2012 Eastern Catholic Encounter West Coast-II

(Continued thoughts and reflections from the 2012 Eastern Catholic Encounter held in the LA area)

The second main session speaker at the 2012 Encounter was Abouna (Father, for the non-Arabic speaking folks among us) Justin Rose. Abouna Justin is the pastor of St. Philip Melkite Mission in San Bernardino, California. I have heard him give talks in the past, and was excited to see how he would address a larger audience.

Like my previous post, I would like to focus on three points with which I find great agreement, and then offer some thoughts about an area which could be improved or clarified.

A key point that Abouna Justin made throughout his presentation was the relationship between the New Evangelization and the Year of Faith, which we are celebrating now at the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council.

In reflecting on technology, Abouna Justin noted that the Roman Roads were constructed to enable the Roman Empire to flourish, and yet at the same time it was this technology which facilitated the good news of the Gospel to be spread by the Apostles. Without the Roman Roads, the Apostles would not have reached as many people. Later in the talk, he noted that water itself can be deadly if it drowns someone, and yet this same physical matter is life-giving when used for Holy Baptism. Technology is dangerous but offers a powerful opportunity for good. In that sense, we should reach out to the world with the truth of our Faith and incorporate technology in our efforts.

But these efforts must not be mechanical or done out of mere obligation. Instead of feeling that our life in the Church is like stamping a time card, we should be people of constant conversion and repentance. Abouna Justin cited the closing statement from the Synod on the New Evangelization, which states:

The encounter with the Lord, which reveals God as love, can only come about in the Church, as the form of receptive community and experience of communion; from this, then, Christians become its witnesses also in other places. However, the Church reasserts that to evangelize one must be evangelized first of all… (Emphasis added)

This message of embracing the new evangelization was then contrasted with many thoughts on ways which this has been abandoned. He noted that this lack of calling can come from things like a ghetto mentality, a lack of cooperation among Eastern Catholics (his side note on us needing to appreciate each other’s music was wonderful), and other deficiencies in our mindset, which leads to the second point-how can we live and share the new evangelization?

Abouna Justin argued that one chief way evangelization can be lived out is to realize that we all share in a priestly vocation, particularly in our life in the domestic church, which is the family. He spoke of the fact that the miracle of love in the home is a mystical construction of a family altar. He recounted wonderful stories of one mother who always made the sign of the cross on the foreheads of her family members each night. Rather than thinking that “blessing is for Priests only”, this mother saw her baptismal vocation and her calling as a mother to be a source of blessing to her family. Likewise, he shared that another mother made it a point to collect large amounts of holy water at the Feast of the Theophany so that each meal which she prepared would have holy water added to it. Again, her “mundane” task of cooking could be seen as only an earthly or natural duty, but this mother saw and appreciated her vocation to be a blessing to the world. With all of these points, Abouna urged us to move beyond a clergy/laity distinction which would somehow denigrate that call to be a blessing.

A third chief area of focus in Abouna Justin’s talk that I want to highlight here deals with his studies on ministry which center around comparing a modernist mindset with a postmodern mindset. After comparing the standard modernist views on morality, Abouna Justin emphasized the ways in which postmodernism has influenced our American culture, with its emphasis on being relational vs. being right (or wrong). Despite the fact that Christians hold truths to be permanent, which appears to harmonize more with modernism than postmodernism, Abouna Justin made the fascinating comparison of the 4th chapter of the Gospel of John to this postmodern relational emphasis.

First, there is Christ’s priestly compassion for the anxiety and angst of the woman at the well. Despite her sins, he showed this compassion, and spoke the truth in love. He challenged us to ask whether want we do this with our postmodern non-Christian interlocutors, or not. Next, there is the fact that Christ did not only offer the Samaritan woman forgiveness, He also asked her to share what He had done for her. With a modernist mindset where degrees, eloquence, and “qualifications” are all-important, we must also ask whether we would choose the Samaritan woman to be an evangelist. That would be quite unlikely, if all we thought about were her studies and winsomeness as a speaker. Nevertheless, Jesus used her to spread the truth more with her experience, which speaks to the lacking qualities of modernism, and may speak well to the facet of the postmodernist mindset which would value her relationship to Jesus.

Abouna Justin then argued that St. Photini (the Traditional name for the Samaritan woman at the well) could be rightly considered the Patron of  Postmodernism and the New Evangelism. Her authentic encounter with Christ, and her authentic life experience, makes her qualified in the sense that matters most to so many people in our society today.

To close, I would like to offer a thought on an element of Abouna Justin’s talk which could be stated more clearly and/or improved. At several points in the talk, he argued that some of the flaws with our Churches rest in a lack of proper emphasis. One way it was put forth was that we need fewer social events and more diakonia (service). Another way it was expressed was through saying that we do not need programs, but prayer, almsgiving, and fasting. Both of these calls for good things (diakonia, prayer, almsgiving and fasting) seem to devalue other good things (social events and programs) too much. It could be that this is a false dichotomy; after all, the Encounter Program where Abouna was speaking was itself a “program”.

All in all, this was a great talk and it reminds me of the importance of this Year of Faith. May we live it out and grow in Faith and Evangelism of our heritage as Eastern Catholics!

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We are Objects of Veneration (Reflections on Incense)

Living in the U.S., many of us who have come to the fullness of the Apostolic Faith have done so through leaving Protestantism. The veneration of the Angels and Saints (particularly the Mother of God) is surely one of the biggest stumbling blocks that keeps many people from seeing the beauty of Christian history and tradition.

Recently, as I was talking with one of my sons about the Divine Liturgy, my heart was opened to the reality that something more scandalous than the veneration of martyrs and apostles occurs as we pray.

In preparation for the liturgy, the priest (or deacon, if there is one present) carries incense and processes throughout the Church building, swinging the censer to acknowledge our profession that the building is not just any room. Starting with the altar and moving to various icons, we witness the testimony that the holy altar, the icons, and the whole area is set apart for a sacrifice of praise. With the icons, in particular, we venerate those depicted in them, thanking God for their union with Him, hoping that we too will one day stand with the choirs of angels in the Kingdom to come.

But after the procession ends in front of the iconostasis, something shocking happens. It should shock us, at least.

For it is at that point that the censer’s next “target” is us, the laypeople in the nave.

We are objects of veneration!

In our busyness and weakness, the Orthodox Catholic faith does not shy away from professing that we are bearers of the image and likeness of God. I’d like to offer two reflections on this reality, as they have blessed me over the past few days.

First, the idea that the veneration of saints who are in heaven is an unfitting robbery of the Glory of God, and a lack of recognition for our own dignity as humans is completely missing the reverence that we receive from the Church. Far from making a dichotomy between the “real saints” and those of us who are hypocritical and flawed, the fact that we too are venerated should unite us with those in heaven, not set us in opposition. We should see our common call to holiness and thank God for His love and compassion towards us. We should not feel as though the altar and the clergy are separate from us, for we all receive the same veneration.

Second, if you think of the same concept from the converse perspective, it becomes clear that we have sold ourselves short far too often. We have to ask these questions: Do we venerate each other inside and outside of Church? Do we consider our fellow parishioners to be just as worthy of awe and respect as a myrrh-streaming icon? What about ourselves? Do we only see our flaws, and not our divine destiny?

St. Seraphim of Sarov understood this reality, and lived it in such a beautifully deep way. We can read on his wikipedia biography (and elsewhere):

As extraordinarily harsh as Seraphim often was to himself, he was kind and gentle toward others — always greeting his guests with a prostration, a kiss, and exclaiming “Christ is risen!”, and calling everyone “My joy.”

The prostrations made by St. Seraphim are a testimony to the fact that we are all objects of veneration. Through his prayers, may we grow to understand this reality more deeply, and live it out.

Holy Father Seraphim, pray to God for us!

Theology of the Body Broken-Pope John Paul II on the Concept

In the past, I’ve posted on the Byzantine Christian prayer life and its ability to incorporate an understanding of God’s actions in the midst of our brokenness, disease, and weakness. Perhaps some may have read this and felt that there was presumption in my writing, as I compared the language from Blessed Pope John Paul II’s writings known as the Theology of the Body to some concepts in the Byzantine prayer life. However, I would like to share this quote from his last address in the series on the Theology of the Body.

 

Blessed Pope John Paul II wrote:

The catechesis of the first and second parts repeatedly used the term “theology of the body.” In a certain sense, this is a “working” term. The introduction of the term and the concept of the theology of the body was necessary to establish the theme, “The redemption of the body and the sacramentality of marriage,” on a wider base. We must immediately note that the term “theology of the body” goes far beyond the content of the reflections that were made. These reflections do not include multiple problems which, with regard to their object, belong to the theology of the body (as, for example, the problem of suffering and death, so important in the biblical message). We must state this clearly.

For more context for this quote, see here.

It is so clear that when many scholars have tried to help us understand the theology of the body, they have concentrated on making the words of Blessed Pope John Paul II more accessible. But the project, the perspective, the mindset whereby we see our body as a vehicle to understand the eternal has kept our attention rapt in our bodily existence as men and women in our sexuality.

But as you can see above, even our own illness and mortality is a message which speaks volumes. As such, I would argue that the Theology of the Body was meant for so much more than reflections on love and marriage. They also include reflections on disease and death, which were not originally expounded upon, but could be a fertile soil for our own day.

As we move forward to consider our own weaknesses and our own eventual redemption as we are united to Christ in our own death, may we see that His body which was broken for us is the foundation and basis for our ongoing love and hope for a future which transcends our own mortality.

 

Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, pray to God for us!

2012 Eastern Catholic Encounter West Coast-I

I was blessed to be able to take the time and visit with other Eastern Catholics (and other souls sympathetic to us) at a national conference which was held at three sites across the country. The Eastern Catholic Encounter is an event which has been held mostly with clergy, but its 2012 incarnation was designed to also include lay people, as our role as lay people was the main focus.  The subtitle was “Together in Christ”, and it was truly great to be together in Him.

Being a Californian, I headed to the West Coast site, which was held in El Segundo (a suburb of LA, for those not from SoCal). There is so much that I could say about this wonderful event, but for the purposes of this blog I would like to offer a series of posts analyzing three important messages from each main session, and then offering one point of criticism/desired clarification. I pray that these posts bless those who read them, at least a tiny bit as much as it was a blessing for me to attend them.

The first main speaker was from the only layperson who spoke at the Encounter, Pani Christine Hayda. Pani Christine is the widow of Father Pavlo Hayda, who fell asleep in the Lord in 2007. I could not find Christine’s picture easily online, and so below I’ve posted a picture of Father Pavlo from the wikipedia page which commemorates his memory (may it be eternal!).

Despite this priestly family background, Pani Christine’s talk (and the Encounter in general) was focused on our mission as lay people who are all members of the Royal Priesthood (cf. 1 Peter 2:9).

In discussing the reality that we are all called to know and embrace the truth, as opposed to not personally embracing it or mindlessly trusting experts, Pani Christine referred us to meditate upon the Kontakion of Pentecost.

This beautiful hymn states:

“When the Most High descended and confused tongues, he scattered nations. When he distributed the tongues of fire, he called all to unity. We also, with one voice, glorify the Most Holy Spirit.”

Note how this is a call not to the Apostles, but to all men, women, boys and girls. The unity figured at this miraculous event which calls us to glorify the Holy Spirit in unity, embracing unity in our faith.

Secondly, a great point made in Pani Christine’s talk was the reality of our Church life. Using powerpoint slides, we saw a series of images of the key sacramental moments in the life of the Church. From baptism, to communion, to crowning and marriage, and funerals themselves, we see that the Church’s attention is less on the priest, and more on the worshippers who are there in the spiritual hospital which is our Church. We stand or lie there in the middle of the nave. In that sense, the Church exists for us, and not for the hierarchy. The greatest among us must be the servants, as another once put it.

This spiritual reflection on the architecture of our Church life reinforced her general point, which is that the baptized exhibit what she termed a “radical equality”. This theme will repeat itself as I go over other speakers, but it was great to consider this from her angle of looking at our church life from the actual physical position that we find ourselves in as we are baptized, chrismated and the like.

Lastly, Pani Christine asked us to consider whether all Christians are given a fair opportunity. She prefaced her talk by stating that she wanted her talk to generate discussion, and I’m sure that many felt stirred by her words. But I would like to emphasize our common ground among Christians, and found her acknowledgment of God’s presence everywhere to be so affirming. Her talk stressed that a family on vacation seeing the majesty of God in His Creation is just as real of a religious experience as the life in the parish. This is something which we hear echoing from the beginning of salvation history. Indeed, even Genesis notes that God saw what He had made, and it was good. That we are all priests in the kingdom of God makes it such that our interaction with the natural world is a religious experience, as we offer our “Amen” to God’s assessment of the world and its beauty.

If I would offer a word of critique or a wish to have more clarification for this talk, it would be to a thread of argumentation offered by Pani Christine. She spoke of experts not being mindlessly followed, to the point where she called for a spirit of rebellion. Being concerned over clericalism, she argued that there was a lack of full appreciation of the majesty of our status as baptized citizens of the kingdom of God. I found this call to rebellion somewhat confusing when held in the light of our Eastern Tradition of spiritual fathers and spiritual mothers. The obedience that all people, monks and lay people alike, is one where our call to follow God is seen to live through our following our spiritual fathers and spiritual mothers. How this call to rebellion harmonizes with that venerable tradition was unclear from Pani Christine’s talk, and if there were time for public question and answers, I would have liked to raise that discussion. Perhaps another time!

Overall, I thank God for the lives of His People, who stand up and share their stories. We all come from different places. I have faced pain but nothing so acute as the loss of life of my spouse while I was raising children. But this is why our family is so all-inclusive, so Catholic. May God grant us eyes and ears to see and hear the truth in beautiful harmony with one another!

Today’s Election, Today’s Gospel Reading

For most Byzantine Catholics in the United States, today’s Gospel Reading was from the Holy Gospel according to the Holy Apostle and Evangelist Luke. In it we hear these words:

And the Lord replied, “Who, then, is the faithful and prudent steward whom the master will put in charge of his servants to distribute [the] food allowance at the proper time? Blessed is that servant whom his master on arrival finds doing so. Truly, I say to you, he will put him in charge of all his property. But if that servant says to himself, ‘My master is delayed in coming,’ and begins to beat the menservants and the maidservants, to eat and drink and get drunk, then that servant’s master will come on an unexpected day and at an unknown hour and will punish him severely and assign him a place with the unfaithful. That servant who knew his master’s will but did not make preparations nor act in accord with his will shall be beaten severely; and the servant who was ignorant of his master’s will but acted in a way deserving of a severe beating shall be beaten only lightly. Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more.

A good friend blessed me with a wonderful collection of reflections on the liturgical calendar’s readings. Thoughts for Each Day of the Year was written by St. Theophan the Recluse, and I have found it to be a most valuable guide.

Tonight St. Theophan’s reflections were read as I was pausing from the din and hubbub of politics on this election day to eat dinner with my family, having turned off the TV but wondering if I was missing any key updates.

As I read the reflections in much distraction and conflict, I realized that regardless of the outcome of any individual campaign for election or passage of a ballot measure, I would need these words more than any pundit’s or statistician’s analysis.

St. Theophan writes:

The parable about the steward shows how a Christian should behave with relation to worldly things. A steward diligently does his work, but in his heart he is not attached to anything. He is free from all bonds; he relates to everything externally. So also must a Christian be in relation to all worldly things. But is this possible? It is possible. As there exists outward piety without inner piety, so worldly concern which is only outward and without inner bonds is also possible. But in such a case will everything around us turn into a mere lifeless form, emitting coldness like a marble statue? No-in the midst of worldly things another life will develop which is more attractive than the fullest worldliness. Worldly things, being worldly things, will truly remain as a form, while that which warms the heart will start to proceed from another source, and whoever drinks from this source will no longer experience thirst (cf. John 4:14). But in such a case is it better to drop everything? What for? Even one who outwardly drops everything can still be attached in his heart, and one who does not outwardly drop everything can be free from bonds. Of course it is easier for one who outwardly renounces everything to control his heart. Choose what is most suitable to you-just dispose yourself to be as the Lord commands.

On this day as any other, may our thoughts not be focused on victories or failures in this world, neither on worldly rights and wrongs. These will fade and wither like the grass, but eternal truths remain both in and above worldly realities. So many times, a true change of heart is replaced with accusations about how the other is wrong, distracting us from our own flaws that remain unchanged.

St. Theophan’s reflections point out so clearly that one can be obsessed with worldliness with the heart even if one lives in a state of worldly detachment in terms of physical status. I could be oblivious to political wranglings and yet wonder about facts and statistics in a vague grasping for distraction. Conversely, one can walk in the world with deep concern for its inner workings and machinations, but if its proper priority is upheld, one can have the deeper communion with God and neighbor which transcends policies and politics.

May God give us that heart to see that way, no matter how we feel about any national election, ballot measure, or gossip from the water cooler about the latest office politics.

Of course, it is true that in our liturgical life there is much mention of our government and civil authorities. But that focus is overshadowed by the larger reality of God’s presence, His Kingdom.

Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit!

Vocation’s All I’ve Ever Wanted

 

A few posts back, I shared one of my favorite video clips from a series on vocations which was put together at the 2012 ByzanTEEN rally held in San Diego. Our most recent clip that we’ve released is also one of my favorite parts in this twelve-part series. It’s based on the common question which we asked our interviewees; namely, we asked them about the favorite aspects of their their vocations to the monastic or priestly life. It was such a great series of answers, because they all speak of the greatness of answering a call to serve God.

One of the other reasons why this post is my other favorite of the twelve clips that we put together is that our interviewees span many stages of life and yet give answers which blend together in a wonderful harmony. From a seminarian discerning the priesthood, to a sister who was then awaiting the status of rasophore nun (since filming, Jessie has become a rasophore and is now known as Sister Gabriella at Christ the Bridegroom Monastery) who are both comparatively new and early in living out their vocations, or from a Bishop or a nun who has been living out her vocation for almost 50 years, with several priests interspersed between, you can see the common thread of God calling His people to give themselves to Him and to the entire world. I thank God for their responses to this one call, and hope and pray that their testimony and self-offering will foster new vocations and strengthen our own hearts to answer likewise. Whether called to be a priest or a monastic or not, we all have a vocation. Through the prayers of the Theotokos, may we love that vocation and live it day after day!