Thursday, October 27, 2011

Priests and Prophets; Bishops and Charismatics

One of the mysteries of the Church throughout the ages, Old Covenant and New, is that God has set up at least two sources of authority among His people. In the Old Covenant these were often typified by the priest and the prophet, in the New Covenant this same reality, this same tension, is seen in the bishop and the charismatic.

The priest/bishop and prophet/charismatic are both sources of authority in the Church, but different kinds of authority. And both are necessary. The priest/bishop preserves the tradition, the law, and the teaching (that is, both the written scripture and its interpretation). In the Old Covenant, it was the priests who preserved temple worship and who preserved the Law of Moses. Were it not for the priests, temple worship as God had revealed it to Moses would have been completely lost (along with the Scripture). It was the priests who preserved the Book of the Law that had been lost during the reign of wicked King Manasseh. It was the priests who preserved the knowledge of temple worship so that the Second Temple could be rebuilt after the return of the exiles from Babylon.

The priests, and the bishop in the New Covenant, are the ones who preserve the form of worship and correct teaching of God's people. They are the ones with the God-given authority to tell God's people how God is to be worshiped and what are the correct ways to speak about God (doctrine) and to guide God's people in orderly assembly.

If you look at St. Paul's criteria for selecting a Bishop, except for the ability to teach, no other specific charisms are called for. What is called for is moral integrity, faithfulness, and good repute in the community. A bishop may have many other charismatic graces, but these are not essential to his calling as bishop. A bishop is an administrator, an overseer, a faithful preserver of the truth "once and for all" handed to the Church, he is the teacher of the Tradition, the Great Shepherd's shepherd of the flock.

Prophets and charismatics , on the other hand, have a different kind of authority. The prophet calls the people to faithfulness to Tradition that the priests have preserved. And sometimes even calls the priests themselves to faithfulness to the tradition they have preserved, but that they follow only in outward form. The prophets do not stand outside of the community of God's people. They also are subject to the Law and Tradition and worship led by the priests. But the prophet by the manifestation of the Spirit becomes a sign to the people of God. Not only the words of the prophet call the people to return to God with their hearts, but the whole life of the prophet is a "word" or sign calling the people to return.

In the New Testament, we see this tension play out in St. Paul's letters. The Corinthians, a community zealous for spiritual gifts, are warned by St. Paul that everything must be done decently and in order and that others are to judge the prophets. Yet he says explicitly, "forbid not prophesying." Charismatic people and graces have their place in the community; however, that place is determined by the overseer (bishop and elders) of the community. This becomes particularly evident in the Pastoral Epistles, where St. Paul is giving instructions to Sts. Timothy and Titus, two young newly-appointed bishops. St. Paul does not quibble about their authority to "teach, correct and rebuke in righteousness."

In the history of the Church since New Testament times, the charismatics have often found their place and their voice in the monastic communities. Bishops have authority over the teaching and worship of the Church, but the holy, charismatic monastics are the ones who through their evident holiness and the power of God manifest in their lives have historically called the Church to repentance, to a faithful return from the heart to the faith preserved and taught by the bishops. And when, as it has happened occasionally in history, the bishops are making a terrible mistake in teaching (as was, for example, the case during the iconoclast controversy) it was the holy monastics and holy lay people who humbly rebuked and resisted the erring bishops.

However, the opposite has also been true. When charismatic persons (monastic or not) have led people away from the Church and into false teaching, the bishops are the ones who stand firm, refusing to be led by charisms away from the Apostolic Tradition.

Both kinds of authority are important to God's people. God has established both. Sometimes those inclined to favour charisms may be tempted to look at the bishops and the structure of the Church as lifeless. This would be a mistake, a mistake as serious as it would be for the bishops to cut off from the Church those annoying monks, and the miracle working saints, and the fools for Christ sake who always seem to be stirring up fervour that threatens to bubble out of control.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Freely Give

Jesus commanded us to give freely, to lend expecting nothing in return.  This applies to all of our life, not just our money.  

How often do we give expecting certain results?  We give kind words, we help, we give time, money, labor; we do all this expecting some kind of result. We "minister" in various ways--of course it is not really ministry, for if it were, we would merely be doing our duty, fulfilling our calling with no expectation, like a slave, which is what "minister" means.  But we expect results.  Often we don't even know how to think about giving without first thinking about what we want our giving to accomplish.

The results that we expect vary.  We might expect that our good example will be followed by others; or that the Grace of God will touch someone's heart because of what we have done; or that someone will change their ways (even just slightly) because of some word or act or grace or gift that we have given.  We expect good things.  Yet even to expect good things is not really to give freely.  

When Jesus told the rich ruler to sell all he had and give the money to the poor and follow Him, Jesus wasn't telling him the way to fix the problem of poverty.  Jesus was telling him how he could be saved.  Giving saves us.  We give because God gives, and in giving we begin to imitate God.  What others do or don't do with the gift is a separate matter completely.

For me, it is easier to apply this principle to money.  It is easier, but not easy.  When it comes to other things that I give away--time, labour, words, care, tears--when it comes to these things, it is much harder not to expect some good result--or some result that I would recognize as good.  It is hard to give love freely.  It is hard to give care freely.  It is hard to freely weep with those who weep.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

More Spacious Than the Heavens

The icon of the Mother of God, More Spacious Than the Heavens, is found on the wall above and behind the Altar in most Orthodox Churches. This icon shows Mary interceding for the universe with Christ inside her (in some versions of this icon, Christ is surrounded by a circle of sorts, indicating that He can only be seen by faith). So in a mystery, Christ God in the heart/womb of Mary intercedes through Her to the Father on behalf of the universe. And more than that, because Christ already holds the universe in his hand (according to the Psalmist) and holds all things together by the Word of His Power (according to St. Paul), within Mary already is the whole universe. Thus we call Her More Spacious Than The Heavens because she held in Her womb Him who holds the whole universe.

However, in another mystery, Mary is a type or symbol of the whole Church in whom Christ dwells. And at the Divine Liturgy of the Church, like Mary, the Church bearing Christ in its heart--in the hearts of all the faithful--intercedes for the universe. Or Christ through the Church intercedes to the Father. This is one of the reasons why the icon is placed where it is in the Apse (the curved dome above and behind the Altar) of the Church.

Christ in taking on human nature has so united Himself to mankind that He abides (dwells, lives, tabernacles) in the hearts of men and women who draw near to him through faith. St. Paul likens this reality to both a marriage and an adoption. By Christ's dwelling in our hearts, we mere creatures are made partakers of the Divine, for Christ's humanity and divinity cannot be separated. Just as in marriage or adoption someone becomes a member of a new family, so in baptism through faith we become members of God's family--not distant relatives, but as close as a wife or son.

And as Christ ever lives to make intercession, so those in whom Christ dwells also ever live to make intercession. And the first Christian, the first to hold Christ in Her heart, Mary His Mother, is the pattern, the prototype of the Christian people. In Christ She ever intercedes for us that we too might have Christ dwelling in our hearts by faith and ever learn to intercede.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

On Trying Harder

One of the characters in Dicken's Dombey and Son, Mr. Dombey's sister, often comments that people would not suffer as they do if they would only put forth a little more effort.  

I am afraid that I too am sometimes tempted to reduce the suffering and failings of others to such a simplistic condemnation:  If only they'd make an effort.

Can you imagine the outcry if someone said publicly, "Terry Fox would have made it across Canada if he had only put forth a little more effort"?  What a justified outcry we would hear!  Terry had only one leg; he was dying from Cancer; he did more than most perfectly healthy people ever do.  It is ridiculous to say that he should have or could have put forth more effort.  Terry gave 110%, but it was not enough.  The deck was stacked against him.

Perhaps we can easily see how unjust it is to say Terry should have tried harder because we could easily see both how hard he did try and how serious his handicaps were.  However, what about those whose handicaps and valiant efforts cannot be seen. There are lots of ways the deck is stacked against people.

In the Church we have to always remember that we are a community of the poor, the blind, the maimed and the lame.   The handicaps differ widely.  Some are obvious, most are hidden.  In fact, most of our handicaps are even unknown to ourselves.  It takes great spiritual struggle to come to see one's own weaknesses as they really are.  And yet whether we see it or not we are handicapped.  It is evidenced in our inability to live the lives we long to live, to love the way we long to love, to show kindness, generosity and faith the way we really do want to--when we are in our right minds and being our best selves.

Telling a lame person to try harder to walk does no good and only showcases your own blindness.  Telling someone whose life is falling or has fallen apart to try harder manifests the same blindness.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Christians and Halloween

I have been on all sides of this.  I have advocated both a Christianizing strategy and an ignore it strategy.  The ignore it strategy is based on the reality that no matter what Halloween may or may not have been in the past, it is certainly not a Christian holiday today. Therefore, it should be treated like all other non-Christian holidays: ignore it.  When I have adopted a Christianizing strategy, I have tried to give a Christian focus to it, usually harkening back to Halloween's partial origins in All Saints Day Eve.  Using this strategy, I have had my kids dress up like saints to attend a church sponsored All Saints Day Eve/Harvest party; or, if no church party is available, I have even taken my kids on a limited Trick or Treat canvas of known and trusted neighbours.  This Christianizing strategy did not come into play until my children were in public school.  Before that, I pretty much had an ignore it strategy.  And once I began to home school my children (when my oldest was in fifth grade) we gradually returned to ignoring Halloween.

I think ignoring Halloween is ideal, if you can ignore it without causing your children to suffer more than they are able to endure with joy.  Yes, I said with Joy. The hymn to St. John the Baptist says, "... and after suffering with joy on behalf of the truth..."  

It is easy for parents to impose ideals on their children, ideals for which the parents suffer very little and for which the children suffer a great deal.  Parents must be aware of what their children may be suffering--especially at school out of their presence, and realize that suffering without grace will result in bitterness, not saintliness.  Certainly if the children are home schooled, it is easy to ignore Halloween.  However, if the children are in public school and everyone in the school dresses up, then discernment and perhaps compromise is called for.  

Of course there is more than one way to deal with this problem.  My main concern is that Christian parents not, for the sake of their own piety, unnecessarily cause their children to suffer.  If a parent is very convinced that their child should not participate in any Halloween activities in the public school, then perhaps it would be a good day to take off work and spend with your child(ren) doing something they enjoy.  Go to the zoo.  Take a picnic.  Visit a natural history museum.  Take the suffering on yourself by losing a day's work for the sake of your piety.  Don't force the suffering unnecessarily on your children.  

I realize not everyone can take a day off work for their children (although many could who do not admit it to themselves--just thinking about your children's suffering may be enough to make you ill enough to call in sick).  Some may just have to compromise--for the sake of their children's salvation.  What exact compromise will be life-giving depends on the family and the circumstances.  And I imagine each year will be different--it certainly was in my case.  

One thing is certain.  Those of us who ignore Halloween should not judge those who compromise with it.  In 1 Corinthians 13, St. Paul says that "Love believes all things."  I think that means that love believes the best in and of others.  I believe that those who ignore Halloween and those who don't are doing the best they can in the circumstances they find themselves in.  Perhaps it is a lot like the meat-sacrificed-to-idols issue St. Paul deals with elsewhere in 1 Corinthians.  Compassion and concern for the other is called for.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Preaching the Gospel

In my last post about the movie "Arranged," I wondered out loud about how I as an Orthodox convert might be like the principal who, as an old warrior in the feminist battle, thought she knew what was best for two young women.  Someone has asked me how such a reticence to speak to others about matters of faith squares with Christ's  command to preach the Gospel.  

There are two factors that I consider very important in preaching the Gospel, factors that I think are often overlooked.  First, when we preach the Gospel, we must say as Jesus did, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear."  Not everyone has ears to hear the Gospel every time it is preached.  Those who do not, should not be coerced into some kind of outward show of acquiesce just because we have the power, money, clout, political will or charisma to coerce it.  And there are lots of ways we coerce those who do not yet have ears to hear.  We coerce through guilt (as opposed to conviction), through fear (and not godly fear), through bribery; we coerce in all sorts of ways because we are convinced that we know what is best for the other.  But we don't.

Think about it. Saul of Tarsus was alive while Christ was preaching.  He may even have heard Him.  Certainly he heard about Jesus of Nazareth.  Yet Saul of Tarsus did not have ears to hear until he was confronted by Christ on the road to Damascus.  Had no one preached the Gospel to him before?  He had been arresting Christians left and right.  Certainly someone had told him the basics of what this sect called the Way believed. He may have even heard Christ Himself during His earthly ministry.  Yet it wasn't until many years later that he had ears to hear.

And speaking of Saul of Tarsus, once he became St. Paul, he wrote a letter to the Jewish Christians in Rome, and in the second chapter of that letter he makes an interesting statement (quoting Isaiah), "The Name of God is blasphemed among the nations because of you."  Why did the nations blaspheme God?  "Because of you."  What had they done?  Beginning in verse 17, St. Paul explains that they sought to teach others God's Law even though they were not living it well themselves.  And this is the second factor that must be considered when preaching the Gospel.  Perhaps the reason some people reject the Gospel and blaspheme God is because  I do not myself very well live according to the Gospel.  Maybe like the Jews Isaiah was speaking to and the Roman Christians St. Paul was speaking to, maybe I myself--my lazy lifestyle, my unwillingness to control my selfish habits, my ungenerous attitudes toward others--maybe I am the reason those around me do not yet have ears to hear the Gospel of Christ.

"Preach the Gospel," St. Frances of Assisi is reported to have said, "use words only when necessary."  

I am an Orthodox Christian.  I am 100% convinced that Orthodox Christianity is the True Faith (not a true faith).  However, that does not mean that everyone else will see what I see as soon as I point it out to them.  Furthermore, it may be that they do not see it precisely because I  point it out to them.  I have a lot of repenting yet to do.

Also, God's love for mankind is such that He is able to save anyone, anywhere, any time they are ready. He can even save Moslems, Jews, Atheists, Hindus, and murderers of Christians like St. Paul.  In fact, He is even able to save those who murdered His Son: St. Loginous, the centurion at the Cross.  I think my job is to follow St. Frances' advice and do my best to live in such a way that the "nations" will ask for an account for the hope they see evidenced in my life.


Bonnie and I saw the movie "Arranged" last night. It is a semi-autobiographical story based on the experience of the film's producer. The movie deals with themes of religious tolerance and choice in the context of a growing friendship between an Orthodox Jew and a practicing Moslem who are both teaching in a public school in Brooklyn, and who both are having marriages arranged for them according to the tradition of their religions.

The aspect of this film that strikes me most strongly--and there are many aspects of the film that could inspire hours of interesting discussion--is that the old soldier of the last campaign for freedom becomes the persecutor of the next generation's expression of freedom. That is, the principal in the school where they teach is an older feminist who repeatedly encourages Rochel and Nasira to drop their religious way of dress and the "superstitions" of their fathers, whom she assumes are forcing them to dress the way they do. The principal condescendingly declares to them, "There has been a woman's movement, you know. I went through it." She does not seem realize that she has become the oppressor.

As an Orthodox Christian convert who fought hard to find the "True Faith" in the Holy Orthodox Church, I wonder if I am sometimes like that principal. How often do I assume that I know what is good for someone else? How often do I assume that someone else's life needs fixing and I know how to fix it? How often do I assume that the Holy Spirit is guiding me when in reality I just want to re-create someone else in my own image?

I recommend the film. It is on Netfix.

Friday, October 07, 2011


Every time I read in the Bible the word "ungodly," I have to tell my self, "That does not mean someone without God."

For some reason, the Greek word asebes got translated into English as ungodly instead of impious.  But perhaps many of us have no idea what impious means either--it's not a word you are likely to run into in the newspaper.

Piety, godliness and eusebeia, all mean to live or act in a way that is pleasing to God.  Therefore, to be ungodly is not to live in a way that pleases God.  And while the Bible often uses absolute language (one is either godly or ungodly), the Church teaches us that godliness is actually something we grow in.  Therefore, even as we are growing in godliness, we have not yet quite left all ungodliness behind.  St. Paul's exhortations to the Churches often include warnings to flee ungodliness.  It's a process.
It's a transformation.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Orthodox Worship

Fr. James Bernstein has done a great video series on Orthodox worship.  They are short, three minute videos (well edited).   This is a perfect introduction for anyone interested in why Orthodox worship is the way it is.
Here is a link
The first video is below.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Princess and Curdie Transcript

Hello, this is Fr. Michael Gillis and I’m speaking of books…
Today I will be talking about George MacDonald's children’s fantasy, “The Princess and Curdie.” This is the sequel to “The Princess and the Goblin,” but you don’t have to read that first to enjoy "The Princess and Curdie."

However, before you enjoy any tale by George MacDonanld, you must first let go of your 21st century sensibilities and be willing to enter an imaginary world more glorious and more severe than what most of us would call good. In the world of Curdie and the Princess, virtue, loyalty and truth are more important than this transient life--either losing it yourself or taking it from others. In other words, it is a world that we might call brutal, although it is an honest brutality. It is a brutality in which an honest and true person must personally confront that which is wicked and selfish--and the consequent injury to life or limb is merely a natural part of the exchange.

It is certainly a far cry from our politically correct culture which cannot stand the personal pain of an angry slur, but nonetheless enjoys the impersonal violence of video games and movies--and through technology can keep real violence far away through bombs triggered from a distance and hospitals that keep the dying out of our sight. For us (in North America) today, violence is seldom personal, and when it is personal, we consider it an unusual tragedy, not a normal part of life and death in a sin-filled world. But in the world of Mac Donald’s fairy tales, violence is always personal. The wicked and the righteous confront each other personally.
In The Princess and Curdie, the fairy tale at hand, Curdie is growing through his early teen years and beginning to disbelieve in the angel-like Great Great Grandmother of Princess Irene, the young princess whom Curdie had saved from the goblins in the previous novel. Curdie is beginning to care more about what his fellow miners think of him than of what his parents think of him. He is beginning to doubt what he had known so clearly to be true within himself just a short while ago, simply because it is not being confirmed by his peer group.

However the Great Great Grandmother has not forsaken him, and through a random act of violence in which Curdie shoots a white dove with the bow he had made, She reveals the softness of Curdie’s heart in that he is sorry for the harm he has done. In seeking to heal the wounded dove, Curdie reencounters the Great Great Grandmother. She confronts him for allowing himself to be led into cynicism by his peers and calls him to a dangerous mission to serve the King. Really it is just what every teenage boy needs: a noble purpose bigger than himself that will require discipline, suffering, and recognition in the eyes of those in power.
Perhaps the most powerful theological theme of the book is introduced early. The Great Great Grandmother explains to Curdie that many human beings are becoming like animals and many people with apparently wicked or ugly qualities are actually becoming more human. But you cannot always tell from the outside which way people are going. She uses the example of two men walking up or down a hill side. Viewed quickly from a distance, you cannot easily tell which one is ascending and which is descending. Similarly, from the current appearance of one’s life’s circumstances, you cannot easily tell whether or not the person is becoming more human or more animal.
Curdie receives two gifts from from the Great Great Grandmother for his mission. The first gift is the ability to discern by shaking hands whether one is becoming more human or more animal--and which animal too. And the second gift is an extremely ugly, dog-like creature to be his servant. Right away, Curdie touches the paw of this frightening creature only to discern the beautiful hand of a young woman.
Curdie and the creature, named Lina, journey together to the capital of the kingdom only to find its citizens in a state of deep selfishness (which as Mac Donald describes it sounds in many respects like what we today might call healthy capitalism). Curdie and Lina are thrown in prison for killing the dogs that attacked them--that it was an act of self-defense makes no difference, for the owners blame Curdie for being a stranger and Lina for just being ugly and frightening. However, in the prison they discover a secret passage into the King’s castle. There they uncover a plot to slowly poison the king, and with the help of 49 hideous creatures similar to Lina, (whom they recruited on their journey to the capital) they help the king win back his kingdom.
However, the fairytale ends on a bitter note. Although the king wins back his kingdom, it is largely populated by citizens who cooperated with those who betrayed him. Nevertheless, Curdie is able to go through the kingdom shaking hands and recommending people for the king’s new court--men and women who are becoming men and women. The Great Great Grandmother reveals that Curdie’s parents are of an ancient royal line, and this qualifies him to marry the princess--whom he saved in the first fairytale. You would think this is the final note of a fairytale happy ending, but it is not.

Mac Donald extends the final note to the king who follows Curdie, he and the princess not having any children. In the final passage of the fairytale, we find out that Curdie’s successor to the throne returns to capitalist ways, and driven by greed he exploits the mineral resources of the kingdom to such an extent that the kingdom collapses--literally. The gold mine over which the capital is build collapses and falls into the river.

The End.

Not a very happy note to end a children’s fairytale with. And yet, it is a note that rings very true, especially today, almost 150 years after it was written.
For those of you my dear listeners who have the courage to read real fairytales, I whole-heartedly recommend to you the work of George Mac Donald. The tale I spoke of today is called “The Princess and Curdie,” which is the sequel to “The Princess and the Goblin.” But perhaps my favorite George Mac Donald fairy tale is, “The Back of the North Wind,” but I give you fair warning: it may change your life.
For Speaking of Books, this is Fr. Michael Gillis

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Prayer and the Fear of Enemies

A friend of mine sent me a posting from a certain well known Orthodox leader in the U.S. The posting quoted Orthodox prayers that harken back to the Byzantine wars against the Turks and Saracens--often referred to as "Hagarenes" and "Ishmaelites" in the prayers. The "alarmism," as my friend put it, of this Orthodox leader's reading of these prayers bothered him, and he asked me to comment.

'Let our nation speedily overcome the abominations and blasphemies of the Hagarenes, and submit them to our civil authorities; establish Orthodoxy and raise up the race of Christians, and send down upon us they rich mercy.'

'Bend thy bow and proceed prosperously and be King, O Son of the Mother of God, and by the intercession of her that conceived Thee without knowing a man subject unto our Christ-loving king the Ishmaelite people that warreth against us, we pray, since Thou are God and the Friend of man.'

.... The days of the martyrs is not a time of the distant past, but is upon us....

[Most of the original comments on the texts has been omitted]

Below is my response to my concerned friend.

I, also find such a reading of these prayers hugely unhelpful. Yes, when the (Byzantine/Russian/whatever) empire was Christian and whoever came against the nation was considered evil by the Church, such language was appropriate from a church as state/state as church perspective--of course that only reflects the irony of a "Christian nation." (But then, when has life in a sinful world not been full of irony?) Such political prayer language--common in the Bible too--has always been interpreted on at least two levels. On a national level, it expresses the real fears of those who were really threatened by an attacking army; and those in fear will use whatever weapons they have--including religion as they conceive it in their fear-- to fight the enemy.

However, such prayers have also been understood by those more spiritually minded, who have already died (or are dying) to the world, as a cry to God to destroy the evil within themselves, the infidel, Ishmaelite, Hagarene in their own hearts. It grieves me to hear those who lead the Church succumb to the first interpretation, but I cannot judge them too harshly for I do not experience what they experience. The level of fear that is whipped up by the U.S. media and political system is so high that very few can resist it.

Certainly these are the days of the martyrs. Since the beginning of the world (remember Abel's blood?), it has been the days of the martyrs. Perhaps some in their alarm are just noticing. However, alarm will not help us face martyrdom. (Neither will using prayer as a weapon to smite the enemy outside of us, the neighbour whom we are to love, the ones who crucify us not knowing what they do.) What will prepare us for martyrdom is to begin dying today, to smite the enemy within us with prayer.

Fighting fire with fire only burns up the world.

Nevertheless, some people are alarmed. Some cannot see the infidel within because fear of the infidel without has captured them. And God loves the frightened ones too.
Therefore, Let us together pray, "Subject unto our Christ-loving king the Ishmaelite people that war against us, we pray, since You are friend of man [philanthropos]." Each will pray according to his or her inner state, and God will answer according to His love for mankind, all mankind. Certainly it is better that frightened people pray; it is better that they open themselves in some way to God's saving action--even if they misunderstand the prayer. But who can say that he or she truly understands any prayer? Who of us truly knows what it means that God is the friend of man? Who has known the mind of God? We all need to repent.