What We Want vs. What We Need

A colleague of mine makes interesting food choices (to some degree so do I). He seems to eat both to satisfy his hunger and to satisfy his taste buds. He basically eats what he wants. The result is that he eats a lot of hot dogs and processed food products. Nothing he eats is terribly healthy, and as you might expect his health reflects that.

The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America’s Outreach and Evangelism ministry recently published a slide on their Facebook page stating that Christians seek three things from our church: Transcendence, Significance and Fellowship. Apparently taken from a book on the topic of why people aren’t in Church. Here is the source article. I’ll quote their definitions of these three items:

“Transcendence is to know God and to experience His presence. This we do through prayerful participation in Liturgy and the sacraments”

“Significance is the desire to have a purpose – to do something meaningful – most often in service to our fellow man.”

“Fellowship is connecting with other through meaningful relationships”.

I’ll address each of these items in turn shortly. Fundamentally, I have a problem with none of them at first glance. These are good things to want, and are, in fact, nutritious.

My concern is whether our primary goal should be to focus on what people want, or on what people need. Its a bit humorous to hear me raise the question as companies in the software/computer business often drive me a bit crazy by focusing on giving us what they think we need vs. what we want. However, tech companies are hardly the body of Christ, led by the Holy Spirit, and thus may not really understand what we need (and frequently don’t). So, what do we need, from God’s perspective, from the Church?

If we look to Met. Hierotheos Vlachos’ book “Entering the Orthodox Church” we find a great model describing the relationship of fallen man and God. He uses the parable of the Prodigal Son as that model. Like the son, mankind has left God, the Father, to go seek his fortune far away. Soon he squanders all of his money and is left to tending pigs, who seem to eat better than he does. After a while, he realizes he needs to return to the Father. At this point, he effectively parallels a Christian. We return to the Father through baptism and become united to Him. This brings us to the notion of Transcendence as indicated above. We are told that it is to know God and experience His presence. Attending the liturgy in a prayerful state, and participating in the sacraments is the all that is necessary. My question is, is this really all that the Church teaches? The answer is no. This is, in fact, the starting point. Without the liturgy and sacraments we would be stuck, but we have to take that as a core, and build on it.

The ultimate goal of the Christian is, Theosis, as described here. We are to not only to experience God’s presence, but to actually become united with His energies. This takes more than just showing up to Church on Sunday. Unfortunately, this is not commonly taught in parishes. What is required, beyond attendance at Church and the Sacraments, is both the following two items listed in the survey – caring for our fellow man, and fellowship, as well as more. We are to learn to manage our passions through asceticism – fasting being one major source of it. Interestingly, serving our fellow man is a means of self sacrifice, not of feeling important, or significant. Every person is significant in the eyes of God, and thus should be to everyone else. However, one of the barriers to our growing closer to God, and achieving theosis, is a lack of humility. The desire for feeling “significant” should be handled cautiously, because it smacks of a lack of humility.

The last statement, about our need for fellowship, is quite right. Man was created alone, but God saw that this was not good. We are not meant to be alone or in isolation. A great many saints of the Church were able to do this, because they weren’t really alone, but were communing with God in a way most of us haven’t achieved. For us, we still need the communion of our fellow Christians. In fact, it is so important that the fellowship, retained at the end of our Divine Liturgy on Sunday’s, has its root in an Agape meal that was part of the liturgy of the early church, and has remained ever since. Again, though, it is only a step, a part, of the process of our salvation. It is our salvation that we need, and what we need is a bit more than what we want, at least as described above.

Corruption and Creation

“because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God” Romans 8:21, NKJV

We know from the book of Genesis that when God had completed each step of creation, He saw that it was good. What are to we make of this, though? There are some who declare that everything we seen in nature today is inherently good, because the initial creation was good. In particular, discussions of the Corona virus (SARS-CoV-2 in particular) have led some to argue that the virus is good as well. This is frequently followed by rather painful semantic argument that “disease” is separate from “disease causing organism”, when discussions around the transmission of disease arise. The disease, one can argue, isn’t transmitted, just the virus. We’ll address this point a bit later on.

It would perhaps be useful to delve into the literal 6 day creation vs. evolution debate, but I don’t think its necessary in this case. I’m interested in the state of the cosmos when man was created, vs. the state of the cosmos after the fall. We are told in Genesis 3 that God declares that the very ground is cursed because of what Adam did (I note that it doesn’t declare that God changed anything about the created order. The implication is that Adam caused creation to become corrupted). This theme is played out in some of the hymns of Forgiveness Sunday (the expulsion of Adam and Eve from paradise), and then again at the Nativity, where we can only then look forward to Christ restoring creation to a state where the curse no longer exists. There is no corruption.

“O miserable soul, you have departed far from God through your carelessness; you have been deprived of the delight of Paradise and parted from the angels; you have been led down into corruption, How are you fallen!” – Canticle VI, Forgiveness Sunday

“O Paradise, share in the sorrow of your master who is brought to poverty, and with the sound of your leaves pray to the Creator that He may not keep your gate closed for ever. I am fallen , in Your compassion have mercy on me.” – Canticle VI, Kontakion, Forgiveness Sunday.

In Genesis 3 we also see that because of Adam’s actions, the ground will now bring forth thorns and thistles. It appears that his actions caused new things to arise that would no longer be considered good. This is particularly interesting given that the three main theories of where viruses come from, have them starting from something else. The first theory is that they developed from genetic material in earlier single cell organisms. There are certain viruses that have traits that appear as if this is the case. The second theory, which appears to be true for other classes of viruses, posits that the virus was originally an organism capable of reproducing on its own, but came to a place where it needed to rely on another organism to reproduce. The third theory, which is somewhat more controversial, is that viruses may represent the original self replicating organism. Even in this third case, what we have now is something that relies on another organism to reproduce (I am admittedly playing fast and loose with terminology, as calling a virus an organism may imply that it is living, and that debate is still very much ongoing). What makes viruses dangerous, by and large, is that they need a host in order to reproduce, and they damage or kill that host in the process of reproduction. While it is true that in the case of SARS-CoV-2, the worst of the disease comes from our immune response to the virus, the virus wouldn’t be much of a problem except that it infects us, and starts destroying large numbers of cells.

In all cases, though, the virus is a corruption from something that existed before it. Therefore, one can easily argue that it is not part of that which God called good, but rather a corruption. The result of the ground being cursed as a result of Adam’s actions. We can only hope that restoration promised in the hymns of the Nativity and elsewhere will result in the elimination of all viruses. Fr. Hovorun’s article would have us believe, I guess, that viruses would be around even after the second coming. Apparently continuing to infest healthy cells, take over their reproductive machinery, but, not causing disease somehow?

As for the semantic argument that disease is different from disease causing organism, that argument is used to hand wave away statements from the Church Fathers about how disease cannot be transmitted via communion. Using the most precise definition of terms, of course, disease is never transmitted anyways (perhaps genetic disease would be the exception). Thus statements by the Fathers are merely absurd statements of the obvious. Of course communion won’t transmit disease, because nothing will. However, I think the Fathers meant more than stating the obvious.

One final item of note. Hovorun asserts that Christ would have carried around viruses and transmitted them. This means that Christ would be the primary cause of many people coming down with influenza, and many other diseases. Does that actually make sense?

Eucharist and Epidemic

Because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. – Romans 8:21

I am posting this piece as a list of what I feel are great articles on the response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Dr. Eugenia Constantinou’s piece on the spiritual problems with the response in the Church to Covid-19

Fr. John Breck wrote this piece several years ago during the swine flu pandemic.

An interview with a French theologian,

Fr. John Whiteford’s views.

A summary of some of the research on the transmission of disease via communion.

John Sanidopoulos’ Coronavirus Resource Page

A beautiful piece by a monk on Mt. Athos on the mode of being.

The chalice, the spoon, and our fear of death.

OCA piece from the H1N1 days

Does Racism Have a Place in Orthodoxy?

“All sins have some “extenuating circumstances”, but injustice has none. Injustice draws the wrath of God.” St. Paisios of Mt. Athos.

In 1872, the Council of Constantinople declared that phyletism, or the notion of dividing the Church up based on national, or more specifically, racial lines was declared to be heresy.  What underlay this decision, I wondered?  What teaching from the fathers of the Church would support this decision?

It begins, in many ways, in the Acts of the Apostle’s, at least explicitly so.  In the tenth chapter, St. Peter states that, “Truly, I perceive that God does not show favoritism, but in every nation, whoever fears him and works righteousness is acceptable to him.”  The word we translate as nation, taken in a modern context (or at least since the thirty years war of the 17th century), would seem to indicate the nation-state, or at least that is how many of us would interpret it.  However, the Greek word in question is εθνος, or ethnicity.  St. Paul transmits a similar thought in Galatians 3:28, the famous passage about their being neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female.  There is a unity of persons within the Church. Generally speaking, prior to the rise of the Christian Church, religion tended to exist among roughly ethnic lines.  The closest modern equivalent to this is Hinduism.  True Hinduism, as I understand it, is the religion of a specific ethnic group, and so the idea of other races becoming Hindu is foreign.  With Christianity, God’s revelation to the Church was that He was not the God of a specific ethnic group, but rather the God of all mankind.  Anyone could become a Christian, unlike Judaism where a Gentile could become a believer, but was always relegated to second class status.

In later writings, we see that this notion developed further.  Writers such as Clement of Alexandria in the Stromateis refer to the race, or εθνος of Christians[1].  No longer is there Jew, Greek, White, Black, etc.  Rather a new race has been formed, and it is the Christian Race.

Tomorrow we celebrate the feast of Pentecost.  One of the many hymns we will be singing says, in part, “When the power of the divine Spirit came down, it divinely united in one harmony the voice divided of old…”. The separation of mankind so long ago, into separate races, it brought to an end.


[1] Denise Kimber Buell, Race and Universalism in Early Christianity

On Science and Orthodoxy


St. Paul, in his letter to the Romans, contrasts the mind set on the things of the flesh and contrasts it with the mind set on things of the Spirit, and concludes “The mind of the flesh is death, but the mind of the Spirit is life and peace.” Romans 8:6 (EOB).  When addressing the current issue around the reception of the Eucharist in the Orthodox Church, we must be careful that we don’t have our mind so focused on earthly, fleshy things, that we ignore the deeper reality of the Spirit. In particular, we must be cognizant of this when we are involving science in the discussion.

To begin, it is important to describe what we mean by “science”.  Science is a method.  We look at information that we are able to observe, we propose an explanation (hypothesis, from the Greek meaning, essentially a foundation).  We then perform experiments to test the validity of that hypothesis.  Typically, the experiments do not entirely validate the hypothesis so we refine it and test further.  That is the nature of the process.  Along the way, we hopefully have enough data that we feel comfortable relying on the hypothesis to make other decisions.  However, we must remain mindful of the limits of any hypothesis based on the scientific method.  I want to discuss three limitations to science that are important in the context of this discussion.

  The first limitation is that science can be wrong sometimes. One could argue that it is in the nature of science to be wrong, at least a little bit. We then take what we learn, develop a new hypothesis. More specifically, though, sometimes science creates a bigger set of challenges because of the errors. One is the now famous war on fat and cholesterol, with eggs being a major target. However, it turns out that science had got it wrong. However, it wasn’t just wrong, the war on fat led to an epidemic of obesity and diabetes. We listened to what scientists told us, perhaps without an appropriate level of inquiry and created a public health disaster. More recently, we listened to what scientists told us and shut down studies on a drug that might actually be beneficial in treating Covid-19. One of the tendencies we need be aware of is that of elevating science to a religion, and its practitioners to that of priests and bishops. We must challenge its findings. Scientists are human after all. Intelligent for the most part, but prone to ego, narcissism, politics, etc.

Science is also not capable of informing us on ethical issues. Science, as a matter of fact, was used as the basis of one of the most horrific movements of the last century, that of Eugenics. Eugenics was based on the science of the day, but without any question of the ethics involved. Yes, much of the science was ultimately proven incorrect (see the previous paragraph), but at the time it was thought to be correct. To fully understand what occurred at the time, I recommend this book.

The most important area where we need to understand the limits of science is in regards to the miraculous.  Science is concerned with repeatable phenomena that follow some form of law, specifically natural law.  It cannot deal with things that don’t conform to natural law.  This, then, brings us to the question at hand.  Many things that we hold dear, both in Scripture, and in the life of the Church, have to do with miraculous events that defy the laws of nature.  Much of the Gospels has to do with miracles performed by Jesus.  If we eliminate all of the miraculous, we have a much reduced set of Gospels.  In fact, we more or less would end up with the revised New Testament of Thomas Jefferson.  A very rationalistic individual, Thomas Jefferson didn’t see a need for the miraculous.  It simply didn’t fit his scientific world view.  If it didn’t comport to natural law (as understood by the science of the time), it must not be true.

This view of the universe did not die with Jefferson in 1826.  It is a common perspective held by some who are active in the field of science (a most notable exception is John Polkinghorne, an Anglican priest and physicist), and by some who style themselves modern intellectuals.  A notable example is John Spong, a retired Episcopal bishop in the United States, who fundamentally disagreed with the vast majority of Christian doctrine because it didn’t agree with his view of the world.  Given his age (born in 1931) and when he received his science education, he seemed largely confined to a Newtonian world view.  Absent some of the very unusual finding of quantum mechanics, he could not see how such things as the resurrection could possibly be true.  It disagrees with natural law and science.

We see this perspective very clearly in this article by Cyril Hovorun, described by another theologian as being filled with a slew of heresies, as he states that those who believe that the body and blood of Christ cannot cause disease are mistaken and that “Their mistake, firstly, is docetic, because, like ancient docetists, they believe that the Body of Christ is exempted from the laws of nature”. Christ’s body is subject to the laws of nature, period, and to believe otherwise is to be a heretic. To be correct, he does assert the Christ’s body cannot be damaged by microorganisms, like ours, but at the same time must have them present. Why they must be present isn’t entirely clear. Fundamentally, though, he seeks to restrict the operation of Christ’s body to only those things possible within the constraints of the laws of nature. Hovorun’s article was posted to Public Orthodoxy on March 23rd, just two days before the feast of the Annunciation.  On the feast of the Annunciation, I had the privilege of chanting the Orthros service that day – absent a congregation as we were at the beginning of the Covid lockdown.  When we go to the ninth ode of the canon, I chanted the following (I used a different translation, but the same text)  “Having conceived God in ways past understanding, O Maiden, thou hast escaped from the ordinances (laws) of nature.[1]”  What? Christ’s conception defied natural law?  How could that be?  Based on what Fr. Hovurun tells us, this is not at all correct.  The doctrine of the Church, as expressed in our hymnography, is incorrect because it posits that Christ and the Theotokos somehow defy natural law.  Let’s go further, Christ rose from the dead, walked through walls after that.  His Saints died and left bodies that would not undergo corruption.  Some of their bodies streamed myrrh.  Some icons, made simply of a block of wood, do the same thing.  An article of clothing belonging to St. Nektarios when he reposed, was placed on the bed of a paralyzed man (over part of his body) while the Saint’s body was being prepared for burial.  The man was instantly healed from his paralysis. How is any of this possible?  It defies natural law.

As noted above, Hovurun seeks to have it both ways. Christ acts outside the laws of nature in that He can’t become sick from the pathogens He apparently hosts, but He must host them. In another article, I’ll address Hovorun’s assertion that all aspects of what now exists in nature is inherently good. That, and his understanding of the origins of viruses are both tried and found wanting.

Much of modern Christianity has come to follow Jefferson’s lead.  It is only Christ’s moral teaching that is true and of value.  The miraculous events, and the demands that places on us from an intellectual perspective, can easily be discarded.  The general sense that we get from much of our hierarchy on this subject, seems to support the same view. 

I understand that people struggle with this.  On the one hand there is a the risk from a very real and, for some people, a very deadly virus.  On the other hand, there is the conviction that Christ’s body and blood would not serve as a means of our death.  That takes a leap of faith (images of Indian Jones comes to mind at this point).  If some can’t overcome the fear for a period, that is okay.  It’s part of our ongoing struggle.  If you are struggling with the supernatural nature of the Eucharist, what is the point of receiving it now anyways?  Pres. Eugenia Constantinou remarked recently that one key aspect of Christianity and its sacraments is that the recipient has to receive them.  A priest can’t simply impart them.  They have to be consciously received.  If we currently struggle with what the Church tells us, that Christ’s body and blood are somehow present supernaturally, then we can’t truly receive the body and blood.  Yes, we can consume the physical elements, but we can’t truly receive.  In that situation, isn’t it best to refrain anyways?  Until you are in a place where you can?


[1] The Festal Menaion by Mother Mary and Metropolitan Kallistos Ware

When the Wheels Fall Off

I’ve had a long standing problem when Orthodox writers, writing about theological matters, fail to build their writings on the teachings of the Fathers, the Councils, or on the foundation of our liturgical and iconographic tradition. I need to be much more cautious about that myself. Tradition, all of those things mentioned above, connect us to the Church throughout time. Since the Church is the very body of Christ (Col. 1:18, Eph. 1:23), it is necessarily living and so adhering to tradition is not adhering to something dead. In fact, one could argue that when we don’t begin our theological musings from the foundation of tradition we separate us from the living body of Christ. The wheels fall off and it is we who are no longer moving. We become dead.

Recently, in a journal purporting to be Orthodox (I am rather unfamiliar with it so I can’t say whether or not it really is), Met. Kallistos Ware wrote an article that suffers rather severely from the problems I listed above. This article was actually the foreword to an entire issue devoted to human sexuality. I’ve not read any of the other articles, but the foreword was enough to convince me that the issue would simply be so much rubbish. Others have written about the errors of Met. Ware’s piece, but I feel there are two more key points to be made. Met. Ware is guilty of failing to adhere to tradition, not because he seems to espouse views on homosexuality and marriage that are non traditional (although he is guilty of that), but because he seems to have forgotten both Orthodox ecclesiology Orthodox view on salvation. After 60 years apart from Anglicanism, it feels as if he has returned.

The first major problem comes from his comparison of the confessional process between a “married” homosexual and a single one going through a series of affairs. The committed homosexual refuses to cease having sexual relations, and so cannot receive communion. The single homosexual agrees to not have sexual relations, but has failed several times, but is blessed to receive the sacrament. In Metropolitan Ware’s view, he is treated more harshly. Given that the goal of confession (as the Metropolitan states in his own book, The Orthodox Church) is the cure of the soul, harshness is hardly in view. The question is what is the appropriate treatment that will lead to a cure. On the one hand, we have an individual who refuses to follow, apparently without remorse, the instruction of his spiritual father (and the teaching of the Church). On the other we have someone who is seeking to follow the teaching of the Church. Who needs the stronger medicine in this case? Of note is that the rules for dealing with active homosexuals is the same as for dealing within anyone who engages in sexual activity prohibited by the Church. If I were actively engaged in an affair, or a premarital relationship, the same rules apply (Exomologetarion, Chapter 10, section 8). When Metropolitan Ware looks at the application of spiritual discipline in terms of harshness, it feels more like he is focused on the Western notion as sin being something that requires punishment so that God will be happy with us again and we can be allowed into heaven. Harshness in terms of healing seems very wrong headed.

The other major problem comes toward the end of the foreword. The Metropolitan wonders about our concern with what goes on in the bedroom. “Trying to gaze through the keyhole is never a dignified posture.” This reveals to me that Metropolitan Ware’s ecclesiology may have shifted away from that of the Orthodox Church and perhaps toward that of his Episcopal roots. The Church is not merely some organization. Nobody is peeping through a keyhole. The Church is the body of Christ – the body of God. God is everywhere present (Pentecost prayer). Therefore God is standing in the room, not peeping through a keyhole. It is God that is truth, and thus He reveals the true way of life. If He declares something we do is wrong, than that must be contrary to the true way of life. While I applaud and agree with Metropolitan Ware’s assertion that we must have a conversation around sexuality, it is not because we are wrong about it, but rather we must be able to present a solid case for our views to a modern, secular society that is largely focused on the “me” and the view that our sinful nature defines us, rather than being a temporary condition from which Christ provides a means of escape.

There are, of course, other problems. For instance, I was disappointed in the Metropolitan’s implication that the Church doesn’t believe that marriage serves as a guard against lust or fornication. While a liturgical reference to this would certainly be the strongest support for the view, one would have to ignore St. John Chrystostom, among other Church Father’s to believe that such is not in view. I am forced to believe that either Metropolitan Ware is unfamiliar with St. John’s work or is intentionally ignoring it for the sake of being a provocateur. Either would be shameful for a bishop, an overseer, of the Church.

That brings me to my concluding thought. Metropolitan Ware, while a bishop, is a bishop of nothing. Metropolitan Ware is a bishop of a non-existent state, whose borders are entirely contained within the country of Montenegro. This entire region is under the omophorion of the Patriarch of Serbia and thus has a bishop. If Metropolitan Ware had actual members of his Metropolis, we would expect him to be resident in that Metropolis, not over in the UK. If It has been the custom for some time to elevate priests to a bishopric as some sort of honor. What seems to be missed is that it is a responsibility both to the faithful as a shepherd, and to the greater Church as the protector of the faith. Elevating academic theologians to the office of bishop where they have no responsibility for souls is, to me, problematic. In this case, Metropolitan Ware demonstrates why that is the case.

After this was originally posted, I was made aware of this article, by Reader Dr. Alfred Kentigern Siewers.  I particularly like the following comment, made by Fr. Johannes who reposted Reader Siewers article:

Sexual identities, in contrast to sexual practices or passions, are a relatively new concept. Only recently were passions taken to define people, i.e. seen as constituting an identity or essence, such as homosexual or heterosexual—an understanding that even many secular circles now scorn as untenable. It is, then, discouraging to see a highly respected Orthodox hierarch dare to breach the unwavering moral tradition of the Church based upon such an “essentialist” notion of “sexual orientation.” Siewers argues that this step undermines Orthodox anthropology by turning the body into a thing (reification) and alienating humanity from the incarnation of the God-man Christ.

Why is the church losing people

A new podcast series began this year from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese Youth and Young Adult ministries entitled “We Are Orthodoxy”.  In this series, young adults are interviewed that are in various places regarding their faith.  One was a priest, but most are either marginally still involved in the Church or have left entirely.  The purpose of the podcast is to simply provide data.  It is not intended to provide solutions, but rather give everyone an opportunity to hear the perspectives of these people.  This makes it very useful, although I admit to having a couple of criticisms:

  • The interviewer, a professional psychologist feels as if he is putting words in the subjects mouths quite frequently.  I realize he is trying to elicit a deeper exploration, and perhaps, driven by the time limit of an episode, he jumps ahead to his conclusions about what they are saying, but I dislike that aspect of it.
  • I think they shouldn’t put the limit on the age.  In fact, I would be interested from hearing from older individuals, even much older.  I think that might give us some insights to such things as shifts in the culture, as well as foundations from which these younger individuals come from in terms of their expectations about the church’s role and their role within the church
  • I would love for him to occasionally ask those who declare that their beliefs are no longer consistent with the Church, why they feel it necessary to still be connected to the Church.

The interviews can be quite painful to listen to for a variety of reasons.  Sometimes it is because we realize we are doing something wrong.  For me, frequently, it is obvious that we have failed to communicate the whole Christian message.  Sometimes it is because of, frankly, the alarming amount of narcissism you can hear from the individuals.  And sometimes it is because of the pain that we hear being expressed.

I hope to write several posts on this series as it moves along.

A New Lenten Fast

I was listening to the Olympics and the above commercial played.  It was, of course, selling the iPhone and using the ubiquitous selfie as the tool.  The “spokesperson” for this effort is non other than the late Muhammad Ali, one of the greatest boxers of all time, but also one of the least humble people of all time – especially during his boxing career.  I think Apple has, perhaps inadvertently, identified the most important aspect of the selfie, and thus identified its biggest problem.  Every selfie we post is an exercise in self promotion.  It is a demonstration of a lack of humility.

Now, of course, we all lack humility at times, and the posting of an occasional selfie may not be indicative of some serious spiritual malady, but I think the habit that many, especially our youth, have gotten into of constant posting of selfies leads to a habit of pride.  The most popular social media outlets for youth (I believe) at the time of this posting are Instagram and Snapchat.  Both of these largely invite selfies.  Especially snapchat.  We see a great many celebrities maintaining their fame via selfie, and a number of their fans follow suit, assuming that this is the new proper way to behave.

I’ve seen occasional articles arguing against smart phones, especially among youth.  I’ve argued elsewhere that we may be looking at the topic incorrectly.  I don’t think kids are being less social.  While online bullying has certainly grown, I think that is a symptom of the underlying problem, not the problem itself.  We see a great deal of good coming from the online experience, but where we see negative, it is undoubtedly pride that is underlying that problem.  People are offended by those who disagree with them, they feel they have something useful to add on virtually every topic, and know better than those who disagree with them.  Pride.  Simple, nefarious, pride.  Selfies are simplya more frequent demonstration of pride.

If you look at the Instagram feed of many girls from teenager to young adult, you will undoubtedly see a selfie, with a string of comments telling the poster how perfect, hot, beautiful, etc. they are.  Their pride is being fed.  Since we know what the reaction is going to be, one has to assume that anyone posting a selfie is, at least a little bit, looking for that reinforcement of their pride.  When “Snapping” to one another, I doubt that we see those sorts of comments, but the snapper is still frequently taking pictures of themselves and sending them.  They want just the right look, and are unhappy if the picture or video isn’t what they were looking for (retake, after retake, and occasional frustration when the picture isn’t right).  Even complaints of being ugly come off more as complimenting fishing exercises (or disappointment that they aren’t as good looking as pride tells them they should be).

St. Timothy warns us of the way people will be in the last days.  The first item on his list is love of self, the third is boastful, the fourth is proud.  Do we see a pattern here?  The Fathers refer to Pride as the mother of all sin.

There are those who take a fast from the internet or computers for part or all of Great Lent.  I think that is fine if that works for them.  In my job, that is decidedly not an option.  For a great number of youth, we would be asking them to disconnect from their community.  I’m not entirely sure that is the right idea.  Perhaps, instead, we should challenge them to take a selfie fast.  Instead of selfies when you are snapping to a friend, take a picture of a flower, your pet, a cloud outside. Anything but yourself or something you’ve made.

Someone who’s spiritual insights I respect has mentioned that he thinks there is more to the selfie than just pride.  As I pondered that, I think one such thing is the sense of belonging.  My wife mentioned to me this morning an article that girls are pressured into posting sexualized pictures of themselves.  The “like” becomes a sort of validation of themselves, and solidifies their standing within their group.  Man was created to be communal, and so it is inherent in our being to want to belong to a group.  Over the years, this need to belong has been warped at times to the detriment of mankind.  The mob mentality is such an example, whether it be the local mob, or the mob at a state level (think Nazi Germany, among many other examples).  I think the selfie as the “like” become tools in the hand of the enemy to use the proper need to belong to a community and warp it into, yes, a source of pride, and, at the same time, a source of fear and despair.  I realize I don’t have much of a following, but if you have insights to add, please do.  I’ll ponder this some more and hopefully post some additional thoughts on the topic.

What would you do?

I recently saw Martin Scorsese’s latest film, Silence.  Its a movie that is broadly about the persecution of Christians in 17th century Japan.  Specifically, though it is about the search of two priests for their spiritual mentor who was a priest in Japan and rumored to have apostatized.  With that as a foundation, the whole movie becomes an exploration of the spiritual struggle that people make when faced with the choice to undergo punishment or renounce the faith.  What follows are some thoughts on the central issues of the movie.  I must provide the caveat here that I would undoubtedly fail miserably, so my analysis is more from a academic perspective than a judgmental one.

In the film, we are faced with two circumstances.  In one, individuals are physically tortured for failing to apostatize.  For most of us raised in Churches where the stories of martyrs are told, we are familiar with this circumstance, and we all hope to be strong enough to remain faithful to the end, although we often suspect that we are not that strong.  If we don’t suspect that, we probably should.  To underscore this point, we are faced, throughout the film, with a character who repeatedly apostatizes or betrays the priests and then comes to confess his sins.  The reality is that this represents many of us, who sin in some fashion, go to confession, and yet return to the same sin.  Every time we sin, we are, to at least a small degree, renouncing the faith.

The other circumstance, which becomes the predominant theme of the movie, is when an individual is presented with the opportunity to relieve the suffering of others by apostatizing.  In many cases, those being tortured have already apostatized and yet they are being tortured because someone else has not.  Time and again in the movie, the priests do not apostatize, regardless of how strongly they are tempted.  One of the two priests is killed while trying to save Christians being martyred, so he is ultimately relieved of the need to make this most difficult moral choice.  The other priest is not so lucky.  He remains relatively strong, even though he hears a voice telling him that it is okay, until he discovers that his spiritual mentor has, himself, apostatized and is now writing against Christianity.  That seems to be the proverbial straw that breaks his back, leading him to finally apostatize.

The question arises, of course, of whether or not it is the right thing to do.  The priests and others are constantly told that it is only a mere formality and that it doesn’t necessarily reflect a real renunciation, but it will be sufficient.  The question becomes, then, why is it so important to the Inquisitor that this action be taken.  I think the answer to that is the key.  Even though it may only be a formality, the act of renunciation, at the very least, becomes a means of leading others to do the same.  We see that with the apostasy of Fr. Ferraira.  His renunciation of the faith becomes the basis for Fr. Rodriques’ renunciation.  It is interesting to note that throughout the movie we are reminded, frequently by Fr. Rodrigues himself, that the Christians in Japan have a stronger faith than him.  However, they all look to him as spiritual father.  When he falls, how many ultimately fall with him, I wonder?  The movie never reveals that.

The thing that struck me in the movie, and I’m led to understand was a bit of a theme in the book, was the reaction of the priest to the martyrdom of fellow Christians.  One of the points of the book, at least, and so it carried over to the movie, was that the process of martyrdom was not as glorious as Fr. Rodrigues supposed.  As the Christians in the movie are brutally tortured and killed, they frequently (although there are exceptions) scream in anguish, which stands in contrast to many of the stories we read of the great martyrs in Christian history.  One of the exceptions was during the slow drowning of the Christians on the crosses at the beach.  Granted its very much a different scenario than burning, but these were particularly fervent members of the local Christian community, and we see, at some level, the peace that comes from a deep faith.

If we reflect on the fact that martyrdom is a glorious event from a spiritual perspective (after all, it is the martyrs that live under the altar in the book of Revelation), then apostatizing to keep others from experiencing martyrdom is depriving them of something great, in spite of the temporal suffering they must undergo.  Of course, when Fr. Rodrigues actually sees their suffering, which is far more real than the descriptions from the martyrologies,  he appears to only see the suffering, and perhaps his own spiritual blindness prevents him from seeing the greater glory they will experience.  Again, I would probably fall faster than he, so this is not so much judgment as analysis.  Of note in all of this, as well, is that the voice of Christ he thinks he is hearing, is fundamentally telling him the same things as his captors.  Whether or not this was intentional I do not know.  If intentional, its an interesting indictment of Roman Catholic spirituality, which at times is very much focused on visions and the like.

As an interesting final note, the reading for the Monday after we saw the movie is either for St. Clement in some jurisdictions, and in others would be the reading for the Monday of the 32nd week, which is from St. James Universal Letter discussing faith without works.  At the end of the movie, Fr. Rodrigues is shown as his body is taken away to be cremated, holding a crucifix, apparently indicating that he retained his faith.  However, given St. James’ admonition that “as the body apart from the spirit is dead, s faith apart from works is dead,” one is left wondering, given that he had spent decades by that point working against the faith, exactly what faith he really had.

Why a Spiritual Father is a Good Idea

The spiritual father is supposed to be a standard part of our Orthodox life, but in North America there are vast numbers of Orthodox who don’t work with a spiritual father.  I was reminded of this when listening to a podcast this morning about a new offering from Holy Trinity Publications.  The person being interviewed recommended that before anyone reads the book then sets off on some new ascetically undertaking, they should consult their spiritual father.  In the US, in particular,  many parishes rarely offer confession, and many parishioners rarely seek it out.  This is in keeping with the American tendency toward self-help, which is often just thinly veiled egotism.  The advantage of working with a spiritual father is that they both have experience in the spiritual life, which means they likely know more about it than you do, and they can often see through some of the false assumptions you as an individual may be operating under.

I had a recent circumstance which very much goes to the issue of getting an expert guide.  I’m an avid wheelchair tennis player (if not a particularly good one), and recently participated in a tournament in Arizona.  My wrist had been a little bit sore going into the weekend, then became increasingly “cranky” in the midst of a Saturday full of matches.  I approached the trainer, who has been fixing people’s physical ills for many years, and asked him to work on my wrist.  His response?  “Let me work on your shoulder first.”  I looked at him a bit odd, as my shoulder felt fine.  I mean, really fine.  So, I restated my desire for him to work on my wrist.  He repeated that he wanted to work on my shoulder first, so I acquiesced.  As he worked on my shoulder and the incredible tightness began to release, a tightness that I hadn’t noticed at all, he explained that my reduced range of motion in my shoulder was putting an excessive load on my wrist.  He finished with my shoulder, worked on some forearm tightness, then taped my wrist.  As I was leaving to go play my next match, he simply said, “yeah, it was just your wrist.”

We do the same with our spiritual life.  We don’t notice things that are seriously wrong, and focus on symptoms instead.  Unfortunately, it is often the case that without fixing the bigger issues, the symptoms will never really go away.