Friday, November 18, 2016

The Myth and the Theotokos

         In the Divine Liturgy we celebrate real history. We don’t celebrate myths, religious ideals, or the wisdom of men. Its a history according to God’s reckoning and one that requires us to have faith. For the majority of those that would attended a Divine Liturgy there might not be a contention with what I just said. If there is, we have unlimited manuals of apologetics that can explain how everything can make historical sense. Even with events like the resurrection any doubt can be talked down. I bet St. Paul could have used some of the apologetics that we have today. When he came preaching the resurrection to Greeks many of them thought he was nuts (Acts 17:32). The resurrection just did not make any sense according to the way the Greeks understood history. For those that did accept the preaching of St. Paul they were accepting something they could not explain away. This was a big risk for them but one that must have been fueled by an authentic encounter with Christ.
           The Divine Liturgy is our greatest encounter with Christ. As of such, it should determine our understanding of history even if there is a risk involved. The liturgical feasts that we celebrate in our tradition have changed the world and continue to do so. The feasts are historical and at the same time beyond history. They exist within and outside of time and are the salvation for the World. As I said, we don’t celebrate ideas but real events that continue to shape history. It is in celebrating these very events that we the baptized bring salvation into the World. In fact, I would be bold to say that if we neglect an opportunity to participate in a liturgy the World suffers. It’s a mystery why God chooses to bring salvation into the world through human participation. On the other hand, human participation is pretty much the content of the feasts we celebrate.   

With all this being said, I will now proclaim a historical fact: If the Theotokos as a child did not enter the sacred part of the Jewish Temple none of us would be saved. I make this statement based on an element of one of the Great Feasts of our Church, “The Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple”. Tradition teaches us the Theotokos was brought by her parents to serve in the temple community and it was there she was led by the High priest into the depths of the temple where she became the true holy of holies. This event is historically impossible from what we know about Judaism at the time. It’s just as impossible as a person coming back from the dead or ascending into heaven. In contrast, if these things did not happen none of us would know salvation.
God is always intervening in history. Our Tradition celebrates this intervention and perpetuates it. I know that this “The Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple” has sometimes been subject to debate. It comes from a non-canonical source and no historical science could verify its validity. However, it’s part of our sacred Tradition. If you were to call this feast into question its understandable. However, the next time you attended this liturgy ask yourself what you are celebrating. Is it a Myth, theological ideas, good intentions, or an event that saves the world?  

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

We become God

     Ever since I was able to grasp what my church was teaching I have not been the same. For some of us its easy to keep God distant through the use of religion. What is not easy for us is accepting  that through Christ there really is no distance between us and God. When it comes to this idea of distance my church teaches that God became man so that man can become God. At the first time of hearing this, like many, I found it unacceptable. It seems it’s easy to get hung up on a false context in which there is an invitation to a new pantheon. As for the teaching it means what it says but it does so in a Christian context. In its context it is clear that we the created are called to participate in the uncreated, to share in what God is through grace, to partake of the Divine Nature (2peter 1:4). As St. Diadochos of Photiki teaches God is someone who has been given completely to us but remains hidden in our hearts. On our part, we are called to an ongoing participation in what He has given us. To make known to ourselves and to the world what has done in those who are baptized.
     For the baptized there is no need to go through phases or stages to have God. As Saint Cyril of Jerusalem said once, “having been baptized into Christ, and put on Christ, you have been given the same form as the Son of God”. After hearing this, our first thought is often to assume that we become “like” Christ through baptism, therefore making us near to God. Unfortunately, using the term “like” in reference to what the saint is saying can diminish his actual meaning. In contrast, the saint specifically said that we have been given the same “form” as Christ. In this case, where we use the term “like” to imply a mere resemblance the saint uses “form” which implies that we are of the same thing, which makes God more than just near. Christ was true God and true man. It was His divine nature that transformed His human nature, even giving it victory over death. This same thing now takes place in each one of us. This is a mystery for sure but one in which we can understand that there are no distances between us and God.
     We who believe in Christ only need to look in our own heart to see God and to know that His divine nature is changing us. On the other hand, experiencing  this should not be an isolated experience. This same mystery is found in every member of the Church. For its only in the context of being a member of the Church that this mystery can be fully realized. In terms of the Church, as Byzantine Catholic I believe that the greatest way to experience this mystery is found in the Divine Liturgy. In another perspective, I would be bold to say that from God’s view the greatness in the Liturgy comes from us. What I trying to say is that what takes place in my Holy Tradition is incomplete as long as it remains on the altar. We are in fact the destination for all the Divine activity that takes place in the Liturgy. It is true that the bread and wine becomes God but we do even more!
     In saying these things I wonder why it’s easier for me to accept that bread becomes God  instead of those who participate in the Liturgy. Why is it so easy for me to keep Christ on the altar and not within me. This is scandalous language I know but its language that some saints never failed to speak about. For example, St. Symeon the New Theologian had this to say, “We awaken in Christ's body as Christ awakens our bodies and my poor hand is Christ. He enters my foot and is infinitely me. I move my hand and wonderfully my hand becomes Christ, All of him, For God is indivisibly whole, seamless in his Godhead. I move my foot, At once he appears like a flash of lightning”. He goes on to say that even the most ugly and hidden parts of us become transformed, they become God. I guess in all my own ugliness its hard to accept that everything in that Eucharist is everything now in me.
     Speaking more on my ugly parts, looking at my own life, in terms of my sins, what my church teaches seems impossible. How can I become what God is or rather why? I still don’t understand why He loves me or why He has given Himself fully to me. I certainly don’t deserve this but I do accept it. In accepting this I have also made a commitment to never give up; even when it seems superficial to keep turning to God due to the fact that I keep falling into the same sins. For me, just knowing that He is there without measure drives me to never give up. I really don't understand how it all works but I do know that by constantly turning to Him I am being changed and becoming what He is through grace.

"The Word became flesh to make us "partakers of the divine nature":"For this is why the Word became man, and the Son of God became the Son of man: so that man, by entering into communion with the Word and thus receiving divine sonship, might become a son of God." "For the Son of God became man so that we might become God." "The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods." (Catechism of the Catholic church 460)

Thursday, September 25, 2014

The True Church

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

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Defending the Theotokos

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

Saturday, July 5, 2014

99 Ways to Become a God

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


Friday, June 13, 2014

Explaining the Aerial Toll-Houses

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