Book Review: For the Life of the World

The man above died five years before I was born, and until recently his primary influence on my life came in the form of books that my dad owned but I never touched and in the voice of his son-in-law, the soundtrack to any long car ride with my dad.

Fr. Alexander Schmemann was an Orthodox priest, a writer, and a professor. He is probably best known for serving as Dean of St. Vladimir Orthodox Theological Seminary-best known as St. Vlad’s. Additionally, he is known for his 1963 work, For the Life of the World. (SVS Link) It is that book that brings me to write this post.

This post isn’t a true book review. Rather, this is me telling commanding you to read this book. For the Life of the World discusses approaching living in the world through the Liturgy of the Eastern Church. He draws out the flaws that the Eastern viewpoint finds in both the Western Christian approach and the secular approach to the world. He then answers these flaws and offers the Eastern response to these flaws. The East views the world through the Sacraments. He explains in detail how the Eastern Churches approach life, living, and dying.

Reading this was an incredibly moving experience for me. As I read, I took extensive notes in my prayer journal and began attempting to better incorporate the philosophy presented into my daily life, into my prayer life, and especially into my liturgical experience. Time and again, I was struck by the relevance of a 53-year-old book to my life in 2016.

In an odd way, I find that the “Ancient Faith” speaks well to the 21st century. The Ancient Faith has not changed much in the past 2,000 years, but in that it has a great deal to offer to the 21st century. Fr. Schmemann may not be able to give me point-by-point directions for how to live in the modern epoch, but he does offer me a change in viewpoint. The Eastern viewpoint may be ancient. It may not have changed much in 2,000 years. But then, human nature hasn’t really changed much in that time either. Fr. Schmemann looks at that idea and reminds us that the Sacraments are given to us to transform us, to bring us into heaven, into the Presence of and the life of the Life of the World.

If I had to summarize the themes of this book in two words they would be transformation and joy.

As I said, it is completely worthwhile. So read it. Now.

“A Christian is the one who, wherever s/he looks, finds Christ and rejoices in Him. And this joy transforms all his/her human plans and programs, decisions and actions, making all his/her mission the sacrament of the world’s return to Him who is the Life of the world.”

Amazon

St. Vlad’s Press

Ecumenism is Uncomfortable.

A few months ago, I wrote about ecumenism as a hard call. I talked about a few of the difficulties of living with the reality of Christ’s broken Body.

Recently, I’ve found myself confronting a very specific aspect of the lack of Christian unity. It might sound petty. It might sound odd. But for me it is something that I run up against on a near daily basis.

Ecumenism is uncomfortable. 

I really started confronting this in myself a few months ago. One of my dearest friends was getting married, and I was to stand up in her wedding. She and her now-husband are Roman Catholic; I’m Byzantine Catholic. They are devout Catholics who I know to have strong prayer lives, strong relationships with Jesus. I was happy that they were marrying.

But as the wedding drew closer, I had to confront something about the wedding liturgy and (more so) about myself. A few people had tried to condole with me about the difficulties of being a happy bridesmaid while feeling hopelessly single. But the reality was that I wasn’t jealous of my friend’s big day. Now, much of that is due to my love of her, but a bit of it also has to do with the fact that I do not want the wedding that she had. I want a traditional Byzantine wedding, and that isn’t what my friend had. Her wedding came and went; it was a beautiful celebration of the couple’s love for the Lord and for one another. But it was also a wedding that made me uncomfortable.

The wedding was very Western as is meet and just. They are Roman Catholics. It made sense that their wedding would reflect their faith tradition. And that meant that it didn’t look like my tradition. They took vows. They knelt. Guys, I had to kneel during the wedding liturgy. I was uncomfortable. As an Eastern Christian, I don’t kneel during liturgies. I love that my faith tradition allows me to make a profound bow during the consecration. Kneeling is a sign of humility, and I don’t object to it. But it is not my tradition.

I wasn’t in my tradition. I wasn’t in my “home space,” but rather I was a guest in my friends’ tradition. And we all know that the old saying says, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” So I chose love. I did something that made me uncomfortable. I don’t love kneeling during a liturgy, but that is Roman tradition. Our liturgies are different, and some of those differences can make me a little uncomfortable. I’m sure that my friends feel the same way in my church. It’s okay to be uncomfortable or to not understand a friend’s tradition.

Ecumenism calls us to love and respect our Christian brothers regardless of their traditions. This doesn’t meant that we live our shared lives boiled down to the common denominator(s). It means that we love one another actively. It means that we embrace what we share. We have a common Eucharist? Great, let’s celebrate that. We have a common Easter? Let’s find a way to celebrate together. We both really love St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians? Let’s talk about that.

Ecumenism also means that we need to learn about our differences and accept them. We can’t just shove them under the rug and pretend that they aren’t there. We need to work through them. Every now and again, I have very selfish moments in which I think that it would be better if I never married because none of my (maybe-possibly-someday) bridesmaids will be Eastern Christians and thereby will have no clue how to participate in my wedding liturgy. If I don’t marry, none of us will have to deal with awkward details like proper reception of the Eucharist or why there are no vows or whether to bow or genuflect. If I don’t get married, everyone will be spared a whole host of uncomfortable moments arising from ecumenical differences.

But at the same time, isn’t it important for us to see our differences? If we see them, then we can discuss them. We can talk about why there aren’t vows in the Byzantine wedding service and why they exist in the Roman service. We can talk about the differences between kneeling and standing during the consecration, the differences between bowing and genuflecting. These discussions can provide deeper understanding both of one’s own faith tradition and of those of friends. We can learn from one another and grow closer to unity through those moments.

The Lord calls us to unity. He does not call us to be a batch of perfect cookie-cutter Christians. On the eve of his Sacrifice, he did not pray that we would all be exactly the same. He prayed, rather, that we would be one as the Trinity is one. Each member of the Trinity is unique, and so we are called not to a unity of sameness but to a unity of diversity. This is hard. This requires being uncomfortable. But if we do this, then we can be a Church in whom the Father can rest well pleased.

So let’s embrace the uncomfortable, and let’s do it for love.

Behold, how good and how pleasant it is
For brethren to dwell together in unity!

It is like the precious oil upon the head,
Running down on the beard,
The beard of Aaron,
Running down on the edge of his garments.
It is like the dew of Hermon,
Descending upon the mountains of Zion;
For there the Lord commanded the blessing—
Life forevermore.

-Psalm 133

Why Should I Pray for the Great and Holy Synod?

So you’re not Orthodox. That’s not your background or your profession. You’ve heard that the Orthodox Churches are having a big and important meeting coming up soon. (It starts tomorrow-Sunday, June 19.) Maybe you’ve had a friend suggest that you pray for it. But you’re sitting there thinking that doesn’t seem worth your while. Why should I as a non-Orthodox person pray for a meeting that won’t impact me?

There are many things that I could say, but I keep coming back to one word: love. Christ calls us to love one another as he loves us. (John 13:34) I may not be a member of the Orthodox Church, but I share a common belief with them in the Risen Lord Jesus. I have a special fondness for them as my brother (and sister) Eastern Christians. They are my brothers and sisters in the Lord. I am called to love them. We are all called to love them.

Prayer is, as the late Madeleine L’Engle once said, an act of love. When we pray for others, we are demonstrating our love towards them. I don’t know what the Synod holds for my Orthodox brothers, but I know that the Lord has called them to this moment. It’s a big moment; they haven’t done anything like this in over 1200 years. Think about that; they haven’t done anything like this since before the Great Schism. It’s massively important in terms of the work of God among His people.

Now it appears that four of the churches will not be attending. They are calling for the council to be postponed, but Patriarch Bartholomew says that’s not an option. The council will continue, and any and all decisions will be enforced regardless of who attends or doesn’t attend. With this in mind, our brothers need prayers even more. They are making decisions for their Churches in a difficult hour. They need wisdom and grace from the Holy Spirit. They need our love and our support. At this juncture, the best way that we can do that is through our prayers.

We are called to love our Orthodox brothers and sister as St. Peter and St. Andrew loved one another. Let’s support them in prayer. Let’s pray for each of the bishops who will be there. Pray for Patriarch Bartholomew who will be leading his brother bishops. Also pray for those Patriarchs who have chosen to not attend. Pray that God will bring peace and unity among the Orthodox Churches and among all Christians.

St. Andrew, St. George, St. Nicholas, St. Basil the Great, St. John Chrysostom, St. Francis of Assisi, and Sts. Vladimir and Olga, pray for the Great and Holy Synod. Pray for unity among all Christians!

What I Do Not Fear

I’ve just finished a revisit to C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy at the moment, and it resonated with me in an interesting way. I’m an American who has never been particularly thrilled with the current state of our political system. (I’m also frustrated with the fact that the human race is fallible and fallen and imperfect. I’m really looking forward to heaven; the government there is going to be awesome.)

However, as folks around me have been rushing to concern about the election, I’ve been trying to keep my eyes focused on the fact that while this does matter, it isn’t actually the Biggest Deal in the History of the World. The theoretical election of either Hillary Clinton or Drumpf will neither end the world nor will it save the world. Humanity has been in bad spots before. We’ll find ourselves in bad spots again. We’re definitely in a better place than the characters in That Hideous Strength find themselves.

And as I read that book, I’ve been reminded of something. The real struggle is not the political struggle between two (or more) parties. It isn’t between a few powerful individuals. Fairy Hardcastle is not nearly as dangerous as the power behind N.I.C.E. Lord Feverstone is made dangerous by the Power that controls him. The Director (aka Ransom) is good because of the Power that he has chosen to serve.

Similarly, in our world, the real struggle is between The Ruler of the Present Age and the Ruler of the World to Come. Our hope does not rest in Washington D.C. No American politician can save our souls. Only Jesus Christ can do that. As St. Paul puts it, our struggle “is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 6:12)

Yes, what happens in this life matters. We need to make good and wise choices. We want good leaders, but we can’t count on politicians to save us. We need to live lives that are focused not on this world but on the next. “If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were precisely those who thought most of the next. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this.” (C.S. Lewis) Our hope is not here on earth. Our goal is not here.

The goal, the hope is heaven. Yes, we will face difficulties in our earthly lives. So have all of those who have come before us in faith. Jesus told us that it wouldn’t be easy. “ I have told you this so that you might have peace in me. In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world.” (John 16:33) We do need to pray for our political leaders. We do need to make wise choices politically. But we do not need to worry. The Master of the Universe has conquered the World. We may face hard times. We may have governments that we do not like. But in the end, the Good and Just Judge awaits us.

Why You Should Visit an Eastern Church

I’ve been trying to invite some of my Roman Catholic friends to attend a Byzantine Divine Liturgy during the Easter season. I think that it’s really important for Roman Catholics to experience the traditions of their Eastern brothers and sisters. I grew up hearing my dad say (quoting one of his seminary professors) that Roman Catholics should attend a Byzantine Divine Liturgy so that they would understand what was going on when they got to heaven. I wouldn’t go around saying that to my friends, but I do have a few reasons why it is important for Roman Catholics to experience a Byzantine Liturgy.

Annunciation Byzantine Catholic Church in Homer Glen, Illinois

The word “catholic” means universal. The Catholic Church is not meant to be a set of cookie-cutter people who always look and act the same. Rather, it is intended to be a sign of what St. John Paul II called “diversity in unity” to the world. We as Eastern Catholics are called to a very present part of that. All Catholics (really, all Christians) are called to be lights of a unity through faith and love. To do this, we must come to understand the different branches of the Catholic Church. It is not enough for a Roman Catholic to only attend the Roman Catholic Mass or for a Byzantine Catholic to only attend the Byzantine Liturgy. We must partake in each other’s services. We must interact lovingly and respectfully with Catholics who are not from our Church.

Our Churches are not only for our own people but are also for any of our fellow Americans who are attracted to our traditions which show forth the beauty of the universal Church and the variety of its riches.

-Archbishop Joseph Tawil in “The Courage to be Ourselves”

It has been over 950 years since the Great Schism. We need to work towards a loving unity between East and West. Now, the average layperson can’t influence great change, but we can work towards better understanding among ourselves. It is important to know and understand one another’s traditions. The best way to understand the Eastern traditions is to encounter them. To that end, I would recommend that any Roman Catholic who is able visit an Eastern Catholic parish for a Divine Liturgy. (See the bottom of this article for a list of links to some of the American Eastern Catholic Eparchies’ websites.) You can’t really start to understand or appreciate something until you encounter it.

No witness perhaps better brings to light the Catholicity of the Church of God in a more admirable manner than the unique homage which is rendered to it by the differing ceremonies and the noble ancient languages all made more venerable by their use by the Apostles and Fathers.

-Pope Leo XIII “Orientalium Dignitas”

If you encounter the traditions of the other Catholic Churches, you’re doing what Jesus wanted you to do and what people like St. John Paul II thought you should do. On the eve of his Passion, Jesus prayed the unity of his followers. He prayed not only for the twelve good Jewish boys who were about to turn the world on its ear, but he also prayed for all who would come after them. If we only focus on our own traditions, we are not fully embracing that unity. Jesus prayed that we would be one as the Trinity is one. (John 17:20-23) Jesus didn’t pray that we would ignore one another or exclude one another. He did not pray that we would criticize one another or force others to assimilate to our traditions. Rather, he prayed that we would be one as the Trinity is one so that the world will know that the Father had sent the Son into the world. We need to embrace one another.

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His Beatitude Sviatoslav, the Major Archbishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, and Pope Francis

If those two can hang out, so can we. Those two became friends when they were both in Buenos Aires. Now, they’re the heads of their respective Churches. They still get on with one another. Friendships between Christians of different traditions can be a sign of unity. We need to view each other as brothers and not as competition. We don’t have to agree on everything, but we do need to love one another. Just because you pray the Rosary and I don’t, that doesn’t make us enemies. You may say that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son; I do not say that. There are divisions between us, but we also have a great deal of common ground. What unites us is far greater than what divides us. We both believe that Jesus Christ is physically present in the Eucharist. We are able to receive the Eucharist in one another’s churches even if it doesn’t look or taste the same. We all believe that Jesus Christ is the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, the Messiah who came into the world for the salvation of the world. We need to embrace that while celebrating our differences.

The Sacred Congregation has for its office and duty to uphold and foster as much as possible the venerable Oriental liturgies and to preserve them in their integrity and purity.

-Pope Benedict XV

So go to an Eastern Catholic Church. Heck, go to an Orthodox Church. Experience the liturgy. Ask questions. It will be different from what you’re used to, but that is okay. Going to a Roman Mass is different from what I’m used to, but I still go to Roman Masses when that is my best option or when it is an opportunity to support a friend in doing something beautiful.

St. Elias the Prophet in Brampton, Ontario

Here’s the bottom line. Jesus wants his Church to be one. He wants his Church to reflect the diverse unity of the Trinity. There is great beauty in our unity, and it pains the Father when we are divided from one another. I can honestly say that the disunity in our Churches causes me pain. John Paul II spoke of the need for the Church to breathe with her two lungs-East and West. Embrace these two lungs. Learn about your brothers and sisters. Come to an Eastern Liturgy. I can promise you that you will not regret it. You might even love it. St. Vladimir’s emissaries who visited the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople said that during the Divine Liturgy they knew not whether they were on heaven or on earth. Please come taste heaven on earth.


Notes:

I found the text of Archbishop Tawil’s “The Courage to Be Ourselves” on the Eparchy of Newton’s website.

This is the website for Annunciation Byzantine Catholic Church in Homer Glen. It is a beautiful church and a wonderful parish.

I included an image of St. Elias the Prophet’s building and a video filmed in that building. However, this building burned down about two years ago, and the parish is in the process of building a new Temple. However, that parish has one of my favorite YouTube channels, which happens excellent for learning more about Eastern Catholicism.

Links:

Eparchy of Parma (Ruthenian)

Eparchy of Parma (Ukrainian)

Archeparchy of Pittsbugh (Ruthenian)

Eparchy of Passaic (Ruthenian)

Eparchy of Phoenix (Ruthenian)

Eparchy of Newton (Melkite)

Eparchy of Philadelphia (Ukrainian)

The Beauty in Weakness

I’m not perfect.

I know. It’s shocking, right? A human being who isn’t perfect? Who could believe that?

Oh. Wait. Right…

I’m human. I’m not perfect. Sometimes I don’t do things right the first time. I screw up. I fail. I don’t do what I should do and I do what what I shouldn’t do.

This afternoon, I was thinking about three situations from the past few weeks in which I have felt weak or have shown weakness. One was a situation in which I had something wrong and needed to rectify the situation in some way. One was a situation in which I was in over my head and needed help. The third was a situation where I admitted that I was struggling with a variety of things at this point in my life.

The thing that I realized as I reflected on these situations is that our society does not have much use for weakness. We like strength. We like heroes. We don’t like failure. We like to believe in ourselves. We don’t like to admit when we’ve done something wrong, but we do like to point out what others have done wrong. We’re human. We like to be right. We like to have things together-or at least look like we do. We like to be in control.

But we’re not in control. We don’t have it all together. We aren’t always strong. We’re human. We aren’t perfect. We aren’t always wise. And yet, we struggle with weakness. Seeing weakness either in ourselves or in others can be difficult. It is a reminder that we are fallible beings.

In one of the situations I referenced earlier, the person did not want to hear about my weakness; she merely wanted to move past the situation. For me, this was hurtful because I had mentally prepared myself to admit my weakness and explain what I did, but she did not want that. I have to accept that. The situation is closed. I don’t know why she was unwilling to hear my explanation, but that does not matter. There are two lessons for me in this situation: Treat others better than I want to be treated and don’t repeat the mistake that got me into this situation.

The other two situations involved admitting my weakness to two different people who I know well enough to know that they are both women of strong faith. In one situation, the person chose to meet my practical needs in the moment. In the other, the person offered to pray with me in that moment. They acknowledged my weakness. They saw that there were things that they could do for me.

Those were both moments of grace for me. I saw Christ in those two women. He was using them. I acknowledged my weakness, and he filled in the gaps. He is God. He is strong. I’m human. I’m weak. But when I acknowledge that weakness, he can act through it. He can act through me. That’s the beauty of weakness. God can take our weaknesses and our brokennesses and turn them into moments of grace. It’s okay to be weak because weakness offers God a window to act.

“And He has said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.’ Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.”

-2 Corinthians 12:9

Would God give me something I can’t handle?

I recently heard a man I respect say, “People often say that God won’t give you anything that you can’t handle. I don’t think that is true. I think that God won’t give you anything that he can’t handle.”

I agree with that, and I’ve been thinking about it in respect to my own life. I’ve had a particularly difficult (from my own perspective) go of it the past two years. I’ve had things that I loved taken away from me. I have willingly walked away from things that I once thought that I wanted. My life has changed dramatically, and it hasn’t always been something that I’ve wanted or enjoyed. I’ve had to be brave and strong in times and in ways that I would have preferred to avoid. I’ve had a few people tell me that they admire how strong and brave and capable I’ve shown myself to be, but I struggle taking those compliments.

I struggle with them largely because I’m not getting through this on my own strength. On my own, I am not strong or brave or graceful or gracious. My own natural inclination is often to get angry or cry; I have cried many times in all of this. I’ve acted against my inclination too many times to believe that the reason that I’m getting through this on my own power. When people see me being brave or strong, that’s God working in me and through me. He’s getting me through this; he’s handling it. I don’t understand what he’s doing, but I know that he’s in control. I don’t know where we’re going. I don’t know what will happen on the way. But I do know who is driving.

My natural inclinations send me to some pretty dark places. And those dark places are part of the reason that I struggle with the idea that God wouldn’t bring me to something that I couldn’t handle. On my own, I struggle to believe that anything good could ever come from my current circumstances. I struggle to believe that I could ever have good things. I doubt that my job situation will ever improve, that I will ever have joy.

This situation is more than I can handle. In fact, it is far more than I can handle. But it is not more than God can handle. The goal is not for me to become stronger on my own. The goal isn’t for me to handle this on my own. The goal is for me to hand this over to the Lord each day and get through the day on his grace, on his strength, on his power. I’m not supposed to get me through the day. He is supposed to do it. He didn’t bring me to this season of my life to make me into Superwoman. He brought me to this season of my life to teach me to surrender to him and to teach me to allow him to be in control. He who walked on the stormy Sea of Galilee can handle this season of my life. He can handle all seasons of my life, and he won’t give me anything in any of those seasons that he cannot handle.

I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.

-Philippians 4:13