A Saint Without Compromise

Today, according to the Gregorian Calendar, is the Feast of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist. Kept as a solemn liturgical celebration and fast day among many Eastern Christians, this day—and one might argue the Baptist’s entire earthly ministry—has lost a bit of its import in the West. In his book The Friend of the Bridegroom, the Russian Orthodox theologian Fr. Sergius Bulgakov threw shade on the West’s elevation of St. Joseph, the spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary, at the apparent expense of keeping St. John central in its liturgical and spiritual heritage. Although it is unlikely that many Latin Catholics would entirely follow Bulgakov’s assessment, particular since it smacks more than a bit of knee-jerk Orthodox anti-Catholicism, it is true that the Forerunner of Christ does not factor considerably in contemporary Catholic reflections on sainthood, witness, and martyrdom. Why that is so I cannot say. What I can say is that perhaps now more than ever, the Baptist deserves to be at the forefront of our minds.

Let me be clear. St. John did not mince words, nor did he retreat from the truth, even at the cost of his own life. In the face of public scandal and sin, he stood firm with the Law of God over and against earthly powers. While the Byzantine hymnography for today’s commemoration of the Baptist’s decollation tends to focus on the sinfulness of Herod Antipas and his vile stepdaughter Salome, there are numerous references to the Forerunner’s unrelenting preaching, both on earth and to the souls in Hades awaiting the coming of Christ, the Conqueror of Death. Any man with ears to hear cannot walk away from today’s cycle of liturgical services without a firm appreciation for St. John’s steadfastness in all things.

And where, might I ask, are we to find a St. John in our own day? At a time with hierarchs, priests, and laity cower from muttering any word which may run afoul secular-liberal “morality” and the tyranny of “tolerance,” the Baptist looks like a legend, or an ideal which we can no longer strive toward for fear of reprisal. Maybe some are even tempted to think that there were other, undocumented, reasons for the Forerunner’s death. Maybe it wasn’t because he spoke out against public sin, particularly public sexual sin. Perhaps he died because he held to some wrongheaded political beliefs or supported that “revolutionary” from Nazareth or forgot to pay his taxes, etc. Let there please be an intramundane explanation for his decapitation! Do not tell me this holy man met his end because he failed to do the one thing all of us crave to do every single day of our lives: capitulate.

Those illumined by the light of faith cannot set aside why St. John met his end any more than they can deny that all sins of the flesh, including open and unrepented adultery, are worthy of condemnation. They cannot deny that the Forerunner of Christ was, fully and faithfully, a man of God whose tongue was gifted to him for one reason and one reason alone: to speak the truth without reservation. Does this unsettle us? Does this make us uncomfortable? If so, then shame, for the life and heroic death of St. John the Baptist should inspire everyone, from the highest authority in the Church to the lowliest layman, to never waver in their witness, even at the highest cost.

Old Orthodox Prayer Book – Third Edition

The Church of the Nativity has just released the third edition of its wonderful Old Orthodox Prayer Book with parallel English/Church Slavonic text. You can get a look at the new edition, including the improved font size, at the Church’s website here. As a longtime user of the second edition of the prayer book, I can’t recommend this spiritual resource enough. If you’ve never used this book before or, like me, have worn your second edition down, this is wonderful news.

Steve the Builder Returns

I realize that I am late in commenting on this, but Steve the Builder, the podcast of one Steve Robinson which is hosted by Ancient Faith Radio, has returned to the airwaves after a five-year hiatus. The “relaunch episode,” which serves as both an update on Robinson’s life and a reflection on discerning the will of God, is a must-listen installment of the show, particularly during this season of Great Lent (or Holy Week for Western Christians).

For those unaware, Robinson used to pen the equal parts insightful and hilarious Pithless Thoughts web-log, co-hosts another podcast entitled Our Life in Christ, and has authored two books, including Fire From Ashes: The Reality of Perpetual Conversion with Fr. Joseph Huneycutt.

Some Casual Remarks on Lent

‘Tis the season for every Catholic writer, blogger, and celebrity cleric to remind the faithful about the “true meaning” of Lent and all of the “spiritual riches” which are sure to accompany any number of “disciplines,” ranging from reading more classic Catholic literature to giving up beer in favor of hard liquor for 40 days. For a handful of Eastern Catholics following the Gregorian Calendar, Lent began Sunday evening; they could not eat the paczki. Those Easterners celebrating according to the Julian Calendar still have a bit of time before Great Lent kicks in. The spread this year between Gregorian Easter and Julian Pascha is pretty significant. (March 27 as opposed to May 1.) Perhaps by the time Julian Pascha rolls around, it will actually look a lot like spring outside. For those living in the Midwest, it’ll be a miracle if the temperature gets above 45 at the end of the March with no snow on the ground. As I type this, the white stuff is once again descending upon Michigan, though in far less significant amounts than have hit the rest of the country this winter. For that I am thankful. After spending nearly a decade in Chicago without a car, I can say honestly that my winter driving chops have never fully recovered. Moreover, living in the land where every other person on the road owns either an SUV or a truck and thus believes themselves to be invincible, having an A+ defensive-driving game is necessary for survival.

If I were to recommend two pieces of modest reading during this (or any) season of Lent, it would surely be Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s classic Great Lent and St. Alphonsus Liguori’s Preparation for Death (the lightly abridged, but easy-to-acquire TAN Books edition). They are two works seemingly far apart in spirit (Schmemann: “bright sorrow”; Alphonsus: “hell is nigh”) and yet capable of converging on a single point which, in my mind, is essential for those desiring to have a good Lent (however defined): the renewal of time. That is to say, the renewal of our remaining time on this earth should be at the forefront of our minds during this penitential season, especially since we have wasted so much of it already. Instead of perceiving longer liturgical services or more intensive personal prayer as “boring” or “monotonous” or “burdensome,” perhaps we should ask, “What else would you be doing right now?” Getting into trouble, no doubt.

That’s just one man’s opinion, of course; people can follow their own way (or not) to the Resurrection of Christ. Needless to say, no one else except your confessor and Guardian Angel need know about it. For some, the hardest Lenten discipline of all will be to refrain from telling everyone on social media how “hard” and “challenging” the fast is (assuming they fast at all). Oh, and how I pray that the pope would bestow a plenary indulgence for any who refrain from posting “ash selfies” on Facebook. The next cringe-worthy moment will come in another month when Orthodox take to Twitter to ask forgiveness of all whom they have offended, as if a pixelated rote messaged carries anything near the weight of a genuine face-to-face encounter (or, absent that, a personal message). Ah, but now I sound ornery and perhaps I am to some extent and so I best stop typing soon.

Let me conclude, though, with two pieces of advice concerning Lent I have quoted before, but feel compelled to repeat again. The first, from an Orthodox priest, was more of an observation and went like this: “The devil never rides you harder than during Great Lent.” True, true. The second, from a Catholic cleric, runs roughly as follows: “If you can find one fault—just one fault—and correct that during the 40 days, then you will have had a good Lent.” Indeed.

Some Sunday Paragraphs

A reader recently e-mailed me about an article that appears on the polemical (if not hyperbolic) website Orthodox Information Center (OIC) entitled, “A Comparison: Francis of Assisi and St. Seraphim of Sarov.” Those familiar with OIC can already guess the piece’s two-part conclusion: (1) Orthodox/Byzantine good; (2) Catholic/Latin bad. Instead of engaging in a thoroughgoing analysis of St. Francis’s life and teachings, the article’s author—the vagante bishop Chrysostomos of Etna, California—looks for “soundbites” with which to indict Francis for not being, well, “Byzantine enough” in his piety and spirituality. The East, as the story goes, is shot through with “pure mysticism” and “humility,” while the West is mired in “carnality” and “sensuality,” owing—of all things—to the “error of papalism” (or something). People can read this sort of stuff if they desire, but I find it much better to go to the writings of Francis himself (or any other saint or mystic) before drawing any strong conclusions. Yes, there are certain passages his writings which can be cryptic and some of his poetical flourishes may take some off guard, but that can probably be said for most spiritual writings. It would not take much effort to comb through the pages of St. John Climacus’s Ladder of Divine Ascent or St. Isaac the Syrian’s Ascetical Homilies to find passages which make both men appear deranged. In fact, a great deal of Athonite spiritual writing can leave that impression if not taken in the right context or read with discernment and guidance.

The reason I make mention of this is not to stage a meta-defense of Latin mysticism and asceticism, but to remind readers of something a certain Eastern Orthodox priest said to me on numerous occasions, namely to steer clear of “spiritual literature” if your takeaway is anything other than a desire for true repentance or a feeling of authentic consolation. I am not, and have never been, a big advocate of “spiritual reading” outside of the Bible, and even then I am inclined to read most Biblical books with the guidance of a well-grounded commentary (e.g., St. John Chrysostom on Romans, St. Ambrose of Milan on the Gospel of Luke, and so forth). Moreover, I believe a great deal of spiritual fruit can come from reading certain theological works, such as St. Athanasius’s On the Incarnation or St. Augustine’s City of God, but to each their own. Perhaps some will accuse me of excess morbidity, but I am much more at home with St. Alphonsus Liguori’s Preparation for Death than I am with contemporary Eastern monastic literature that goes on about canes, getting stepped on by fellow monks, and whatnot. As important as it is to never believe oneself to be “advanced” or “ahead of others” in the spiritual life, the despair I have heard pour out of people’s mouths after they read stuff by Elder Joseph the Hesychast or his followers is positively ghastly.

If I may be so bold as to close these ephemeral thoughts with a recommendation for the Lenten season (which will be here quicker than we expect), let me strongly suggest sitting down with a book of meditations composed by St. Alphonsus, not because Redemptorist spirituality is the “best spirituality,” but because I find its emphasis on the Cross, the Crib, and Communion particularly important at a time of year when—to quote another Orthodox priest I knew—the devil rides us extra hard. There is such a thing as a healthy fear of damnation, though most of live with a sickened sense that such a possibility is no longer relevant to our lives. The Byzantine Rite still captures this healthy sense a tad bit better than the Latin Rite, which is perhaps why the Redemptorists had more than a bit of success adapting their simple but direct piety to the East a century ago. But that’s a topic for another day.

Disconnected Thoughts on “Holy Rus,” Revival, and Current Conditions

19th C. Russian Orthodoxy—Holy Rus!—is often romanticized by contemporary American Orthodox Christians suffering from an inferiority complex, triumphalism, or both. Even so, it would be unfair to dismiss the genuine religious revival which took place in Russia leading up to the Soviet Revolution, a revival which was as spiritual as it was intellectual. Although it would take some decades before their presence was truly appreciated by the institutional Russian church, the 1800s housed the Optina Elders, St. Theophan the Recluse, St. Philaret of Moscow, and Bishop Ignatius Bryanchaninov. Ss. Seraphim of Sarov and John of Kronstadt serve as spiritual bookends for the century while the ecclesial careers of Metropolitans Evlogy (Georgiyevsky) and Anthony (Kraphavitsky)—two of the most important figures in the history of diaspora Russian Orthodoxy—began. Theologically, most know the 19th C. as a time when “Russian Scholasticism” (for lack of a better term) began to yield some turf to such different currents as a nascent Patristic revival and, much more controversially, German Idealism-inspired mysticism such as Sophiology. Much of this good work would be either destroyed or dispersed during the first half of the 20th C. and arguably it failed to fully refresh the present-day Russian church despite the heroic attempts of some churchmen to reconnect 21st C. Russian Orthodoxy with the possibilities present in the 19th.

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Public Prayer II

In several recent posts (e.g., here) I have discussed the absence (or, rather, loss) of the Divine Office, that is, the public prayer of the Church, among Latin Catholics. By comparison, the Eastern Orthodox (and, to a lesser extent, Eastern Catholics) have done a much better job offering services like Matins, Vespers, and the small hours to the faithful. It remains my contention that public prayer outside of Mass will not return to the Latin Church until the clergy takes up the cause. Lay demand for these services is, at best, minimal, mostly due to ignorance or a (false) belief that it is not “their place” to address the matter. This does not mean that the lay faithful have to be shut out of praying liturgically even if they cannot participate in a formal parish setting. Although the vernacular Liturgy of the Hours has been around for decades, traditionally minded Catholics—or those who are simply not thrilled by the U.S. Catholic Church’s official translations—have mostly steered clear of it. Thankfully, a number of liturgical resources, in both Latin and English, have started to become available so as to allow the faithful—and their families—to pray with the Church even if, for now, it must be done in the privacy of the home.

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Comparison: Russian Orthodox Eucharistic Discipline

With Eucharistic discipline being on the forefront of many Catholics’ minds these days, I thought it might be helpful—for the sake of some perspective—to take a brief look at the normative prescribed practice of the Russian Orthodox Church and her heirs. Although the Orthodox do not embrace a “clean distinction” between mortal and venial sin, serious sin has always been an impediment to receiving Holy Communion in the East. This is why those who regularly receive the Eucharist are encouraged, if not directed, to make frequent use of the sacrament of Confession and to spiritually prepare themselves in advance (more on this in a moment). In previous centuries, the demands of preparation, coupled with popular Eucharistic piety, meant that few people, other than monastics and clergy, took Communion more than a couple of times a year. During the course of the 20th Century, this situation began to change as (primarily Russian émigré) theologians like Fr. Alexander Schmemann began promoting the centrality of the Eucharist in the life and mission of the Church. Even before Schmemann’s time, however, St. John of Kronstadt—perhaps Russia’s first religious celebrity to gain worldwide notice—had begun encouraging the faithful to attend the sacraments more frequently in order to nourish themselves on the long journey to Heaven. While conservative Orthodox critics bemoaned what they saw as an erosion of discipline in the Church, today regular (though not necessarily weekly) Communion is commonplace.

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Some Thoughts on St. Nicholas Charnetsky and Our Present Situation

St. Nicholas Charnetsky, a Ukrainian Greek-Catholic bishop and martyr for the Faith, labored with Christian charity and Apostolic zeal for the reunion of Orthodox with the See of Rome from the 1920s until his imprisonment by Soviet authorities in April 1945. As a member of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer (Redemptorists), Charnetsky embodied both the monastic and missionary spirit of the order’s founder, St. Alphonsus Ligouri, by ministering to the most abandoned souls while never neglecting his rigorous daily prayer rule. As a Latin order, the Redemptorists may have seemed like a strange vehicle to bring the Word of God to Byzantine Rite Catholics and Orthodox, but as recounted in Blessed Bishop Nicholas Charnetsky, C.Ss.R. and Companions: Modern Martyrs of the Ukrainian Catholic Church (Ligouri Publications 2002), the saintly bishop

observed that the spirit of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer—because of its simplicity, love of sacrifice and self-denial, and also because of its singular devotion to the suffering and eucharistic Jesus and to the Most Holy Virgin Mother of God—was very close to the spirit of the Ukrainian people, and created, as it were a link of mystical affinity.

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