles wrote this: You will be hated by all because of My name, but it is the one who has endured to the end who will be saved.

So they were mentally prepared to suffer for their beliefs, but like any human being they preferred to live happy safe lives so it made sense to try and avoid trouble as much as possible.

Ruth and Nahum did not know it yet, but they were in for another surprise!

Hannah, who liked to joke and tease Ezekiel, told him she wanted to furnish the spare bedroom. He asked why, were they going to have company?? She replied, yes in about five months. He said how do you know that far in advance who is coming, and how many?? She said as far as I know only one, but you never know? He was just on the verge of getting upset with her when she went over, put her arms around him and said we are having a baby!

Ezekiel was overcome with emotions and had to sit down. Hannah said to him you better be stronger than this when our baby arrives, you will have lots of work to do!!!

The boys had been looking for a place for their parents to move to, but so far had no success.

Back at home Ruth and Nahum had put a small sign on their front lawn HOUSE FOR SALE. They didn’t expect to get many responses considering the Jewish people were living under constant fear of raids by the Romans.

After two months of absolutely no action they decided they would board the home up and move away.

Nahum visited The Banker next day and got his approval to put the Banker on the For Sale sign as contact. He would expect a fee, of course. Nahum agreed.

The couple then started packing and getting rid of years of accumulation. They donated many items to local charities and some friends who could use some of their household items.

Meanwhile, back at The Medical Centre just as she closed the clinic, Hannah was surprised to see her father, Jonah, jump down from his horse, she was afraid something was wrong. No, on the contrary, I would like to chat with you for few minutes, can I follow you home and you can make me tea? of course his daughter said anytime for you Daddy.

Once settled, Jonah started to tell his daughter why he was there. He said, Hannah as you know your mother and I are now alone in our home, you, your sister and brother have all moved out and we have three bedrooms collecting dust. Hannah wondered where this was going? He said your mother mentioned the other day that Ruth and Nahum want to move closer to their two boys and the businesses and she wondered if they might be interested in staying with us until they sell their home and find another one? Hannah, oh Daddy, I am so pleasantly surprised at your offer. We never would have thought to ask you, but it makes to much sense.

They discussed the idea a bit more, Jonah explained that they would make an opening between two of the bedrooms, providing a dining area and a separate sitting room. The third room would be the bedroom.

The one problem would be the kitchen, Ruth would have to share it with Abigail. Jonah went on to explain that Ruth and Abigail had been friends for years, and while they were both similar in personalities, both very confident and independent, they were also loving and caring. They thought these last two attributes would allow the two ladies to work together in the kitchen. The couples could decide to eat together or separately and probably a bit of both.

Hannah was so excited and hugged her dad, big time. She said I can’t wait for Zeke to get home to tell him.

Her dad returned the hug and with a kiss said good bye and mounted his horse.

When Ezekiel arrived home a short while later, Hannah, who was in a very good mood, met him at the door and greeted him more warmly than usual! Ezekiel was well aware of his wife’s expressive nature and said, ok, what is going on here now??? Hannah, in her teasing manner said, oh Zeke why would you ask that? He replied because you have that devilish twinkle in your eyes!

She then told him of her father’s visit and offer. Ezekiel said, I can see now why you are so happy, now I am too. Would you mind delaying dinner for a few minutes, I just have to go and tell Ezzie, I won’t be long.

He returned and told Hannah they were going to go visit her parents’ tomorrow and then if everything looked good, they would ride to his parents and tell them the good news.

It was a happy night for both Ezzie and Zeke and their ladies!

The photo shows, “The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans Under the Command of Titus, A.D. 70,” by David Roberts, painted in 1850.

Of War And Islam

History is about expansion and contraction – of ideas, of economics, of ambitions, and of the pursuit of power. A crucial element in this pulsation of human action is war.

Recalling von Clausewitz’s famous observation provides a meaningful framework for discussion: “We see, therefore, that War is not merely a political act, but also a real political instrument, a continuation of political commerce, a carrying out of the same by other means. All beyond this which is strictly peculiar to War relates merely to the peculiar nature of the means which it uses…War is the means, and the means must always include the object in our conception.”

Earlier, von Clausewitz defines war as, “an act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfil our will.”

Raymond Ibrahim actively engages with von Clausewitz in his latest book, Sword and Scimitar, by examining war as the fulfillment of the will of Islam. He looks at eight critical battles which marked how two worlds (one Moslem, one Western and Christian) view each other, down to the present.

Indeed, the encounters between these worlds stretch back more than a millennium, which means that Islam is not something new that suddenly burst into Western consciousness on and after 9/11. Rather, Islamic terrorism is part-and-parcel of a very ancient struggle which has expanded or contracted, sometimes favoring the West and sometimes giving the upper hand to Islam.

War in this context is to be understood as jihad, through which Islam subdues all those that oppose the will of Allah and the example of Mohammad. Ibrahim therefore defines jihad as, “warfare to spread Islam,” and quoting Emile Tyan, he explains that jihad must continue “until the whole world is under the rule of Islam . . . Islam must completely be made over before the doctrine of jihad can be eliminated.”

Here, the famous ideological two-fold division of the world, into the “House of Islam” and the “House of Faithlessness,” takes on its proper meaning. Moslems inhabit a reality which can never accommodate the Other, for to accept infidelity (kufr) as a viable way to live out a human life is the denial of Allah, and thus cannot be permitted. This gives the lie, of course, to those that would promote multiculturalism.

This outright rejection of the Other (termed the dhimmi), as unacceptable because he is innately hostile to Allah, renders no other outcome than continual conflict, until the Other is no more – either he is Islamized or annihilated. Here, the concept of the jizya is often trundled out (which is protection-money that non-Moslems must pay in order to live as second-class inhabitants inside Islamic territory).

But such a levy does not mean acceptance or accommodation of the Other. It simply means that each non-Moslem life is a “possession” of Islam, which yields monetary recompense. The dhimmi must pay to live. Ibrahim quotes from a Moslem jurist: “their [infidels’] lives and their possessions are only protected by reason of payment of jizya.”

At its core, therefore, Islam is a political ideology, constructed to change society into the House of Islam, governed by the laws of Allah and the example of Mohammad (Shariah). Accordingly, more than any other faith system in the world, it is the expansion and contraction of war, which defines the character and purpose of Islam.

Violence is not an evil that must be neutralized by way of love (as is the Christian view), in order to win peace. Rather, bloodshed and fear are necessary, and on-going, tools to bring about the end-game of Islam, which is the subjugation of the world. In this way, the practice of Islam in the world is radically different to the practice of Christianity – love produces a certain type of civilization; fear and violence produces another.

A serious problem in the West right now is the lazy habit of assuming that all religions are exactly like Christianity and are therefore to be “handled” in the same way. This is yielding destructive results.

This further means that Islam has always sought war, in order to vanquish its enemies, since such destruction is a holy act, which will meet with much reward in heaven. Thus, a Moslem who engages in jihad is termed a ghazi, or one who raids the territory of the faithless (the kafirs), and slays the unbelieving – because they are Allah’s enemies.

Thus, each Moslem should strive to be a ghazi. Shedding the blood of non-Moslems is meritorious, and much pleasing to Allah. As one Islamic chronicler states: “The Ghazi is the sword of Allah; he is the protector and refuge of the believers. If he becomes a martyr in the way of Allah, do not believe that he has died—he lives in beatitude with Allah, he has eternal life.”

This means that without war Islam loses not only steam but its very purpose, for the world outside Islam is to be changed through violence and the fear that the threat of violence produces. In the East, Islam was, and is, in contention with paganism.

In the West, it fights Christianity (even though the West is now more pagan than Christian). As Ibrahim observes, “Muslim armies went to war against the West more often as religious rather than as national or ethnic forces, and their warring against the Westerners was so seen as mostly a monolithic struggle against Christendom rather than particular European states.”

Thus, Islam exists to wage war in the world. The winning of territory is simply the consequence of this purpose. In the words of Mohammad, “I have been made victorious with terror.”

This means that a negative view of Islam (both in the East and in the West) is a historically grounded response to the violence inherent in Islam. It is not simply “racism” or Islamophobia (both these terms become useless in the context of jihad, by virtue of which each terrorist is a ghazi).

How opposing the violence of jihad can possibly be racism or Islamophobia is never properly explained by those who deploy such terms, especially when the similar opposition brings out the same negative response to Islam among non-Moslems in the East.

Ibrahim raises such crucial issues, which makes his book that much nuanced, for it is more than a richly textured presentation of military history. Although each battle is comprehensively analyzed and detailed, with much insight into the “construction” of terror by Islamic warriors, Ibrahim also uses the subject of war to lay out a social critique (of both Islam and the West), because war also builds an outlook, a point of view, a mindset.

It is a given that Islam as a religion enjoys sociopolitical protection by the Western elite. In this regard, Ibrahim raises a very fundamental point – Islam has never changed; it is still engaged in subduing the world for Allah, by following the example of Mohammad. The West, however, has changed, and in the process has entirely abandoned its own history. This has put the West in a position of weakness, in that it has gotten into the habit of appeasing the violence of Islam.

The Islamic mindset is the same as it was over a millennium ago. The best defense that the West can now muster is multiculturalism, borderless post-nations, relentless hedonism, and appeasement. This puts the West in a perpetual posture of weakness, for it can no longer thwart Islam’s will.

In this regard, Ibrahim ends his book with a dire warning: “…if Islam is terrorizing the West today, that is not because it can, but because the West allows it to.”

A little earlier, the words of Alan G. Jamieson are highlighted: “At a time when the military superiority of the West—meaning chiefly the USA—over the Muslim world has never been greater. Western countries feel insecure in the face of the activities of Islamic terrorists…In all the long centuries of Christian-Muslim conflict, never has the military imbalance between the two sides been greater, yet the dominant West can apparently derive no comfort from that fact.”

This paradox is easily understood, of course. Islam has not lost its will and still wants to impose it on the world. The West, on the other hand, no longer has a will of its own and therefore no longer understands what it is supposed to do in the world. The only thing it can offer is endless self-indulgence and the pursuit of pleasure. All the while, Islam pursues power. Who will win? Perhaps, Islam is the West’s wakeup call. But the problem now is – what shall the West wake up to?

Raymond Ibrahim’s book should be required reading for all those interested in understanding the future of Islam in the world. It would appear that the West no longer wants a future.

The photo shows, “Bedouins Taking Aim,” by Adolf Schreyer, date unknown.

The Darkness Of Modernity

My newsfeed must be set for “shock.” Never does a day go by that there is not something outlandishly alarming featured as a story, somewhere, illustrating the insane march of modern culture. Much of me would like to think that the problem is in the newsfeed and not in the culture itself. However, on a basis that is frequent enough to be alarming in itself, I find something in my daily experience that confirms the insanity in my newsfeed. I can only conclude that the world is getting stranger by the day.

I recently saw a story that proclaimed God to be “queer,” as if that were news. The extremes of gender studies have been buzzing around religion departments long before the concepts were even hinted at in mainstream America. Of course, the most amusing part of such notions is that the very departments that now anoint God as the ultimate version of their ideology, are the same departments that would have been embarrassed to admit that there even was a God just a few decades before. Mainstream denominational Protestantism, in danger of losing all belief, has recently found something to believe in, and does so with all the fervor of a new convert.

The Unitarian Church down the street from my parish has a lighted message board for the passing traffic. Mounted atop an obligatory rainbow, it oozes slogans daily that invite people to come and experience the new God they have found.

The conversion of God to the new cultural beliefs is not terribly surprising. Modernity is an inherently religious project. It is highly “secular” only in a very refined meaning of the term. But, more than that, it believes in secularism. This is only one of many inner contradictions within the modern project. It is thoroughly committed to the creation of a better world, while holding to philosophies that would deny the ability to actually define “better.” It is this emptiness that I suspect has given rise to the new piety.

At the heart of modernity is the belief that we can dominate nature and shape the outcomes of history to our liking. It is the placing of the human “will” at the center of all things. It is important to understand that this fundamental orientation towards creation can play both sides of the street. In America, both liberal and conservative religion are captives to modernity as they are locked in a mutual struggle of their opposing wills.

“Democracy” is one of the sacraments of modernity. It is treated as a primary means of grace in history. Political action organizes the human “will” for projects of “goodness.” What constitutes the “good” varies with each ideology. Both sides fail to see that they are arguing in a mirror where all images are reversed. Both believe in power.

It is important to understand that if every goodness intended by God were to be lawfully imposed on the world by some form of authority, the world would not be a better place. It would only be as lawful as it is now. Christ did not die to create a more lawful world (one already existed). He came to raise the world from the dead. A more lawful corpse is still a corpse.

Modernity is itself the death throes of a civilization committed to rebellion and domination. It moves from one madness to another. It cures diseases and raises the dead only to watch the rise of greater diseases and new forms of death in a whack-a-mole game of tragic futility.

The Kingdom of God only exists in Christ, with Christ and through Christ. And, lest this be seen as yet another religious imposition from above, this same Christ is none other than the Logos within all creation, who reveals the truth of each thing and everything.

Life in union with Christ is also life in union with our true selves (and one another). It is life in union with every particle of the created universe. It is the life that gathers all things together in one, in Christ Jesus, into the glorious liberty of the children of God.

The French philosopher Voltaire said, “With great power comes great responsibility” (a phrase made famous these days in a Spiderman movie). We observe this in many obvious ways. We do not put a three-year old in charge of the family cooking – the heat of the stove is too much power at that age. We do not license ten-year-old’s to drive cars for the same reason.

The technology of the modern world represents the most wide-spread harnessing of power in human history. It is tragically met by a culture whose spiritual and moral maturity are at a low ebb.

Human wars were initially fought with primitive weapons of brute force. Their brutality was face-to-face and, as such, presented a spiritual and emotional challenge to every warrior and his society. “War is hell” (Sherman’s dictum) is an apt description, drawn from experience. Modern war often deals in abstractions. Rockets, bombs and drones allow massive killing at a distance. The Global War on Terror has seen a casualty ratio of nearly 100:1. Modernity is an efficient war machine. Those deaths happen at such a remove that the general population has no awareness of them at all.

Abortion is discussed as a moral abstraction. According to the World Health Organization, 40-50 million abortions take place every year in the world.  Two-percent of that number are in the United States. Such numbers are beyond comprehension.

Moral maturity requires a constant feedback from the consequences of our actions. Modernity creates moral infantilism. Indeed, most Americans have never witnessed a death, and increasingly avoid its reality, even in funerals (now becoming “celebrations of life”). As such, we are morally incompetent to formulate opinions in matters of consequence (we are deeply shielded from too many consequences).

In the course of writing this post, a series of articles began appearing in the New York Times extolling abortion and vilifying its opponents. I was doing my best to ignore it as a noisy distraction. However, today, an article appeared, written by a woman abortionist relating her experiences during her recent pregnancy and birth of her child. She did not shy away from the contradictions and cognitive dissonance that would inevitably arise in those circumstances. However, she offered a summary that was chilling in the extreme:

As a doctor, I can draw a distinction, a boundary, between a fetus and a baby. When I became a mother, I learned that there are no boundaries, really. The moment you become a mother, the moment another heartbeat flickers inside of you, all boundaries fall away. Nevertheless, as mothers, we must all make choices. And we must live with the choices that aren’t ours to make. We can try to compartmentalize. We can try to keep things tidy and acceptable. But in reality, everything is messy: the work of doctors, the work of mothers, and the love of each one of us for our children. And yet somebody has to do the work.

There are no arguments that could possibly counter such a statement. This is the confession of a modern heart. Even when all of nature is shouting the truth, “somebody has to do the work.” Be still, my heart, I have work to do.

The article served as a reminder of the character of our world. The battle is in the human heart. There are no external solutions to the madness of modernity. Such madness has always been around. Sometimes it has coalesced around moral causes of which we would likely approve. That might be a still greater danger.

The Fathers urge us to “guard the heart.” When we pray, it is right not to pray “at” those with whom we disagree. It is better to stand, somehow, within them (recognizing that their sin is yours as well), and from that place offer prayers to God. This is the work somebody has to do.

There is ultimately only ever one choice – to choose God. Understanding and seeing that as the choice before you is the grace of salvation. Lord, have mercy.

Father Stephen Freeman is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, serving as Rector of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.

The photo shows, “Composition with Portrait, 1930-1935,” by Victor Brauner.