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Mission Monthly – January 2007

“Experience shows us that physical hunger can sometimes nourish the soul. The clearest proof of this is fasting. A fully-satisfied body generally denotes a completely empty soul. He who fasts nourishes his soul. The more a man accustoms himself to fasting, the fewer cares he has for his body and the greater joy in his soul. This is not something that comes by hearsay; it is only clear in itself, when a man tries it and practices it in his life.”

St. Nikolai Velimirovich

I can only hope that this Christmas/Theophany season has been as beautiful for others as it has been for me and my family! I do not want to dampen that beauty with further talk of fasting, but for two reasons I cannot help but think about the ongoing training of our bodies even in the heart and height of our celebrations.

First, as we keep our eyes on the calendar, it is important to note that Holy Pascha will be celebrated relatively early this year—April 8th. This means that Great and Holy Lent will begin earlier as well. Meatfare Sunday (February 11) is only just over five weeks away and Clean Monday (the first day of Lent) is February 19. The layout of any year’s calendar requires us as Orthodox Christians to keep our eyes open to it, but years such as 2007 require an even greater attentiveness that we be very well prepared—spiritually, emotionally, and physically—to fully embrace our life in Christ and His Church. I would hate for any of us to be surprised on February 11th and possibly be tempted to be embittered towards the Church.

Another outcome of the earlier Pascha is an earlier Pentecost followed by an earlier All-Saints Sunday (the Sunday following Pentecost). This is most significant because on the Monday following All-Saints we begin the Apostle’s Fast which takes us through the Feast of Sts. Peter & Paul on June 29th. This year almost the whole month of June (the 4th-29th) will be another fasting period. In the years when Pascha comes late—after April 27th—the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul would fall in the week following Pentecost so essentially there would be no Apostle’s Fast. This year, however, this is not the case.

Secondly, it seems good to think about fasting “even in the height and heart of our celebrations.” While I consider myself only an average faster at best God certainly has been good in allowing me some measure of progress in attaining fewer cares in my life. The provocation of the passions in any man is what leads him to anxious care for his life and ultimately to sin. It is only within a man that this anxiousness can be detected, unless its severity leads him to act out his passions. Whether it be anger or irritability, over-eating or laziness, impure thoughts or fornication, gossip, disobedience, self-love or pride, whatever it is there is no question we need to sincerely submit ourselves to seeking freedom from care for our bodily impulses, our lives “in the world,” if we ever hope to find it.

St. Nikolai in the above quote was writing about the life of St. John the Baptist. Listen further to what he had to say about the Holy Forerunner, “As all the holy men who lived, not by a wisdom culled from books but by tried realities, so St. John lived. He learned to be free from care about his bodily life, not by reading books and listening to wise men, who “say” but do not “say how”, but by practicing freedom from care. He tried fasting, and saw that man can live, not only without all those foods over which he takes such pains, but also without bread. John fed himself on “locusts” and wild honey, “locusts” being a growth on a desert tree and “wild honey” the bitter honey of wild bees. He took no wine, nor any strong drink. And yet it is not said that he ever lacked food or drink. It was not the locusts and wild honey that nourished him, but God’s power, that was given to His faithful servant by this means This is how it generally happens with the faithful and obedient, while the faithless and the disobedient need many medicines with their rich diet. The rich foods of the faithless and disobedient do not give nourishment to their bodies, but heaviness, wrath and sickness.”

The thing that is most noticeable in our struggle today for true joy and freedom is man’s lack of trust and even contempt for the proven methods that will lead to the effect. Since the fall of Adam man has been undaunted in unimaginable self-indulgence in attempting to find missing paradise. Even today men are commonly seeking the old ways of paganism that Christianity throughout time has fought against and even shed its blood to defy. Today’s sensual materialism is as powerful and alluring as it was in ancient Rome. The one difference is that our modern “enlightened” world is willfully and eagerly returning to the pursuit of intemperate pleasure and ease (today called: fun), even after centuries of the Church’s Godly effort to lead men heavenward, and rejoicing in unrestrained human self-love while mocking the restrictions of God’s commandments.

Remembering the ongoing training of our bodies should not diminish our joy as we enjoy the celebrations of Christmas and Theophany . The truth is that any true joy we do have is only come from the training we have completed. This is the “practicing freedom from care” St. Nikolai has written about and is the only proven method that makes clear “in itself” what is the true purpose of our lives: life with God above all things, even above life itself.

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Mission Monthly – December 2006

“But one of the worst results of being a slave and being forced to do things is that when there is no one to force you any more you find you have almost lost the power of forcing yourself”

C.S. Lewis, A Horse and His Boy (from “The Chronicles of Narnia”)

There are many tragic consequences to the violent and dehumanizing practice of slavery. One need not look far to see its lasting effects. In our own nation people of color are still healing from this terrible history which inflicted upon an entire people a state of generational dependence and entitlement.

The opposite of slavery is, of course, freedom. Freedom is THE concept which is so tightly woven into the very identifying fabric of what it means to be “American.” Every war fought by our country, whether justified or not, is claimed to have been fought in the name of freedom. Ultimately freedom is a right which men, when necessary, must fight for. As Orthodox Christians, however, freedom must first be seen as a concept of correct faith. In this light, a deeper look at freedom, and slavery for that matter, may not be seen in the same way.

Jesus offered a very significant clue about the state of man when he said, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). Here we see an ultimate purpose of our God’s Gospel, and it has very little to do with whether we are slaves or free. In the first words of Jesus’ public ministry He announced His intentions for freedom, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives to set at liberty those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:18-19). But what is the meaning of this “liberty” and from what has the Lord proclaimed “release” to the captive? This is a very important question to answer if we ever hope to understand, as C.S. Lewis infers above, the paralyzing consequences of slavery. Our bodies and souls are connected, and it is how we respond to the state of our bodies that determines our soul’s ability to live, and to live free.

Plainly stated, the freedom we enjoy as citizens of this country is not the freedom imparted by our Lord, and the slavery from which He came to set men free has little to do with forced labor. Man has been enslaved to the fallen nature ever since the fall of Adam. It is an oppression hardly noticed in modern times where comfort and convenience mask our fallen ways with all kinds of distracting and alluring temptations. The disquieting traffic of modern society, in my view, has further enslaved men beyond comprehension. So much so that most do not even realize their subjugation. The trickery and lies of worldly interests have led men to believe they are free when they really are not. A deeply honest look at social norms today should reveal just how significantly man is subject to, “The lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life” (1 John 2:16). a’s Secret isn’t a secret any more! The Apostle Peter tells us, “[False prophets] promise [men] freedom, but they themselves are subject to corruption; for whatever overcomes a man, to that he is enslaved” (2 Peter 2:19). The false prophets of today are those who promise men freedom when fulfilling their worldly desires, be it the pursuit of wealth and comfort, the pursuit of pleasure, or simply one’s own will. It is to these things that man is enslaved and it is from these things that our Lord came to set us free.

Herein lies the difficulty. If we have been such willing participants in this slavery how are we ever to embrace true freedom when we lack the knowledge or the will to pursue it? Do you ever wonder why it is so difficult to fast, or to resist anger when we feel justified, or to forgive, or to pray, or simply to submit our lives to the will of God and to the life of the Church? At least partially it is because no one is forcing us! AND because we do not (or just do not want to) recognize just how relentlessly the life-draining lifestyle of growing materialism and continuous gratification is being formed in us.

This has been a challenging meditation. I see in myself only a weak desire for true freedom, knowing that I am the only one who can assert any force in making daily choices for myself to submit to the law of God. “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and men of violence take it by force” (Matthew 11:12). “Emmanuel, God with us,”—how thankful we should be that the One Who would restore freedom and the “force” to seek it has come! Christ is born, and our slavery is no more. The Gospel is our true Emancipation Proclamation and we as former slaves need now only learn to live as free men, no longer subject to the will of the flesh but rather dependent on the grace of the Spirit. This is the only war of independence that ever need be fought, that in becoming dependent on the Spirit we may become truly free in Christ!

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Mission Monthly – November 2006

Prior to his death on December 13, 1983, Father Alexander Schmemann celebrated his last Divine Liturgy on Nov. 24, Thanksgiving Day, at St. Vladimir’s Seminary. At the end of the Liturgy he called upon all of us to give thanks to God. It has been four years since I last presented Fr. Alexander’s words to this congregation. Here, once again, are these most precious words from one of contemporary Orthodoxy’s most precious treasures, Fr. Alexander Schmemman:

“Everyone capable of thanksgiving is capable of salvation and eternal joy. Thank you, O Lord, for having accepted this Eucharist, which is offered to the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and which filled our hearts with “the joy, peace, and righteousness in the Holy Spirit.” Thank you, O Lord, for having revealed Yourself unto us and for giving us the foretaste of Your Kingdom. Thank you, O Lord, for having united us to one another, in serving You and Your Holy Church. Thank you, O Lord, for having helped us to overcome all difficulties, tensions, passions, and temptations and for having restored peace, mutual love and joy in sharing the communion of the Holy Spirit.

Thank you, O Lord, for the sufferings you bestowed upon us, for they are purifying us from selfishness and remind us of the “one thing needed: your eternal Kingdom.” Thank you, O Lord, for having given us this country where we are free to worship You. Thank you, O Lord, for this school, where the name of God is proclaimed. Thank you, O Lord, for our families: husbands, wives and, especially, children, who teach us how to celebrate Your holy Name in joy, movement and holy noise. Thank you, O Lord, for everyone and everything. Great are you, O Lord, and marvelous are Your deeds, and no word is sufficient to celebrate your miracles. Lord, it is good to be here! Amen.”

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Mission Monthly – October 2006

“The man who keeps silence with knowledge is the man who is convinced that he is unworthy to speak, as the Fathers used to say, and this is silence ‘with knowledge'”

St. Dorotheos of Gaza

My father was a quiet man. Even now when I meet and speak with old timers who knew him they most often say that Dad “didn’t ever say too much but when he did people would listen.” Chester Joseph died almost 17 years ago. I was a mere 29 years old then and only at the beginning of my manhood; I never really understood my father’s quietness. At times I wished he would have been more vocal, but looking back I see how that would have been in opposition to his beautiful nature. I cannot say conclusively that Dad had the virtue of “silence with knowledge” but knowing how he was loved and respected by so many (his weekday funeral at a good sized church was standing room only) leads me to believe that I need not look too far to see a shining example of this exemplary way of life.

Within the vocation of the Presbytery one might think this virtue of silence might be practiced to a high degree. The ordained priesthood, however, seems to be one that requires a lot of talking. For those of us who may struggle with talking too much it could be a terrible place to fight this inclination. For those of us who might prefer to remain more quiet (whether because of virtue or simple preference), frequent speaking is virtually compulsory. Even my particular vocation is not immune from contemporary social forces which generally see silence not as a virtue but rather as a sign of ignorance and/or weakness.

Doesn’t it seem as though today no matter what subject is being discussed or reported on everyone is supposed to have an opinion on it; especially when it comes to a popular “topic du jour?” If one doesn’t have an opinion, or the ability to articulate it, that person might be subject to some form of ridicule. Maybe it’s the age of information and communication or maybe it’s the age of self-importance that has led us to this unhealthy place, but never has it seemed more (in)appropriate that the old adage applies, “Opinions are like bellybuttons, everybody has one.” Corporate culture, domestic and international politics, academia, entertainment, marketing, technology, Wall Street, pop culture, sports, relationships, etc; there seems to be very little room for “silence with knowledge.”

Here again we as Orthodox Christians are faced with another sober, “contrary to the world” characteristic of how we are to define ourselves in both word and action. I say “contrary to the world” for only a mild emphasis. There are much stronger ways to communicate the seriousness of this virtue. Suffice it to say that to ridicule or deny the virtue of silence with knowledge would be at best irreverent. This is another example of how truly “counter culture” the nature of Orthodox Christianity is.

No, we are not free to speak our minds. This commonly held (mis)belief, which has been helped along by the misinterpretation of the first amendment of the American Constitution, has led contemporary American society to an increasingly bitter place of “entitlement.” The pressure and right to “prove” one’s self has also led to the pressure to be right all the time, which is often accompanied by an aggressive defensiveness which beyond its sinful makeup is simply demeaning to the gracious potential of human nature. In my view there are too many words being spoken, being written, in print, in images, on television and over the radio, and now and maybe even more insidiously, over cyber-space on the internet with personal websites, e-mail, blogs, and streaming broadcasts. Anyone with even a little technical savvy can make their opinion known and feel pretty darn good about it (even if no one is listening)! The one thing generally missing in all this clamor is any sense of accountability, the one thing that differentiates a man who possesses the virtue of silence with knowledge. Silence with knowledge does not mean that we never speak (certainlywe know the importance of words in proclaiming the Gospel and in the worship of God in His Church); it just means that one understands responsibly that there are consequences to speech, and consequently becomes more aware that more often than not it is usually best simply to keep silent. Honestly I do not know if my father was a quiet man because he was being “accountable” or simply because it was his nature. The fact that he was deeply respected by so many certainly reveals that his quietness did have a virtuous effect on others. While I am only beginning to learn something about this virtue I find it somewhat ironic that I’ve chosen to write about it.

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Mission Monthly – August-September 2006

“Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson were camping. They pitched their tent under the stars and went to sleep. Sometime in the middle of the night, Holmes woke up Watson. “Watson, look up at the stars and tell me what you deduce.” Watson said, “I see millions of stars, and if even a few of those have planets, it’s quite likely there are some planets like Earth, and if there are a few planets like Earth out there, there might also be life.” Holmes replied, “No, Watson, somebody stole our tent!”

PARISH LIFE CONFERENCE SERMON – SATURDAY, JULY 1, 2006 by Fr. Joseph Cervo

Often in life it is the obvious which escapes us. If we are to grasp the obvious about what the prophet Joel said about living life as led by the Spirit of God, then what is it we will grasp; the obvious or the grand? What can be said about the Spirit-led life? Joel said: “old men shall dream dreams and young men shall see visions.” The word “vision” literally means a revelation. Through vision human beings have the capacity to contemplate the possibilities of tomorrow. Animals can’t do that. They react to surrounding influences and they respond with instincts. Only humans can set goals and dream of tomorrow’s possibilities.

The passage from Joel, which is this year’s conference theme, challenges us and beckons the question: Do we have goals, dreams and visions? Are we preparing for both the obvious and greater things for tomorrow? And by that, I mean, are we involving ourselves in something greater than serving self-interests?

To be led by the Spirit of God entails transforming our will to God’s will and to allow His teachings as revealed in Holy Scripture, and experienced in the liturgical and sacramental life of the Church, to direct our mind and spirit—to shape us into the image of Christ; obedient, submissive and productive. How do we do that? This doesn’t just happen by passively waiting for a miraculous sign from above. It happens by making a conscious decision to follow Christ, not just in Church on Sunday, but every day, in all areas of life. It means trusting Him to the point of following Him without reservation. We do this when we engage in the ministry of the local and greater church, making our faith come alive, using the time, talents and resources that God gave us, all to His glory.

You know, the Holy Spirit enables every person to exercise godly vision. He constantly works to inspire us to engage ourselves in the work of building up Christ’s Church, which transcends time and space and reaches into His eternal Kingdom. Christ tells us to love and care for one another—as we would care for Him in person. He tells us to set our goals on things eternal, to cultivate great visions, to dream godly dreams. A life which is led by the Holy Spirit is a life of dreams and vision. And it’s a life that stands up to the penetrating Light of Christ which illumines all.

We know that darkness leads to troubling encounters. We all make our share of mistakes. We all have made errant decisions in life. But the Light of Christ makes it clear that no person (with the notable exception of Christ Himself) has all the answers; and that when we think we do, we are chasing a dream that will be full of disappointments. So how do we test our dreams and visions? We do so by lining them up with Holy Scripture, with the Apostolic teachings and Holy Traditions of the Church. We test them by measuring them with the God-chosen leaders of the Church. In proverbs (11:14) we read: “Where no counsel is, the people fall: but in the multitude of counselors there is safety.” As surely everyone knows, this year we are celebrating 40 years of the episcopacy and primacy of His Eminence, Metropolitan PHILIP. The growth and achievements of this Archdiocese are a testament to his vision and the fact that he dared to dream dreams. So the question is, does our vision and dreams for the Church complement his? This is not to advocate cloning our vision and dreams to his, but it is important that ours do not counteract or detract from the accomplishments of his or those being cultivated by our Local Synod of Bishops, by our Diocesan Bishop or his local representative (the parish priest). Remember, testing our vision and goals by putting them next to those of the ones who have been called and chosen by God is the way that we find counsel and is God’s way of imparting the collective wisdom of the Church to us so that we may dream dreams and have godly visions.

The real characteristic of being led by the Spirit of God is not how many ideas we can come up with; nor is it the way we develop policy or programs. It isn’t about having a cheery exterior (not that it can’t help). It isn’t just about having warm fuzzy feelings. Being Spirit-led is all about sticking to the purpose for which God placed us here. It’s about being disciplined, obedient, sacrificial and a flexible instrument in the hands of God, being willing to change and become transformed to accomplish His will. It’s all about hard work and commitment with no personal agenda, other than being the best servant we can be. It’s all about being in union with Christ and having unconditional loyalty to Him. It’s about sharing our life with Christ here, so that we may share life with Him in His eternal kingdom. May we diligently and faithfully follow the Spirit of God which was poured forth upon us at our Chrismation, through the guidance of our Mother—the Church.

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