We Pray With Eyes Wide Open

 

Recently, I was blessed to hear some spiritual reflections from a priest who was not born in this country. Unlike folks like me, this dear father was not inundated with the caricatures of religiosity which are testified to in many religious halls that decry religion. His comments on coming to the US, as they relate to a habit that I am still breaking, opened my heart more fully to the highest goal that we all share-living a life of peace and repentance, joined to the Holy Trinity and all people through theosis and love.

Father shared that upon moving from Barcelona to New York City in the early ’80s, the water cooler topic du jour was that of prayer in schools. One of the myriads of political cartoons from that period happened to feature a boy, being carried off from his class by two security guards. While watching the drama and “justice in action”, two teachers remarked to one another, “Poor Johnny, he was only sleeping in class.”

This poor European explant priest couldn’t grasp the humor of this political cartoon because he could not see the connection between sleeping in class and prayer. Why? Because, as he put it, Our Tradition knows nothing of bowing one’s head and closing one’s eyes (to pray, at least).

Now, as a cantor, I understand the complexity of liturgical services, and I understand how leading them can lead makes it impossible to pray with one’s eyes closed. Definitely, closing one’s eyes is to be discouraged on a mere practical level in that case, because there are so many words to be sung. But this dear priest’s spiritual reflections extended far beyond practical matters such as those.

He spoke so matter of factly that praying with one’s eyes closed was not part of the entire spiritual life that he had lived as a cradle Catholic. It was so against my own understanding of prayer, which I received as a former Evangelical Christian.

 

Why does praying with one’s eyes closed speak against our notion of what is true? As Father explained, the sacramental perspective can see God everywhere, in all of life. To close our eyes is, then, a fleeing from reality. My friend who bothers me disappears as I close my eyes. My wife and children can fade into oblivion while the “real” presence of God floods my closed eyes as I think of Him. But this would miss the presence of God, who is everywhere present and filling all things.

 

 

 

Praying with open eyes is, therefore, a testament to the fact that we see God in the created world, just as much as is our acceptance of the 7th Ecumenical Council, which upheld the use of icons in worship.

The matter of keeping one’s eyes open is, then, not a matter of kneeling vs. not kneeling. It is a matter of saying that the world is not separate from the reality of God. The highest reality is here and now, just as much as it is in the life of the world to come.

I come to God in my liturgical worship, but I also see Him in the simplest things of life. And so, as my eyes are open in day to day life, they are open as I pray to Him, because all of my existence echoes the refrain, that God is with us.

 

As this video proclaims:

God is with us!

Understand all you Nations!

Submit Yourselves, for God is with us!

 

 

 

Approach with Fear of God and with Faith: Eucharistic Theology and Altar Servers

In the Divine Liturgy, we hear the words, “Approach with Fear of God and with Faith”, but how close should one approach? In the Ruthenian Byzantine Catholic liturgicon, we read the following rubrics just before holy communion: “The celebrant takes the chalice back from the deacon. The faithful come forward to receive communion from the priest. The deacon may also give communion to the faithful if need be.”

How is Holy Tradition and our theology of the Eucharist made manifest with regard to the role of the priest and the role of the faithful in the act of receiving communion? Does the priest’s reception of the Body and Blood of Christ at the altar mean that those who are not ordained should receive Christ outside of the altar? Does this include those boys and men who serve behind the Holy Doors, or should those altar servers receive communion behind the Holy Doors? Strictly speaking, the non-ordained includes any who have not yet received major holy orders in the Church, even if the minor orders would perhaps also be included as those who are distinct from “the faithful”. And so, with the question of altar servers, we would initially think that altar servers would receive the Eucharist just as do the rest of the faithful. As I understand, most parishes in the Orthodox Churches would tend to give communion to the altar servers outside of the altar, and after the rest of the faithful have partaken. In contrast, most Byzantine Catholic parishes tend to give communion to the altar servers inside the altar, before this mystery is given to the rest of the faithful. Exceptions exist in both jurisdictions, but nevertheless this is a general rule that forms the basis of this eucharistic reflection. Below, I aim to explain the mentality underlying this difference in praxis, and then offer some arguments in support of the current practice that is more common among Byzantine Catholics.

Despite not having a consistent practice with the administration of the Holy Eucharist, among Byzantine Christians there is a unified belief that bishops, priests and deacons should receive communion by approaching the holy table. But what does this say about altar servers? In terms of their ontological status, it is also uniformly agreed that altar servers are not officially ordained for the service that they give to God and His Church. That is to say, they have not received their vocation by the mystery of the laying on of hands by a bishop. To those who call upon their altar servers to receive outside of the holy doors, this distinction between ordained and those who are not ordained appears to be foremost in consideration when administering the Eucharist with altar servers outside of the holy doors.

One opposing argument to this structure could come from Nicholas Cabasilas’ A Commentary on the Divine Liturgy. In section 37 we read, “When he has summoned the faithful to the sacred banquet, the priest gives the sacrament to himself, and afterwards to all those of priestly rank and the altar-servers.” This sounds more like the practice of altar servers receiving communion from within the holy doors, and it would not be after the rest of the faithful. In this context, the altar servers are approaching the table as near as possible, as they share in the role of the ordained, while not being ultimately ordained.

However, it could be argued that in the historical context, altar servers are actually deacons and subdeacons, in which case our modern notion of an altar server as an unordained boy or man is not included in this citation. If Cabasilas did have unordained altar servers in mind however, it seems quite clear that the altar servers would rightly receive before the rest of the faithful. For as faithful, they are still unique in their service at the altar, just as there are faithful who stand in a unique position when they serve in the choir or in other unique duties.

Another important consideration is the admonition given just before communion, which makes for the title of this post. If we are told to “Approach with fear of God and with faith”, what should that mean? If we as Byzantine Christians are able to grasp the idea of an unordained boy or man approaching the holy table in liturgical service to bring incense or carry candles, why would the same altar servers not come to receive the Body and Blood of Christ as near to the holy table as they do when they serve at the altar? They are coming closer to the holy table than would I as a layman who do not serve at the altar.

As a parallel, I have observed two priests at the mystery of confession standing not before an icon of Christ, but before His Throne itself, the holy table. Surely, an icon is “good enough” for this mystery to be carried out, but these instances of a priest confessing his sins to his spiritual father at the altar itself have a beautiful message. This message speaks to the further depth of Christ’s presence that can be seen through opening one’s heart in confession at the same altar where those priests have prayed that the Holy Spirit would come down to make the holy gifts truly the Body and Blood of Christ during the divine liturgy.  So, like so many other spiritual matters, a Byzantine Christian is not offended by the concept of altar servers receiving communion outside of the holy doors. No bare minima are transgressed. But if the altar servers’ normal course of service includes approaching the holy table to bring the incense or the zeon, one could argue that this  also can include bringing themselves to receive the body of Christ, and taste the fountain of immortality, from within the holy doors.

Therefore, a key to accepting this “closer approach” of receiving the Eucharist may be rooted in the same thinking that allows us to accept altar servers’ support of our clergy at the holy table. Just as we see this as a reflection and partial participation in the mystery of the clergy’s reception of holy orders (which raises a separate message about the appropriate gender of an altar server, an entirely different discussion), so too I think we can see that an altar server who receives the body and blood of Christ can do so from within the holy doors. They are approaching the holy table as close as is proper and normal for them to do.

If, however, the tradition is clear that the dichotomy between clergy and faithful is more strict for altar servers at the moment of communion, then the practice of communion outside of the holy doors would make sense, and I would hope that Byzantine Catholics would more consistently follow that practice. Until this distinction is articulated more clearly, however, I will continue support the praxis that I observe most frequently, where altar servers receive from within the holy doors.

May we all continue on the journey to approach communion (and God Himself!) with the fear of God, with faith, and with love.

O Most Holy Theotokos, Save Us!

The Future of the Byzantine Catholic Church in America

I was blessed to recently attend part of the ByzanTEEN youth rally, which is held every other year by my Mother Church, the Byzantine (Ruthenian) Catholic Church in the United States. In addition to praying some services with the bishops, clergy, and (mostly) young folk who were there, I was thankful to be able to help an effort to share about vocations in the church. We have put together a video series that serves to help a vocations page. It can be found on Facebook here.

This video series from the rally has been put onto Youtube in segments, and the eighth segment contains some of my favorite responses, because it is about such an important question. In this clip, we ask what is hoped for the future of our Church. The harmony of responses among our interviewees is very evident and beautiful to observe.

You can see the video below:

On this site, I’ve recently tried to offer some thoughts on how we can live out our future in the light of our ancient heritage and patrimony. In addition, many other factors may contribute to this mission of sharing the light of the east. Ultimately, our vision of having a message that becomes louder and clearer through a more faithful living out of our Tradition was wonderful to capture in this vocations video, and I hope that more and more people hear these words and try to put them into practice.

Through the prayers of our holy Fathers, O Lord Jesus Christ Our God, have mercy on us!

Exchanging the Rosary for the Akathist (and Vespers over a Vigil Divine Liturgy)-Perspective from Pope Benedict XVI

At the risk of sounding repetitive, I would like to offer a closer look at the citations offered in the reflection on Fr. Florovsky’s neo-patristic synthesis, as it relates to Eastern Catholics growing in their love of their own patrimony and perspective. Our rhythm of prayer and its unique genius is something that has been weakened with time to an extent. To dwell on the reasons why is less helpful than to stand up and continue again and again in peace, prayer, and repentance.

To that end, and to be sure that my own writing is put into the context of our Holy Father Benedict, Pope of Rome’s writings, I offer these citations from Verbum Domini, the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation on the Word of God. The entire document is well worth one’s time, but it is quite a large read. So my goal in this present post is to focus on two key passages as they relate to issues that Eastern Catholics face in living out our life of prayer.

First, as I mentioned that praying Vespers offers an important means to usher in a liturgy on the following morning and to walk with the Fathers, I cited Verbum Domini paragraph 62. It states:

Among the forms of prayer which emphasize sacred Scripture, the Liturgy of the Hours has an undoubted place. The Synod Fathers called it “a privileged form of hearing the word of God, inasmuch as it brings the faithful into contact with Scripture and the living Tradition of the Church”.[221] Above all, we should reflect on the profound theological and ecclesial dignity of this prayer. “In the Liturgy of the Hours, the Church, exercising the priestly office of her Head, offers ‘incessantly’ (1 Th 5:17) to God the sacrifice of praise, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name (cf. Heb 13:15). This prayer is ‘the voice of a bride speaking to her bridegroom, it is the very prayer that Christ himself, together with his Body, addressed to the Father’”.[222] The Second Vatican Council stated in this regard that “all who take part in this prayer not only fulfil a duty of the Church, but also share in the high honour of the spouse of Christ; for by celebrating the praises of God, they stand before his throne in the name of the Church, their Mother”.[223]The Liturgy of the Hours, as the public prayer of the Church, sets forth the Christian ideal of the sanctification of the entire day, marked by the rhythm of hearing the word of God and praying the Psalms; in this way every activity can find its point of reference in the praise offered to God.

Those who by virtue of their state in life are obliged to pray the Liturgy of the Hours should carry out this duty faithfully for the benefit of the whole Church. Bishops, priests and deacons aspiring to the priesthood, all of whom have been charged by the Church to celebrate this liturgy, are obliged to pray all the Hours daily.[224] As for the obligation of celebrating this liturgy in the Eastern Catholic Churches sui iuris, the prescriptions of their proper law are to be followed.[225] I also encourage communities of consecrated life to be exemplary in the celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours, and thus to become a point of reference and an inspiration for the spiritual and pastoral life of the whole Church.

The Synod asked that this prayer become more widespread among the People of God, particularly the recitation of Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer. This could only lead to greater familiarity with the word of God on the part of the faithful. Emphasis should also be placed on the value of the Liturgy of the Hours for the First Vespers of Sundays and Solemnities, particularly in the Eastern Catholic Churches. To this end I recommend that, wherever possible, parishes and religious communities promote this prayer with the participation of the lay faithful. (Emphasis added)

In Verbum Domini, our regular praying of Vespers is tied to our knowledge of the Word of God, and our entire life of prayer. At a time when so many people are wandering without direction in this life, we as Eastern Catholics have something wonderful to offer to the world, and it is something that will nourish our own souls if we have the voices to sing these services, and the ears to hear.

Secondly, there is the general subject of Marian prayer, and the specific issue of praying the Akathist. Paragraph 88 of Verbum Domini is cited in its entirety, as it emphasizes both the Rosary and the Akathist (in addition to the Angelus and Paraklesis services) in the prayer life of the entire Catholic Church.

Mindful of the inseparable bond between the word of God and Mary of Nazareth, along with the Synod Fathers I urge that Marian prayer be encouraged among the faithful, above all in life of families, since it is an aid to meditating on the holy mysteries found in the Scriptures. A most helpful aid, for example, is the individual or communal recitation of the Holy Rosary,[302]which ponders the mysteries of Christ’s life in union with Mary,[303] and which Pope John Paul II wished to enrich with the mysteries of light.[304] It is fitting that the announcement of each mystery be accompanied by a brief biblical text pertinent to that mystery, so as to encourage the memorization of brief biblical passages relevant to the mysteries of Christ’s life.

The Synod also recommended that the faithful be encouraged to pray the Angelus. This prayer, simple yet profound, allows us “to commemorate daily the mystery of the Incarnate Word”.[305]It is only right that the People of God, families and communities of consecrated persons, be faithful to this Marian prayer traditionally recited at sunrise, midday and sunset. In the Angeluswe ask God to grant that, through Mary’s intercession, we may imitate her in doing his will and in welcoming his word into our lives. This practice can help us to grow in an authentic love for the mystery of the incarnation.

The ancient prayers of the Christian East which contemplate the entire history of salvation in the light of the Theotokos, the Mother of God, are likewise worthy of being known, appreciated and widely used. Here particular mention can be made of the Akathist and Paraklesis prayers. These hymns of praise, chanted in the form of a litany and steeped in the faith of the Church and in references to the Bible, help the faithful to meditate on the mysteries of Christ in union with Mary. In particular, the venerable Akathist hymn to the Mother of God – so-called because it is sung while standing – represents one of the highest expressions of the Marian piety of the Byzantine tradition.[306] Praying with these words opens wide the heart and disposes it to the peace that is from above, from God, to that peace which is Christ himself, born of Mary for our salvation. (Emphasis added)

Again, it is wonderful to read that the Holy Father is encouraging Marian devotion by encouraging several forms of Marian prayers, which reflects the diversity of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. In his writings, the Eastern Christian prayer life is not considered something that can be disposed of when the Rosary (or any other prayer) is prayed in regularity. Rather, he argues that our Byzantine spiritual heritage is likewise worthy of being known and venerated by all.

The question then immediately arises: if we who are Eastern Catholics do not know and venerate these prayers as Eastern Christians, how can our Western Brethren know and venerate them? It is well and good if we can hold to some Western devotions, as long as we also are able to live out our own traditions of prayer and devotion. That is why I did not title this post “Exchanging the Rosary…” to imply that the Rosary should be exchanged for the Akathist in a necessary and literal sense for all Byzantine Catholics. But if there is a lack of  fervent devotion to the Akathist and the Paraklesis in our parishes, we can hardly expect people in Roman Catholic parishes to love and pray these services on their own. And then it will not only be we who suffer through a lack of these prayers, but all Christians, Eastern and Western. And if we feel unable to pray both the Akathist and the Rosary at our parishes, then perhaps an exchange should be considered, not to neglect the Rosary out of disdain or some sort of anti-Western sentiment, but out of our love and devotion to the Theotokos and to the Akathist, which declares that love and devotion in a beautiful and poetic manner. On the other hand, if our prayer service books do nothing but collect dust in our choir lofts, all of the Church will be weakened.

O Most Holy Theotokos, Save Us!

On Eastern Christians Loving Western Saints (and vice versa)


The photograph of this icon was taken at a Russian Catholic Parish that meets in Denver, Colorado. It is a beautiful and fitting testimony to our heritage as Eastern Christians in Communion with Western Christians, and it is a timely reminder of how Byzantine Catholics can embrace and show strong devotion to Western Saints such as Saint Francis of Assisi, who is commemorated on October 4th. The iconographer juxtaposes two great saints of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, where Saint Francis of Assisi is joined by his Russian brother in the faith, Saint Seraphim of Sarov. Their shared union with God as reflected by union with all of creation is beautifully depicted by their standing with a wolf and a bear, as each Father was able to find a miraculous harmony with these creatures. Ecclesiological conundrums aside, the spirit of what it means to be an Eastern Christian in Communion with Rome shines naturally through this icon.

Despite having differences that are tangible and visible at times, Eastern Catholics hold out that the core of our faith is immutably one, shared and lived out uniquely between different particular Churches. The tragedies of schism are conquered, and the flaws of history are surmounted through the love of God who unites all in Christ. And so, as Blessed Pope John Paul II noted in Crossing the Threshold of Hope (CTH, pg 18), Byzantine Catholics not only embrace their Western Catholic brethren with whom they are in communion, but like Blessed John Paul, we have the ability to call St. Seraphim a saint, despite his canonical status of being in communion with Moscow, not Rome.

In a previous post, I tried to call attention to the fact that if the Rosary has replaced the Akathist in Byzantine Catholic parishes, then the Akathist may have no true home. Nevertheless, if Eastern Catholics are in communion with Rome but have no appreciation of the holiness and majesty of their Western Brethren who are on earth and in Heaven, our intercommunion will be little more than a canonical detail, as significant (or insignificant) as the minimum age for one to be a godparent.

By celebrating and having true devotion to saints such as St. Francis, Eastern Christians can live out the mystery of union in the midst of unique spiritual gifts and perspectives. Just as men and women have unique perspectives and strengths (and weaknesses!), and yet they can be joined together in a mystical union, so too the diversity of Churches manifests the reality that the love of God conquers all in Christ. This is the truest mystery of all, as St. Paul notes in his Epistle to the Ephesians (Eph 5:32).

Holy Fathers Francis and Seraphim, pray to God for us!

Should the Akathist Replace the Rosary? (On Florovsky’s Neo-Patristic Synthesis)

In the Apostolic Churches, one might consider a connection to the Apostles to be the ultimate criterion for possessing the Truth, given the fact that these Churches are called Apostolic. However, this would be an oversimplification. The Apostles also had successors who made up many of the “Early Church Fathers”. In later Church History there were more Fathers and saints, and in our present day there are spiritual fathers who still walk among us. One could ask whether these different fathers comprise different groups; e.g., the Ante-Nicene, Post-Nicene, etc.? If so, how should one view the relationship between them? How are they connected to the Apostles and their teachings, for that matter? In his neo-patristic synthesis, Fr. Georges Florovsky wrote about the importance of an Orthodox mindset that was not merely Apostolic in the sense of focusing on the Apostles or their earliest successors. It is a view that does not consider these groups as hermetically sealed off from each other, or from us. Instead, his view of the Church and theology was that the Church is Apostolic because it is ultimately Patristic, listening to the voice of the Fathers throughout the ages (Florovsky, 107). For Florovsky, the mind of the Fathers is something not to be connected to based on its antiquity, for many heresies could lay claim to being quite old (Florovsky, 105-106). Rather, Florovsky argued that the mind of the Fathers is something that could be seen from the life of the early Church, and continues on to the present day (Florovsky 101-103). Instead of viewing Orthodoxy as being tied to antiquity per se, the neo-patristic synthesis sees a harmony throughout the ages, wherein the Holy Spirit guides the Church. Therefore, the clarion call to finding the mind of the Fathers is not to go “to the Fathers” in a bygone age, but is instead to go “with the Fathers” into all ages, including our own (Florovsky 109-112).

This perspective that the Fathers are not merely an ancient and lost class can be borne out in an Eastern Catholic context in two critical ways that are the focus on this essay. First, the mind of the Fathers is something that should be considered from a negative perspective, as something that has been lost or weakened in our Churches. So often, Eastern Catholics look at the dogmas issued in councils (both pre- and post-Schism) as determinative of what it means to be a good Catholic, Byzantine or otherwise. Accepting dogmas is truly important, but there is more to the faith than dogma. We must bear in mind as Eastern Christians, our venerable ancestral traditions have been neglected at times, (as noted in Orientalium Ecclesiarum 6, and elsewhere).

The Post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation from Pope Benedict XVI, Verbum Domini, points out two concrete areas where this is especially important for our future as Byzantine Catholics. First, there is the matter of taking faith and not making it focused on the bare minima that are required to please the Lord. Instead, our traditions of praying the divine praises leads us to a higher set of services beyond Sunday Divine Liturgy, through services such as Saturday Evening Vespers – unfortunately, in many Eastern Catholic parishes, Saturday Evening Vespers which usher in Sunday tend to be eclipsed by Vesperal Divine Liturgies, which can separate congregations based on who attends Saturday night vs. Sunday morning. This practice also deprives the faithful of the fullness of each service. In Verbum Domini we hear a call to increase the practice of praying Vespers fully, as the whole service is not prayed in a Vesperal Divine Liturgy (Verbum Domini, 62). Through praying Vespers, and through increasing other services such as Matins, Eastern Catholics can move away from a minimalistic faith practice and move ever closer to the mind of the Fathers. Secondly, when reflecting upon Marian prayer, Verbum Domini calls for all Catholics to embrace Eastern Christian prayers such as the Akathist (Verbum Domini, 88). While the Rosary is a beautiful and venerable way to Pray to the Mother of God, if Eastern Catholics are not praying the Akathist and other Eastern hymns, why will Latin Rite Catholics pray these prayers? That some Eastern Catholic parishes may pray the Rosary corporately is not a negative thing per se, but when it is done to the exclusion of our own patrimony, this absence of fervent and authentic Eastern prayer life is a negative for the whole Church.

This reemphasizes the importance of documents such as Orientale Lumen, which stress that the Light of the East shines to the whole world (Orientale Lumen, 1). It highlights that Eastern Catholics need to embrace their particular genius and share it with the whole world. Rather than pointing to our faith as that of bygone days that have nothing to do with today, we as Eastern Catholics must shine with our own light that is the same light as those of our Holy Fathers and give the message of the Gospel to all peoples. All of this points to the fact that our liturgical life and praxis constitutes a unique mindset. Moving beyond the older views that all Christians must be identical in expressing the faith through one theology, the Catholic Church teaches that a multiplicity of genuine theologies is to be expected, as this multiplicity reflects of the multi-faceted harmony of truth (ITC, Ch1, #5). This kind of thinking inspired Blessed Pope John Paul II to use the metaphor of the East and the West as lungs in the Church, as the diversity of theologies and perspectives represent multiple points of view (UUS, 54). Despite having a past where Eastern Catholics have imitated their Latin Rite Brethren, our answering the call to walk with the Fathers will include a more genuine life living according to our own patrimony.

Just as Fr. Florovsky calls upon the Orthodox to walk “with” the Fathers (Florovsky 101-103), as Eastern Catholics we also need to ask ourselves how we are cultivating the mind of the Fathers positively in our parish life, and beyond. As noted in Orientale Lumen, one great genius of the East is its embracing of monasticism (OL, 9). An important question that considers the neo-patristic synthesis from a positive angle is whether we are positively fostering monasticism (and all vocations in general) in our Churches (OL, 27). Through an increase in seeing our vocations as a gift from God where we offer ourselves to Him, and through moving away from spirituality that is not genuinely ours, may the Holy Spirit guide and grow our Eastern Catholic Churches through Christ, who is our Light.

Works Cited

Florovsky, Georges. The Authority of the Ancient Councils and the Tradition of the Fathers. The Collected Works of Georges Florovsky, Vol. I, Bible, Church, Tradition: An Eastern Orthodox View. 1987 pp. 93-103. Print.

Florovsky  Georges. St. Gregory Palamas and the Tradition of the Fathers. The Collected Works of Georges Florovsky, Vol. I, Bible, Church, Tradition: An Eastern Orthodox View. 1987 pp. 105-120.

International Theological Commission. Theology Today: Perspectives, Principles and Criteria. 2012 Web.

Orientale Lumen (The Light of the East) 1995. Web.

Orientalium Ecclesiarum 1964. Web.

Ut Unum Sint 1995. Web.

Verbum Domini 2010. Web.