Tuesday, August 12, 2014

"Know Your Catechism!"

Some time ago I recall reading a book by Archbishop Joseph Raya on the Sacraments of Initiation. The late Archbihop Raya - Melkite Greek Catholic Archbishop of Akka, Haifa, Nazareth, and Galilee - is one of my all-time favorite authors. In many ways he is, to me, the Melkite equivalent to Archbishop Fulton Sheen. He may not have had his own television show, and he may not have been as prolific in his writings, but Kyr Raya has this way of taking the great truths of our Faith and presenting them in such a way that they are understandable by all, but without diminishing the depths of the truths presented.

In this particular book, Theophany and the Sacraments of Initiation, Archbishop Raya refers to the Creed that we recite or sing at the Mass/Divine Liturgy as a "Hymn of Harmony and Glory," a "charter of our Christian life." For Kyr Raya the Creed, as with so many other things in our Faith, is a celebration!

This thought has stuck with me since then because how often do we experience the Creed as anything but a cold listing of the essential dogmas of our Faith? If we just skim over it during the Liturgy - and I am as guilty of this as the next person - then we will find little in it to make it seem as a "hymn of glory." At best we will see only the basic kerygma, the essential proclamations of our Faith; truths that we have either repeated or had repeated to us so many times that they no longer strike us with the sense of wonder and surprise that they should produce in us.

But herein lies the problem. We have reduced the Creed (and so many other things in our Faith) to little more than a philosophy. It is, for so many of us, a list of intellectual beliefs. We repeat over and over "I/we believe... I/we believe... I/we believe" and we presume that such "belief" is nothing more than a basic intellectual assent. Sure the intellectual assent is necessary, but that is only the beginning. St. Theophan tells us that if we do not allow the truth of our Faith to penetrate down into our hearts and to completely transform us, then "truth is stuffed into the head like sand, and the spirit becomes cold and hard, smokes over and puffs up" (The Path of Salvation: pg. 249). Isn't this what St. Paul is getting at in his wonderful discourse on love; "If I have all faith so as to move mountains, but have not love... I am nothing."

So what does the Creed do for us? The Creed is a basic catechesis. It distills for us the realities that we profess and that have been revealed to us. These are not just intellectual truths to which we give assent, they are realities that we are called to enter into, to participate in. We profess the reality of one God in three Persons. We rejoice in the reality that God the Father created us out of nothing through His eternal Word and by the power of His Holy Spirit. We celebrate the reality that, out of His great love for us, the eternal Word willed to become man for our sake so that we might glory in the divine life that we had lost through sin. In all of this we hear the voice of the Spirit speaking through the Prophets and throughout all of history, pointing us to the reality of the incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension of Christ. And we celebrate the reality that Christ has willed to continue His presence among us through His bride the Church, and that He will come again to bring us to our eternal home at the end of time.

When we look at these things as realities and not just as intellectual concepts, they take on a whole new meaning. What cause for rejoicing and celebration! What cause for gratitude! What cause for true conversion to a God who loves us so much! This is the whole point of catechesis. St. Theophan again tells us that we need to "study our catechism," so to speak; that we need to learn the essential truths of our Faith. But learning these truths does not mean learning them as intellectual concepts, or mere facts that we might repeat in a game of trivia. When studying our Faith, learning our catechism (and yes, catechesis applies equally to the East as it does to the West), we must learn with an open heart. We must contemplate the truths of our Faith in our hearts as did the Theotokos. We must allow ourselves to be completely transformed by the realities that we study and profess. The whole point of our study is to know more and more about the One we love, not just to cram our heads full of trivia. Love desires to know the beloved on all levels; and so we seek the Lord in prayer, in the Sacraments, in the Liturgical life of the Church, in study, and in good works. May heaven consume us!

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Little Heroes

As I was sitting at my kitchen table this morning, tying prayer ropes and listening to an Orthodox pastor give his "testimony" on his journey from Pentecostal/Evangelical Protestantism to Orthodoxy, I looked over and saw one of my completed prayer ropes sitting on a pile of mail. Such a scene is not unusual in my apartment. I've got prayer ropes lying around all over the place here. Some are used for prayer, others are used by my children as toys of some sort, others are uncompleted projects waiting for completion, and others are just a mess made by my children when they got into my prayer rope supplies. But today in particular the scene of this prayer rope lying on top of a stack of mail really struck me.

While listening to this Greek Orthodox pastor speak about his conversion to Orthodoxy, he spoke about how so many Christians think of their faith in terms of a contract: I do xyz, and God doesn't send me to Hell. He pointed out that this is why many can so easily enter into divorce without even batting an eye, as though divorce is simply the natural end of a marriage. This contractual approach to our relationships with one another and with God miss the point of relationships entirely. Relationships are not a "give-and-take," as we are so often told by mainstream "wisdom." Christ Himself shows us that relationships are meant to be self-gift.

But I'm straying a little here. There's a stack of mail with a prayer rope on top, a computer, an empty coffee cup (much in need of refilling), a journal and a book by St. Theophan, some roses I bought for my wife, and behind the roses some empty beer bottles from dinner with my father, sister, and father-in-law three nights ago. This is what I see lying before me as I'm struck by this simple prayer rope on a stack of mail. You see, relationships permeate everything we do and everything we think about. We've all had that experience of "falling in love." We've all been so twitterpated by some person that they are what we think about the moment we wake up. They are what we think about throughout the day. They are what we think about as we lay down to sleep. They can even be what we dream about throughout the night. Have you ever experienced this? You love your beloved so much that your very thoughts and actions become oriented to them. Isn't this what marriage is all about? The lover holds the beloved before his eyes at all times, constantly thinks of ways to please her, and would never dream of doing anything to hurt her. Even in day-to-day activities the thought of how his thoughts and actions may affect his beloved are always in his mind, even of only on a subconscious level.

This is the relationship we ought to have with God, and the relationship He obviously desires to have from us if we are to take Him at His Word. How do our actions and thoughts affect our relationship with God? Is God our first thought upon rising? Are we centered on God throughout the day? Are we continually mindful of God's loving presence with us throughout the day? Do we turn to him before retiring for the night, or do we just turn on the radio or television?

In the midst of our day-to-day living everything we do is supposed to be permeated with the love of God. Our thoughts and actions are meant to be "pregnant" with the love of God so that we might "give birth" to God in the world through our very lives. We are not necessarily called to grand heroic actions, but to the heroic action of living every moment, especially the hum-drum moments of daily life, in the love of God. Studies in marriage relationships have shown that it is not great romantic gestures that make for a happy marriage. In an unhappy marriage such gestures can often at best be moments of awkwardness, and at worst deteriorate into misunderstanding and further marital troubles. What makes any marriage a happy marriage is how the spouses respond to each other in the small day-to-day events.

Why would we think that our prayer life, our life in Christ, would be any different? St. Theophan teaches us that we need to study our Faith, not just for information, but in such a way that it penetrates down into our hearts and eventually transforms and permeates the way we see everything, what we think, and how we act. Sure that stack of mail laying under the prayer rope may be hum-drum - it may be day-to-day; but when permeated with the love of God, that stack of bills, those dishes that still need washed, that dirty diaper, that dead-end 9 - 5 job, all these things become the means of salvation for us. The question is, are we up to the task of day-to-day heroics? Answer: No we're not, but God is; and through prayer He will give us what we need to be "little heroes." May heaven consume us.