A Reflection on the Dormition of the Theotokos and Ever Virgin Mary

Glory to Jesus Christ! It is good to be here to celebrate this most special feast. This feast of the Dormition is special for many reasons. Our Byzantine Tradition actually provides the foundation of the historical event that we celebrate in the Universal Church today. When the Church wanted to demonstrate the truth that the Mother of God, after completing the course of her life, was bodily assumed into heaven by God, it was our Byzantine tradition that was used by Pope Pius XII to show this truth. He would quote Eastern Fathers like St. John of Damascus to drive home the point that we believe that after Christ ascended, He would not leave His mother’s body in her grave. No, her falling asleep (which is what Dormition means) was followed with her Body being assumed into heaven. In the Church year which ends at the end of this month, this is the last big feast that we have. We have the tradition of fasting from August 1st until today, which makes one of four fasts that follow the feasts of Pascha, the Nativity, and the Holy First Apostles Peter and Paul. Today is perhaps the peak of our year, as our church year ends this month and a new Byzantine year begins in September. But there is more than the Church year and the joy of this last solemn feast of the Church year. Because the Theotokos’ body was assumed into heaven to be united with her soul, and because the apostles found fragrant flowers in the tomb, we have the joy of having flowers and herbs to be blessed on this joyful day. This is our final feast of the year but from an even more mystical angle, we could say that this feast is the final feast period in all of our life in Christ. This is the feast that testifies to the Completion of salvation history. Let’s take a journey through the icons in our church to see how that is true.

Let’s start up to your left, and what do we see? The fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. What is under the tree? A skull. Death. But who else do we also see in the icon? It’s an image of the Theotokos. This brings our minds to the words of God after the fall. In speaking to the hardships that befell mankind after the sin in the garden, there is a promise of hope. A promise of salvation. In Genesis 3:15 we hear what scholars call the “protoevangelion”, the first Gospel. The first good news to us from God after the ancestral sin was: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.” That’s right, in the first book of the Bible we are told that the offspring of Eve will vanquish the head of the serpent. The main icons along the sides of our church are even more clear in telling the continual story of salvation as a long thread. What is the first one that we see? The nativity of the Theotokos, which we celebrate on September 8th, and is just at the beginning of our Byzantine Church year. Let’s continue from there to her Entrance into the Temple, to the Annunciation, to the Visitation of Elizabeth, to the Nativity of Our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ, to His Holy Theophany, and we continue to the account of Christ’s life of ministry that crosses all of the way to the back of our nave and across to the “south side” of the nave as we call it. The icons on this side of the Church brings us closer to the Holy Passion of our Lord with his entry into Jerusalem, and eventual crucifixion (note the skull is here yet again) and resurrection. But that is not the end of the chain of salvation history, and it’s not the end of the icons on the south side of our nave. No, let us continue to see the story of Christ from resurrection to Ascension, we see the story of the Apostles, the splendor of Pentecost, and what do we find at the bottom, at the very end of this chain of history? It is the icon of our feast today. This is such a beautiful story that we see right before our eyes every time we come to worship, which I hope we can grow to appreciate more and more as we grow in our faith which is so deeply linked to things like icons and blessings. After the Feast of Pentecost our eyes move to the icon in the bottom left from my view, as the completion of this chain of events. Christ is truly Risen but at the same time this is the proof that it’s not just his ascension. It’s not just the power of the spirit at Pentecost. No. Our journey through salvation history ends with a woman who is both lying at her tomb, and resting safely in the arms of her son. But now in an almost mirror image of the Icon of the Nativity, she is the little one held in His arms, because her soul is home. She is restored as her body is eventually raised and the angels and Apostles who look on are in awe, because she has fallen asleep. The next time they will come back to the tomb with the Apostle Thomas and there will only be the aroma of flowers, and there will be no body. That is the sign that our salvation is seen most clearly in this special feast. And this is also why in our tradition that we say “O Most Holy Theotokos, Save us.” She is the first one saved by Christ in terms of priority, and like anyone who is filled with love, this salvation is shared to those who cry out to her. We say the words “O most holy Theotokos, save us” to attest to this beautiful chain of redemption that comes to us on this feast. Her Dormition is a sign that when we die united to Christ and His Church, we will have that same salvation which is manifested to her.

Scripturally, our Old Testament readings, apostolic reading and Gospel passage speak in harmony to this same fact. The readings from Genesis tell us that the Theotokos is the ladder from heaven that allows heaven and earth to meet. She is also the unopened door leading into the holy temple of God. She is full of the wisdom of God, who is in His presence listening to His words and keeping his commandments, which is the highest blessing of all. Perhaps even more striking is our reading from the letter of the Holy Apostle Paul to the Philippians. Here he speaks of how Christ humbles Himself in becoming Man, and that in this same humility it allows him to come to the Cross, but that God the Father exalts him so that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. When I hear the words of Christ on the Cross and being exalted, I tend to think of Pascha as opposed to some Marian feast. Did the Church make a typo in pointing us to these words from St. Paul on this Feast, which is also the Apostolic reading for the Birth of the Theotokos? I argue NO, this is very intentional to think of Christ’s humility and exaltation on this feast. There is a genius here, for if Christ is to be humbled and live, he would have to come down to earth from the ladder, this door to heaven, who is His mother. And if he were to be risen from the dead but she were to live a normal course of life and not be with him in paradise in body AND soul, he would be of all sons the most sad.

Liturgically, our last day of the Church year speaks to this same fact. August 31st commemorates the deposition of the cincture of the Holy Theotokos. We remember the clothing that the Theotokos wore because there are no claims to having relics of the body of the Virgin Mary’s body, unlike many saints. That’s right, there are no remains of the Theotokos’ body on earth claimed from the over 2000 years of Church history, so don’t let the date of the dogma deceive you. The Dormition has been upheld throughout the centuries because of the importance of this feast. More importantly, this demonstrates that God’s love for her is a sign of love for us. But what about you and me? Will we fall asleep in the Lord and be assumed? Is that true of the graves that we visit, that the bodies have been assumed into heaven? After all, we should be visiting the faithful departed, praying for them both in Church particularly at anniversaries and on all souls Saturday’s. Is this beautiful promise only for the select few who are assumed? No, because we know that their souls will dwell among the good, as the prokeimenon for the faithful departed tells us. We also know that at the final resurrection, all of us will be integrally human, with our souls and bodies united just as is the case in this feast. This feast attests to the words of Christ who said that if one believes in Him, that person will not die. The Theotokos shows us that these words are not speaking of our physical hearts stopping to beat. This tragically befalls all of us, but in stark contrast to this tragedy we have the reality of life in Christ. We have the firm conviction that Christ trampled death by death. One of the most beautiful ways to see this is not just with special callings like that of Elijah who passed over physical death. No, the most beautiful way to see the victory of Christ over death is to see the story of His Mother. Her life on earth ended not as a bow of defeat, but as an affirmation and entrance into the eternal life of the presence of Her Son who trampled death. Her son, holding his Mother in his arms, calls us all to our destiny. He invites us to a deeper faith in His call to salvation by showing us that He loved His mother so deeply that He welcomed her to that life in the kingdom that he inaugurated.

So let us take this occasion of the Feast of the Dormition to see how deeply Christ loves us. He loved us enough to suffer crucifixion and to let His all pure mother pass from this earthly life, because this fleeting existence pales in comparison to the divine light of union with the Holy life-creating Trinity that never ends. May we journey ever more deeply into it so that we may one day be held by Him as we see Him with His Mother in this occasion of her Falling asleep in the Lord. She intercedes for the whole Church and so let us say together with these words, “O Most Holy Theotokos, Save Us.”


From Offering to the Great Entrance and Back Again


Fr. Ephrem Lash gave a riveting lecture on the Divine Liturgy entitled “Translating The Liturgy: Was there a Great Entrance at the Last Supper?” (1) In it, he points out vividly that aspects of our liturgical life of offering bread and wine to become the Body and Blood of Christ grew organically from a background that began with the Last Supper, and he shows that this does not mean that each component of the Divine Liturgy today was present even in an embryonic sense at the Last Supper. If we consider the Byzantine liturgy, the Great Entrance is a momentous occasion, so much so that Patriarch Eutychius called for the Cherubic hymn to be sung to counterbalance any notion that the bread and wine carried in the procession were already consecrated before the Anaphora (2). And despite the fact that the Last Supper brought the Eucharist to the world for the first time, it would be anachronistic to believe that there was a Great Entrance at the Last Supper, as the rhetorical question in the lecture title drives home so poignantly. Despite not being as ancient as the Eucharist itself, we will consider the development of the Great Entrance to understand the benefits and potential pitfalls of this practice.

As the liturgy developed in the first centuries of the Church, we read that “[t]he people, both in East and west, brought the bread and wine for the Eucharist.” (3) In the East “they handed in their offerings on the way to the Church, either at a table near the door, or in a small room specially provided near the entrance.” (4) Our understanding of the Eucharist as an offering from our own lives to bring the life of Christ to the Church and the world was clearly connected to this action of the faithful providing the bread and the wine, and to a partial extent this continues to this day with the faithful who prepare Prosphora in Byzantine parishes. As practical considerations brought more specialization to the Church, the place where the bread and wine were kept for the Anaphora changed. First, there was a transition from a table or small room to the Skeuphylakion, a separate building that stored the gifts of bread and wine which would be selected by deacons for the liturgy. Despite having its own building, the liturgy in Constantinople during the time of St. John Chrysostom did not have a Great Entrance as we know it. Wybrew states that “it is reasonably clear that in Chrysostom’s time the gifts were brought in by the deacons from wherever they had been left by the people and that this transfer was effected in a simple manner…accompanied by neither chant nor ceremonial.” (5) Thus, the transfer of the gifts from the Skeuphylakion to the altar began without ceremony, despite the current hymns and rubrics for the Great Entrance.

By 392, however, Theodore of Mopsuestia recounts at length about the awe and wonder of the same basic practice of bringing the gifts to the altar (6). Meditating upon the reality of the offering of Christ, the symbolism of His suffering, death, anointing and burial became integrally part of the Great Entrance. The ceremonialism that was not present in the early 300s emerges later in the century, and became so profound that Patriarchs chided those who held that the bread and wine were already consecrated, the Cherubic hymn was instituted, and the rite of Prothesis at the side altar came to replace the Skeuphylakion (7), which would have its own solemnity and symbolism to provide a context that would make sense of how we treat the gifts as special even prior to their consecration. Taken together, the progression away from simple actions in the earliest centuries of Church History reached a pinnacle of contrast where a rite before the procession was instituted providing symbolism pointing to Christ’s birth, the rite of procession at the Great Entrance was established to consider the suffering, death and Burial of Christ as well as the angelic powers worshipping the life-creating Trinity, ultimately leading to His Resurrection from the dead at the Anaphora and vivifying His people through reception of His Body and Blood at the Holy Eucharist.

On the one hand, we can be grateful to God for this development over the centuries. Hearing the prayers of the Prothesis (if they are audible and intelligible) can provide an excellent context of what is to be celebrated before the liturgy commences. By considering the prayers from this rite that hearken to the birth of Christ, and by seeing the great company of angels and saints surrounding Christ, we are drawn into the mystical realities of heaven, where the praise of God never ceases. In adding particles to the diskos for the faithful departed, our hearts swell with hope and prayers for those we have lost. Tying this together with the same gifts that are then solemnly carried through the nave of the Church and through the Royal doors at the Great Entrance, we are swept into the drama of the Passion, and the words of the Anaphora remind us that after death there is life. And as that life comes to the faithful who partake of it (or are blessed with the words, “Save Your People, O God, and bless Your inheritance”), the reality of Resurrection and life that is beyond the grave is embossed on our souls. In many ways, this experience emphasizes the reality of the life of Christ in the drama of salvation in a way that a liturgy which is not formalized can never do.
On the other hand, the formalization that comes to us through liturgical developments suffers the possibility of missing out on the personal connection to the offering that was seen more clearly in the early practice of the Church. As mentioned above, some parishioners may serve their congregations through preparing prosphora. Nevertheless, the majority of the people do not participate in this reality, and if that is the case there are many faithful who may not connect themselves to that which is offered in the Eucharist. The modern Byzantine rite may point us to Christ, but how do the faithful connect with this reality by seeing themselves in the liturgy?

I would argue that a balanced approach of understanding what Christ did for us and understanding what we do to unite ourselves to Christ and His Church in the liturgy is the key to the most ideal perspective. We must be able to see that we are part of the offering to God, and at the same time we must grasp how Christ offers Himself through our offerings to God. In so doing, we plumb the depths of the mystery of our salvation more clearly than an either/or perspective. Instead, we will see Christ’s priestly ministry and outstretched arms that seek to save us, and at the same time we will appreciate that our own efforts are part of the synergistic movement towards life everlasting. In so doing, we grasp the fullness of salvation and see the drama of its unfolding in our day to day lives. Glory to Jesus Christ!

Works Cited
1. Lash, Fr. Ephrem https://vimeo.com/32297264
2. Wybrew, Hugh. The Orthodox Liturgy, SVS Press 1990, page 82
3. Wybrew, page 20
4. Wybrew, page 20
5. Wybrew, page 52
6. Wybrew, page 53
7. Wybrew pp. 54, 55, 84, 109, 110, 154, 155-7

The Mystical View of the Scriptures in the Akathist to the Theotokos

The richness of the Byzantine liturgical life of prayer has overwhelmed many, particularly those of us who are tasked with leading singing the multitude of services and musical tones that undergird it. The principle of lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi dictates that the prayer life of the Byzantine faithful will also influence perspective and faith in the Scriptures. From a Biblical perspective, there is a deeper foundation beyond the musical complexity of the Byzantine rite that can be a blessing to anyone with ears to hear and eyes to see. This Biblical foundation is so central and yet so often overlooked that at many times one may spend a great deal of time ignorant of its depths and splendor. By reflecting upon some of the Biblical references in the Akathist hymn, I argue that the Bible is deeply foundational to the mystical perspective which pervades Byzantine spirituality.



The Akathist hymn to the Theotokos is attributed to St. Romanos the Melodist, who is said to have composed it in the 6th century. This hymn leads those who pray it through the life of the Mother of God and the prophetic foreshadowing of her life from the Annunciation to the Birth of Christ. Why does this matter in terms of Scriptural interpretation? As we shall see, the mystical viewpoint of the Byzantine Christian Tradition comes to life in this hymn. Parallels between the Old and New Testaments are made in ways that seem shocking to the perspective that literal Biblical fulfillment is the height of good exegesis. Instead, the perspective of Old Testament fulfillment and interpretation is centered upon mystical foreshadowing that is larger than the strict message of a given text. For the purpose of this essay, we will reflect on the sixth Kontakion and Ikos, which are below (online source: http://www.orthodoxa.org/GB/orthodoxy/spirituality/AkathistMotherGodGB.htm) .

Kontakion 6 Having become God-bearing heralds, the Magi returned to Babylon. Fulfilling Your prophecy, and having preached You as the Christ to all, they left Herod as a trifler, who knew not how to chant: Alleluia.
Ikos 6 Having shed the light of truth in Egypt, You expelled the darkness of falsehood; and unable to bear Your strength, O Saviour, her idols fell; and they that were set free from them cried to the Theotokos: Rejoice, Uplifting of men. Rejoice, Downfall of demons. Rejoice, you who trampled upon the delusion of error. Rejoice, you who censured the deceit of the idols. Rejoice, Sea which drowned the symbolic Pharaoh. Rejoice, Rock which refreshed those thirsting for life. Rejoice, Pillar of fire, guiding those in darkness. Rejoice, Protection of the world, more spacious than a cloud. Rejoice, Nourishment, successor to manna. Rejoice, Minister of holy joy. Rejoice, Land of promise. Rejoice, you from whom flows milk and honey. Rejoice, O Unwedded Bride.

First, let us note that the kontakion provides the context of the rejoicing in the subsequent Ikos. In the midst of the narrative of the Annunciation and Nativity, we reflect in the 6th section upon the Magi departing from Bethlehem in a new direction. Instead of going back towards Herod, they perceive his unbelief and journey to Egypt. The Ikos too then focuses on Egypt and speaks to the Mother of God in the light of her being the Mother, as well as in relation to the people of the Old Testament. While it is true that she sojourned there with the young infant Jesus and His foster father Joseph, the words relating her to Egypt and salvation in general shed light on the Byzantine view of Scripture.

After describing the Theotokos in general terms indicating that she brings light and salvation ultimately through her Son, the Ikos places her into the contexts of the Exodus of Moses and His people from Egypt. This key section of the Ikos proclaims that Mary is a great variety of salvific events and supernatural things from the Exodus account. In sum, she is called the sea that drowned the symbolic Pharaoh (Exodus 14:28), the Rock which brought forth water (Exodus 17:6), the pillar of fire which guides those in darkness (Exodus 13:21), the protection of the world that is symbolized by the cloud (Exodus 13:21), the successor to manna (Exodus 16:4), the minister who brought joy (here the connection is somewhat unclear to Exodus, likely Moses and/or Aaron), and lastly the Promised Land that flowed with milk and honey (Exodus 3:17).

There is so much that can be said about this mystical perspective on the book of Exodus given to us in the Akathist. We are given explicit terms such as “symbolic Pharaoh” and “successor to manna” which look beyond the times of Moses and his people to consider how the Old Testament is fulfilled through Christ and His Mother. At the same time we hear about terms such as the rock and the pillar in unqualified terms as though Christ and His Mother were present in Egypt during the times of Moses; this is less difficult to consider with Christ as the Eternal God, as compared to His Mother. What is this hymn teaching us through its own “lex orandi”? From these titles given to the Mother of God, we see that the nature of Old Testament fulfillment in the New Testament is not linear. We do not look at the Exodus event and attempt to find multiple means of protection and salvation in the Akathist’s rejoicing. In other words, John the Baptist is not the Sea, Mary is not the rock, Joseph is not the pillar, Jesus is not the manna, and heaven is not the Promised Land, in this narrative at least. Instead, we are praying to and focused on one person in all of the imagery, and the Theotokos is seen as the entire bridge from Egypt to the Promised Land for the people of God led by Moses, with all of the distinct aspects of each title that she receives in her Motherhood of Christ and His Body, the Church.

In terms of the first title, she is the one who defends and even destroys the Pharaoh who attacks us. As a rock flowing with water, successor to manna, land flowing with milk and honey, she is the one who nourishes us. As a pillar of fire by night and cloud by day, she is our guide and shelter who takes us through our wanderings and journeys towards the Promised Land. As a minister, she leads and instructs us, as did Moses and Aaron (and their successors). And as Promised Land itself, she is our home.

This vision painted by just one of the Ikoi in the Akathist gives us a sense that as we read the Scriptures, we encounter salvation in a multifaceted sense. We do not look for one to one correspondence between Old and New Testaments, nor do we necessarily need to consider all things typology. Instead, we can be wise and see parallels between Old and New Testaments as we pray. And when we read the stories from the Old Testament which may seem difficult to compare to our life in Christ, we can pause and be silent if we have not been given eyes to see by the liturgical tradition which nourishes us, or through prayer and beseeching the Holy Spirit.
In conclusion, the greatness of the Byzantine Tradition is that its complexity offers the one who prays with it a wealth of inspiration. Taking the Akathist as one example, we can approach the Bible with a mystical eye that sees hidden treasures that are brought forth as we think about how the Old and New Testaments compare to one another. We can see Christ and His Mother in so many aspects of the salvation of Israel, and thus in our own salvation. Space cannot allow us to also consider other aspects where these comparisons are made in the rest of the Akathist hymn, or the ways that the lectionary’s readings for Vespers paints a similar picture between the Old and New Testaments, or the way in which Psalms are chosen for Feasts, Vespers, Matins, the Hours, and the like. In each of these, the point is reinforced: the Bible is applicable to all of our life, and we only need to enter into this wealth of beauty with eyes of faith to grasp it.

Clarifying the Zoghby Initiative-a Proposal

What is the Zoghby Initiative? Why clarify it? As a brief background-Bishop Elias Zoghby was a Melkite bishop who fell asleep in the Lord in 2008. While on earth, he answered the call of Eastern Catholics to help be a conduit of unity between all Catholics and Orthodox. His initiative is below, which has been considered not nuanced enough by many, including possibly the See of Rome.

Bishop Zoghby wrote:

  1. I believe everything which Eastern Orthodoxy teaches.
  2. I am in communion with the Bishop of Rome as the first among the bishops, according to the limits recognized by the Holy Fathers of the East during the first millennium, before the separation.

Some friends and I have discussed this and the shortcomings of it, in that it relegates all things that the Catholic Church (Latin or otherwise) has stated/done/declared after the first millennium to a strange….limbo. What do we make of declarations about the role of the Papacy at Vatican I (and Vatican II, for that matter)? What do we make of dogmatic declarations about the conception of the Mother of God, or the teachings on contraception in Humanae Vitae, as well? If we only understand the role of the Pope from the first millennium, do we miss out on some the doctrinal and dogmatic developments from the second millennium (not to mention the findings from this 3rd millennium after the birth of Christ)?

It has led me to discuss this with some close friends, and in response to this I have tried to refine the Zoghby Initiative after much discussion, prayer and reflection on the original text. Mirroring the first declaration, please read the following proposal:

1. I believe in everything which Eastern Orthodoxy teaches, particularly in the light of the Undivided Church of the first millennium.

2. I am in communion with the Bishop of Rome as the first among bishops, according to the limits and privileges of his conciliar leadership. This includes the right to speak on behalf of or to veto his brother bishops, which was exercised during the first millennium, before the separation.

How might this clarified statement help drive dialogue to be more fully aware of how the Catholic Church has lived in history? How might dialogue and reconciliation be more a matter of understanding one another more honestly, vs. through concessions that deny the realities of the Church’s living and breathing in time?

How does the Eastern Orthodox faith collide with the Catholic Church’s teachings in the centuries after the schism? In contrast, how is this collision merely one of appearances and perceived contradictions?

Time and more dialogue will tell.

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

The Theology of the Body Broken in Practice: The Great Schism (part 2 of 2)

In a previous post, I noted that a spiritual look at the body can allow one to make connections between mystical truths and physiological truths.

Inspired by Blessed Pope John Paul II’s writings on the Theology of the Body, one can consider diseases and death itself from a mystical lens. In that sense, one is offering a Theology of the Body of a different flavor than what is usually thought of when someone speaks of the Theology of the Body. As stated beforehand, this is outside of the focus of Blessed Pope John Paul’s writings normally referred to as the Theology of the Body. Those general audiences can be found collated in multiple publications in print, as well as online (here is one example of such a collection).

In what is typically considered his last reflection on the Theology of the Body, note well how Blessed John Paul writes about his works:

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. (emphasis added)

There was no collection of reflections that Blessed Pope John Paul gave us with such an emphasis upon the problem of suffering and death, but the Great Schism (as it is often called) was described by him using terms relating to the Body. He wrote that this lack of full communion between East and West was like a body breathing with one lung.

In this reflection, I would like to challenge us to consider the schism between Catholics and Orthodox from an even deeper perspective. Without calling the lung analogy inaccurate, this reflection will offer an alternative perspective that may prove more useful as one meditates upon the human body and the mystery of the Church.Of course, we should bear in mind always that analogies are always inaccurate when taken to extremes. Still, I strongly believe that the more one understands biology and the body, the more one can understand what St. Paul meant when he called the Church the mystical Body of Christ.

In part 1 of this post, I noted that this physical infirmity of having one lung is more of a quantitative reduction. Let’s continue along this angle.

You are at the doctor’s office, and he says, “Sorry to break the news, but we’re going to have to remove your right lung.”

Contrast this scenario with your doctor saying, “Sorry to break the news, but we’re going to have to remove your left lung.”

See the difference?

Neither did I.

If the schism between the ~1 billion Catholic Christians and the ~300 million Orthodox Christians is only considered as a quantitative loss, the lung analogy holds up. And of course, this is quite true. Consider the sufferings of so many Christians in places such as Egypt, and one can sense how urgent reunion is. If we were all in communion with one another, our common cause would be strengthened. May God spare His people of further suffering and use the current events for reunion! Nevertheless, I think that one must admit that there is more to the schism than just a quantitative loss.

Instead, there is a further angle of the schism where one can sense that the lack of communion between Catholics and Orthodox is qualitative. The genius that each particular Church has due to its culture, liturgical tradition, favorite saints, hymnography, can never be shared so well as one could if one were in full communion with one another. And thus we have the problem that so many would say about the churches today.

So, if we admit that there is a need for a qualitative description of the loss of full communion between East and West, what physical deficiencies might ‘color’ this analogy better?

I would like to suggest that a better view would be to look at the eye. In the eye, there are qualitative defects which occur when one lacks particular cell types in different cases of human diseases. Here is an image of the eye’s cellular makeup from the famous textbook known as Gray’s Anatomy.

Among this cellular complexity, one dichotomy arises. There are cells known as rods, and other cells right next to them known as cones. Why is this important to our Theology of the Body Broken?

When one learns more about the physiology of seeing, one learns that rods are photoreceptor-containing cells which are robust in differentiating objects, particularly in low light conditions. In contrast, cones are the cells responsible for differentiating colors. In individuals (usually males) who are color blind, the most common culprit is with the cones.

Thus, in the physiology of the cells that make up the retina, we have neighbor cells that do the same basic thing (help the body to see), but they serve qualitatively unique roles.

How does this mirror the schism among Catholics and Orthodox more clearly than the lung? This is because the genius and converse weaknesses of the East and West are so often different. Many have commented that the West is strong in maintaining unity, but tragically at the expense of maintaining the beauty of the ancient faith. ‘The West’ is strong in differentiating matters of faith and morals, in that She has continued to hold councils that allow Her faithful to have clear answers to modern problems such as the technology which facilitates in vitro fertilization. But at the same time, many would say that She has suffered from a unity and clarity of message that does not have the ‘color’ of a beautiful liturgy, at least not commonly so in the United States. In that sense, the West is like a person who has defective cones but functioning rods. She can see clearly, but without color. It is as though the strength of scholastic, rational thinking is maintained, while a mystical and intuitive appreciation of the beauty of the world is lacking.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, one could posit that the East in our day and age has lost nothing of Her liturgical beauty and traditional richness. Her prayer services and traditional ascetic practices are still fervently upheld, even if not well followed. However, She often comes to different conclusions about matters of faith and morals. Do non-Orthodox have a valid Eucharist? What are we to think of contraception? The fuzzy areas where clarity is needed are not so uniformly upheld. In that sense, the East without the West is like a person who is able to differentiate colors because the cones are fully functional, but the rods appear wounded, as making sense of what is happening in the ‘dark’ of this world is somewhat defective.

Granted, these are overall generalizations about both East and West, but the point is that the particular genius seen in both the East and West is such that when one lacks the other, there is an illness or deficiency that will inevitably plague them. Instead of merely viewing the schism as a quantitative loss when one speaks of East and West as two lungs, if one refers to the schism as a lack of either rods or cones, one can see that something qualitative is lost when communion is lost between these two unique parts of the one Body. Each has Her strength, and each has Her corresponding weakness.

May God grant us a more fervent desire for reunion through such reflections, and may our understanding of disease (and death itself) lead to a more clear understanding of the invisible and spiritual world.

O Most Holy Theotokos, Save Us!

A Sister Squabble

Family feuds can be the worst of feuds-perhaps that explains the rancor which surrounds so much of Catholic/Orthodox dialogue. If we weren’t so close, our actual differences would seem so far away. They’d be mere annoyances from some strange person. But as ecumenical dialogues have reiterated so many times, the Catholic view of Herself and the Orthodox Church is that they are two Sister Churches, which may explain the bitterness surrounding their interactions.

Does this notion of Sister Churches deny the primacy of Rome or imply that the Orthodox are clearly some sort of step-daughter? This is where we can see that many have allowed the cart to overtake the horse, especially in online dialogue.

For a concrete example of this, take a recent interview with famed liturgical scholar, Fr. Robert Taft. As a Greek Catholic priest, Fr. Robert goes at length to explain why it is that he or any Catholic should be invited by Orthodox scholars to describe the Orthodox tradition to the Orthodox.

The simplest way of putting it was when Fr. Robert pointed out that the two liturgy professors at St. Vladimir’s Seminary (an Orthodox Seminary) did their doctoral studies with him! They were each his protege!

But on a more foundational level (and with broader implications), Fr. Robert speaks to the problem of ecumenism as it relates to a lack of genuine desire to give in these discussions, where the notion of Sister Churches is not normally granted in ecumenical discussion. He says,

“…I don’t take it upon myself to judge any Sister Church. Because my ecclesiology is the ecclesiology of Vatican II, which recognizes all the Orthodox Churches as Sister Churches.”

Ecclesiology is truly the heart of many Catholic/Orthodox understandings, for the understanding of the Church is such that many have (especially in the past) cast their language about the Church such that their own communion is understood as encompassing the totality of the Church. Thus, if one is Catholic, the only people “in the Church” are Catholics. And if one is Orthodox, the only people “in the Church” are Orthodox.

As such, when Fr. Robert Taft was interviewed even more recently, his comments on the notion of Sister Churches have ruffled the feathers of some with a simpler ecclesiology.

When asked about what Catholic/Orthodox reunion would look like, Fr. Robert wrote:

“What it would look like is not a ‘reunion’ with them ‘returning to Rome,’ to which they never belonged anyway; nor us being incorporated by them, since we are all ancient apostolic ‘Sister Churches’ with a valid episcopate and priesthood and the full panoply of sacraments needed to minister salvation to our respective faithful, as is proclaimed in the renewed Catholic ecclesiology since Vatican II and enshrined in numerous papal documents from Paul VI on, as well as in the wonderful Catechism of the Catholic Church. So we just need to restore our broken communion and the rest of the problems you mention can be addressed one by one and resolved by common accord.”

Where Fr. Robert Taft’s interview becomes most interesting in terms of ecclesiology and Sister Churches comes just a bit later in the interview. There he states:

“The new Catholic ‘Sister Churches’ ecclesiology describes not only how the Catholic Church views the Orthodox Churches. It also represents a startling revolution in how the Catholic Church views itself: we are no longer the only kid on the block, the whole Church of Christ, but one Sister Church among others. Previously, the Catholic Church saw itself as the original one and only true Church of Christ from which all other Christians had separated for one reason or another in the course of history, and Catholics held, simplistically, that the solution to divided Christendom consisted in all other Christians returning to Rome’s maternal bosom.

Vatican II, with an assist from those Council Fathers with a less naïve Disney-World view of their own Church’s past, managed to put aside this historically ludicrous, self-centered, self-congratulatory perception of reality. In doing so they had a strong assist from the Council Fathers of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church whose concrete experience of the realities of the Christian East made them spokesmen and defenders of that reality.”

Here he is quite explicit that if the terminology of Sister Churches is genuine, as it is quoted repeatedly in Vatican II, that spiritual kinship is such that one can hardly argue that two sisters have an ultimately different parentage. Thus, one can consider the concept of Sister Churches and see that there is a common foundation between Sister Churches, even though these Churches are not normally in communion with each other (at this point in history, at least).

Fr. Robert’s thoughts would be in line with the Joint International Theological Commission for Orthodox Catholic Dialogue, which has released such documents as the Balamand Declaration. In it, one can see that proselytizing of Catholics by Orthodox (and vice versa) is condemned, because of our common heritage as Sister Churches.

But has Balamand gone too far? Is the whole idea that we are Sisters in a squabble not authoritatively Catholic, subject to theological opinion which are not in contrast with Tradition? Does a lack of proselytizing imply relativism between the actual issues which do divide Catholics and Orthodox? Ultimately, Balamand is part of the Joint International Commission, which is engaged in an ongoing dialogue that is not dogmatic in nature. Its statements are, as such, not as authoritative as actual councils. Put simply, Balamand is not infallible.

To answer this critique of Balamand, I will not enter into philosophizing or anything of the sort. Instead, I will quote a document from Vatican II, which should be authoritative for Catholics (at least). In Unitatis Redintegratio paragraph 15 we read:

“Everyone also knows with what great love the Christians of the East celebrate the sacred liturgy, especially the eucharistic celebration, source of the Church’s life and pledge of future glory, in which the faithful, united with their bishop, have access to God the Father through the Son, the Word made flesh, Who suffered and has been glorified, and so, in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, they enter into communion with the most holy Trinity, being made ‘sharers of the divine nature’.(35) Hence, through the celebration of the Holy Eucharist in each of these churches, the Church of God is built up and grows in stature(36) and through concelebration, their communion with one another is made manifest.”

Here we see that to Catholics who accept Vatican II, Orthodox Churches are able to build up the Church of God, which raises the obvious question: if Apostolic Christians (like the Orthodox) outside of “the Church” are able to build up “the Church”, how can this possibly be? Instead of pointing to Balamand and newer writings, we can go back to Vatican II and acknowledge that Orthodox Christians who are not in communion with Rome are in some sort of relationship with the Catholic Church whereby they can build up “the Church” in its totality.

Therefore, unless we deny the truth of Vatican II, we are confronted with the first image that began this post. Catholics and Orthodox are Sister Churches who share the same holy mysteries. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states in point 1399:

“The Eastern churches that are not in full communion with the Catholic Church celebrate the Eucharist with great love. ‘These Churches, although separated from us, yet possess true sacraments, above all – by apostolic succession – the priesthood and the Eucharist, whereby they are still joined to us in closest intimacy.’ A certain communion in sacris, and so in the Eucharist, ‘given suitable circumstances and the approval of Church authority, is not merely possible but is encouraged.'”

Here I should note that the Catechism is again quoting Unitatis Redintigratio, and it is making the point that even now in our era of Bishops who are not in communion with one another, intercommunion is to be encouraged if the Bishops approve.

In closing, the image of Sister Churches as it relates to Catholics and Orthodox only makes sense if they are one family. Defects in communion and the primacy of Rome notwithstanding, it is far too simplistic to speak of Apostolic Christians who are not Catholic as merely “outside” of the Church.

May God enkindle a greater sense of Love among His Sister Churches, that the feuds which divide us may enter into oblivion.

The Insanity Workout and Byzantine Spirituality

The Insanity Workout-not for exercise slackers!

The Insanity Workout-not for exercise slackers!

Recently a friend loaned me a copy of the Insanity Workout series. I had seen infomercials for this intense workout quite a few times and it struck me as, well, insane. All of the jumping, “core” exercises, and other work looked (and still looks) brutally difficult.
Despite my own intuitions, the recommendations of my friend and so many online testimonials piqued my interest in trying this program. So, here I am today, in the middle of this regimen trying to follow it as best as I can, and the challenges I’ve faced (combined, hopefully with some amount of progress!) have been both extraordinary and completely enjoyable.
Early into my online research, I had read of some complaints about the insanity workout. For example, on the “Pure Cardio” video, some commenters noted that there are no break sessions built into the workout, as is the case with other videos in this series. Thus, a workout which is billed as forty five minutes was in reality much longer when you take resting into account.

I bore this in mind while going through the program, which begins with a fitness test that is repeated roughly every two weeks. However, before even getting to the “Pure Cardio” episode, I found that I needed to rest an awful lot more than what was prescribed. I was giving my all and not doing half as much as these fit folks were managing to do. And I also noticed that among those who appear in the fitness videos, there were frequent moments when these relatively fit people were simply exasperated. I also noticed that the trainer, ShaunT, was telling specific people to take a break when their form was compromised/they looked like they were too tired. To actually go through the whole workout without stopping during the exercise was not what you see in watching and trying to perform these exercises. Thus, when I finally got to the “Pure Cardio” episode, resting in the middle without pushing pause was not something to even flinch at. Yes, as mentioned by online critics, there were no breaks. But when I heard the trainer saying to rest when I needed to, and saw people acting accordingly during the video, there was no need to pause this video, and it took 45 minutes, and not longer. The amount of physical challenge was all that I could imagine doing, and as such there was no element of guilt when I had to go more slowly than my TV workout buddies (or to flat out stop for a bit!).

Now, I’ve drawn out all of these details not to get you to buy the Insanity workout series, though if you are interested that’s great. Instead, the point that I want to make in this reflection is to underscore that this arguably flawed notion of needing to do everything in a workout regimen has so many parallels to what I understand about Byzantine spirituality. Or to put it positively, the built in ability to go easier than the “perfect” goal for the sake of one’s own health and salvation is fascinatingly paralleled between the Insanity workout and Byzantine spirituality.

Perfection is constant growth in the good, according to St. Gregory of Nyssa. Instead of seeing one coming up short from perfect fulfillment of a challenge/goal as flawed or deformed, much of the Orthodox Tradition is about giving one’s all, and hoping to grow in perfection as the years go on. Our ways of prayer, fasting, spiritual reading, almsgiving, and the like, could be said to follow the Typikon and canons of our Churches. These statements, when compiled, are so demanding that I don’t know of a person who actually performs all of these “rules” to the letter. But then, to call them rules is to miss the point about perfection, and why we have these spiritual exercises (hence the quotation marks).

A copy of the "Sabbaite" Typikon from the Holy Land-not for spiritual slackers!

A Russian copy of the “Sabbaitic” Typikon from the Holy Land-not for spiritual slackers!

The Typikon and canons are like the Insanity Workout. Sure, it would be wonderful to be able to do every possible rep of the workout, but our actual goal is to use it as a framework to give our all for our physical (and spiritual) health. How can we know if we are truly doing so? This where a spiritual mother or father comes into play. By walking with them and heeding their guidance, we can discern what is a good rule of prayer, fasting, etc. for us, which will most often fall short of the canons and Typikon, especially for those who are newer. But is this falling short sinning? That would only be true if this tradition were about a bare minimum to follow. Instead, like the Insanity Workout, our tradition is extremely challenging even for seasoned monks. No, it is not a minimum, but a maximum. It is a pinnacle, which calls us to look up at our goal, and to strive to grow in the good without looking at our neighbors.

Similar to the Insanity Workout, if I were to stop fasting every time that I saw someone else taking a break, I might be cutting my own “all” short. I might also be coming into judgment by looking over my shoulder and concluding that that person’s rests from the goal are weaknesses or a lack of love for/dedication to our spirituality. That spirit of judgment is worse than falling short of an ideal, as the Prayer of Saint Ephrem reminds us again and again.

Rules of prayer and fasting may appear harsh and legalistic from the outside. The Insanity Workout may also seem torturously difficult if one thinks that all people should do every rep to be faithful to it. We could instead propose a minimalistic set of rules to let people know what the least needed is. Some leaders have advocated this, but I think that this could be missing out on the adventure of looking to an ideal and journeying to give one’s all, not to get perfect marks, but to become perfect from within and without. As we journey in the spiritual life, may the athletic efforts of those who have gone before us not daunt or dismay. Instead, may they inspire us to higher peaks!
Through the prayers of our holy fathers, O Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us!
Christos Voskrese!