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.

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.

The Ontology Of Salvation

I cannot begin to count the number of times I wished there were a simple, felicitous word for “ontological.” I dislike writing theology with words that have to be explained – that is, words whose meanings are not immediately obvious. But, alas, I have found no substitute and will, therefore, beg my reader’s indulgence for dragging such a word into our conversations.

From the earliest times in the Church, but especially beginning with St. Athanasius in the 4th century as the great Ecumenical Councils took shape, the doctrines of the Church have been expressed and debated within the terms related to being itself.

For example, St. Athanasius says that in creating us, God gave us “being” (existence), with a view that we should move towards “well-being,” and with the end of “eternal being” (salvation). That three-fold scheme is a very common theme in patristic thought, championed and used again in the work of St. Maximus the Confessor with great precision, as he matured the thought of the Church as affirmed in the 5th Council.

At the same time, this language of being was used to speak about the nature and character of salvation, the same terms and imagery were being used to speak about the Trinity and the two natures of Christ. That language continues up through the Seventh Council and is the language used to define the doctrine of the veneration of the Holy Icons.

Conciliar thought, carried on within the terms of being (being, non-being, nature, person, existence, hypostatic representation, essence, energies, etc.) can be described as speaking in the language of “ontology.” Ontology is the technical name for things having to do with being (“onto” as a prefix in Greek means “being”).

There is a “seamless garment” of theological exposition that can be discerned across the range of the Councils. It is ontological in character.

Tremendous work and discussion on the part of the fathers resulted in a common language for speaking about all of these questions. Thus, the term “person” (an aspect of “being”) is used both for speaking about the Trinity as well as speaking about human persons and the one person of Christ in two natures.

It is the primary “grammar” of Orthodox conciliar thought. No other imagery or language receives the kind of imprimatur as the terms raised up into the formal declarations of the Church’s teaching. To a degree, everything else is commentary.

Many other images have been used alongside the ontological work of the Councils. The Church teaches and a good teacher draws on anything at hand to enlighten its students. Nevertheless, the dogmatic language of the Church has been that of “being.”

So what constitutes an “ontological” approach to salvation?

Here is an example. “Morality” is a word and concept that applies to behavior and an adherence to rules and laws. “Immorality” is the breaking of those laws. You can write about sin (and thus salvation) in the language of morality and never make reference to the language of being.

But what is created becomes a sort of separate thing from the conciliar language of the Church. Over the centuries, this has often happened in theology, particularly Western theology (Protestant and Catholic). The result is various “departments” of thought, without a common connection. It can lead to confusion and contradiction.

There is within Orthodoxy, an argument that says we are on the strongest ground when we speak in the language of the Councils. The language of “being” comes closer to accurately expressing what is actually taking place. Though all language has a “metaphoric” character, the language of being is, I think, the least metaphorical. It is about “what is.”

Back to the imagery of morality. If you speak of right and wrong in terms of being, it is generally expressed as either moving towards the path of well-being-eternal-being, or moving away from it, that is, taking a path towards non-being. What does the path of non-being look like? It looks like disintegration, a progressive “falling apart” of existence.

The New Testament uses the term phthora (“corruption”) to describe this. Phthora is what happens to a body when it dies. Death, in the New Testament, is often linked to sin (“sin and death”). It is the result of moving away from God, destroying our communion with Him.

For most modern people, death is seen as simply a fact of life, a morally neutral thing. It can’t be a moral question, we think, because you can’t help dying. But, in the New Testament and the Scriptures, death is quite synonymous with sin.

When Adam and Eve sin, they are told that it will result in death (a very ontological problem). A moral approach to that fact tends to see “sin” as the defining term and death as merely the punishment. The ontological approach sees death itself as the issue and the term that defines the meaning of sin. Sin is death. Death is sin.

And so, the language of the Church emphasizes that Christ “trampled down death by death.” In the language of ontology, that simple statement says everything. “He trampled down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowed life.” This includes the destruction of sin, freedom from the devil, forgiveness of sins, etc. But all of those things are included in the words of “death” and “life.”

An advantage in speaking in this manner can again be seen in comparing it to a simple moral approach. Morality is about actions, obedience, and disobedience. It says nothing about the person actually doing those things (or it can certainly avoid that topic).

It can mislead people into thinking that being and existence are neutral sorts of things and that what matters is how we behave. This can be coupled with the modern heresy of secularism in which it is asserted that things have an existence apart from God, that the universe is just a “neutral no-man’s land.”

The ontological approach denies this and affirms that God upholds everything in existence, moment by moment. It affirms that existence itself is a good thing and an expression of God’s goodness. It says as well that it is the purpose of all things that exist to be in communion with God and move towards eternal being. It is the fullness of salvation expressed in Romans 8:21-22.

Moral imagery also tends to see the world as disconnected. We are simply a collection of independent moral agents, being judged on our behavior. What I do is what I do, and what you do is what you do, and there is nothing particularly connected about any of it.

The language of being is quite different. Everything in creation that exists shares in the commonality of created being. What happens to any one thing effects everything else. There is true communion at the very root of existence.

And it is this communion of being that the fathers use when they speak of Christ’s Incarnation and our salvation. When the Creed says, “Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became man,” it is speaking about salvation. It does not say, “Who, in order to pay the penalty that was due…”

Such language can be used and has been used, but it is not at the heart of the Conciliar words of the Church. It is not recited every Sunday.

So how does Christ save us in terms of being? In essence (no pun intended), He became what we were in order to make us what He is. He became man, entering and restoring the full communion which we had broken.

The Lord and Giver of Life, the Author of our Being entered into dying humanity. He took our dying humanity on Himself and entered into the very depths of that death (“suffered death and was buried”). He then raised that same dying humanity into His own eternal life. This is our forgiveness of sins.

If sin is death, then resurrection is forgiveness. Thus we sing at Pascha: “Let us call brothers even those that hate us and forgive all by the resurrection.” That sentence only makes sense in terms of the ontological language in which it is written.

We do bad things (immoral things) because we have broken communion with God. “Sins” are the symptoms and signs of death, decay, corruption, and disintegration at work in the soul. If left unattended, it will drag us into the very depths of near non-being in what can properly be described as hell. This is reflected in the Psalm verse, “The dead do not praise the LORD, Nor any who go down into silence.” (Psa 115:17)

In Holy Baptism, we are asked, “Do you unite yourself to Christ?” This is the language of being and communion. St. Paul tells us that in Baptism we are united to Christ in His death and raised in the likeness of His resurrection. He then adds that we should “walk in newness of life.” That union with Christ and infusion of His Life creates a moral change that can be described in the language of being.

The unity of language, I believe, is very helpful and salutary. It is easy for modern believers, nurtured in the language of morality, to hear teachings about the Trinity and the two natures of Christ, etc., and think, “What has any of that got to do with my life?” That is a natural conclusion when salvation is expressed in a language that is separated from the language of the doctrinal foundations of the Church.

There are some who have pushed the moral language into the language of the Trinity, such that what is important is the Son’s propitiation of the Father’s wrath. Such terms find no place within the Conciliar thought of the Church and can (and have) created problems.

It is not that such terms have no use nor that they have never been used by any of the Fathers at any time. But they have a long history of being misused and distorting and obscuring the foundational doctrines of the Church.

In my own life, I personally found the language of being, when applied to my salvation, to explain the meaning of Scripture more thoroughly and connect my daily life and actions to the most fundamental doctrines of the Church.

It allowed me to read St. Athanasius, St. Basil, St. Gregory, St. Maximus and a host of others without feeling that I had come to something foreign. It more than adequately addresses moral questions, whereas moral language cannot address anything else and creates problems and heresies when it is imported into the language of the Trinity.

I should add that I have worked within this for nearly 30 years and have found nothing within Scripture than cannot be understood within the ontological understanding and that doing so frequently takes you deeper into understanding what is actually going on. It also forces you to ask the questions of “how does this relate to everything else?”

I hope this little introductory train of thought is helpful for those who are thinking about these things. It should explain why I see this as important and something that goes to the very heart of the Orthodox faith.

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, “The Assumption of the Virgin” nu Francesco Botticini, painted ca. 1475-1476.

Why God Hides

God hides. God makes Himself known. God hides.

This pattern runs throughout the Scriptures. A holy hide-and-seek, the pattern is not accidental nor unintentional. It is rooted in the very nature of things in the Christian life. Christianity whose God is not hidden is not Christianity at all. But why is this so?

In a previous article, I wrote: “Our faith is about learning to live in the revealing of things that were hidden. True Christianity should never be obvious. It is, indeed, the struggle to live out what is not obvious. The Christian life is rightly meant to be an apocalypse.”

God is not obvious. That which is obvious is an object. Objects are inert, static and passive. The tree in my front yard is objectively there (or so it seems). When I get up in the morning and take the dog outside, I expect the tree to be there. If it is autumn, I might study its leaves for their wonderful color change (it’s a Gingko). But generally, I can ignore the tree – or not. That’s what objects are good for. They ask nothing of us. The freedom belongs entirely to us, not to them.

This is the function of an idol – to make a god into an object. He/she/it must be there. The idol captures the divine, objectifies it and renders it inert and passive.

The God of the Christians smashes idols. He will not stay put or become a passive participant in our narcissism. He is not the God-whom-I-want.

Christ tells us, “Ask, and you will receive. Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened.” The very center of the life promised us in Christ requires asking, seeking and knocking. The reason is straightforward: asking, seeking and knocking are a mode of existence. But our usual mode of existence is to live an obvious life (a life among objects).

Have you ever noticed that it’s easier to buy an icon and add it to your icon corner than it is to actually spend time and pray in your corner? There is a kind of “Orthodox acquisitiveness” that substitutes such actions for asking, seeking and knocking. Acquisition is part of our obvious form of existence. We have been trained in our culture to consume. We acquire objects. On the whole, we don’t even have to seek the objects we acquire, other than to engage in a little googling. We no longer forage or hunt. We shop.

But we were created to ask, seek and knock. That mode of existence puts us in the place where we become truly human. The Fathers wrote about this under the heading of eros, desire. Our culture has changed the meaning of eros into erotic, in which we learn to consume through our passions. This is a distortion of true eros.

Christ uses the imagery of seeking or true desire (eros) in a number of His parables: The Merchant in Search of Fine Pearls; The Woman with the Lost Coin; The Good Shepherd and the Lost Sheep; The Father in the Prodigal Son; The Treasure Buried in a Field…

But how does seeking (eros) differ from what I want? Are these parables not images of consuming? Learning the difference is part of the point in God’s holy hide-and-seek. The mode of existence to which He calls us must be learned, and it must be learned through practice.

Objects are manageable. They do not overwhelm or ask too much of us. Consumption is an activity in which we ourselves always have the upper hand. St. James offers this thought: “You desire and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war. Yet you do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures” (James 4:2-3).

What we seek (eros) in a godly manner, is something that cannot be managed or objectified. It is always larger and greater than we are. As such, it even presents a little danger. It may require that we be vulnerable and take risks. We are afraid that we might not find it while also being afraid that we will.

The parables are not about a merchant with a string of pearls, or a woman with a coin collection. The merchant risks everything he owns just for the chance of buying this one pearl. The woman seeks this coin as though there were no other money in the world.

When I was nearing the point of my conversion to Orthodoxy, a primary barrier was finding secular employment. It’s hard for someone whose resume only says, “priest,” to get a job or even an interview for a job. That search had gone on, quietly, for nearly two years. It was not an obsession – rather, more like a hobby. But one day, a job found me.

The details are not important here. But the reality is. The simple fact that a job was likely to happen, that I only had to say, “Yes,” was both exciting and frightening in the extreme. If I said yes, then everything I had said I wanted would start to come true (maybe).

And everything I knew as comfortable and secure would disappear (with four children to feed). And if everything I said I wanted began to come true, then the frightening possibility that I might not actually want it would also be revealed! I could multiply all of these possibilities many times over and not even begin to relate everything that was in my heart.

But the point that had found me was the beginning of the true search. The risk, the reward, the threat, the danger, the joy and the sorrow, all of them loomed over me, frequently driving me to prayer. I made the leap and began a tumultuous period in my life. But my life, like most, eventually settled down and slowly became obvious.

St. Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, one of the great monastic heroes of the Celtic lands, had a way of dealing with the obvious. He would walk into the North Sea from the island where he lived, and stand in the waves up to his neck. It was a dangerous sea, not like an American beach.

He stood there at the point of danger – and prayed. St. Brendan crossed the Atlantic with his monastic companions in a boat made of animal hides. Countless thousands of monastics wandered into deserts, forests, holes in the ground, islands, all in order to place themselves at that point where God may be found. Seeking God is not done in the place of safety, though it is the safest place in all the world.

Eros does not shop. True desire, that which is actually endemic to our nature, is not satisfied with the pleasures sought by the passions. It will go to extreme measures, even deep into pain, in order to be found by what it seeks.

All of this is the apocalyptic life of true faith. The question for us is how to live there, or even just go there for once in our lives. I “studied” Orthodoxy for 20 years. All of my friends knew (and often joked) about my interest. Many said they were not surprised when I converted.

I was. I was surprised because I know my own cowardice and fear of shame. If you liked Ferraris, your friends wouldn’t be surprised if you had photos and models, films and t-shirts. But if you sold your house and used the money to make a down payment on one, you’d be thought a fool, possibly insane. Seeking God is like that.

There are quiet ways that do not appear so radical. The right confession before a priest can be such a moment. Prayer before the icons in the corner of a room can become such a moment, though it takes lots of practice and much attention. They cannot be objects and the prayer cannot be obvious.

All of this is of God, may He be thanked. We do not have to invent this for ourselves. It is not “technique.” The God who wants us to seek is also kind enough to hide. Finding out where He is hiding is the first step. Finding out where you are hiding is the next. But the greatest and most wonderful step is turning the corner, buying the field, selling everything that you have, picking up the coin, making that phone call, saying “yes” and “yes” and “yes.”

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, “The Supper at Emmaus” by Caravaggio, painted in 1606.

The Hope That Is In Us

“Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe.” These words of Christ, spoken to Thomas and recorded in John 20:29, have often been misunderstood. Some suggest that Christ was offering a blessing to those who believe in Him without any evidence at all, who accept Him on blind faith. This is not what Christ meant, for Thomas never accepted Christ on blind faith in the absence of any evidence.

Indeed, Thomas had plenty of evidence and reason to accept Jesus as the Christ, including the many miracles he saw Him perform. By these words Christ was not affirming the necessity of blind faith, but offering a blessing to those who believed in Him even though they never experienced a resurrection appearance as Thomas did.

For there are all sorts of reasons for believing in Christ and all kinds of evidence for the truth of Christianity, even apart from experiencing a Resurrection appearance as did the apostles. St. Peter told his new converts to always be ready to make a defense to anyone who called them to give a reason for the hope that was in them (1 Peter 3:15), and so Christians must have reasons for their hope in Christ. I would like to mention three of them, three pieces of evidence for the truth of Christ’s Resurrection.

These pieces of evidence all presuppose the essential reliability of the Gospel accounts. That in itself is not unreasonable, for the Gospels can all lay claim to relate first-hand eye-witness testimony: Matthew was one of the Twelve, as was John, who repeatedly stressed the first-hand nature of his testimony (e.g. John 19:35, 21:24). Luke wrote his account after consulting with many first-hand witnesses (Luke 1:1-4), and Mark wrote his account after listening to Peter’s reminiscences in Rome.

And the first three Gospels were written within about thirty years of the events they recount—i.e. they were practically contemporaneous with those events. Moreover, the Gospel writers wrote and circulated their writings while surrounded by a hostile group of people (the unbelieving Jews) who would have contested and contradicted their reporting if it veered from the known facts, and this hostility acted as a kind of control to keep the writers’ accounts accurate. So we may have confidence in the essential accuracy of the Gospel accounts.

The first piece of evidence is the emptiness of Jesus’ tomb. The apostles were publically proclaiming in the very heart of the Temple the Resurrection of Christ (and the consequent guilt of the Sanhedrin for the crime of having the Messiah crucified), and all the enraged Sanhedrin could do in response was to arrest Peter and John and to threaten them, telling them to cease and desist (Acts 3-4).

They could have shut down the whole apostolic enterprise and crush out the nascent Christian movement then and there—all they needed to do was to produce the corpse of Jesus, who had been buried a scant distance away from the Temple. But this they did not do. Why not? Obviously because the corpse of Jesus was no longer in the tomb and available to them.

So where was it? Why was it not in the tomb? The apostles’ explanation was that the tomb was now empty because God had raised Jesus from the dead, and that Jesus had emerged from the tomb, meeting with His disciples during the following forty days before being taken to heaven.

The Jewish explanation for the emptiness of the tomb was that the disciples came by night while the Roman soldiers guarding the tomb were asleep and these disciples stole the corpse (Matthew 28:12-15). Let us examine this explanation at greater length, for it contains a few problems.

The first problem with the explanation is the presupposition that a Roman soldier on guard duty would fall asleep—something which would bring swift and violent response from his commanding officer if he were caught.

Yet this story asks us to believe that all the soldiers on guard duty fell asleep, and all at the same time, and that they fell so soundly asleep that the disciples sneaking up, unsealing the tomb, moving the huge stone, and making off with the corpse didn’t wake them.

Even harder to believe is that the disciples stopped in the midst of this dangerous theft and took time to strip the corpse of its grave-clothes before carrying it away (compare John 20:6-7).

The Jewish explanation produces more questions than answers. Even if the apostles could somehow have sneaked up unseen on the Roman guards, and waited until all the guards fell so soundly asleep at the same time that they did not stir when the stone was noisily moved and the corpse stripped and stolen, why would they do this? What did they have to gain from it?

All they had to gain from their leadership of the Christian movement is what they in fact did gain from it—namely, suffering, poverty, hardship, and eventual martyrdom (see 1 Corinthians 4:9-13). And where did they then bury the corpse? And how could such a burial escape detection in a city swarming with their enemies to such an extent that they had to lock the doors when they met together? (see John 20:19).

And why would they persist in such a lie? It is incredible to imagine that such a colossal conspiracy would not somehow have leaked out, especially as persecution arose. Moreover, the Jewish explanation is not even self-consistent: if the guards were all asleep, how could they know that it was the disciples who stole the corpse? The whole thing is harder to believe than the Resurrection.

The second problem with denying the historicity of the Resurrection of Christ lies in the change in the apostles. From the time of Jesus’ arrest, during His trial and crucifixion, and immediately after His death, they all displayed tremendous cowardice—or (to put it more charitably) a tremendous concern for their self-preservation.

During His arrest, they all forsook Him and fled (Mark 14:50), and Peter, when challenged a number of times as to whether he was part of His movement, repeatedly denied even knowing Him (Mark 14:66f). None but John were present at His cross, and after His death, when they met together, they made sure that the outer door was locked, for fear of being arrested by the Jews—all in all, not a great display of courage and boldness.

Yet fifty days later they were so bold that they publically preached to anyone who would listen that Jesus was the Messiah, risen from the dead, and openly accused the Sanhedrin of disowning the Messiah and having Him killed (Acts 5:28). Arrest, flogging, and threats of further punishment could not deter the apostles.

The question is: what produced this change of heart and inspired this new boldness? The apostles explained it by saying they had seen the risen Lord. If they did not in fact see the risen Lord, what other explanation could there be for such a swift, radical, and unanimous change of heart among all of them?

The question becomes more acute as persecution of the Church intensifies: even when martyrdom threatened, the apostles continued to preach that they had indeed seen the risen Christ. Who would die for what they knew was a pointless lie? The apostolic boldness is only explicable if they were telling the truth about the Resurrection.

The third problem with denying the Resurrection of Christ is the conversion of Saul of Tarsus. He was adamantly opposed to the Christian movement, and took drastic and effective steps to try to crush it out. He was present for the martyrdom of Stephen, and ravaged the Church in Jerusalem, entering house after house and dragging off to prison the disciples of Jesus, both women as well as men (Acts 8:3).

Not content with this, he requested and received authorization from the high priest to journey to far away Damascus and arrest any disciples of Jesus he found in the synagogues there.

Accordingly, he journeyed to Damascus, but upon arriving there, when he entered the synagogue, instead of denouncing Jesus as a false-Messiah and arresting His disciples, He proclaimed that Jesus was indeed the Messiah. What produced such a sudden and stunning volte-face?

Saul (also known as Paul) explained it by relating that as he approached Damascus he received a visitation from the risen Jesus, an encounter which converted and temporarily blinded him.

Then one of Jesus’ disciples, Ananias by name, found Saul in the city, explained that Jesus had appeared to him in a vision, and sent him to heal Saul of his blindness, which he did. If one rejects Saul’s explanation of what caused his volte-face, what other explanation could there be? And once again, we may ask, why would Saul lie? What would he have to gain by it?

There are other reasons for accepting the truth of the Christian Faith as well—reasons having to do with subjective experience of the presence of Christ, and of contemporary miracles and answers to prayer.

But these three historical reasons, I submit, are sufficient—or at least they were sufficient for me. If Christ did rise from the dead, then the emptiness of His tomb, the change in the apostles, and the conversion of Saul of Tarsus are all adequately and fully explained. If His Resurrection did not in fact occur, these three things remain inexplicable.

At the very least the burden of proof shifts to those who would deny the Resurrection. Such historical evidence constitutes a reason for the hope that is in us—and challenge to those who would deny the Resurrection and choose to live without such hope.

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

The photo shows, “The Doubting Thomas” by Leendert van der Cooghen, painted in 1654.

St. Ephrem On The Last Judgment

This reflection on the Last Judgment was written in a letter by St. Ephrem to a man named Publius. Nothing is known of him.

YOU WOULD do well not to let fall from your hands the polished mirror of the holy Gospel of your Lord, which reproduces the image of everyone who gazes at it and the likeness of everyone who peers into it. While it keeps its own natural quality, undergoes no change, is devoid of any spots, and is free of any soiling, it changes its appearance before colors although it itself is not changed .

Before white things it becomes [white] like them.

Before black things, it becomes dark like them.

Before red things [it becomes] red like them.

Before beautiful things, it becomes beautiful like them and before ugly things, it becomes hideous like them.

It paints every detail on itself. It rebukes the ugly ones for their defects so that they might heal themselves and remove the foulness from their faces. It exhorts the beautiful to be watchful over their beauty and even to increase their natural beauty with whatever ornaments they wish, lest they become sullied with dirt.

Although it is silent, it speaks.

Although it is mute, it cries out.

Although it is reckoned as dead, it makes proclamation.

Although it is still, it dances.

Although it has no belly, its womb is of great expanse.

And there in those hidden inner chambers every limb is painted and every body is framed in a bare fraction of a second. Within it they are created with undetectable quickness.

  1. For this mirror is a foreshadowing of the holy tidings of the outer Gospel, within which is depicted the beauty of the beautiful ones who gaze at it. Also within it the blemishes of the ugly ones who are despised are put to shame. And just as this natural mirror is a foreshadowing of the Gospel, so also is the Gospel a foreshadowing of that heavenly unfading beauty by which all the sins of Creation are reproved and by which reward is given to all those who have preserved their beauty from being defiled with filth. To everyone who peers into this mirror, his sins are visible in it. And everyone who takes careful notice will see in it that portion which is reserved for him, whether good or evil.

There the kingdom of heaven is depicted and can be seen by those who have a pure eye.

There the exalted ranks of the good ones can be seen.

There the high ranks of the middle ones can be discerned.

There the lowly ranks of the evil ones are delineated.

There the beautiful places, which have been prepared for those worthy of them, are evident.

There Paradise can be seen rejoicing in its flowers.

  1. In this mirror, Gehenna in flames can be seen by those who deserve to dwell there.

In Paradise there are joyous promises for the good as they wait for [the day] when they will receive their masters with uncovered faces. But in Gehenna, the promises for the wicked will be grievous at the time when they see their masters abased in stature.

There the outer darkness can be seen clearly and from within it can be heard the sound of wailing and weeping, of groans, and of gnashing of teeth.

There in their bonds people wail as they are tortured, and it becomes more intense according to their wickedness so that they are punished with all justice.

  1. There that rich man, who used to wear different clothes every day and used to take delight in his luxuries, wails from anguish inside Sheol.

There the groaning cry of the rich man can be heard crying out to Abraham, the father of the just, “Send Lazarus, your son, to moisten my tongue for I am afflicted, for my sins are burning me up and my evil deeds like coals of a broom tree are roasting me.”

And there was sent from the mouth of the just One to that evildoer a direct reply, like a swift messenger with swift wings flying over that dreadful chasm’s that has been set as a boundary between the good and the evil. And that letter of justice, which was written by the mouth of the just One, was carried forthwith and sent to the deaf ear of that one who had never opened the gate of his ear for any holy voice to enter. And in that letter, which it carried like a speedy messenger, were drawn those gentle sounds of just judgment: “My son, remember that you received your precious and luxurious things while you were alive whereas at that time Lazarus received his evils and his afflictions. And now he is unable to come to help you in your torments because you did not help him when he was in anguish from his diseases. For this reason you are seeking his aid just as he once sought your aid. But you refused. Now he is unable to come because that great chasm, which cannot be crossed, is between us. No one from you can come to us, nor can any from us come to you. ”

  1. Fix the eye of your mind and gaze on this mirror of which I spoke to you above.

Notice the twelve thrones that are fashioned on it for judgment.

Notice how the tribes stand there trembling and how the many nations stand there quaking.

Notice how their bodies shake and their knees knock. Notice how their hearts palpitate and how their minds pine.

Notice how their faces are downcast and how their shame is thick upon them like darkness.

Notice how their souls languish and how their spirits flicker.

Notice how their tears overflow and soak the dust beneath them.

Notice how their complexions are changing to green. One takes on that color and hands it on to his companion.

Notice their faces, which used to be joyful, have been transformed to look like soot from a cauldron.

Hear their many groans and their wailing moans.

Hear their sighs of grief and their churning innards.

Notice their deeds:

those that were in secret have now become manifest;

those that were done in darkness now shine forth like the sun;

those that they had committed in secret now make their complaint with loud voice.

Notice how everyone stands, his deeds before him justly accusing him in the presence of his judge.

Notice how their evil thoughts have now taken on shape and stand before their masters to accuse them .

Notice their slanderous whisperings crying out in a loud voice, and how the snares once hidden are now revealed before them.

A little further …

  1. Notice that Judge of righteousness as He sits, the Word of His Father,

the Wisdom of His nature, the Arm of His glory,

the Right Hand of His mercy, the Ray of His Light,

the Manifestation of His rest,

that One Who is equal in essence with the One Who begot Him, that One Whose nature is commensurate with the nature from Which He sprang forth,

that One Who is at once near and far from Him,

that One Who is at once joined with Him and separated from Him,

in His presence and not at a distance, at His right hand and not far away, Who shares the same dwelling but not as a foreigner, the Gate of life,

the Way of truth,

the propitiatory Lamb, the pure Sacrifice,

the Priest Who remits debts, the Sprinkling that purifies, the One who created [all] that was made,

the One Who formed and the One Who established, the One Who fashioned creatures,

the One Who gives senses to the dust, Who clothes the earth with perception, Who gives movement to all flesh,

Who separates the places of every species, Who differentiates faces without number, Who renews the minds of all races, Who sows all wisdom everywhere,

Who stretches out the heavens, Who adorned them with lights,

Who gave names to them all,

Who spread out the earth on a foundation that cannot be touched,

Who is the architect of the mountains, Who built the high places,

Who commands the grasses, Who causes trees to spring forth, Who causes woodplants to give seed, who causes fruit to grow,

Who distinguishes tastes,

Who gives color to blossoms and shape to all flowers,

Who measures heaven with His span, with that power that can not be measured,

Who meted out in the palm of His hand the dust of the earth in that right hand which cannot be meted out,

Who weighed the mountains on scales with a knowledge that cannot be comprehended,

and the hills on a balance with an unerring understanding

by which the gathering places of the seas that envelop all Creation and the depths of the sea that cannot be grasped by us are considered to be even less than a drop there before Him.

  1. God from God,

the second Light of Being,

the Treasure House of all riches that have been or will be made,

the Judge of the tribes, the Measure of justice, the Scale without deceit, the even Measuring Rod, the Measuring Bowl that is not false, Wisdom that does not err,

Intelligence that cannot pass away, the Renewer of creatures,

the Restorer of natures,

the Resuscitator of mortality,

Who rolls away the cloud of darkness, Who brings to an end the reign of iniquity, Who destroys the power of Sheol,

Who shatters the sting of evil, Who brings captives to the light, Who raises up from Abaddon those who were cast down, Who removes the darkness,

Who makes worthy of rest,

Who opens mouths that had been shut and Who breathes in life just as of old.

  1. Look then upon that Divine Child Whose names surpass the reckoning of mortals and Whose titles are more numerous than the computations of the earth:

King of kings,

the Messiah affirmed by the prophets,

Who spoke through the Prophets,

Who sends the Spirit,

Who sanctifies every soul in the Spirit, for His aid is manifest.

Consider this Only-Begotten, the multitude of His names, this One Who does the will of Him Who sent Him, this One Whose will fulfills the will of Him Who begot Him. Look at Him, on that day, sitting at the right hand of Him Who begot Him, in that hour, placing the sheep at His right hand and the goats at His left hand, at that moment, calling out to His blessed ones, while giving them thanks, “Come, inherit that kingdom,” which from of old had been made ready for them in His knowledge and which from the beginning had been prepared for them.

When He was hungry they fed Him in the poor.

He was thirsty and they gave Him to drink in the disabled.

He was naked and they clothed Him in the naked.

He was imprisoned and they visited Him in the imprisoned.

He was a stranger and they took Him in with the aliens.

He was sick and they visited Him in the infirm.

And when they did not make their good works known before Him, those same beautiful works, which were depicted on their limbs, sounded the trumpet and gave witness on their behalf. Like luscious fruits on beautiful trees they hung on them and stood like bunches in order to be witnesses to the truth that these persons had truly wrought them.

  1. For just as the deeds of the wicked are their accusers before the righteous judge, making them bend and bow down their heads silently in shame, so also their beautiful deeds plead cause for the good before the Good One. For the deeds of all mankind are both silent and speak – silent by their nature, yet they speak when one sees them.

(2) In that place, there is no interrogation, for He is the judge of knowledge; nor is there any response, for when He sees it, He hears. He hears with sight and He sees with hearing. Because in that one thing, which is not a composite, is hearing and sight, swiftness, touch, sensation, smell, taste, discernment, knowledge, and judgment. Also by that which is not a composite, there is given out the reward of good things and the punishment of evil things to the two sides: those on the right hand and those on the left.

(3) It is not that there really are a right and a left in that place, but rather these are names for those who are honored among us and for those in our midst who are unworthy. Rather we reckon that there is a throne for the judge in that place -and we call the place of the good “the right,” while we label the place of the wicked “the left.” We call the good “sheep” because of their docility, and we call the wicked “goats” because of their impudence. We call His justice “a balance” and His retribution to us “the measure of truth.”

  1. Take firm hold, then, of this clear mirror of the divine Gospel in your two hands and look at it with a pure eye that is able to look at that divine mirror. For not everyone is able to see himself in it, but only the one whose heart is discerning, whose mind is sympathetic, and whose eye desires to see its helper. Look at it, then, and see all the images of Creation, the depiction of the children of Adam, both the good and the wicked. Within it can be observed the beautiful images of the works of the good and the unsightly images of the deeds of the wicked. They are conceived within it so that at their time they might be given birth either to praise those who did [the good works] or to rebukes those who performed [the evil deeds]. See that just as here [the mirror] rebukes the ugly, so also there will it manifest within itself their ugly deeds. Just as here it sets out the good for praise, so there will it also mark out in itself their beautiful deeds.
  2. At times even we when we were in error, mired in the pride of our mind as if with our feet in the mud, did not perceive our error because our soul was unable to see itself. Although we would look [into the mirror] each day, we would grope around in the dark like blind men because our inner mind did not possess that which is necessary for discernment. Then, as if from a deep sleep, the mercy of the Most High, poured out like pure rain, was sprinkled on our drowsiness and from our sleep we were roused and boldly took up this mirror to see our self in it. At that very moment we were convicted by our faults and we discovered that we were barren of any good virtue and that we had become a dwelling place for every corrupting thought and a lodge and an abode for every lust.
  3. I saw there virtuous people and I longed for their beauties, [I saw] the places whereon the good were standing and I earnestly desired their dwellings.

I saw their bridal chambers on the opposite side into which no one who did not have a lamp was allowed to enter.

I saw their joy and I sat mourning the fact that I possessed none of the deeds that were worthy of that bridal chamber.

I saw that they were arrayed in a garment of light, and I was distressed that no noble garments had been prepared for me.

I saw their crowns, which were adorned with victory, and I was grieved that I had no victorious deeds with which I might be crowned.

I saw there virgins knocking [at the gate], and there was no one who would open it for them, and I wailed because I lacked the deeds of that blessed ointment.

  1. I saw there many crowds shouting at the gate and no one would respond to them, and I was alarmed that I had none of those virtues that had the power to open the gate of the kingdom.

I heard the clamor of many voices saying, “Lord, Lord, open [the gate] for us.” And a voice from there fell upon myears, swearing to itself, “I do not know you” to be worthy of salvation.

I saw there those who were pleading, “We ate and drank in your presence,” but [the voice] answered and said to them, “It is not I Whom you sought but only that you ate bread and were satisfied.”

  1. I also, like them, had always taken refuge in His name and had been honored in His honors and had always wrapped His name like a cloak over my hidden faults, but fear then seized me, terror shook me, and a great alarm counseled me to turn back so that perhaps those provisions required for that narrow way that leads to the land of the living might come to me. For I saw no one there who was able to give any relief to his companion or to moisten his tongue in that burning fire. For that deep chasm, which keeps the good separate from the wicked, did not allow them to give any relief to those others.
  2. I saw there pure virgins whose virginity, because it was not adorned with the precious ointment of desirable deeds, was rejected. They implored their fellow virgins to give them some assistance, but they received no mercy and [they asked] that they might be given the opportunity to go and purchase for themselves some deeds, but this was not permitted them because the end, their departure from this life, was coming quickly. I drew near to the gate of the kingdom of heaven and I saw there those who did not bear the title “virgin” who were crowned with victorious deeds, for their virtues filled the place of virginity. For just as those who had been espoused to Him only in their bodies had been rejected because they were naked of any garment of good deeds, so too those who had espoused their bodies in a chaste marriage while their spirit was bound to the love of their Lord were chosen, and they wore their love for Him like a robe with [their] desire for Him stretched over all their limbs.
  3. And when I saw those there, I said to myself, “No one from henceforth should rely solely on the chaste name of virginity when it is lacking those deeds that are the oil for the lamps.” And while I was being reproved by this dreadful vision of others being tortured, I heard another voice from the mouth of the mirror crying out, “Keep watch, O feeble one, over your wretched soul. ‘It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.’” Have you not heard children shouting to you, “If a man gain the whole world yet lose his soul what will he gain?” or, “What shall he give in return for his soul?” Do you not see what happened to that man whose land yielded abundant crops because he said to his soul, “My soul, eat and drink, be at ease, and enjoy yourself for abundant crops have been gathered in for you for many years?” Have you not heard that while this word was yet sweet in his mouth a bitter word was poured into the womb of his ear.” Although it had no understanding, it cried out saying, “On this very night your beloved soul is required of you. This thing which you have prepared, whose will it be?”
  4. Be alarmed by this your seal, and consider where all the children of Adam are, who like locust have swarmed over the earth since the first day. Rouse yourself from this deep sleep that is enfeebling you and that is spreading over all your limbs like a shadow of death. Rise, then, and bring yourself back to those former generations about which you have heard. Where is Adam? Where are your fathers who like fatted sheep lived luxuriously in the midst of the Paradise of Eden, who like friends spoke fearlessly with God, whose arms made all creatures obedient to their authority, whose power held the authority over sea and dry land, whose feet tread upon the dreadful serpents and before whom those beasts, which are rebellious nowadays, bent their necks, whose minds used to reach up to heaven and to seek out the deepest part of the deep as if it were dry land?
  5. Where are those ten generations from Adam to Noah? Were they not washed away in that flood of waters?

Where are those generations of the Sodomites? Were they not also swept away in a flood of fire?

Where are those generations from then until today?

Where are those who in that time used to live for almost a thousand years?

Have they not diminished and passed away? If the ink written on goatskins had not preserved for us the memory of their names, we would not even have known that they had ever existed.

  1. Come, I will lead you out to the gloomy sepulchres.

Come down, in your mind, with me even to lowest Sheol and I will show you there kings cast down upon their faces, their crowns buried in the dust with them.

Come, see the princes, those who once luxuriated in silks, how the worm has now become their bed and the grub their covering.

Come, look at those military chiefs who used to command thousands of armies, how they have become useless vessels of dust and things of no understanding.

Look carefully at the dust of the earth and consider that it is your kin. How long will you delude yourself and think that you are any better than the grass on the housetops? For the heat of one day dries out the grass. The burning fever of a single day also causes a desirable body to become parched.

(2) Where are the kings, their raiment, their crowns, or their purple ? Where are their dominions, their battles, their armies, their companies, their treasuries, or their wealth? See how their spears are shattered, their bows destroyed, their swords rusted, their arms eaten by worms. Their generations have departed and passed on, the threads of their lives are severed like a tent full of worms at their death, and like a web about to be cut; their military expeditions are cut down and they are brought to ruin.

  1. Notice how their songs have turned to mourning, their harps to the sound of weeping, how their laughter is overcome by mourning, their sweet melodies by songs of lamentation. The garment of a spider has been woven for them there and a bed of worms lies beneath them and a covering of moths is spread over them like a tunic. Tables lie upended before them. Their splendid state of luxury is completely reversed. Their administration is destroyed and is rendered useless. Their glory is laid out in the dust and all their luxury is also buried there in ashes. Bridegrooms are plundered and brides are forsaken who have been thrown out of their bridal chambers, and the crowns have withered on their heads and together with them they are sprinkled with the dust from the earth. Over them is spread a garment of darkness which Sheol has woven for them on a dingy loom. From every mouth there you hear the sound of wailing because there is no one there who can console his companion.
  2. Everything that their eyes see causes them suffering, for when they reach out to the boundary of the chasm, they quickly pass over it and fly to the garden of Eden and hover over the Paradise of God and see the blessed place of rest and are filled with desire for the banquet tables of the kingdom. And they hear the sound of pure melodies combined with holy songs and intermingled with the praises of God. And as they stretch out they soar to heaven and the gates of the kingdom are opened. Before their Lord they hover with joy, sending only the sound of their mouths back and forth to each other. There the vision of their eyes is allowed to come and go, and on the two sides it either grieves or gives joy so that when the good look out upon the wicked their lot increases and they rejoice therein. But, as for the wicked, their souls are condemned and their distress is multiplied.
  3. Perhaps, for the wicked, that which they see is Gehenna, and their separation is what burns them with their mind as the flame. That hidden judge who dwells in the discerning mind has spoken and there has become for them the judge of righteousness and he scourges them without mercy with torments for the compunction of their soul. Perhaps, it is this that separates them and sends each of them to the place suitable for him. Perhaps, it is this that lays hold of the good with its extended right hand and sends them to the Exalted Right Hand. It also takes hold of the wicked in its left hand, equal in power, and casts them into the place which is called “the left.””’ And perhaps, it is this that silently accuses them and quietly pronounces judgment upon them.
  4. In this matter, I believe the inner mind has been made judge and law, for it is the embodiment of the figure of the law and itself is the figure of the Lord of the law. And for this reason there is given to it complete authority to be portioned out in every generation although it is one, to be imprinted on every body although it is indivisible,

to be painted on every heart although it is inseparable,

to fly over all without tiring,

to rebuke all without shame,

to teach and guide all without compulsion,

to counsel them with no constraint on them,

to remind them of the judgment to come while cautioning them,

to recall to them the kingdom of heaven so that they might yearn for it,

to point out to them the beneficent rewards so that they might desire them,

to show them the severity of the judgment so they might restrain themselves,

to make known to them the sweetness of the Only-Begotten so that they might be comforted.

With them [the mind] runs after all good things, strengthening them. Over them it flies when they incline to hated things and reproves them. For its mercy is similar to that of its Lord in that it does not turn away from them when they are defiled with impurities and is not ashamed of them when they are wallowing in the mud. As for those who obey it, it will remember them and as for those who do not heed it, it will recall to them. Here it is mingled with them in every form whereas there it stands before them on this day [of judgment].

  1. And when I saw these things in that bright mirror of the holy Gospel of my Lord, my soul became weak and my spirit was at an end and my body was bent down to the dust; my heart was filled with bitter groans that perhaps my stains might be made white by the washing of my tears. And I remembered that good Lord and kindly God who cancels through tears the bond of those in debt and accepts lamentation in the place of burnt sacrifices. When I came to this point, I took refuge in repentance and I hid myself beneath the wings of compunction. I sought refuge in the shade of humility and I said, “What more than these am I required to offer to Him who has no need of sacrifices and burnt offerings?” Rather, a humble spirit, which is the perfect sacrifice that is able to make propitiation for defects, a broken heart in the place of burnt offerings, and tears of propitiation in the place of a libation of wine are things which God will not reject.”
  2. That, then, which I saw in that living mirror that speaks, on which the images of all the deeds of men move from Adam until the end of the world and from the resurrection until the day of the judgment of righteousness – and that which I heard from that blessed voice that could be heard from inside it, I have written for you in this letter, my beloved brother.

Excerpted from Selected Prose Works of St. Ephrem of Syria by E. G. Mathews and J. P. Amar.

The photo shows an icon of St. Ephrem from the 15th-16th centuries, and found in the Dormition Cathedral in the Krtemlin.

How Should We Read And Interpret The Bible?

How should one interpret the Bible? What rules should govern our exegesis? One approach is to tow the party line, a kind of exegetical “be true to your school” approach. This approach looks not primarily to the Biblical text itself, but to one’s ecclesiastical confession, and then reads what that confession says into the text.

For example, a Lutheran might approach the Biblical text of Romans through the confessional lens of the Augsburg Confession and conclude that Paul is there teaching justification by faith alone, exactly (and coincidentally) like Martin Luther would later teach.

Scholars today are unanimous that this is not an adequate or respectful way of dealing with Holy Scripture. Of course one believes what one’s church teaches and of course nothing like complete objectivity is possible. But one should nonetheless strive as best one can to set aside or at least turn down the volume of (say) the Augsburg Confession while one is exegeting the Biblical text and try to read the text on its own terms.

When reading Romans, one listens for the voice of St. Paul, not for the voice of Martin Luther. It is important to realize that “reading the text on its own terms” involves reading the text in its original cultural context. Thus one reads Romans knowing that it was written by a first-century Jew, not a sixteenth-century Catholic.

The task of turning down the volume of one’s confessional statements while exegeting the Bible is easy if one has no such confessional allegiance to those documents. The task is correspondingly difficult the more one gives one’s allegiance to those documents and confessions.

In the case of Orthodoxy, it can be difficult indeed, because our documents and confessions—the Church Fathers, or the consensus patrum—are the lens through which we read the Scriptures. This does not mean that we cannot or should not try to read the Scriptures on their own terms. It just means that for us the exegetical task is more complicated.

For some people, fidelity to the Fathers seems to mean effectively junking the idea of a scholarly reading the Scriptures in their original context and taking the “be true to your (patristic) school” approach. It is certainly an easy way to go. It saves one the work of investigating the cultural background in which the Scriptures were set and allows one to jump straight to the patristic conclusion.

I don’t need to determine how ancient Israelites would have read the text; I just need to read what St. Basil wrote (or perhaps Seraphim Rose’s take on what St. Basil wrote). But fidelity to the Fathers means more than simply agreeing with their exegetical conclusions.

It also means participating in their spirit and phronema, and reading the Scriptures with the same trembling respect that they did. It is this trembling respect that we bring to our exegesis when we insist on reading the Bible in its original cultural context.

Perhaps an example might be helpful. Take what is arguably one of the most famous lines in the Bible, “And God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness’” (Genesis 1:26). One asks, “Given the monotheism presupposed in the Book of Genesis, why the plurals? Why did God say, ‘Let us make man in our image’ rather than ‘Let me make man in my image?’ What do such plurals mean in the Old Testament?”

If we read Scripture on its own terms, we must begin by asking the question, “How would the original readers/ hearers of this passage have understood by it?” A refusal to ask this italicized question constitutes a refusal to situate the Scriptures in its own cultural context. It is true that for Christians this context cannot be the place we finish (Christ is where we finish, since He is the telos of the Law; Romans 10:4), but it must be the place from which we start.

As Orthodox in our exegesis we must end with Christ and the Fathers, but we cannot begin there. Exegetically we begin with the original hearers of the texts.

So, beginning in the time in which Genesis was written and read, we must ask, “How would the original readers of this text have understood the plurals? Are there any other times when God found Himself (as it were) not alone in heaven?”

There are indeed a few instances of such plural usage. In Isaiah 6:8, Isaiah “heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’” (The Greek Septuagint was apparently a little embarrassed at the plural, for it rendered it, “Whom shall I send, and who will go to this people?”) Who was God addressing here? Was it simply that He was using what is called “the plural of majesty”, as Queen Elizabeth once did when she famously said, “We are not amused”?

We can begin to find an answer by looking at other passages in the Old Testament. In 1 Kings 22, the prophet Micaiah said that he “saw Yahweh sitting on this throne, and all the host of heaven standing beside him on his right hand and on his left, and Yahweh said, ‘Who will entice Ahab that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?’”

This reference to Yahweh’s divine council is reflected in other Old Testament passages as well. In Job 1:6 we read of the “sons of God” (i.e. the angels) coming to present themselves before Yahweh and Yahweh conversing with them, and in Job 38:7 we read of the sons of God cheering when He first made the world. These “sons of God” are exhorted to ascribe glory and strength to Yahweh in Psalm 29:1.

In Psalm 82:1 the Psalmist says that God has taken His place “in the congregation of God [Hebrew el], in the midst of the gods [Hebrew elohim] He holds judgment”. These “gods” (Hebrew elohim) were clearly His angels, the “sons of God” (Hebrew bene ha-elohim) Job 1:6. In Psalm 89:5-7, we read the same thing: “Let the heavens praise Your wonders, O Yahweh, Your faithfulness in the assembly of the holy ones! For who in the sky can be compared to Yahweh? Who among the sons of gods [Hebrew bene elim] is like Yahweh, a God [Hebrew el] feared in the council of the holy ones?”

The idea that a god acted in council and concert with the other gods was common in Mesopotamia. What we have here in the Old Testament is the monotheistic transformation of that cultural commonplace. There is no other deity except Yahweh. His council consists not of fellow-deities, but simply of lesser beings, angels, “sons of gods”.

But the idea that the king always has his council, whether an earthly king or Yahweh the King of heaven, was assumed in both pagan Mesopotamia and monotheistic Israel. It seems clear that it was to this council that Yahweh spoke and referred when making momentous decisions, whether those decisions involved enticing Ahab, sending a prophet like Isaiah to Judah, or creating man in His own image.

The picture of the divine counsel offering input is anthropomorphic, to be sure, as are pictures of Yahweh baring His arm in the sight of the nations, rolling up His divine sleeves before working to redeem Israel (Isaiah 52:10). It constitutes more a cultural backdrop to Yahweh’s acts than it does Scripture’s main message. But it is just this cultural backdrop that we find in Genesis 1:26.

That is where we must begin our exegesis, for that is how the original hearers, long familiar with the concept of Yahweh addressing His council, would have heard it. But although we begin there, we do not end there. All the teaching of the Old Testament forms a pedagogical trajectory, for the Law was a pedagogue to bring us to Christ (Galatians 3:24).

Taught by our Trinitarian experience of the grace of Christ, we ask about the sensus plenior, the deeper hidden meaning of the text. Why did the Hebrew Scriptures preserve such images as God’s divine council, with the resultant use of plurals? Historically this was clearly a cultural vestige of the common Middle Eastern picture of deity. But prophetically it serves as a foreshadowing of the tri-personal God.

The richness of reality that led the ancient authors to speak of a divine council (and in Israel to also use a plural name for God, viz. Elohim) would eventually find fulfillment in our understanding of God as Trinity. If one follows this trajectory of divine majesty it leads us in the end to the insights of the Fathers—in other words, it leads us to Christ.

The ancient instinct was that Yahweh was too great, powerful, and transcendent to be a solitary Monad in the Middle Eastern sky. Just as a king must have his council to be a true king, so Yahweh was too glorious not to be attended by the council of His holy ones. This is why the Old Testament texts spoke of other gods (Hebrew elim) even when they asserted Yahweh’s unique monotheistic status. And this instinct was not wrong.

Later on we discovered that God is indeed too great, powerful, and transcendent to be a solitary Monad. He was Trinity, bursting the bonds of solitary personhood in the effulgence of tri-personal deity. And the roots of this concept found initial and faint adumbration in those Old Testament plurals, as well as in the mysterious references to “the angel of Yahweh”.

One need not therefore toe the party line and shrink from reading the Old Testament in its cultural context. Such a cultural reading is not preferring “Jewish interpretations” to Christian ones as some might think. It is only recognizing that Judaism came before Christianity and the Old Testament before the New.

It is also preferring scholarship to partisanship, for the scholars who recognize that the plurals of Genesis 1:26 refer to Yahweh’s divine council are Christians (e.g. John Walton who teaches at Wheaton, and the authors of the Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible). It might be a Jewish interpretation if we stopped in the Old Testament and refused to see that interpretation as one stage in a trajectory that leads ultimately to Christ or denied the Holy Trinity.

But in fact we do not stop there, but go on from the Old Testament interpretation to find the richer sensus plenior in all the Old Testament. This fuller meaning of the text, so well expressed by the Fathers, is its highest meaning, and that which is of most use to us in our walk with God.

In this sense we must begin with the Fathers, in that they reveal Scriptures fullest meaning and the destination to which the Old Testament trajectories are leading.

But the highest does not stand without the lowest, and we must first understand the Old Testament as the message of God to Israel before we can understand it as the message of God to His Church.

If we insist on beginning at the end of our exegetical journey and confuse the sensus plenior for the original sensus, we are poor scholars and show unintentional disrespect for the Scriptures. Exegetical anachronism is not the way to go. If the Fathers teach us anything, they teach us that we must hear what the Scriptures have to say and that we must read them on our knees.

Fr. 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, “The Magdalene Reading,” by Rogier van der Weyden, painted before 1438.

Orthodox Christianity: A Faith For Our Times

In these days of changing ways, so-called liberated days, it is not only political beliefs that are getting a fresh look from a lot of people, but beliefs about all aspects of human life. These include the beliefs of traditional Christians in America, whose options for Christ-centered communal worship within an organized framework narrow every day.

The Roman church is both corrupt and led by that man of perdition, Jorge Bergoglio; the degradation of ecclesiastical Protestantism is complete; evangelicals offer only Moralistic Therapeutic Deism or obeisance to Trumpian caesaropapism. This leaves as the last institution standing the Orthodox Church, which shows no signs of trimming its sails to modernism and for whom Saint John Chrysostom might as well as have died yesterday. Hence the recent surge in popularity of this 2001 book, a modern exposition of Orthodox spirituality, written by a man with a foot in both the West and the East.

That man, Kyriacos Markides, is a Greek Cypriot, whose education and academic career (in sociology) were centered in America. As he describes, until the writing of this book his spiritual life had gradually moved from stock Western academic agnosticism to an interest in various forms of mysticism, ending up, at the conclusion of this book, in an ambiguous, but very favorably disposed, relationship with Orthodoxy.

Markides also wrote an earlier book, Riding with the Lion, about the Orthodox monastic communities on Mount Athos, in Greece. Confusingly, this book, whose title refers to Mount Athos, takes places nearly exclusively on Cyprus. Regardless, the form of this book is essentially narrated dialogues between Markides and an Orthodox monk, here called “Father Maximos,” who was sent to Cyprus from Mount Athos in 1993 to form a new monastery (and who is now Bishop of Limassol, the second-largest city in Cyprus).

Other people and places appear, and there are travelogue aspects and digressions about the politics of Cyprus, but the core of the book is an ongoing conversation between those two men. The goal of these dialogues is to primarily to narrate and explicate Orthodox spirituality, with heavy emphasis on its mystical aspects.

Through his dialogues with Father Maximos, Markides develops several threads of Orthodox spiritual thought, on their own terms, in relation to Western Christian (that is, for all practical purposes, Roman Catholic) thought, and, to a lesser extent, in relation to non-Christian spirituality and even secular psychology. (Though accurate here, I hesitate to use the term “spiritual,” because it smacks of the odious phrase “spiritual but not religious,” which is code for “stupid”).

The reason that Markides was able to open his mind to Orthodoxy was his prior realization that “materialist superstition had kept Western thought stranded and imprisoned for the last three hundred years”—a realization, though only nascent, that the Enlightenment was far from the unalloyed benefit it is often portrayed. That realization is what makes this book possible; it is neither Orthodox fanboy-ism, or a cloaked attack by a skeptic, but an honest attempt to find the truth.

A substantial part of Markides’s approach is that he identifies up front, and then directly asks Father Maximos to address, problems and questions that are commonly raised in objection to Orthodox or Christian beliefs.

These include questions with a practical basis, such as whether monks are wasting their lives, or are self-centered or inward focused when they should be serving their fellow man, or whether abbots psychologically coerce vulnerable individuals to join the monastic life. It’s these questions, in fact, that Markides addresses first.

Then he turns to questions about belief, both theology and practice, including ones often asked by Protestants, such as whether icons are idols (that one is easy, but many aren’t). This segues into broader theological questions—ultimately, into the meaning of life. All this is done in dialogue; the author taped his conversations, so presumably they are accurately set forth.

The focus here is on monastic practice, but that is portrayed as merely a more perfect form of the practice to which all Christians are called. While Maximos’s explanations of the reasons for, and the value of, monasticism are best read in their entirety, they revolve around the necessity of some set of people’s “providentially assigned life’s task” to be an “exclusive preoccupation with the reality of God.”

It is apprehending and approaching that reality towards which monastic life in Orthodoxy is oriented. Such monastic life is eremitic, more so than communal (though some meals and some worship are typically communal), in the spirit of the early monastics, and is not directed toward external acts of service in the way of some Western monastics.

The vast majority of the monk’s day is devoted simply to prayer, especially the Efche (the “Jesus Prayer”), often (but not necessarily) along with some manual labor. Fasting and other forms of periodic self-denial are also important in creating the necessary focus.

Collectively, these practices are askesis, the root word of “ascetic,” but here it means spiritual athleticism, not (just) suffering through self-mortification. The repeated message is that such practices, applied to a lesser degree, are the path to holiness and union with God for all people.

In Markides’s telling (I cannot opine myself), Orthodox spirituality does not rely on strict rationality and logic nearly to the degree that Western Christianity does. Thomism, scholasticism and the like, tied to Aristotle, is not so much denigrated as regarded as incomplete (although Father Maximos comes very close to rejecting metaphysics entirely).

The ability of certain saintly men and women to directly apprehend the divine, and thereby to benefit and illuminate others, is prized and assumed much more than it would be in Catholicism, where the structures permit and recognize it, but usually not without hesitation.

This shows up most clearly in the nearly continuous references by Father Maximos to Elder Paisios, an Athonite monk and wonderworker who died in 1993. But signs and wonders, including such dramatic events as the physical appearance of Christ Himself to individual monks, as well as the appearance of saints in the flesh, and direct physical contact with demons and angels, are held as normal, or at least not infrequent, events in Orthodox monasticism, which (again, in Markides’s telling) has not been infected with Western materialism and skepticism. Markides himself does show some skepticism about the frequency of reported miracles, including querying whether they might be explained by science or hallucinations, but by no means wholesale skepticism.

It’s not just materialism and skepticism that can undermine askesis, though, but also an over-exaltation of knowledge itself. As Father Maximos says, “Spiritual knowledge by itself does not lead us to God. It may in fact push us in the opposite direction.

We may succumb to the temptation and fantasize that because we are knowledgeable we are especially favored by God. It could stimulate our pride and vanity.” Speaking from experience, I agree with this—not that I have all that much spiritual knowledge, but I am keenly interested in theology, and too proud of the many books I have on it (though, even worse, part of my pride is in impressing visitors with my books—bad me).

Still, as I discuss below, and as Markides also seems to feel, despite the potential pitfalls, I don’t think metaphysics or other forms of rational spiritual knowledge should be denigrated excessively, especially as they relate to society overall.

This all fits within the overriding theme that runs through all Markides’s discussions with Father Maximos, which is theosis—the Orthodox belief that not only is our purpose and goal union with God, but that goal can be approached in this life, and that through it, in this life or the next, the believer can directly partake of the divine, in a form of ecstatic communion.

This state is reached not through study, or logical deduction, but by spiritual exercise devoted to reaching total humility and indifference to material things, while also being totally open to God. To reach theosis, both askesis and spiritual guidance are necessary, obtained from the lives of the saints and (ideally) from an elder. (Implicit in this is that self-guidance by reading the Bible in isolation to reach one’s own conclusions, the hallmark of Protestantism, is inadequate and foolish).

Theosis is a superseding goal—as Maximos says, “Christ didn’t come into the world to teach us how to become good fellows, how to behave properly, or how to live a righteous life in this world.” It’s not that those things are bad; rather it is that “the ultimate goal is to become perfect in the same way as our Heavenly Father is perfect, to become one with God.”

Several subthemes also show up repeatedly. One is the importance of overcoming temptations—not merely temptations as traditionally viewed in the West, where we picture Satan on our shoulder, but various troubles and difficulties, as well as good things that may happen, all of which are opportunities for spiritual development requiring an appropriate response.

An important category of these is logismoi, assaultive thoughts, defense against which is a matter discussed at considerable length in this book, with successful defense being a critical step in spiritual development, the defense resulting from repentance and humility. Another is the importance not only of personal humility, but of actively seeing the image of God in every other human being, no matter how evil he may act, and of loving that person as a consequence—and even loving demons (“as suffering entities,” despite their evil).

A third is that freedom does not consist in following one’s own desires, but being liberated from slavery to passions, and instead subordinating oneself to Christ. This is, of course, the only concept of freedom held in the West prior to the Enlightenment (not always with reference to Christ, naturally, since the ancient Greeks held it), but it has been mostly forgotten in the West, except, it seems, by antiquarians (though my guess is that its time is coming around again). None of these themes is exclusive to Orthodoxy, of course, but the emphasis on them seems much greater than in Western Christianity, or at least modern Western Christianity, of any brand.

It is important to note that in many cases, the Orthodox do not necessarily hold theological positions on which a final position has been reached, both because there is no single authority (other than a council and the approval of the laity) that can finally decide a matter, and because reaching a final decision is regarded as less important than in Catholicism, within certain basic parameters.

That said, three theological discussions in this book held special interest for me. The first is the possibility admitted in Orthodoxy, but almost totally denied in Catholicism, of the apocatastasis—the universal reconciliation, in which all humans, or even all created beings, including the Devil, will reach theosis. The Orthodox reject Purgatory, but a mainstream thread of Orthodox thought functionally treats Hell as Purgatory.

Markides focuses on it, but it’s hard for me to tell how prominent this line of thought is in Orthodoxy. It’s a lot more prominent than in the Roman Church, though, which mostly rejects it as heresy, although if pressed, some theologians (Hans Urs von Balthasar being the most notable modern example) will admit the possibility.

A second is the idea that the point of Christianity is not to improve this world. Father Maximos has never heard of “liberation theology” (monks are deliberately not up on the news). If he had heard of it, he would be revolted. As Father Maximos tells Markides, “[Christ] was not trying to make this world better and more just. Whatever Christ offered us through the Gospel had a deeper meaning, the salvation of humanity, our eternal restoration within the Kingdom of God.” No doubt, “Christ did go about doing good. . . . But that was not His chief mission for coming into the world.”

In the modern world, for the majority of Western Christians, this is the grossest heresy, or would be, if they knew what a heresy was. Certainly, the Presbyterian church my wife and I recently abandoned saw this as their only goal—implementing a left-wing vision of justice, cribbed from Rawls, not Romans.

In the words of that church’s new pastor, in the last sermon we heard before our family vomited him and his works out of our mouth, we are required to show that we are Christian to others, and our sole purpose in so doing is to aggressively demonstrate to non-Christians that we “reject theologies of hatred and exclusion”—that is, our chief goal as “Christians” must be to demonstrate our rejection of any form of traditional Christianity. So long, sucker. (I suppose my attitude here towards the pastor shows I am not making much progress on the path to theosis, though).

A third is the question of whether God wills a reason for all happenings. This seems to me clearly false; I agree strongly with the Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart, who in his meditation on the 2004 Indonesian tsunami, The Doors of the Sea, concluded that “God will not unite all of history’s many strands in one great synthesis, but will judge much of history false and damnable; that he will not simply reveal the sublime logic of fallen nature but will strike off the fetters in which creation languishes; and that, rather than showing us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark [a reference to a passage from Dostoevsky] were necessary for the building of the Kingdom, he will instead raise her up and wipe away all tears from her eyes—and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away and he that sits upon the throne will say, ‘Behold, I make all things new.’ ”

But Father Maximos is just as emphatic that “Nothing, absolutely nothing happens in the Universe without a deeper meaning to it.” I don’t buy it. I could harmonize Hart’s and Father Maximos’s statements, since “deeper meaning” is not the exact same thing as “willed reason,” but I think it would be sophistry—Hart’s and Father Maximos’s seem to be actually opposed opinions, and I am not sure which is closer to the Orthodox mainstream.

Regardless, I just can’t stand it when people say “I believe everything happens for a reason.” (It’s especially annoying when said by people who don’t believe in God at all, though. What reason is that then, exactly)? It doesn’t; much of history is false and damnable. This is also part of why theodicy has never seemed like a significant problem to me. God doesn’t owe us anything, and much less does he owe us current happiness. That’s easy for me to say, blessed beyond all words and measure. But it still seems obvious to me.

Anyway, on a more abstract level, and given that much of my thinking nowadays revolves around how, perhaps, the West can be dragged out of its dead end and return to flourishing, and that part of that flourishing relates to purely secular matters, I find the relative approaches of Orthodoxy and Western Christianity illuminating in relation to that goal.

I do not think it is a coincidence that the West, rather than the East, created the modern world. By “modern world,” I mean the approach to thinking, and thus to science, that ended in the Scientific Revolution and therefore the Industrial Revolution (to neither of which, of course, the Enlightenment had any relevance at all, so we can peel away the Enlightenment and return to continued material flourishing, or at least that’s my theory).

Certainly, the Roman East had less opportunity—under siege from Islam (which itself could never have created the modern world), not to mention it was abused at times by the West (the Orthodox remember the Fourth Crusade, forgotten in the West). But the mystical, otherworldly focus that, at least in this book, strongly characterizes Orthodoxy, and the related downplaying of high rationality and metaphysics, seems to me inherently likely to pinch material advancement.

The Western approach has its pitfalls, obviously, among them those outlined by Brad Gregory in The Unintended Reformation. I also often wonder if a truly wealthy society can be a virtuous society at all.

Not to mention that many aspects of modern science can be, and are being, used for utterly pernicious purposes, such as transhumanism and better ways of killing infants in the womb, so sometimes I wonder if we’d not all be better off, in the long run, living in the fourth century A.D.

In any case, it seems to me that Markides’s analogy of Orthodoxy and Western Christianity as “two lungs,” both contributing air and life, is a good one, and one that might conduce to a real renaissance in both West and East. And, despite Orthodox resentment against and distaste for the Roman Church, a rapprochement among traditional Catholics and the Orthodox is probably a necessary element to fight the forces that would destroy both, so some form of joint action would have both spiritual and secular benefits.

Finally, at the risk of seeming like a curmudgeon, I note (as I often do) that the book isn’t perfect. As probably in any book by a sociologist who likes to deal with shamans, there are irritating parts and odd claims about non-religious matters.

The frequent side references to the “eco-peace villages” that Markides’s wife apparently was devoted to, whatever those are, grate (mostly because they sound nonsensical).

Markides treats it as something other than ludicrous when someone asks him what penance the monks have done for “having killed millions of women as witches.” You just have to glide over those sections, though, and focus on the words of Father Maximos, to really receive benefit. I suggest you do that, today.

Charles is a business owner and operator, in manufacturing, and a recovering big firm M&A lawyer. He runs the blog, The Worthy House.
The photo shows, “In Russia, Soul of the People,” by Mikhail Vasilyevich Nesterov. This was one of the last religious paintings by Nesterov before the Revolution of 1917.