Thursday, September 25, 2014

The True Church

     Someone told me once that their decision to join the Church was an intellectual one.  Likewise, on many occasions I have heard many testimonies of why intellectually people choose their religion. For instance, they will say things like “no other Church has these claims” or “no other religion teaches these things”.  I guess from an intellectual perspective it would make sense to appeal to the religion that has the most valid claims. In contrast, I don’t think I can relate to intellectual claims because most of my religious decisions were emotional. Unlike some, I can’t say that I am member of my church because it makes the most sense or that it has things others don’t. For me, it was a matter of following my heart in discovering what brought me closer to God. Maybe this was due the fact that when I started out on my spiritual path I could barely read or write. I did not have access to the popular saints of the day and even when I eventually did all I had to go on was what I was experiencing inside. The experience that I had I guess you could say is what I perceived of Christ. I saw this experience in myself, in others, and in my desire for more of it I followed it where it took me.
     As far as the intellect is concerned there have been many times in my experience where things have made no sense. In fact, there have been those in my life that have gone out of their way to show me how everything that I believe is false. After talking with such people the only honest response I can have to their claims is that if there was no presence of God in me I could see myself believing the way they do. Everything that I have has been grace or an emotional response to it and it is always associated with the knowledge of Christ. I guess in terms of intellectual development all my education has been aimed at knowing Christ better. I know that I can’t go on my experience alone but I would be dishonest if I didn’t mention that my education has always been organic to my first encounter of Christ. I seems in my case I wanted not to just follow my emotions but I was trying to have a better relationship with God through what I learned about Him.
    In terms of learning there is no doubt that it has contributed to the relationship that I have now with my church but this knowledge is always complemented by how I experience God. This is why I can’t say I am where I am because it’s better than other churches or because we have things other do not. In terms of what my church has given me there has been no other place that has provided me with what I experience now of Christ. At this point in my life, I can say that I have never felt more liberated in experiencing God and it has been my church alone that has brought me this healing. To me, this is the essence of what a True Church is. As Metropolitan Hierotheos once said, “the existence of the true Church is revealed in the degree of success. In medicine it is said that a correct medical theory is distinguished from a wrong one by its degree of success. Similarly, a doctor is good depending on his healing rate. Likewise for the Church”. I guess you can say that in following my emotions I was actually looking for the best kind of healing. I was attracted only to the best means that healed what I lacked in experiencing God and in following this healing I found my church.
     Today, there is no place that I’d rather be. My Ruthenian Greek Catholic church is the True Church.  By some standards my church is not perfect. However, even if it gets worse for these standards, it is where God heals me. Sometimes there are those that look at my church’s imperfections and try to provide arguments for why I should leave. If I wanted to I could probably provide an intellectual argument against what they say. However, in the end such debates have very little to do with experiencing God. I think the best way to convince others is to share what God has done in me through my church. Others might continue to say that they have things better or do things better but can they make me whole in the way my church has? When speaking with such people I often wonder if there is anything to share under all those ideas of why their church is the True one. The appeals to traditions, papal sayings, or councils are meaningless if you in fact have no healing to offer.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Defending the Theotokos

     The other day I was challenged to provide a historical foundation for the feast of the Dormition. The person making this challenge believed that my church was in error since there are no historical records concerning the feast until about the 5th century. I tried to explain that my church doesn’t get its tradition from the availability of historical documents. In my explanation, I demonstrated that there has always been an oral tradition that has preceded anything that was written. Unfortunately, he found my explanation unsatisfactory. According to him it makes no sense to believe in something that cannot be historically proven. In response, I explained that depending on how you understand history, Christianity is not a religion founded in historical satisfaction. In fact, everything that we believe in as Christians is built on oral tradition. I even pointed out to him that the few centuries of oral traditions concerning the Dormition are nothing compared to the oral traditions that came before the bible. For instance, the book of Genesis could be the result of up to 1000yrs worth of oral tradition according to some scholars. Consequently, if I operated by what could be “historically proven” I would have to come to the conclusion that everything in Christianity “makes no sense”. Looking back on this conversation, I guess the point I was trying to make with him was that there is a different form of history at work concerning the Dormition.
     When it comes to our feasts of the Theotokos the Church presents something of its inner life. Of course, these feasts are something that don’t fulfill the standards of some historical methods in terms of their actuality. There is no doubt that in the Roman church the elevation of the Dormition/Assumption to a dogma was in some sense a response to certain historical philosophies at work amongst Catholics. Many of the Eastern churches have to do this day remained critical of Rome’s decision to do this. On the other hand, some of those who remain critical have themselves fallen under the spell of the “historical standard”. In fact, I have heard noted Eastern scholars reduce liturgical feasts concerning the Theotokos to mere ideologies. For instance, the feast of the Theotokos entering the Temple has been reduced by some to a teaching about her holiness instead of an actual real event. To me, such a reduction runs counter to liturgical theology. Our liturgical feasts are not ideas but are in fact real events that we participate in through grace. They might not make the standard that certain scholars use for history but they are from a history that transcends the boundaries of human limitations. I don’t think it’s necessary to make every feast of the Theotokos a dogma. What I do think is necessary is a renewal in the understanding of what salvation history is.
     In our modern world there is no census on how history is done. Today we might believe that Alexander the Great conquered most of the ancient world but 50yrs from now new research might prove something else. Historical events are constantly being subject to the historians and their research. This doesn’t mean that modern history is not reliable but it does demonstrate its limits. One thing for certain that modern history cannot do is to tell us what God has done in the world. For this we need a different form of history and history that has no limits, which is salvation history. In salvation history the mysteries that pertain to our faith are not communicated in the same way we might receive history in a secular classroom. It is not subject to methods, critiques, or chronological presentation. It comes to us through an experience of God and this experience is communicated from person to person. As a result, it would not matter if there was a million years of oral tradition that predated what was written about the Dormition. The history is guided and communicated by God and it is by grace that we can participate in the history of this communication.
     As far as secular history is concerned there are no doubt patterns of data that can be seen as sources for the feast of the Dormition. However, even if the patterns gave detailed accounts going back to the actual events of the Theotokos falling asleep we would not be able to escape the risk of having to put faith in something we can’t prove. Intellectual certitude about any aspect of faith always comes at a price and we must be willing to trust God that He is leading us into truth. As the scripture teaches faith is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things unseen (Heb. 11:1), it is not intellectual certitude achieved by scientific means. This doesn’t mean that what we believe in is irrational but it does mean that we have to maintain an active hope in the faithfulness of God. In my own life I have heard many arguments that tried to prove my faith wrong. To those that challenged me I think the only real thing I had to offer them was how my life has changed by following what I believe. Most of the time that’s all what people really want to see when they don’t understand our traditions.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

99 Ways to Become a God

     Throughout the Internet there are many self-help manuals published by various religious groups. Some of these manuals start with “99 ways to”. I thought it would be appropriate to hijack this title from them, since a great deal of these religious groups hijack the terminology of my Church. I speak mainly in reference to the Catholic Church’s teaching on deification. When it comes to deification, the Catechism of the Catholic Church eloquently teaches: “For the Son of God became man so that we might become God (CCC460)”. Unfortunately, for many Catholics, to use such terminology would make you a heretic. In fact, as someone often accused of this heresy, I have had to personally point out what it says in the CCC above to Catholics but even then they want to compromise the meaning. They would rather say it means that “we are one with God” or that “we become like Him” because they are uncomfortable with the truth. Of course, their apprehensiveness is understandable do to the fact that there are many religious groups that teach deification. In contrast, among those groups, that have hijacked our terminology, none of them teaches deification in the way the Catholic Church does.
     To some degree I understand the fear expressed by some Catholics when they hear about deification. Growing up without organized religion I was exposed to various religious ideas that included deification. In fact, there was an organization up the street from where I lived called the Church of Today. If you went to one of their services you would get the chance to sing hymns by the Beatles and hear preaching that proclaimed that we are all God. Consequently, upon becoming a Christian I had to make sharp distinctions between the false teachings that influenced my thinking before I knew Christ. However, what the Church teaches is easily distinguished compared to other religious groups. Most often when the terminology for deification is used by those outside of the Church it implies the natural state of humanity. For example, the Mormons who use the same terminology will teach that we become gods because that’s what we already are. Likewise, those who throw around the term in other religions groups use it in a way that makes divinity a natural state. On the other hand, the Catholic Church has always maintained that divinity is not something natural to humanity. Even though we “become God” it is always through participation in God and not something from our nature. As Christians, we are called to participate in the divine nature and at no point do we become the source of it (2peter 1:14).
     Looking back throughout Church history, many Fathers openly taught deification. For instance, it was St. Athanasius that gave us the phrase, “God became man so that man could become God”. Notice he did not say “becomes one with God” or “like God”. As an act of grace we actually become real children of the Father. This is something we receive through adoption and not something we are born with. Through the generosity of our Father we are given the chance to eternally become what God is, which always remains dependent on our participation and is not something that is natural to us. As far as what's natural is concerned we are no different than a rock in the sense that we are a creation. However, unlike a rock God has graced us with ability to participate eternally in everything that He is. Based on this, deification should be at the center of our Catholic faith and not something we fear.
     As a Catholic, I think it’s time to take back our terminology from the captors and start again to boldly proclaim it. Our teaching on deification is in many ways the heart of the Gospel! It’s so important that Saint John Paul II, proclaimed it to be "the deepest mystery of the Christian vocation" and "the culminating point of the mystery of our Christian life”. We should not be afraid of what is natural ours. The consequences for not embracing this teaching obviously would offer something less than what God wants for us. As I said, I can understand an apprehensiveness on the part of some Catholics but we are all obligated to conform our thinking to the truth.


Friday, June 13, 2014

Explaining the Aerial Toll-Houses

     During our entire life we are caught up in a battle with the kingdom of darkness. We don’t always see these powers that assail us but the effects are real and devastating. Concerning this invisible battle the apostle Paul tells us, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms (Ephesians 6:12 NIV)”.As the Apostle points out we do not see these forces so we respond to this battle in a different way. However, when our physical body dies we will get a chance to see these forces that work against us. Consequently, it is essential that we continually make ourselves ready for that battle that will be face to face. Concerning this final battle, there are many traditions that have developed in the Church, one in particular is the Byzantine tradition of the Ariel Toll-Houses.
      The Byzantine tradition of the Ariel Toll-Houses remains an obscure tradition, but it is also an important one. Some of the obscurity has led to controversy in our modern time in some Eastern churches. In wishing to renew this tradition some have made the mistake of a literal interpretation of what many Church fathers have said on the subject. The results of this have been the equivalent of a Dante’s Purgatorio where Christians get prodded with pitch forks by demons on the way up to God. Just like the medieval fantasies, which unfortunately still prevail, this understanding of the Toll-Houses is a radical departure from the New Testament. However, when approaching the tradition with discernment we can discover something beneficial about the process of death or final Theosis.
      Some of the fathers of the Church in explaining the Toll-Houses have done so in terms of the divine economy. For example, St. Diadochos of Photiki in the Philokalia teaches that if maintain our love for the Lord our soul is “ freely to pass by the rulers of the nether world(Volume I, p. 295)”.  Here the saint speaks of encountering demons and going through a nether world. This of course is nothing less then what the Master himself experienced when he died on the cross. When Christ died he was subject to whatever the powers of darkness threw at him and experienced the realms that confine the dead, but these things had no power over Him. Just like the Master at death we too will experience what He went through and with the same victory. Speaking about this journey of the soul at death St. Andrew of Crete says that our souls pass through “that obscure place, but they do not dwell in it”(pg .93 Life after Death by Metropolitan Hierotheos) .  This transition here becomes the content of what some fathers have addressed in their understanding of the Toll-Houses. In this matter, much of what the fathers emphasize is that we must strive to make ourselves ready for the final experience of Theosis.
     Concerning the content of how some fathers understood Toll-Houses its based mostly on how much we have integrated ourselves into the life of Grace. For them, at death there remains a distance between us and final rest in God based on how we participated in the Divine nature before death. Some of this distance will constitute whatever final struggles we will face with those powers that we have fought during our earthly struggle. Sometimes it is described as legal battle where angles guide us amongst the demons who hurl allegations of sin. For example, a monk named  St. Boniface says the following of what he experienced at death, “the holy angels had a violent dispute concerning the souls that had come forth from their bodies, the demons bringing charges against them and aggravating the burden of their sins, the angels lightening the burden and making excuses for them(pp 25-27. The Soul After Death, by Fr. Seraphim Rose).” In contrast, no one can know for sure how the toll-houses are experienced after death. The essence of the tradition points to a struggle that we must all face at death and the importance of striving for holiness in this life.
     Another way of looking at this tradition is from the perspective of someone who has done a horrible job in fighting the powers that be and who has fallen into sin many times. I speak mostly for myself here and glancing quickly at what many fathers have taught I believe my future battle at death doesn’t look good right now. On the other hand, I think there is a mystery here that many neglect in sharing this tradition of the Toll-Houses. Even in failure in this life at no point are we abandoned by God. It is His hope that we overcome and He continues to work toward that end. In working toward that end he doesn’t remove the obstacles that he wishes for us to overcome since in overcoming them we grow in our relationship with Him. Based on this, I understand the Toll-Houses as that final grace where we get the chance to overcome. We get to fight the evil that once held us down and victory at this time will be gloriously achieved in Christ.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Follow the Pope on This

      In the recent common declaration ,signed by Pope Francis with the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the Catholic Church received a powerful statement. When speaking about the theological dialogue undertaken by the Joint International Commission the declaration says, “This is no mere theoretical exercise, but an exercise in truth and love that demands an ever deeper knowledge of each other’s traditions in order to understand them and to learn from them. Thus we affirm once again that the theological dialogue does not seek a theological lowest common denominator on which to reach a compromise, but is rather about deepening one’s grasp of the whole truth that Christ has given to his Church, a truth that we never cease to understand better as we follow the Holy Spirit’s promptings”.   After reading this statement it should be pretty clear to Catholics that these dialogues mentioned are done in the context of Orthodox and Catholics belonging to the same One Church. In other words, no church involved (Rome or Constantinople) has the intention of converting the other through the dialogues. As the common declaration emphasized it is, “about deepening one’s grasp of the whole truth that Christ has given to his Church.” Obviously, by not properly grasping “the whole truth” in the past we now have some of the divisions we do in the Church.
     As I have said many times, those churches in communion with Rome and those churches in communion with Constantinople are “sister Churches”. These churches might be in some sense estranged sisters but they are sisters none the less and that of the One Mother.  Speaking of this bond Saint John Paul II said the following, “For centuries we lived this life of 'Sister Churches', and together held Ecumenical Councils which guarded the deposit of faith against all corruption. And now, after a long period of division and mutual misunderstanding, the Lord is enabling us to discover ourselves as 'Sister Churches' once more, in spite of the obstacles which were once raised between us (UT UNUM SINT 57)”. It is unfortunate that the saint’s invitation to discover the reality of sisterhood has often been met with hostility. Of course, the discovery that he is offering challenges an experience and understanding of the Church that many have. It seems that for some they are more comfortable with having the divisions outside of the realm that might affect their own salvation. Unfortunately, if these people expressing hostility fail to embrace the saint’s call to discovery they will in some ways estrange themselves from the Church in which the sisters belong.
     I can’t speak for others but I have no trouble as a Catholic proclaiming that the sister churches (Orthodox & Catholic) belong to the One Church. In fact, the common declaration signed by the Pope and the Ecumenical Patriarch gives me even more reason to do so. As usual, I know there will be hostilities toward me for making this proclamation. However, this time no one can claim that I am going against Catholic teaching in doing so. As a Catholic I am free, with the pope, to embrace the work of the Joint International Commission that seeks the reestablishment of Full visible communion within the One Church of Christ. As the recent common declaration signed by Pope Francis teaches I am to “follow the Holy Spirit’s promptings” and I most certainly can discover the “whole truth that Christ has given to his Church” with the help of the Joint International Commission. In fact, I think all Catholics should follow their pope in this. The sooner we realize that we are one, the sooner we will overcome what divides us.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Deacons Challenge

     A few weeks ago I had the chance to gather with my fellow Eastern Catholics for our Eastern Encounter. I found all the speakers at the event inspiring but there is one that I still can’t get out of my mind (Fr. Dn.Sabatino Carnazzo) .He basically asked why would God want to send people to our Eastern Churches and then demonstrated in many ways that our churches have become clubs instead of places of discipleship. At the time of his talk I was reminded of the words of a Byzantine priest who said that after many years of ministry in his parish he feels like he is preaching to the living dead. There is no doubt a problem of discipleship in many of our Eastern churches and without discipleship a church dies a slow death. After sharing all the bad news on this issue the deacon offered a remedy. He said, “If you want to see your church on fire than you need to set yourself on fire”.  These words I still can’t get out of my head and I know if I am going to be any help to my church than I need to change.
     In St. Gregory of Nyssa’s great catechetical oration, when speaking about baptism, he made some powerful claims. Basically, he says that baptism does virtually nothing to our human nature unless we are striving to know God. He boldly makes a claim that the mystery becomes just water if our lives are not being personally transformed through repentance. I can’t help to think in a similar when remembering how the deacon described our Eastern Churches. Instead of our churches being places where people become divinized, in some cases, they could be considered just places with a divinized theme. A church is the center for divinizing the world but if the people are not continuing to divinize themselves, through discipleship, the effectiveness of the church is disrupted. Just like St. Gregory’s analysis of the waters of baptism unless the people of our churches strive to be disciples of Jesus Christ the churches become just buildings where we hang out every Sunday.
     According to Elder Sophrony, "Christianity in its true dimensions has never yet been properly grasped by the great mass of people”. Thinking about what the deacon said about our churches lacking disciples puts the Elders words in context. Some of us might even be surprised that there are people in our churches that don’t even know what discipleship means. Thankfully, to the problems being discussed here there is some good news, which is that we don’t have to go far to convert people, Traditionally evangelization would take us outside of the church but there are a great deal of people in our own churches who don’t know Jesus Christ. They might have heard about him their whole lives but they have not been properly introduced to Him through Christian discipleship.
     Obviously, when it comes to discipleship this is something that does not come natural to us. It is much easier to never miss a Sunday Liturgy than to engage in ongoing discipleship. Even the Apostles who were taught directly by the Master found themselves falling short in discipleship when the Lord was crucified. In fact, many of them could not recognize the Lord after the resurrection. Something  had to happen to them in order for them to engage in a discipleship that ended for many of them in death, which was the coming of the Holy Spirit. Many of us have been initiated into the mysteries that grant us the Holy Spirit but for some reason the power remains dormant. As St Gregory of Nyssa would emphasize the Spirit remains dormant until through synergy or by our own effort we approach God. The good thing is that God is not holding anything back, since through the Church He has given everything that He is. It is more or less on our part why we are lacking the power to be true disciples. 
     Even St. Symeon the  New Theologian recognized that there are some of us who have yet to experience the power given by the Holy Spirit. For instance, he invited his own monks, people who were no doubt involved in the Church for sometime, to, "come, bow and fall down together with me and do not rise until you have received the gift of God, as I, who am unworthy, have received this gift of grace".Like St. Symeon the New Theologian I sometimes find myself, as I did after hearing the deacons challenge, asking God to fill my heart with His power to change. I love my church but if I am not changing through ongoing discipleship how can I expect them to be disciples. I thank God that He doesn’t stop giving and I know that if I keep seeking Him there will be an endless supply of His grace. Maybe you are reading this and for the first time you see something in your relationship with Christ lacking. If there is something lacking I encourage you to start asking God for help and I guarantee you that your life will never be the same. If it were not for the grace of God none of us could be disciples but at the same time we are only disciples if we embrace the grace that God provides.