May this Holy Friday be blessed, and may you have a great Pascha.
At this time of year, we tend to become more aware of our lack of worth, seeing how God does everything for us and how we fail so significantly at being human. Yet, we may console our vanity by reasoning that God is God and that we are men and that we ought not to worry about such a natural discrepancy. However, our nonchalant self justification teeters when we learn the lives of the saints—mere men and women like the rest of us.
A few weeks ago, I read about Saint Luke of Simferopol. What an impressive man! Read this short biography of the saint by Father Victor Potapov: “One who came to love suffering.” The Lord is gracious in the gifts that he sends to us, most especially in the form of rational creatures—and starting with himself.
May the Triduum be an occasion of joy for you and yours!
Crkvenikalendar.com features an impressive online Church calendar with beautiful icons and short hagiographies for the saints of the day. The site also offers codes for webmasters to display a saints of the day window on their pages. I prefer Ponomar’s Menologion Online for its flexibility and cuustomizations, but Crkvenikalendar’s ready-to-post feast day windows may be better suited for certains pages, especially social networking sites.
If it were a leap year, tomorrow would be the feast of Saint John Cassian. As it is, we celebrate the good saint’s feast on February 28 (March 13 on the Gregorian calendar). On my patron’s feast day last year, Fr. Stephen De Young published a decent article on John Cassian on Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy: “The Curious Case of St. John Cassian.” I recommend it. It is yet another reminder of how the preponderance of Saint Augustine in Western Christian thought—without adequate patristic counterweight—has perverted the West. I do not quite understand how it happened, though. Even without the multitude of voices from the Greek fathers, the West still had Hilary, Ambrose, John Cassian himself, and others, though I suppose that Augustine’s writings were so vast and impressive that they overshadowed the rest. Still, it was not until the Reformation that the balance truly tipped, but why then? Why did Luther, Calvin, and the gang draw their inspiration from Augustine’s extreme anti-Pelagianism? Was it their rejection of scholasticism and the medieval tradition, where the next previous stop in history was Hippo? Did they find a soulmate in the “Doctor of Grace”? Why did a Platonist from late antiquity appeal to the nominalists who transformed post-Renaissance Western Europe? Curious, indeed.
In the previous posts “Mormons and Jesus” and “Charlton’s Mormon Advantage,” I comment on Alan Roebuck’s treatment of Mormonism on The Orthosphere. L.D.S. commentator Leo wrote a response on the comment thread to “The Basic Case against Mormonism and Other Pseudo-Christianities” by Roebuck. I reply:
Let me clarify that I do not think that the Russian Church exhaustively manifests the Church. Church is said in many ways. In Orthodoxy, we speak of the Church as the Body of Christ, and we also use the term Church for the local manifestations of the Christian community—the local bishop surrounded by his priests, his deacons, and the faithful under his supervision (I originally typed “failful” mistakenly, but that does characterize the Christian flock to a large extent!). As to the boundaries of the Church beyond the Orthodox Churches, I defer to my ecclesial authorities. However, I personally suspect that the Roman Church participates in or constitutes, perhaps in an ailing way, the Church, as well. There is so much good fruit, clear truth, and consistent, perpetual sanctity among the papists. I do not know the nature of schism (or rather, its bastardized anti-nature), but I doubt that Rome and the non-Chalcedonians are not part of the family. Even (especially!) families have their squabbles and sins.
With everyone else, though, it seems like their separation is pretty evident. Anglican and confessional Protestants have drifted farther from apostolic teaching and practice as the centuries have passed, where those who hold steadfast to the theological and moral truths of the faith have become ever fewer in number. And even they cling to poisonous errors, as Protestantism is the spiritual side of modernity. As for pious individual Protestants, clearly there is something to their faith. Kristor and Alan here are good examples. I distrust loosey goosey kumbaya ecclesiology, but there is power in the gospel, in the reading and reflection upon the scriptures, in the name of the Lord, and in the external signs of the Church that light the darkness even apart from their proper setting (in the Church). Perhaps, this truth lies behind Augustine’s and the Roman Church’s understanding of validity—whereby there may be sacramental efficacy beyond the visible Church.
In his Confessions, Augustine writes about the importance of the name Jesus, even in the wildly heretical setting of the Manichees. I think that the same must be true of all fallen away sects. When the Mohammedans show respect toward Mary or when they acknowledge the holiness and authority of Christ, they thereby reap blessings and draw closer to the truth. When the leftist ideologues envision humanity as a family of mutual support and love (and let’s be honest, that does happen), they dip their toes in the river of life. When the young Kristor entered into a state of awareness of God’s presence in bread, he truly witnessed God and the grace of the mysteries, though I do not think that the Anglicans as a group are the Church or that they perform the rites of the Church. I guess that I remain an ecclesial exclusivist who acknowledges the truth that folks like Rahner and Lewis (and Kristor and Charlton) see, though I think that they err in not complementing those insights by solid ecclesiology. “Mere Christianity” is mushy hooey with bits of wisdom.
Just so, I think that the Mormons truly experience the gifts and benefits that God bestows to the extent that they worship him, though they are extraordinarily confused. Most “mainstream” Christians find odd things to criticize about Mormonism, such as that Jesus preached in the Americas, the Mormons’ ethno-mythical understanding of American Indians and negroes, the three heavens, their history of polygamy, or their special underwear. One even hears denunciation of Mormons’ morality, family centeredness, and patriarchy in some quarters. I find those objections wrong or uninteresting. For me, what is obviously repellent in Mormonism is its pagan theology, wherein God is not God but merely a god. Why, then, should we worship him whom we call “God”? If there is something greater than god, such as the universe in which he is a fellow being with us and whose laws he must follow, then ought we not to worship the universe instead? Mormonism, like crude paganism, requires men to succumb to idolatry.
What also troubles me about Mormonism is both the widespread ignorance of its basic theology among its members and the widespread disinterest in this theology (and in the phenomenon of the nearly universal ignorance thereof). Mormons just don’t seem to be bothered by fundamental questions, as in the problem of god regression. Mormonism appears therefore a more wholesome form of Epicureanism, which seeks to guide its practitioners to live decently but without any interest in transcendence. God has been transformed into a Big Daddy in the sky, who, along with Big Mommy, rules over our world like benevolent royalty while, presumably, hanging out in the Celestial Kingdom with other deities (which my brother has affectionately named the God Club). Mohammed simplified monotheism for the masses, but Joseph Smith created a religion wholly appropriate for Americans who have no perspicacity outside their daily lives. As another commentator (A Lady) noted, Mormonism is the most essentially American religion.
As far as the lamentable history of the Puritans’ children, well, I think that their original Calvinist and egalitarian errors have evolved into the chief perversions of American society. Look at the intellectual history of New England since the eighteenth century, and you will find one malady of the spirit after another. Those WASPs have done much to destroy the world. Had they been mediocre or weak folks, they would not have done as much damage. So, I suppose that Mormons were part of this story, yet their own mutations were far more beneficial. I would rather live in a country populated by Mormons than one populated by Unitarians or the average congregants in the United Church of Christ—those religious cultures most directly descended from the Mayflower.
Like Charlton, I am impressed by how Mormons have semi-corrected many of the problems inherent in the Protestantism of their ancestors. Mormons respect and acknowledge hierarchy, reject iconoclasm, and have some sense of sacramentality, though without decent metaphysical support. Mormons do a fine job in seeing one’s life as the setting of both spiritual warfare and the preliminary taste of paradise rather than a mere test that determines one’s everlasting fate in “real life.” Mormons abandoned the bibliolatry of their forebears, though they kept the mistrust and outright ignorance of the continual apostolic tradition of the Church. In other words, Mormons are extremely fascinating.
But every ecclesiastical leader worthy of the name looks out for the interests of his flock.
Surely, Leo could not mean this! Perhaps, he saves the sentence by adding “worthy of the name.” Well, the vast majority (and I do not exaggerate) of the West’s religious leaders are not worthy of the name. They do not govern their institutions with the spiritual or even temporal interests of their flock in mind. They are the vanguards of civilizational ruin.
Concerning Leo’s point about regional culture, even if most Mormons now live outside of “Zion,” the leadership appears to be from and focused on the Mormon heartland. Mormons elsewhere are colonial outposts, working to transform their new frontier into an extension of the promised land. It is a good strategy. Anyway, perhaps LDS is becoming globalized, but that is not a good sign for its future health. There is an advantage in being raised in Zion.
As far as traditions, we, of course, are called to follow the tradition handed down to us by Christ through the apostles and not to follow the meanderings and traditions of men. How may we tell the difference? In the early centuries, the Church Fathers defended the gospel and the apostolic tradition while arguing against various heretics who wished to alter the Christian tradition to appease some philosophical or cultural obsession that Christianity offended. When the gnostics claimed special, secret knowledge of Christ, the Fathers pointed to the consistent public witness of the Church in every generation, where they preached the faith delivered to the apostles. Naturally, life is messy, and an examination of Church history is sometimes trying. Consider the history of Origen’s popularity and unpopularity. However, there is a generally clear witness of the Church’s teaching from the first century to today. It is not hidden from us. It is not secret or mysterious. It is not obfuscated by translations. (And what is it with Mormons and translations? Do they not know that people know Greek? That some Christians have always known Greek? That some Christians still speak Greek [yeah, yeah, it’s not koine, but still!]?) Mormons’ account of a post-apostolic apostasy is as historically ignorant and—not to spare words—stupid as that of the Seventh Day Adventists or fringe Baptists who think that Constantine invented Catholicism. One cannot worship God in spirit and in truth when one’s basic understanding of God and of God’s dealing with man is based on falsehood.
Today is the March for Life. I intend to attend as much of it as possible, though I have other obligations that will disrupt my usual whole day dedication. May all the marchers be safe, and may the march achieve some good in their hearts and in the commonwealth.
Alan Roebuck has addressed Dr. Bruce Charlton’s recent apologetics for the Latter Day Saints on the Orthosphere: “Christian Salvation Is Not Visible to the Naked Eye.” Over the last month or so, Dr. Charlton has shown much approving interest in Joseph Smith’s children in his posts, and the Orthosphere’s resident Calvinist is not having any of it! I recommend Roebuck’s article and its comments, to which I contributed:
Mssrs. Roebuck and Jas, this is a broader problem of reference. Is the “Mormon Jesus” the same as Jesus? Is the intended object of any deficient understanding of the Christ the same as Jesus? It’s a similar question to whether the Islamic God is the same as the Christian God. I found Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics helpful in this matter [I wrote about this in “Can We Speak Truth without Knowing It?” ]. I remember reading a section on knowledge, opinion, and error, where the Philosopher uses the example of a geometrician’s and an ignorant man’s approach to the hypotenuse of a right angle. The geometer knows the Pythogorean relationship in such a triangle, whereas the ignorant man does not. As such, each man would understand the hypotenuse differently. In a way, they do not intend the same object. The object of the geometer is the real hypotenuse, while the object of the ignorant man is a faulty opinion. However, that faulty opinion does have some relationship to the real object. His poor understanding of the hypotenuse is not a skewed vision of the workers in the Agora, Athena, or Chuckles the cat. I find this helpful in the “Mormon Jesus” discussion. In a sense, Mormons refer to Jesus when they speak about Jesus, though their understanding of him is perverse, just as the Mujahideen refer to Jesus when they conceive of him as their prophet or as the hippies think of him as a proto-radical social revolutionary (Occupy Cardo Maximus!). The ultimate object of their mind is Jesus the Word, though their glass is murky, indeed. Whose isn’t?
Indeed, the Mohammedans are theologically closer to Christianity than the Mormons. For the Mohammedans understand God as the transcendent, ultimate source of being, whereas the Mormons revert to a pagan understanding of God as merely a god — another particular being like you or me who happens to be far more powerful and historically important in the formation and direction of this world (understood locally, not the cosmos).
So, are Mormons Christians? I’m fine with classifying them as heretical Christians, but I would say the same about Mohammedans, Creflo Dollar prosperity Protestants, Unitarians, Marxist atheists, Pentecostal holy rollers, gnostic Scientologists, and old school fire and brimstone Presbyterians — not to mention the Methodists (oh no, not the Methodists!). Their heresies are matters of degree, it seems, and I cannot see a non-arbitrary boundary of where to distinguish “heretical Christian” perversions of the Gospel from those that cease to be Christian.
A similar problem exists for orthodoxy. When does a false theologoumenon become a heretical opinion? I think that is why holding heretical beliefs does not make one a heretic. Rather, persisting in such rebellion when one is instructed otherwise by the Church is what makes one a heretic. Heresy then seems to be more a matter of ecclesiology than personal theological opinion. The demarcation of orthodoxy is the Church (and then where is the Church — does our quest ever end? But that would be thread-jacking!). I have a friend who likes to say that human beings are rational in the species, but not always (often?) in the individual. Similarly, proper theology is a concern for the Church — we cannot expect every pious Christian to understand, much less to articulate well, all the doctrines of the faith. However, such folks can be in the right ship, which has the proper sails, hull, and seamanship to get them through the turbulent waters.
This is perhaps why Charlton goes astray with the Mormons. As a disenchanted Anglican, whose fleet has long been lost at sea, he wants to revert to Lewis’ (another Anglican) “Mere Christianity,” hoping that simple personal piety will function as a lifesaver for one. Charlton notes that little of the daily life of piety has to do with correct theology, and he thus reckons that the Mormons, who appear quite pious in their own way, are good members of the Body of Christ. I would counter that theology (and philosophy) does have a “trickle down effect,” even to the most basic and thoughtless of daily activities. If Mormons exemplify healthy tendencies in living, it is because they hold good opinions about human nature. I wonder, however, if the transforming sanctity of a saint has ever occurred in a Mormon. Was there ever a Mormon Seraphim of Sarov or Francis of Assisi? I doubt it. Mormonism is a workable Christian heresy that has enough good sense to work for a society just as enlightened paganism has undergirt many fine civilizations. But the ocean is too big for a lifesaver to save us. I fear that Dr. Charlton comes close to the Grand Inquisitor’s reasoning in justifying a counterfeit Christ because such works well enough for the masses who cannot hope for theosis.
Again, I wish my fellow marchers a fine day. Stay warm, and please pray and work for justice (true justice, that is!).
I wish you a merry feast of Saint Nicholas!
In the spirit of the saint is a lovely account about charity in The Detroit News: “Most Holy Trinity Christmas Party crosses religious lines to help kids in need.” Read about the Ecclesiatical Shakedown Society and smile at a very American Christmas story.
And may your holidays be bright!
Happy feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple! Today’s readings include the Magnificat from Luke’s gospel:
And Mary said, My soul doth magnify the Lord,
And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden: for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.
For he that is mighty hath done to me great things; and holy is his name.
The feast involves the child Mary’s dedication to the Temple—where the Holy of Holies made of stone is greeted by the Holy of Holies made of flesh. In this way, the feast complements well the entrance into monastic life by women who seek to follow the greatest icon of human obedience to God, the Theotokos herself. Let us, then, celebrate that religious vocation by looking at some simple joys and beauties in monastic life. Here are two such photographic meditations, beginning, appropriately enough, with pictures of the Convent of the Entrance of the Theotokos in Ivanovo by Alexander Brown and Anna Olshanskaya.
You may also read Mr. Brown’s page in rough English.
When my brother Aaron and I visited Russia, we used several guidebooks to get around. We soon discovered that Lonely Planet’s guide was geared toward us as young, budget-challenged adventurers, while Fodor’s book assumed that its readers were wealthy, respectable types on holiday—who moreover fit every W.A.S.P. stereotype. When we were visiting a monastery near Saint Petersburg, the Fodor’s guide siggested that we find the monastic bakery to enjoy some freshly baked “tasty bread.” We love bread—especially fresh “tasty bread.” Hence, we tracked down the monastic bakery. What we found, however, was the prosphora bakery that supplied the monastery with bread for the Eucharist. The bakery also sold small prosphora to visitors who wished to submit commemorative loaves for the liturgy. This was the “tasty bread”! Aaron and I were both horrified and humored. We had already developed an image of the Fodor folks as smug and cluelessly distant, and their “tasty bread” recommendation recapitulated everything we felt about Fodor’s at once.
So, when I sent the pictures of the women’s monasteries to my brother, he responded:
I like the one of the nun with a cellphone. I think she is reviewing the tasty bread on Yelp.
We shall laugh forever at Fodor’s expense.
There are many beautiful pictures on the linked pages, but I really enjoy the scenes with dogs and cats as well as the perched parakeet. There was a great multitude of cats at the monasteries. In particular, I remember well how the cats seemed to live in blessed harmony with the nuns at the Novodevichy Convent in Moscow.
And there are folks who opine that there are no beasts in heaven! Accordingly, you may wish to read Robert Flanagan’s short article, “Humans and Animals in the Kingdom.” The Lord is Pantokrator, not merely the transcendent chief psychologist.
I wish you a blessed feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos!
Michigan State University hosts a site dedicated to images of the Theotokos in Byzantine iconography; you may read about the Natvity of the Theotokos icon.
Here is a Russian video with icons and hymns:
When I was in Jerusalem last year, I visited the Basilica of Saint Ann from the Crusader period and the neighboring Orthodox monastery of Saint Anna. Both claim to be upon the home of Joachim and Anna where the Theotokos was born. The complex may connect underground; so they both could be right. Regardless, the local tradition marks the Virgin Mary’s birth near the Gate of Saint Stephen, also called the Lions’ Gate. The Crusader basilica was built upon a former church, the Basilica Sanctae Mariae ubi nata est. Even in Latin, that is unwieldy; nouns make better church names than clauses. Other scholars think that the Theotokos may have been born in Galilee, in Nazareth or in nearby Tzippori, as Joachim and Anna had a familial or residential connection to the area. Bethlehem is another contender as well as a small village near Bethlehem where Joachim and Anna are thought to have lived at one point before or after the birth of the Theotokos. However, the Jerusalem tradition is probably the oldest, and there has been a liturgical celebration of the Virgin’s birth there since late antiquity.
Little more than a decade ago, my brother Aaron and I spent a day in Kronstadt—a naval town on an island in the Gulf of Finland. We arrived by bus from the Saint Petersburg, and we commenced to search for any memorials or parishes associated with Saint John of Kronstadt, as Saint Andrew’s Cathedral where Saint John chiefly served had been destroyed by the Soviets. We found none. After spending the entire day searching in vain, we returned to the bus stop. Behind the stop, I noticed a church under renovation. I thought that it might be worth asking about before we left. A family allowed us to enter the edifice, which turned out to be the city’s Vladimir Sobor—the main church in the city after Saint Andrew’s before the construction of Saint Nicholas’ Naval Sobor. I do not know how often Saint John served at Our Lady of Vladimir, but it seems likely.
While we earlier sought to retrace Saint John’s life, we got to see Kronstadt, which had been closed to foreigners until a few years before. During the day, we came to the grandest building on the island—the remains of Saint Nicholas’ Naval Sobor. I found a caretaker to let us in, and I was saddened to see an auditorium inside. It clearly had been a lovely temple, but the Communists had perverted it into a cinema. Even in its secularized state, it seemed neglected. Wherever we went in Russia, we were constantly reminded by the evil done after the revolution.
It was thus with great joy that I read about the reconsecration of the Naval Sobor in April of this year on A.O.I.: “Is This the Most Beautiful Orthodox Church in the World?” The article links to a photographic report on Православие и мир: ”Освящение Кронштадтского Морского собора во имя святителя Николая Чудотворца,” which I highly recommend.
I really like the chapel at the U.S. Naval Academy, but the Russkies have outdone Annapolis! The sobor’s council has a page on the church’s history and on the renovation efforts.
The A.O.I. story also features a video of the consecration with Patriarch Kirill:
There is much to lament in the news, but the developments in Russia are a cause for celebration. Glory to God!
Happy feast of the Meeting of our Lord to those who follow the old calendar!
Last week, my inbox was flooded by stories of the recent canonization of Alexander Schmorell, a young medical student involved in the White Rose resistance against the National Socialists. The Nazis beheaded Alexander along with his Weiße Rose associates Hans and Sophie Scholl, Christoph Probst, Willi Graf, and Professor Kurt Huber after a series of political trials.
Alexander was killed on July 13 (new style), A.D. 1943 at Stadelheim Prison in Munich.
The Church Abroad has an article about the newly glorified Alexander that posts Alexander’s farewell letter to his father and stepmother (his mother died when he was a toddler) written before his execution:
My dear father and mother,
And so, it is not to be, Divine will has me complete my earthly life today, and to enter another, which shall never end and where we will all once again meet. May this meeting be your consolation and your hope. For you this blow, unfortunately, is heavier than for me, because I will go there knowing that I served my profound conviction and the truth. For all this I face the approaching hour of my death with a peaceful conscience. Remember the millions of young people who departed from this life on the battlefield—I now share their fate. Pass on my most heartfelt greetings to my dear friends! Especially to Natasha, Erich, our nanny, Aunt Tonya, Maria, Alyonushka and Andrei. Only a few more hours, and I will be in a better life, with my mother, and I will not forget you, I will pray to God for your consolation and peace. And I will wait for you. One thing I especially place into the memory of your hearts: Do not forget God!!!
Prof. Huber goes with me, and asked that I pass on his sincere good wishes.
The article also reproduces one of Alexander’s letters to his sister that reveals how this remarkable young man interpreted his persecution:
Dearest, dearest Natasha!
You have probably read the letters which I wrote to our parents, so you can probably have a good idea of my situation. You would probably be surprised if I wrote that with every passing day I am becoming calmer, even happy and joyful, that my mood is basically better than it was when I was free! Why is this? I want to tell you about this now: this whole terrible ‘crisis’ was inevitable to put me on the correct path, and for this reason it is not a crisis at all. I rejoice over this and thank God that this was given to me, to comprehend the hand of the Lord and through this to emerge onto the correct path. What did I know before about faith, about real, profound faith, about the truth, the final and sole truth, about God? Very little! But now I have matured to the point that even in my predicament, I am merry, calm and filled with hope, what will be will be. I hope that you also experienced this process of maturing and that you and I together, after the deep pain of separation, will come to the state of mind where you thank the Lord for everything. This misfortune was necessary to open my eyes, and not only mine, but the eyes of us all, all of us who have befallen this fate—including our family. One must hope that you too properly understand the way the hand of the Lord is pointing.
Give everyone my heartfelt greetings, and to you, a special greeting from your Shurik.”
You may read Alexander’s other letters from prison, as well.
RIA Novosti notes that Alexander is the first saint to be glorified by the Russian Orthodox Church since the restoration of communion between the Moscow Patriarchare and the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia. Indeed, the canonization appears to have been mainly a R.O.C.O.R. affair; Archbishop Mark of Berlin officiated the canonization in Munich’s Cathedral of Holy New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia. Jim Forest recounts the canonization festivities on his site. Forest also has gallery of the event’s photographs on Flickr, which includes several new icons.
Forest really is the Mathew Brady of Western Orthodoxy.
Forest also provides English translations of the new hymns.
Today a light adorns our glorious city,
Having within it your holy relics, O Holy Martyr Alexander;
For which sake pray to Christ God
That He deliver us from all tribulations,
For gathered together in love we celebrate your radiant memory
Imitating your bravery,
Standing against the godless powers and enemies.
From your mother you did inherit the love of Christ,
And through the love of your care-giver you were nourished in the fear of God, O all-glorious one,
To Whom you did give thyself, O all-honorable Alexander,
And you diligently pray with the angels.
Entreat on behalf of all who honor your memory a forgiveness of their sins.
I wish to congratulate the faithful of Bavaria, and I now have an additional requisite stop when I return to the beautiful city of Munich. I recently made pilgrimage to the tomb of that other illustrious German saint of the Russian Church, the Grand Duchess Elizabeth, when I visited the Convent of Mary Magdalene in the Garden of Gethsemane a few months ago. May Saints Elizabeth and Alexander pray for us and for the Russian and German lands and their people.