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Posts Tagged 'fr. seraphim rose'

Listening at the reliquary and taking Pentecostals by surprise: in which the author visits the island of Aegina

Fr. Nicholas Samaras, of Ss. Constantine and Helen Church in West Nyack, New York, told me when he found out I was going to Greece, “You need to go to an island called Aegina. St. Nectarios is there.”

When you buy tickets online to go to an island, you’re e-mailed a confirmation number. This is not a ticket, as the e-mail rather forcefully reminds you; you have to redeem the confirmation number for your ticket at the boating line’s office no later than an hour and a half before the boat pushes off. As my boat was leaving at 8:50am, this meant needing to pick up my ticket no later than 7:20am; furthermore, this meant needing to be at the Ethniki Amyna metro station by roughly 6:30am, which, the 404 bus being what it is on the weekends, meant waiting for it starting around 6am, which meant being up by 5-5:30am.

(Of course, the Halandri metro station reopens shortly after I leave. Sigh. I’m going to have to come back just to develop an impression of the public transportation system when a good chunk of it isn’t closed.)

So anyway, last Saturday I stumbled, still half-asleep, out of the Piraeus train station at a little past 7am. To say the least, it was a bit of a zoo; this is the time of year when everybody in Athens flees for the islands. Hellenic Seaways was where I needed to pick up my ticket, and I realized I didn’t know where that was. I headed for the nearest big sign that said “Hellenic Seaways,” which actually led me into the office of a travel line bearing a different name.

“Excuse me,” I said, “I don’t think this is the right spot, but where do I need to go to pick up tickets for Hellenic Seaways?”

“Here,” they told me, and gave me my ticket. Um, okay.

Now, your ticket bears a gate number and the name of your boat. You would think, as I did, going off of the system in use in most airports, that gate numbers would be unique to individual boats. So, I merrily headed for gate E-8, thinking it would be obvious as soon as I got there where I needed to go.

So, the reality is, there are something like 10-20 boats per gate. It is good that I realized this, because I was sitting at a café being robbed blind sipping a mediocre at best double espresso for which I had paid 5 Euros at gate E-8 (word to the wise: don’t bother with the gate café, just get something at one of the many other cafés around the harbor) until 8:30, wondering why the heck I wasn’t seeing the 8:50 boat for Aegina anywhere. I realized, getting up and looking around some, that gate E-8 stretched quite far away from where I was sitting. Jogging over to the far side of gate E-8, there were multiple signs, kiosks, and offices telling me I was in Hellenic Seaways country, and while it hadn’t arrived yet, they showed the Flying Dolphin XV as being on their schedule to depart for Aegina at 8:50. It arrived shortly thereafter, and off we went. It’s only about 40 minutes there (Aegina is the closest island to Athens, I believe) — no time at all.

The marina in the town of Aegina is very charming; pistachio nut stands are everywhere (these evidently being one of the island’s big exports), there is no shortage of restaurants and cafés on the water, and plenty of bakeries and shops and so on and so forth.

There’s also a butcher shop right on the water that shows you exactly what you’re buying. From left to right, I believe we have a rabbit, a lamb, and a chicken:

Plus an outdoor public market:

I’ve mentioned before, I think, that Greeks are excellent at the hard sell; there were a couple of examples of that in particular I ran into on Aegina. One involved me going into a bakery where they had nothing posted on any of the pastries to tell you what they were; I would ask what a certain item was, and the game the person behind the counter played was that he would tell me, I repeated to make sure I understood, and he would take that as an order. It took me a tiropita and a zambontiropita before I realized what he was doing, at which point I stopped asking. Well, okay, to be honest, there was another factor at work here that I may have misunderstood, but I really don’t think so. I’ll explain what I mean in another post.

The other example I’ll get to shortly.

There’s also a beautiful church along the water, the Cathedral of the Dormition (also called Panagitsa). It evidently dates from 1806; one very distinctive characteristic of this church is that, in addition to the 2+ centuries of incense permeating the walls, there is a very strong smell of honey as you walk in from the beeswax candles. Like many churches here, there is an ambo, but curiously enough they have removed the steps leading up to it, leaving only the pulpit portion in what is a clear state of disuse.

On the other hand, this is what’s called a chandelier:

I walked around the harbor for a good couple of hours, simply taking things in (and unsuccessfully trying to engage an old man in a backgammon game). At that point, it seemed like a good plan to try to find St. Nectarios.

By the way, it is difficult to overstate the level of local devotion there is to St. Nectarios on Aegina; he is everywhere. Icons of him, to say nothing of other memorabilia, are in virtually every shop (as well as prominently displayed in the churches). The island of Aegina is very insistent that you know that it is St. Nectarios’ home. But you don’t know the half of it until you see the monastery.

I had originally looked at a map of the island and thought to myself, “Oh, the island isn’t all that wide; I can probably walk it.” It is an extremely good thing that I disposed of that folly and got on a bus. It was hot, it’s a lot farther than it looks, and the terrain is not exactly even. As it was, the bus was almost too hot.

The buses, by the way, are easy to find on the harbor and cheap — about a Euro and a half each way — and they take you right to the doorstep of the monastery. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, you’ll be standing on the bus, thinking to yourself that you wonder how you’ll know when you’ve reached the monastery, and then suddenly the bus is right in front of this:

And then you’re thinking to yourself, Oh. Well, that was easy, wasn’t it?

You can go to my Flickr page and peruse the pictures all you want; one of the main things I want to point out is that they’ve built two levels of galleries in the church, and the church is already freaking huge — as in, bigger than Holy Trinity in Indianapolis huge. This suggests that on 9 November, St. Nectarios’ feast day, they expect it to be packed to the rafters.

The other thing I want to point about the interior has to do with the chapel off to the south end of the nave, where some of the relics are. Particularly, the iconography — for example, here at the dome of the apse in the chapel (and I would look at the pictures of other frescoes in the chapel, too — time and space simply do not allow for a full discussion here). Does that look familiar? It should. The point is, here’s a holy man who died less than a century ago — for all I know, there is still a living memory of him somewhere. Despite being contemporary, he is still “discussed” iconographically in the same language as saints of antiquity. I suppose what I’m getting at is something I’ve said before — saints do not belong to a fixed time period. Someone is, or able to be, no more or less holy based on when they lived. In fact, we desperately need contemporary saints and to have such people in living memory presented to us in this way. It is one of the ways we are reminded of how to be Christlike, to have these models of holiness in our midst and thought of us as in continuity with (or in the tradition of, if you prefer) all of our other saints. It tells us that miracles still happen, that the Holy Spirit still moves among us, that Christ is still in our midst. Our saints need not, in fact must not, be limited to accounts from antiquity which we’re starting to talk ourselves out of believing. And local veneration is incredibly powerful — to look at an icon and to realize, “Hey, I’m standing right where that happened and where those people lived and breathed and did what they did,” is humbling beyond belief.

Speaking of humbling beyond belief, I will now tell you of the second hard sell I encountered.

I spent probably an hour or so in the church. After leaving, I started walking up the hill to the monastery proper. An old woman in what looked like a nun’s habit appeared out of nowhere, walked right towards me, and thrust an icon of St. Nectarios in my hands. “You need this,” she said in Greek. “You need St. Nectarios’ prayers for you. Fifty Euros.”

I had absolutely no idea what to do. This woman had two teeth. She had lines in her face like the Grand Canyon. Her voice had been sanded down with a lot of age. Worst yet, and what I never know how to deal with in such situations, was that there was an edge of desperation to her entire presentation that would slice through cement. I started to hand it back to her, saying gently in Greek, “Thank you, mother, but I need to think about it.”

She pushed it back towards me. “What’s there to think about?” she said. “The money doesn’t matter! What matters is that you have the prayers of this holy man blessing you and your life!” She made the Sign of the Cross in my direction, and then threw a prayer rope on top of the icon. “There, take that too.”

“No, really,” I said. “I should think about it.”

She tossed an icon of St. Marina and another prayer rope on top. “I’m telling you, the money doesn’t matter! What’s money when you have the prayers of these holy people in your life?” She hesitated a half-second, and then said, “Thirty Euros.”

“Thirty Euros?” I repeated.

“Thirty Euros.”

I gave in. It was clearly very, very important to her that I take these icons off her hands, and ultimately the thought which I couldn’t escape was, “What’s thirty Euros to me compared with what it would be to her?” I gave her the money, thanked her, and as I walked away I muttered to myself, “I just got hustled by a nun.”

Only about half of the monastery proper is open to the public; this includes two (much) smaller churches, the chapel where St. Nectarios’ body is , two bookstores, and then his cell is open as an exhibit. The main thing I want to talk about here is seeing the veneration of his body, and (to some extent) participating in it myself; this is something that up to this point was rather foreign to me as an Orthodox Christian in the United States, given that, of the three analogous examples I can think of, only two are actual glorified saints (Ss. Herman of Alaska and John Maximovitch) and all are in California or Alaska (the third is Fr. Seraphim Rose), meaning that they’re rather remote for somebody whose Orthodox Christian life has been spent in the Midwest thus far.

People knelt and prayed at the casket which held his bones; I saw pilgrims weeping; and strangest of all, I saw people pressing their ears to the reliquary, as though they were listening for some sound from within. I really didn’t know exactly where to put myself in all of this, to be honest; I lit a candle, and I prayed at the reliquary, but my emotional response wasn’t quite that demonstrative — which isn’t to say that I didn’t have one, I did, it was just rather internalized — and since I didn’t know what was going on with the listening thing, I didn’t do it.

I went into the bookstore and asked the woman behind the counter, “I’m Orthodox, but I’m American, and I’ve never seen anything like this before. Why do people listen at the body?” She wasn’t sure how to answer; she said that it was a way of honoring St. Nectarios with another sense, but she couldn’t quite articulate exactly how.

All told, I spent about four hours at the monastery; I had originally hoped to be able to stay for Vespers, but my boat back to Athens was leaving at 8pm, and the bus schedule didn’t quite line up to make things work. That’s okay; as I’ve had to tell myself a number of times, this won’t be the only time I come to this part of the world.

Let’s say that there was a lot about the monastery that was spiritually overwhelming, even if I didn’t necessarily understand everything I saw. Part of why I spent so much time there is that I kept returning to the body and to the other reliquaries — there was something pulling me back to them, something that I was supposed to learn from being there. I’m still figuring out exactly what that is.

From the monastery, I took the bus to to the Temple of Aphaia which, as I noted earlier, is said to form an equilateral triangle with the Parthenon in Athens and the Temple of Poseidon at Sounio. There really is something very cool about being able to walk around structures from antiquity like this; that said, I think I would have rather come here first and then gone to the monastery. My head was simply too occupied by what I had witnessed there to really be able to appreciate what all I was seeing at the ruin. The Temple of Aphaia is certainly fascinating intellectually, but I was very much someplace else spiritually, so it left me a little cold.

Even if that was the case, however, I have to say that there were some really beautiful views from the top of the hill. It is nice being someplace where one can see water and hills and mountains, I can’t deny that.

Something that was really bizarre: there was a father and son walking around the ruin, and I heard them speaking German. I addressed them in German, and we talked a bit. They were just in Greece for the weekend(!), and I found out that the boy would be going to high school in Boston. No, that’s not the weird part. The weird part was that I started sentences in German but kept finishing them in Greek. My mouth really, really, really wanted to default to Greek, and I had very real trouble staying in German. I kept having to apologize — luckily, they just laughed and took it in stride.

Anyway — I didn’t spent four hours at the Temple. More like one and a half.

I got on the bus back to the harbor. I had a Frappé (I am going to have to get a handheld mixer when I get back to the States so I can make these blasted things myself), and then settled down for a grilled fish dinner at Inomagirion, one of the waterfront restaurants. The fish was very good, as a local resident assured me (pictured left), and I had to agree with him, although he kept wanting to verify that it really was as good as he remembered. Being thankful for his help, I obliged a reasonable amount. (Best meal he’s had in weeks, I would have to guess.)

I tried to go to Vespers at Panagitsa before taking the boat back to Athens, but as it started at 7pm and was combined with 9th Hour, so I had to duck out at 7:30, when they had just begun “Lord I have cried…” Alas.

On the boat back to Athens, I became aware that the young (mid-20s, maybe) couple sitting next to me was American. Their names were Erin and Jeremy. We got to talking, and it turned out that they were Pentecostals of the Assemblies of God variety. Erin has been working for some time in the Dominican Republic for a ministry that deals with troubled youth called New Horizons; “If you’ve heard of us, it’s probably from bad publicity,” she said. “We get that a lot.” Well, there came a point in the conversation where I was asked point blank what I was, and I was obliged to tell them I was Orthodox (“Greek Orthodox,” I said, for purposes of convenience) — not that I had been hiding it, mind you. I brought up the St. Innocent Academy after she talked about New Horizons, for example.

Anyway, the point is, after I told them I was Orthodox, she got a funny look on her face. “Really?” she said. “I’m sorry — from the way you were talking, I would have thought you were Christian.”

Let’s not even go into what my inner monologue was doing at this stage of the game. I just smiled and said, “I am.”

“Really? I thought Greek Orthodox were like Catholics. Well, okay, so Greek Orthodox think of themselves as Christians?”

“Yes, we do.”

The funny look became an intensely puzzled look. “Like, do you guys have a personal relationship with Christ and all of that?”

“Absolutely,” I said, although the inner monologue continued without me — just not exactly in the same way you mean that…

“Well, okay, then what’s a basic summary of what you guys believe?”

“That’s the easiest question you could have possibly asked me,” I said. “It’s very simple, and it goes like this: ‘I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth…'” and I proceeded to recite the entire Creed for her.

The puzzled look got even moreso. “Okay, so then what’s the difference between Greek Orthodox and Pentecostal?”

Keep in mind we only had a forty minute boat ride.

I chose to explain, broadly, that we see a continuity, rather than a disconnection, of Christian history over the last 2,000 years, placing ourselves in line with that, and as such believe we are in continuity with the Church of the Apostles. And just today, I saw one of the latest heroes in that history, I thought to myself.

“Huh,” she said. It was clear she had never heard anybody talk this way before.

I don’t know what they will do with that, if anything; I spent a little bit more time with them after we got off the boat, helping them find a bus stop that would get them back to their hotel. (Boy, I sure hope it did. Some of the streets around Piraeus at night are a little sketchy.) They were nice folks, even if it still amazes me that… well, maybe it shouldn’t.

By the way, I asked Fr. Samaras about the whole business of pilgrams listening at St. Nectarios’ body. He said this:

People have reported, for years now, that they’ve heard the Saint tapping back, or have heard some kind of music, or the sound of a Bishop’s staff knocking. So, people continue to listen. […] This tradition only happens with Saint Nektarios, the people listening. It doesn’t happen anywhere else.

So, there you have it. Next time I’ll be preapred.

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Sunday of Orthodoxy qua Orthodoxy in America

This last Sunday, being the first Sunday in Great Lent, was the so-called “Sunday of Orthodoxy,” commemorating the victory of iconodules over iconoclasm at the Seventh Ecumenical Council (“Nicea II — The Wrath of Arius”). In years past, there has been a Sunday evening Vespers in Indianapolis, participated in by all the area clergy and their parishes. This year, instead of Vespers, a morning Divine Liturgy was planned at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church, who had just started worshiping in their new building in December.

All Saints’ participation was determined rather late in the game; being an hour and twenty minutes south, and with some of our parishioners commuting from as much as an hour away even further south, it took some figuring out. Ultimately our deacon stayed behind and served a Typika for those who weren’t going to Indianapolis, allowing Fr. Peter to concelebrate and a group of us from All Saints to attend.

The morning was stunning in several respects. For the occasion, a new icon was commissioned of All Saints of North America, which now includes Indiana-born St. Barnabas. The original was put out for us to venerate, and we were all given prints of it as well. I’ve jokingly called Holy Trinity’s new building the satellite campus of Hagia Sophia, but it really is frickin’ huge. As the pictures make clear, I think we had close to a thousand people in there, and people were still having to gather in the narthex. We had everybody, too (among the clergy as well as the people); Serbians, Greeks, Arabs, Bulgarians, Russians, Ukrainians, Romanians, American converts, and even a handful of Copts, Ethiopians, Eritreans and Indians. (Okay, I’m not sure we had any Finns or Estonians.) The communion of the faithful easily took half an hour, and that was with six chalices, I believe. Add another twenty minutes or so for the communion of the clergy.

Some general observations: Holy Trinity is an example of a church which I think would be too big for me to be comfortable in it as my home parish. It is a beautiful building, and it will only get more beautiful as they fresco it, marble the floors, put up the iconostasis, etc., but I’d rather see the design principles applied to a church maybe a quarter of the size. (This begs the question of why Holy Trinity, which I believe has something like 600 people, doesn’t plant some churches, but never mind that now.) I’ve heard it suggested that past 250 souls or so, you really overtax a priest’s ability to minister; I’ll throw out another possible metric, which is that you don’t want the building to be any larger than that in which the cantor can sing comfortably and be understood and heard without needing a microphone. (This assumes that churches are being built with attention to acoustics, which isn’t even necessarily the case with Holy Trinity, unfortunately — there were one or two odd decisions made on that front.) That said, I think it’s wonderful that a traditional-looking Byzantine temple now exists which is large enough to hold everybody in the metro area. I somewhat wonder if perhaps, with Detroit being, well, Detroit, there might not be talk behind the scenes of moving Metropolitan Nicholas’ throne to Indianapolis, hence the building being a size more appropriate to a cathedral than a parish church.

I wound up joining the choir; Max Murphy, my counterpart at Ss. Constantine and Elena, conducts the choir for these big combined services and I sing for him when I am able. The music was, more or less, OCA music with some simplified Byzantine things reworked for a large ensemble. My trouble is that the Orthodox musical heritage is so much richer than the utility music which tends to dominate services like this, but the reason why it dominates services like this is because it is easily scalable to huge ensembles (as well as makes congregational singing reasonably easy). Mark Bailey once told me that Kievan common chant is great because you can get 50 people singing the front page of the New York Times to it in fifteen minutes; on the other hand, he freely admitted, the downside of Kievan common chant is that you can get 50 people singing the front page of the New York Times to it in fifteen minutes. There wasn’t an overabundance of Kievan common chant at this service, but the principle was still largely the same. At any rate, it was, mostly, the music that virtually everybody in the Indianapolis area sings except Holy Trinity (and All Saints, for that matter), so it was familiar to Max, the majority of the choir, and a good chunk of the congregation.

There were some interesting moments during the procession of the icons; Fr. Taso (the pastor of Holy Trinity) originally asked the congregation to all sing the litany responses in their own languages, in the spirit of our coming together as a symbol of our unity as Orthodox Christians. This didn’t quite work the way he intended, so ultimately he led us in the Tone 4 threefold English “Lord, have mercy” common to Greek parishes (and Antiochian parishes during Holy Week if one is following Kazan). That worked just fine (although it was different from the responses the choir prepared — Max gave up when he realized that Fr. Taso was going off-script).

One always wonders what happens behind the scenes when that many clergy gather on another priest’s turf, particularly when the event functions something of a “coming out party” for said turf, but Fr. Peter made a point of bringing up that very question last night after the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts. “It was very peaceful, as surprising as that sounds,” he said. “Fr. Taso called us all together and said, ‘Brothers, what do you want to do?’ To have the protos do something like that, particularly at a Greek church, is unheard of.” (When there were some inevitable uncomfortable chuckles, he said, “That’s not a swipe against the Greeks — they’d tell you the same thing!”)

Given events of the last few weeks, there have been conversations about what Orthodox unity in America means, if it can even happen at all now, if we’re looking a big step backwards, what’s the path from here, etc. etc. etc. I think that to some extent these nervous questions are a bit misguided; it’s not exactly like the AOCNA and OCA were preparing to announce an administrative merger next week and the news out of Damascus derailed it at the last second. However, I think we can look at events like this Sunday of Orthodoxy Divine Liturgy and make some informed guesses about what the practical side of jurisdictional unity might look like.

  • Somebody’s going to have to be the protos, as it were, and it’s probably going to be whoever has the resources to be so effectively, including the space to be a meeting ground for everybody. This was true in 1975 when Met. PHILIP and Met. MICHAEL unified the Antiochian churches in this country, and Met. MICHAEL stepped down; it will still be true going forward.
  • Along similar lines, there will be a group who is numerically dominant. There were ten or so parishes represented at Holy Trinity this last Sunday, and at least half of the congregation was Holy Trinity’s own people.
  • It will be up to the group who is numerically dominant and who functions as the “protos” to be a loving and welcoming brother in Christ. It will be up to the others to be receptive to that, and to return it in-kind.
  • It might be a bit of a cacophony for awhile until people figure things out. The job of the dominant group will be to help guide everybody into unity, and to do so in love.

Looking at these points, I’d argue this wouldn’t be a bad model for how things should be now, even, with or without unity on paper.

One other thought for the moment. That icon of All Saints of North America? A couple of them are American born; some of them were active in America. However, with the exception of St. Peter the Aleut (who was martyred young), none of those saints were both born here and active here. Let me suggest that before we have an indigenous church, we’re going to need indigenous saints. Some might argue that we should start with Fr. Seraphim Rose (which reminds me — I’m reading The Soul After Death right now); while recognizing he’s a controversial figure, I don’t really think that it’s in question that he is a native-born model of sanctity. I personally think he is a saint, and I believe he interceded to heal my mother from a heart issue a few years back, but I also think it will take time for the amen of American faithful to be uttered. I know a priest, and perhaps a bishop or two, who I believe might be glorified after their respective reposes. I have heard some suggest Lynette Hoppe; certainly this book seems designed to make that case. There are others I can think of, too.

My point is, until there are models of holiness who have been raised up out of “our people,” as it were, I’m not sure it makes any sense to be so neurotic and anxious about our earthly organization. Once we start producing saints, administrative questions will take care of themselves. The importance of saints who are local and recent, I have come to realize, is that they shine forth the light of Christ in a way that is immediate. What is more powerful, reading a story about somebody who supposedly did something fifteen hundred years ago, or hearing first-hand accounts of people who did those very things within the last few years? We run a great risk by holding ourselves at a distance from saints — they are less convicting that way, I suppose, meaning they’re more comfortable to be around, but they are also less compelling and convincing.

In other words — if we want a solution to the jurisdictional problem in this country, maybe what we need to do is, before we write a letter or join a lay activist organization or start a blog (all potentially worthy things to do, don’t get me wrong), we need to go out and be saints.

We will see.

Repost: An Interesting Point of Convergence

This is an old post from the .Mac days (14 February 2007 to be precise). A comment on this post over at the Ochlophobist’s blog reminded me of it (and seems to suggest that Fr. Alexander did, in fact, express some specific thoughts regarding Fr. Seraphim), and it seemed appropriate to put here. Enjoy.

I’m reading Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s Great Lent: Journey to Pascha as my Lenten discipline. I was struck by the following passage:

…Christian love is sometimes the opposite of ‘social activism’ with which one so often identifies Christianity today. To a ‘social activist’ the object of love is not ‘person’ but man, an abstract unit of a not less abstract ‘humanity.’ But for Christianity, man is ‘lovable’ because he isperson. There person is reduced to man; here man is seen only as person. The ‘social activist’ has no interest for the personal, and easily sacrifices it to the ‘common interest.’ Christianity may seem to be, and in some ways actually is, rather sceptical about that abstract ‘humanity,’ but it commits a mortal sin against itself each time it gives up its concern and love for the person. Social activism is always ‘futuristic’ in its approach; it always acts in the name of justice, order, happiness to come, to be achieved. Christianity cares little about that problematic future but puts the whole emphasis on the now–the only decisive time for love. The two attitudes are not mutually exclusive, but they must not be confused. Christians, to be sure, have responsibilities toward ‘this world’ and they must fulfill them. This is the area of ‘social activism’ which belongs entirely to ‘this world.’ Christian love, however, aims beyond ‘this world.’ It is itself a ray, a manifestation of the Kingdom of God; it transcends and overcomes all limitations, all ‘conditions’ of this world because its motivation as well as its goals and consummation is in God. And we know that even in this world, which ‘lies in evil,’ the only lasting and transforming victories are those of love. To remind man of this personal love and vocation, to fill the sinful world with this love–this is the true mission of the Church. (Fr. Alexander Schmemann, Great Lent, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 25-6)

Compare this to the oft-quoted passage from C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, III.10:

Hope is one of the Theological virtues. This means that a continual looking forward to the eternal world is not (as some modern people think) a form of escapism or wishful thinking, but one of the things a Christian is meant to do. It does not mean that we are to leave the present world as it is. If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next. The Apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English Evangelicals who abolished the Slave Trade, all left their mark on Earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this.Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither. It seems a strange rule, but something like it can be seen at work in other matters. Health is a great blessing, but the moment you make health one of your main, direct objects you start becoming a crank and imagining there is something wrong with you. You are only likely to get health provided you want other things more–food, games, work, fun, open air. In the same way, we shall never save civilisation as long as civilisation is our main object. We must learn to want something else even more.

These are clearly parallel statements, and I’d suggest they ultimately reflect the heavenly economy discussed in Mark 8:35: “For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it.” Additionally, I’m not aware of Fr. Alexander having ever expressed any specific thoughts about Lewis (which isn’t saying very much, to be sure), but I at least wonder about the possibility of Lewis having directly influenced the Great Lent passage. Also, think about the literal meaning of the Greek word for sin, άμαρτία, “missing the mark.” According to both of these passages, “aiming for earth” will always result in a “missing of the mark.” To avoid sin, to hit the mark, we must “aim for heaven,” for something “beyond this world.”

What is also interesting about both of these passages to me is their unexpected resonance with the views of Fr. Seraphim Rose on what he identified as a modern manifestation of the heresy of chiliasm. Specifically, this term referred to the condemned belief that Christ will reign on earth for a thousand years before the end of the world, but Fr. Seraphim also used it to refer generally to a belief in the possibility of perfecting this world. (For a thorough treatment of Fr. Seraphim’s views on this point, see Hieromank Damascene’s Father Seraphim Rose: His Life and Works, St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood Press, 242ff.)

Consider the following from Fr. Seraphim’s Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future (St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood Press):

The careful observer of the contemporary religious scene…cannot fail to notice a very decided air of chiliastic expectation. […] Thus, many traditionalist Roman Catholics believe in the coming of a chiliastic ‘Age of Mary’ before the end of the world, and this is only one variant on the more widespread Latin error of trying to ‘sanctify the world,’ or, as Archbishop Thomas Connolly of Seattle expressed it… ‘transforming the modern world into the Kingdom of God in preparation for His return.’ Protestant evangelists such as Bill Graham, in their mistaken private interpretation of the Apocalypse (Revelation), await the ‘millennium’ when ‘Christ’ will reign on earth. (177)

He continues:

The life of self-centeredness and self-satisfaction lived by most of today’s ‘Christians’ is so all-pervading that it effectively seals them off from any understanding at all of spiritual life; and when such people do undertake ‘spiritual life,’ it is only as another form of self-satisfaction. This can be seen quite clearly in [a] totally false religious ideal… [which promises] an experience of ‘contentment’ and ‘peace.’ But this is not the Christian ideal at all, which if anything may be summed up as a fierce battle and struggle. The ‘contentment’ and ‘peace’ described in these contemporary ‘spiritual’ movements are quite manifestly the product of spiritual deception, of spiritual self-satisfaction–which is the absolute death of the God-oriented spiritual life… Christian spirituality is formed in the arduous struggle to acquire the eternal Kingdom of Heaven, which fully begins only with the dissolution of this temporal world, and the true Christian struggler never finds repose even in the foretastes of eternal blessedness which might be vouchsafed to him in this life[.] ( 187-8 )

Fr. Seraphim, as is typical, is uncompromising in his criticism of the modern world, and his language is therefore far more militant than that of Lewis or Fr. Alexander, but the bottom line for him is clearly the same: if we do not begin and end with the eternal Kingdom of Heaven as our goal, we are deceiving ourselves and nothing will be accomplished for this earth anyway. Again, I’m not aware of Fr. Seraphim having ever commented directly on Lewis (which is, again, not saying much); certainly he knew of Fr. Alexander (although it ‘s not clear that the reverse is true), and published some fairly savage criticism of him. However, I believe points of correspondence such as this one show that they had more in common than perhaps they would have wanted to admit, and that this is further made clear by a comparison of of Fr. Alexander’s published journals (The Journals of Father Alexander Schmemann, 1973-1983, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press) to Hieromonk Damascene’s biography of Fr. Seraphim and writings such as God’s Revelation to the Human Heart. (I have far more to say about the apparent tension between these two men, and believe it ultimately had more to do with ecclesial politics than actual tenets of faith, but that is an essay for another time.)

Three very different kinds of Christian thinkers in very different contexts: Lewis was a low-church Anglican and academic writing a popular apologetic. Fr. Alexander was an Orthodox priest and scholar writing a devotional book. Fr. Seraphim was a former Eastern philosophy scholar turned Orthodox ascetic and monastic writing a critique of contemporary spirituality. All wind up emphasizing essentially the same point nonetheless: Christian spirituality is formed in the arduous struggle to acquire the eternal Kingdom of Heaven. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither. Christian love aims beyond this world.

I will note that there are subtle differences in how this point is presented: for Lewis, aiming at heaven is something we do; it requires an act of will from our end. For Fr. Alexander, aiming beyond this world must occur in the context of Christian love. For Fr. Seraphim, acquiring the Kingdom (aiming for heaven, if you will) requires struggle on our part. Strict Calvinists might argue that Lewis and Fr. Seraphim’s constructions are absolutely in error, that our total depravity renders any act of will or struggle on our part towards heaven impossible. However, given the concept in Orthodox Christianity of συνεργεία or cooperation between divine grace and human freedom (cf. 1 Cor 3:9, “We are fellow-workers with God”), this objection may be set aside. I’d argue that all three perspectives are in fact correct; it does require an act of will on our part, it must come from love (making it a cooperation with God, since God is love, cf. 1 John 4:8), and it is a struggle.

The point bears repeating: Christian spirituality is formed in the arduous struggle to acquire the eternal Kingdom of Heaven. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither. Christian love aims beyond this world. How different a concept of “social justice” this forms from that which the secular humanists, and even those on the Christian left, preach.


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