Gratifying

I’ve just returned from the mainland and I am able to say that I was gratified. The trip itself was nothing to write home about, but the interactions that I observed between people of differing races and ethnicities were gratifying. My wife and I traveled to Detroit, Atlanta and Charleston for the first three of many stops which later included Phoenix and Tucson. Those first three cities have large populations of what is now necessary to call “African Americans”. With no intention to prove a point one way or the other, I witnessed a reassuring phenomenon: black and white people getting along as though there were no difference in the colors of their skin or the features of their physiognomy. The same was true for the personal interactions of native-born Americans with immigrants whose English is sometimes hard to understand. And, there are a lot of them in our ever-boiling melting pot. A lot of people have come to our shores to seek opportunity.

Black and white hands joined together

From Detroit, we moved on to Atlanta and stayed in a hotel run by a black staff. The guest services were very helpful. Then we hopped on down to the coast and checked into a hotel in Charleston. A foursome was having breakfast at the table next to ours. Three whites and one black were having a good old time together. I talked to the very dark young lady behind the front desk there about the tenor of race relations in the nation. I asked her, “Our president says that America a systemically racist country. Do you agree with him?” She paused and considered the question. Then she said with soft confidence, “No.”

We flew back to Detroit, where my wife had to get a Covid test done in short order before her flight to East Asia. We had no wheels, no knowledge of the city, and it was colder than cold for us tropic dwellers. Our ride share was driven by a guy called Jamel, an “army brat” turned entrepreneur. He and his wife own a transportation company. Without his dedication to good customer service, and his willingness to go the extra mile, we might never have found the right sort of clinic for the Covid test. While in the car, I told Jamel about how pleasantly surprised I was that people of differing races seemed to be getting along so well. He chuckled and said, “Yeah. We get along just fine.”

At the airport in Detroit waiting for the flight to the warm desert, I saw a black woman was busily manning the podium. “Are you all alone today?” I asked as I boarded the plane. She was demonstrably gratified that someone noticed she was by herself and needed help.

Mind you, these are nothing but anecdotal observations of race relations at ground level, where the rubber meets the road. I make no claim to scientific polling that would satisfy whatever objective standards they have in that field. But, I was gratified, and to me that is what counts. So what does this mean on a broader scale? If what I saw is representative of race relations across the board in our great nation, I would contend that the races really do get along. Am I naïve?

Bosom buddies

That raises the suspicion that the destructive forces from the dark side are constantly trying to disturb the relative tranquility between the races and stoke isolated incidents of racial tension into a raging fire of race hatred. And they do their best to magnify reportage of conflicts by getting coverage on the air, in the papers, and in the halls of government. If the focus comes in close on an incident of racial strife, then it can be blown out of proportion. They will even take a story like the Rittenhouse saga and twist it into a story about race if it will serve the purposes of their agenda. That is precisely what the charlatans need for expanded viewership, higher ratings and more advertising dollars.

What if their coverage is mostly illusion? Not all, perhaps, but mostly? What if it is true that, for the most part, people just approach each other as other people like themselves and treat them with the modicum of thoughtfulness that is called for in the moment? And, like Jamel, they go the extra mile to help a total stranger in a pickle. Then, the dark cynicism that ignores the decency and constantly tries to stir the pot is truly disturbing. Best to ignore it, and to oppose it when necessary.

John Calvin was an old curmudgeon whose first mistaken doctrine was the total depravity of man. Well, Calvin is long dead and the notion remains true that, while people are dogged by ancestral sin, they are mostly decent most of the time. And, for the sake of interpersonal relations on a day-to-day basis, that should be quite enough.

It’s Time to Go

For what it’s worth, I believe that it is time for all of us in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America (GOARCH) to leave our parishes. I myself will be gone by the end of the year. Most others will decide to stay, but it would behoove them to seek a change in leadership. The reasons that compel me and many people like me to leave are not trivial matters. In this article, I will list my primary reasons for leaving. These are not just subjective reasons, as though this problem were mine alone. Rather, they are objective reasons that should be persuasive enough to convince anyone that staying in the GOARCH is a fool’s errand at best or a matter of guilt by association at worst.

“To all things innovated and enacted contrary to the Church tradition, teaching, and institution of the holy and ever-memorable fathers, or to anything henceforth so enacted, ANATHEMA.”

Synodicon of the Holy Spirit

This may sound outrageous, but I submit that Patriarch Bartholomew has become a schismatic and a heretic. He didn’t always used to be one. In 1995, when Patriarch Bartholomew was still fresh on the throne, he made a statement that supported normative Orthodox church polity.

“This system of administration of the Church’s affairs, based on the joint responsibility and decentralization that our Orthodox Church applies, fundamentally explains the fact that as much as is humanly possible, she preserves the ancient tradition intact. Because, in the absence of centralized administration and responsibility, in order to introduce an innovation in teaching or praxis, this must be agreed upon by all the bishops…”

Patriarch Bartholomew

That was then, but times have changed.

Patriarch Bartholomew can now be called a heretic for one incontrovertible reason. His contention that the throne of the patriarchate of Constantinople is primus sine paribus violates Holy Tradition. When Rome seceded from the Orthodox Church a millennium ago, the see of Constantinople took first place on the diptychs. Since then, the whole Church has been content to honor the patriarch of that city as primus inter pares, i.e., “first amongst equals”.

Bartholomew’s recent contention, however, is an innovation that cannot pass muster with the wider Church. Orthodox Church polity is one of conciliarity. The episcopal hierarchs together rule the local churches in a spirit of collegiality, and the clergy and laity have a stake in their governance. The novel notion of primus sine paribus, i.e., that the patriarch of Constantinople is somehow “first without equal” is an offense to the canons that establish equality amongst Orthodox hierarchs and an insult to other patriarchs and prelates. 

Patriarch Bartholomew has been chastised by the monks on Mt. Athos.

Bartholomew has been thirty years on his gilded throne. Over that long period of time, he has changed his tune. By fiat he has arrogated unto himself near-papal powers. He seems to think that he is an Eastern pope in a confederation of Churches that repudiates papism. As such a potentate, he mistakenly thinks that he represents the plenum of the Orthodox world when he naturally sidles up to the man who is everywhere called Pope: Francis of Rome. God hasten the day, of course, when the Roman Catholics will be once again reunited with the Orthodox Church. However, there are glaring disagreements between the two communions that simply cannot be overlooked in the process toward reunion. The first is the existence of the papacy itself. It’s a false claim that any one man can somehow consider himself to be the vicar of Christ, one who has hegemony over all the Christians in the world. That is Rome’s claim for itself, but such a claim is preposterous! We Orthodox don’t have a pope, and we don’t need anyone other than Jesus Christ himself as head of the worldwide Church.

Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople greet a small crowd.

Then there is the laundry list of the other mistaken dogmas and doctrines that prevent the reunion of the Roman Catholics with the true Catholic and Orthodox Church. Number one is the filioque clause in the Nicene creed, the erroneous statement that the Holy Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son. By unilaterally inserting the filioque into the Creed, the pope claimed an authority equivalent to that of an ecumenical council. There are other theological problems that simply must be solved before a true and honest unity can be declared between the two communions. Until then, any unity with Rome will be nothing more than a Potemkin village – all show and no substance. Constantinople may even be subordinated to a uniate position like the Eastern Catholics. It seems that Bartholomew is an old man in a hurry to enter into a union with Francis without counting the costs for his patriarchal see and, indeed, the entire Orthodox Church.

Ukraine’s Philaret & Constantinople’s Bartholomew

Patriarch Bartholomew is also a schismatic. He opened Pandora’s box in January of 2019 by illegally granting a tomos of autocephaly to a band of Ukrainian schismatics, and for appointing prelates who are nothing of the sort. He reaped the whirlwind by this act of defiance against Metropolitan Onuphry’s Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Countless people have suffered the loss of their precious parishes, and some have even suffered physical violence. What shepherd would do that to another shepherd’s sheep? Ukraine has long since ceased to be Constantinople’s bailiwick, but Bartholomew has gone meddling in its internal affairs anyway. As an American, I am ashamed that our own department of state has made use of the patriarch’s influence in Eastern Europe to prop up Ukraine as a bulwark against Russian geopolitical advances. Shame on us for breaching the wall that should have separated state from Church. Shame on Bartholomew for violating the canonical prohibition against extramural exertions of influence in a metropolis that was long ago – three and a third centuries ago – ceded to the oversight of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). Now the ROC, which boasts 75% of the world’s Orthodox population, may soon cease recognition of Constantinople. The Church hasn’t experienced such a schism since the great one in 1054.

Archbishop Elpidophoros, being a loyal son of Patriarch Bartholomew, is also a heretic and a schismatic in my view.

Abp. Elpidophoros pontificating

Here is the primary reason that Elpidophoros is a heretic. It was he who made the spurious argument for Constantinople’s supremacy in the Orthodox world. In a misguided essay in 2014, he stated his hypothesis that Istanbul’s throne is primus sine paribus. To back that up, he assumed God the Father’s antiquity and supremacy over the other two persons of the Holy Trinity in an attempt to apply that metaphor to the prime authority of the Constantinopolitan throne over other patriarchates and metropolises. It does not work. The Athanasian Creed makes it crystal clear that the three persons of the Holy Trinity are coeternal and coequal, so using that argument to justify Bartholomew’s ambitions falls flat on its face. To deny that is heresy of the first order. Furthermore, his shoddy arguments betray Elpidophoros’ incompetence as a theologian. When the archbishop made his debut at our parish two years ago, I queried him on his hypothesis that Constantinople is first without equal, on Bartholomew’s Eastern papacy, and on his intrusions into Ukraine against the integrity of Metropolitan Onuphry’s Church. Elpidophoros had a rebuttal for every challenge, of course.

“One must not join in prayer with heretics or schismatics.”

Canon XXXIII of Laodicia

Elpidophoros is a schismatic. The most glaring example of that was his scandalous decision to celebrate the Holy Mystery of the Eucharist during Pride Month of this year in a blatantly unOrthodox house of worship, i.e. St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church. That was beyond the pale. What an abomination it was for him to place the holy antimins on the altar of a radical Protestant parish that not only tolerates the sexual licentiousness of the LGBTQ movement, but actually promotes it! As a cradle Episcopalian, a former Anglican priest, and a convert to Orthodoxy, I was utterly disgusted to read of such an abomination and to see him attempt to make nice with those who trample upon Biblical morality. Elpidophoros ill-advised stunt was an outrage.

St. Bart’s Episcopal Church, Manhattan

In a previous blog post, I reported on my recent pilgrimage to Orthodox sites along the West Coast. Over the course of a month, I was fortunate to be welcomed into parishes and monasteries of various Orthodox jurisdictions. I sought the opinions of the clergy and faithful along my way. One priest commented that the misguided conduct of the patriarch and the archbishop did not take away from the benefit of the Eucharist. That sort of sloppy thinking doesn’t hold water. We are not a Congregational communion, where each parish stands on its own, independent of a hierarchy. We are the Catholic Church, in the original sense. It is essential that we understand the import of this doctrine of ours. I draw your attention to Archimandrite Cyprian’s statement themed: “What is the Church?”

1. The Church is the Assembly of the People of God for the celebration of the Mystery of the Divine Eucharist, wherein the local Church actually becomes and is revealed as the Body of Christ, as a Theandric organism, in which the Holy Trinity dwells. (Cf. Ephesians 4:5-6 and I Corinthians 10:15-16)

2. The visible center and head of the Eucharistic Assembly is the Bishop: It is he who leads the Assembly and preaches the word of God; it is he who offers the Eucharist, as an Icon of Christ, the Great High Priest, and as the one who presides in the place of God, according to St. Ignatios of Antioch. (Epistle to the Magnesians, VI.1)

3. In the early Church, only the Bishop offered the Divine Eucharist in each local Church; that is, there was only one Eucharist, and this was centered on the Bishop. (Epistle to the Magnesians, VII.2)

4. The Bishop, when he offers the Divine Eucharist, offers Christ in His wholeness, imparting the Holy Mysteries to the Faithful with his own hands; in ancient times, the People of God partook of Christ only from the living Icon of Christ, the Bishop. (St. Hippolytos of Rome, The Apostolic Tradition, 22)

5. Therefore, the Bishop not only embodies the local Church, but also expresses in time and space the Catholic Church, that is, the whole Church; for that which embodies Christ in His wholeness, and wherein one receives Christ in His wholeness, is that which embodies the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. Wherever Jesus Christ is, says St. Ignatios, there is the Catholic Church. (St. Ignatios, Epistle to the Smyrnans, VIII.2)

6. For precisely this reason, when one is united with the Bishop in the Mystery of the Divine Eucharist, then he is also united with the Catholic Church. St. Cyprian of Carthage emphasizes this ecclesiological truth in the following striking terms: The Bishop is in the Church and the Church in the Bishop; and if one is not in communion with the Bishop, he is not in the Church. 

Archimandrite Cyprian

We are one interconnected Body of Christ. The ordinations and the other sacraments of the Catholic Church flow from Christ through the bishop to the priest and the deacon. The principle of ex opere operato still applies. In other words, the efficacy of sacramental actions does not depend upon the moral uprightness of the celebrant of those sacraments. Nevertheless, there is a point at which the locus of sacramental validity, i.e., the bishop, once upon a time duly elevated to his office, has subsequently strayed so far from Tradition that the sacraments celebrated under his omophorion no longer have validity. Where and when that happens is impossible to tell unless the Church makes a declaration as to such. It is a thorny theological question indeed whether the sacraments of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese are still valid, led as the Church is by Bartholomew and Elpidophoros. That gives one reason for pause.

Metropolitan Onuphry of Ukraine

The bishop is the sine qua non of the Church. Without him, there can be no Church. Extrapolating from Archimandrite Cyprian’s definition of the Church and his high view of the episcopacy, I cannot help but find my spirit outside of the Church – or its Greek Orthodox expression in my country – for I cannot wholeheartedly embrace my bishops’ leadership of it. So, I find myself in a vexing conundrum. After all the water that has gone over the dam in the last three years, I am a sheep who no longer recognizes its shepherds’ voice, for I do not perceive in their words and actions the voice of our great and good shepherd, Christ himself. God forgive me if I am wrong, but since I cannot bring myself to honor our bishops, I cannot go on as a member of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese. I have written to Abp. Elpidophoros to ask him why he did what he did at St. Bart’s. He has not answered me. I have dithered for months, hoping that he would repent, but since he has not it’s time for me to leave. And, since Pat. Bartholomew has recently finished his victory lap in our country without a hint of penitence, I have even more reason to leave. His arrogance astounds me.

I myself will sound arrogant to some. They may think that I should stay and pray. May they please note that I have not reached this conclusion hastily, but rather have tried to give the hierarchs every benefit of the doubt. In the 1980s and ’90s, I was an Anglican who was devastated by the heresy and rapid downfall of the Episcopal Church (TEC) and the ill effect that it had on the whole Anglican Communion. I was pushed out of TEC because I would not sign on to their immoral agenda. It broke my heart, but I had to leave. Others may have the stomach for what they now see the hierarchy doing to the Greek Orthodox Church in this country. It may sound like an exaggeration, but like a combat veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder, I find myself flinching at the outrageous claims and misguided actions of these two high-profile hierarchs, Bartholomew and Elpidophoros. Having seen what is plain for all to see, I for one am suspicious of every action that they take. For me to go on in submission to such heretical and schismatic bishops would be an act of continued support when, in truth, I no longer support them. I don’t want to gamble with my eternal salvation. What about you, dear reader?

Holy Tradition

When I became Orthodox, I committed myself to Holy Tradition. I am endeavoring to remain committed to that Tradition. I cannot in good conscience remain under the omophorion of Bartholomew and Elpidophoros for that reason. What is needed now is for the hierarchs outside of GOARCH to condemn Bartholomew and Elpidophoros for deviating from Tradition and to call upon them to renounce their heresies and schisms.

Finally, to the affairs of my own parish. I sit on the parish council, of which I am the secretary. For the last two years, I have been in the uncomfortable position of cooperating in the shutting down and subsequent reopening of the parish during the current pandemic. I witnessed the utter capitulation of Metropolitan Gerasimos, and our priest and council to the strictest of all health mandates set forth by the ecclesiastical, state or local authorities. For several weeks in the spring and summer of last year our people were denied access to the life-giving Body and Blood of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ simply because attending the Divine Liturgy was a perceived threat to their health. That’s double-speak. How can the prime agent of Life make one sick, unless it is not received in the proper disposition? Even now, with the spread of the viral variants, there are still cumbersome protocols in place that have the net effect of obstacles in the way of worship. These things ought not to be. How long will this go on?

Church closed

In so doing, our parish leadership has strained a gnat to swallow a camel. In their ostensibly responsible effort to protect the physical health of the people – or simply to avoid the liability of lawsuits – they have denied spiritual health to the people by restricting reception of the medicine of immortality. Auwe! My own objections have been ignored by the worldly mindset of the other people who sit on the parish council and the docile nature of our parish priest. In GOARCH, it doesn’t take much provocation for the priest to mysteriously disappear overnight, so he has been cautious. The sheep have been scattered and their shepherd is tasked with gathering them back into the sheep pen. Our attendance has been decimated. Who knows if it will ever recover?

Orthodoxy is the Faith of the martyrs. The martyrs were those who stared down death so that they could testify to their faith in the one true God and his Son, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. They received a crown for their loyalty unto death. What about us? It’s embarrassing to think that, although Orthodox Christians should know better, there are few who are willing to stand up in the face of this lunacy and call it what it is. They need to oppose the error and take the appropriate action to save themselves and their families. Those who should know better but decide to relax and stay where they are will be in danger of being as spiritually compromised as the hierarchs that they follow.

I am one of the fortunate believers who don’t have to retreat to the wilderness to maintain their Orthodox integrity. There is another parish not far away that has taken a bolder stance to maintain the normative Orthodox life in the midst of the pandemic. I can leave my parish and go there. Not all laymen have that option, since their Greek Orthodox parish may be the only one for dozens of miles around. To the laymen who feel trapped I say, Don’t give up hope! Reach out to others. Reach out to hierarchs outside of GOARCH and implore them for help and spiritual care. Surely God will hear your cries.

Hawaiian myrrh-streaming Iveron icon

“Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.” Mt. 7: 13 & 14

The New Heresy

The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, under the yoke of which many American Orthodox groan, is guilty of a new heresy which can be expressed in two parts. This most recent heresy is what one might call “Religious Covidism”. In my tentative definition for our Orthodox context, Religious Covidism is the unspoken contention that preservation of one’s physical health supersedes the need for one’s spiritual healing.

Preservation of one’s physical health supersedes the need for one’s spiritual healing.

Religious Covidism I

After a year and a half of an epidemic whose severity has been blown way out of proportion to the actual threat to public health, the hierarchs have made it clear that their devotion to the sacramental life of the Church as handed down by Tradition is only secondary to a fastidious prevention of even the slightest threat of contagion by the novel coronavirus. For a time last year they shut down the parishes entirely. Even when they allowed them to open up, they demanded that each parish follow the strictest of all metropolitan or municipal restrictions. Inconvenient obstacles were put in the way of regular participation in the Divine Liturgy by parish councils who obediently followed all of the guidelines imposed. Access was severely limited to the life-giving sacraments of confession and absolution, and to the medicine of immortality which is the Eucharist. Initiation into the Faith by way of the rites of baptism and chrismation were long delayed. Weddings were rescheduled. By putting up these roadblocks to the mysteries, our hierarchs tacitly indicated that their loyalty to the mandates of the local magistrate trumped their faithfulness to Sacred Tradition. My real suspicion is that the hierarchs were afraid of being sued for liability if anyone blamed a local parish when he got sick.

To be sarcastic, you might say, “Who needs a bishop when you have a mayor to protect you?”

Loyalty to the mandates of the local magistrate trumps the requirement of faithfulness to Sacred Tradition.

Religious Covidism II

Without so much as stating it outright, the hierarchs have guided our Church from the standpoint of a truly worldly mentality. These two correlating statements are, I would posit, the New Heresy of the Greek Orthodox Church. As if the longer-standing heresies and schisms to which I have heretofore spoken were not already enough for us to deal with, now we have this new heresy. Wonderful. Sadly, some other Orthodox jurisdictions are not exempt from guilt, so it is not just GOARCH’s fault.

Only time will tell whether the hierarchs’ draconian measures have actually saved more lives than they have ruined. Since Covid-19 has a recovery rate of nearly 100% for most people, I seriously doubt it. Too many parishioners have stopped coming to services. There have been too many suicides and cases of depression; too many bankrupted retailers and stressed families to think that the bishops’ reflexive actions have done more good than harm. If we think like true Orthodox, heirs of the Church of the countless martyrs who paid for their salvation by sacrificing their lives before ancient magistrates, then we can only be dubious of our present leadership’s wisdom. May God grant them the humility to repent, although I am not going to hold my breath until they do. May God forgive us all for our mutual responsibility for their present offices.

“A Fate Worse Than Death”

My jovial father was much older than I was. Forty-one years older, to be exact. He had had polio like FDR (only in his left leg), and although he didn’t have a very high opinion of FDR, just like FDR he never complained about his polio. He would just joke about his “gimpy leg”. He was a junior naval officer with a gimpie leg. How he ever got the sea legs to command the depth charge crew on the USS Charette, I’ll never know in this life because he’s long gone.

USS Charette

Perhaps not great in the average estimation, my father was great to me, because I didn’t have too many other fathers to compare him to. I only had the one. Dad had some faults, but one fault he didn’t have was fear. At least he didn’t display it. What was there left to fear when you had survived the Depression and the War? So, when one of his sons complained about being told he had to do something that he didn’t want to do, Dad would needle him. “Oh, I know. It’s a fate worse than death!” He would say that in jest, just to put our protestations into perspective.

Seriously, though. Is there a fate worse than death? We Christians know that it’s a fate worse than death to be separated from God’s love for an eternity. That’s a fate worse than death – at least that is what we are taught from the pulpit. What is the Orthodox concept of hell? Being cast into an eternal lake of fire isn’t our concept of hell. That’s the Western concept of eternal punishment. The Orthodox concept is totally different. Hell is to encounter the love of God and to find that love totally alien to us. If we can’t bear to be exposed to the love of God, it “scares us to death”.

Three of the greatest political leaders of the 1980s were Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II. Together they stared down the communist ghost of the waning Soviet Union. John Paul II was more than the Catholics’ pope; he was the world’s pope. He would travel all over the globe. When he went to his native Poland, thousands upon thousands would greet him. The pope would stand up to the microphone and tell his fellow Poles, his fellow Catholics, “Do not be afraid!” Some cynics probably thought, “Right. We’re trapped here under the communist jackboot, and you tell us not to fear?”

John Paul II in Poland

The pope sounded like the Savior himself. “Fear not,” Jesus would say to his disciples, especially after his resurrection. Paraphrasing now: “It is I. Touch me if you don’t believe me. I am back and I will never leave you or forsake you.” Nobody had ever come back from the grave. Not only had Jesus come back, but he came back in strength. Who WOULDN’T follow a man like that, even to death and the grave? The apostles must have been riveted. No wonder all but one of them submitted himself to martyrdom, the last to exile. Seeing before their very eyes the man who had conquered death by dying and coming back to life again, they remembered that he had told them that he was Resurrection and Life itself.

There is indeed a fate worse than death. It is to live in FEAR. Our present fear is the fear of Covid-19. Fear that we may catch Covid and get deathly ill and die, or that someone in our family may die from it. Some have, others may. That we may lose our job, as many have. That we may get thrown out onto the street. That our nation will succumb to evil political forces, as it appears to be. Or only that the precarious balance of our daily lives will be thrown off kilter, as if any of our lives will ever be the same again.

Afraid of catching the virus, we hesitate to go to church. After all, attendance is optional, isn’t it? Afraid of the liability, even the suggestion of liability should an attendee catch the bug, some metropolises and parish councils have taken preposterous measures for “everyone’s safety”. Well, alright. Their intentions were good. At least we hope that they were good.

But, such extreme fastidiousness have had the opposite effect. They’ve only exacerbated the fear. Instead of encouraging our parishioners to partake of the bread of life, we have put obstacles in their way. We’ve made it harder for them to approach the chalice and receive the very thing that they need more than anything else at this time! Where is the “safety” in that?

The bread of life; the cup of salvation

There are a lot of weak brethren out there. Here’s an example. There is a young woman who comes to church toward the end of the Liturgy. She furtively approaches the chalice to receive communion, mask on until the last moment. When she returns to her pew in front of me, she nervously touches her husband’s muscular hand. He has lost his job but seems stalwart. She clutches his fingers, then lets go, then clutches them again. Her eyes dart this way and that. She was always a bit high-strung, but now she appears to be downright neurotic. Poor woman. God love her. At least she had the courage to come to church.

God forgive me if this sounds presumptuous, and it certainly is not meant to condemn. I can only write out of intuition. In any case, that is the sort of fear that is worse than death. To live day in day out in such trepidation of a virus that you can’t see, and of the ripple effect of the illness that it can cause, and the disruption that it brings to one’s life – THAT is a fate worse than death. After living like that, it may even be a comfort to simply die and rest forever.

But, no. There is no need for that kind of fear. None at all. “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” (John 14:27) Those are the words spoken several times and for eternity by our beloved Savior, Christ the Lord of all. None of us can grasp the flood of courage that comes from simply trusting him and believing those words from the depths of one’s heart. The greatest man who ever lived said it, and since he still lives, that settles it. “Don’t be afraid,” the pope said forty years ago. “Peace be unto all,” chants the priest during the Divine Liturgy. They speak for Christ.

“My Lord and my God!”

There is an older woman at church. For medical reasons, she cannot take the vaccination as the state demands, so her employer has let her go. Two of her adult children in the same household have lost their jobs for the same genetic reason. What cruel employers would do that to their staffs? She said to me, weeping, “I don’t care. I’ll take my chances with Covid. I’m trusting in God. I’ll trust him to the end.” Now, that’s courage. Not a courage spoken out of bravado, but one spoken through tears. Courage spoken from the depths of a Christian faith tried and true.

“There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love.” (I John 1:18) Let’s lay down our fears, take up courage, and with a bold abandon, approach our Lord’s throne to find help in this time of great need.

Glimpses of Holiness

There he stood before the cathedral’s altar, vested appropriately, slowly intoning the words of the Eucharist. Quietly glowing with the joy of the Lord, the bishop bent forward slightly, in rapt attention as he handled the precious elements. Such is proper for a man when he approaches the Divine. The young acolyte, a foreigner, knelt to the side, looking on. He was not new to worship, but never had he been so close to such a precious holiness.

Priest beginning traditional low mass

What had the youth done to deserve this brief glimpse into the world beyond man? It was as if Holiness itself had infused this elder who stood there humbly before God’s altar, whispering the words that he had said every morning throughout a long ministry. But, there was nothing routine about this moment of grace. It was as if this ordinary weekday Eucharist were the bishop’s first liturgy, his only liturgy. Time had stopped, eternity had dawned. Each word read to God at the altar was fresh, filled with an ineffable joy. What had the young acolyte done to qualify as a witness to this moment?

Christ, our high priest

Nothing but to show up. He was in the presence of a rare man of God. The bishop had survived the ravages of the War, like so many Japanese of his ill-fated generation. He never spoke of the unspeakable horror that had been visited upon his aggressor nation, arguably the just desserts for a whole country that had been possessed by a demon and turned wild. The body politic had gone raving mad. Duly humbled, it was now devastated. Their cities were scorched. Those who survived had nothing left. Even those who had money had nothing because there was nothing to buy.

Typical Japanese city firebombed during WWII

There was another man of that generation who later became a priest. He had been taken prisoner by the Soviets just weeks before the unconditional surrender. The captors took countless Japanese soldiers and cast them into brutal gulags. The young acolyte’s father-in-law was one other who had survived such unspeakable mistreatment. Months became years for them. Many did not survive the cruel deprivations. The first soldier who made it through prayed in the prison camp in freezing Siberia. The prayer has been heard before: “Lord, if you help me to make it through this hell, I’ll dedicate the rest of my life to you.” Many forget their heartfelt promise to God once they’ve been liberated, but this soldier did not. When he returned home, he went off to seminary and became a priest. It was this priest who was assigned to guide the young man before he himself went off to the same seminary in Kyoto a generation later.

The elder priest would stand before the wooden altar in the country parish intoning the familiar words of the Eucharistic prayer. The literary Japanese flowed trippingly from his tongue. He sounded like a grandfather, almost like a woman, as he elegantly read through the service, each word precise yet familiar, every step impeccably choreographed through long-practiced custom. Timeless dignity due the Divine who was being addressed, this day like every Lord’s day.

Christ: He who offers and is offered.

What had the hopeful seminarian done to deserve this other glimpse into holiness? He didn’t deserve it. None of it. He scoffed at it. He was full of ambition. Ignore that falderal, he said to himself. He was going to make changes in the Church where changes needed to be made. Oh, the arrogance of inexperienced youth! The stupidity of a young foreigner who had never known the devastation of war! Who was too proud to watch quietly and learn from his betters. If only he had stopped to listen and not been so anxious to disrupt. Proud youth from the victor nation, yet not so unlike the architects of that awful war.

Sunrise, sunset

Those rare moments of grace, those glimpses into holiness are now a generation past. Rarely recalled, they’ve been mostly ignored throughout a life of preoccupations. Both bishop and priest are gone. Their memories are fading in their successors’ minds, busy as they are with the hustle of everyday church life. The once-young acolyte and later priest is now old himself, far removed from the scene. He has time to recall fondly the moments when a bishop and a priest had touched the Divine and he was there to witness it. To touch it himself. What had the young man done to deserve such privilege? He shudders to even think of it.