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Mission Monthly – June 2004

“Because we Christians living in this world are inevitably caught up in earthly activities, afflictions, trials and temptations, and because we are so easily overcome by sinful passions, God gives us ways by which we are enabled never to forget Him. He provides practices by which we can keep ourselves constantly prepared to meet Him at His coming. He offers rules of spiritual and physical discipline for us to practice so that we can remain constantly alive to His presence and power in our lives and so to be ready to receive Him when He gives Himself to us in Holy Communion.”

Fr. Thomas Hopko

I have been asked several questions over the past few months regarding preparation for Holy Communion. Questions like these are always joyfully received. Usually they indicate a heart seeking to draw closer to God, though I suppose sometimes such questions may be more about the keeping of rules or, more sadly, minimum expectations; whatever the case it is always a rich opportunity to talk seriously about a very serious subject.

The standards of the Church are, as in all things, very high when it comes to preparing to receive Christ’s Holy Body and Precious Blood! Consider the following excerpt from the post-Communion prayer of St. Simeon Metaphrastes, “O Thou who willingly dost give Thy flesh to me as food, Thou who art a Fire consuming the unworthy, consume me not, O my Creator” St. John of Damascus says it this way in his pre-Communion prayer, “And I, most sinful, dare to partake of Thy whole body. Let me not be consumed” Yes, the reassurance of God’s grace, mercy and forgiveness is certainly also given in the pre- and post-Communion prayers of the Church, yet one cannot sincerely read these prayers without being struck silent by the gravity of approaching the Holy Chalice. One thing is certain—receiving Holy Communion is not an entitlement or a right; rather it is a gift which requires self-examination, extreme reverence and, as we will explore here, mindful preparation.

Sometimes questions arise when people travel and ask if they are permitted to receive Holy Communion when visiting another Orthodox church. My usual response is, “Seek the blessing of your father confessor first, then see the blessing of the priest you are visiting before approaching (his) holy chalice.” This is not a mere courtesy; it should be and usually is required. In other words, ask your priest and pastor, who by normal policy is your father confessor, for this blessing. Barring a reason of a pastoral nature he will most usually give it. Then contact as early as possible the priest of the church you plan to visit. Priests are not to give Communion to anyone they do not know or have not been introduced to prior to Divine Liturgy. [As a priest I can say that there is little worse than being surprised by a strange face while distributing Holy Communion.]

There are a variety of practices within the Orthodox Church regarding preparation for Holy Communion. If you are visiting another church the basic rule to follow is the rule of the community you are visiting. These rules are founded in the loving authority of each jurisdiction or community and, as visitors, we follow these standards out of humility and respect (even if they are more or less stringent then one’s own community).

The various standards of preparation may include a full week of strict fasting and/or confession before every partaking. Attendance at the preceding Saturday evening Great Vespers or Vigil may also be required. The OCA Diocese of Alaska requires Confession if you miss three or more Sundays in a row. Churches like ours ask communicants to be regular and faithful stewards of the local Church, to strive for daily prayer and scripture reading, to fast according to the liturgical schedule, to seek regular Confession and to regularly attend Divine Liturgy. Some churches may not require even some of these basic standards.

Regarding our preparation just prior to receiving Holy Communion, the minimum standards we are given are: to fast from all food and beverages beginning at “Midnight” Saturday night or at “Noon” for weekday evening liturgies; fasting from marital intimacy Saturday evening or during the day of weekday evening liturgies; fasting from entertainment and (if at all possible) avoiding weddings or parties in general Saturday evening or before any liturgy.

Yes, this is a difficult topic. It is personal and it requires each of us to look carefully at his own conscience, regularly and with the guidance of his father confessor, to examine if his life (even week to week) is being lived in anticipation of approaching the holy chalice. In our community I believe that we have a good rhythm of preparation, yet I am compelled to offer these words for those times and circumstances when even these basic expectations are not being fulfilled.

When a priest is ordained his primary charges are: to guard the Holy Eucharist with his life and to love and nurture his flock. Included in the spirit of his charge is the occasional need to say “No” when someone is unprepared to approach the holy chalice. In most cases, it is simply left to the conscience of the individual. This requires maturity and responsibility in examining ourselves. Even the priest has to recognize his own pitiful efforts to prepare to touch, let alone partake of, Holy Communion. Yet priests often know when their people are struggling in faith and the other circumstances of their lives, or if they haven’t been to Confession or church services regularly. What then are we to do?

We need Holy Communion! It is God’s gift to us: “for the remission of sins and for life everlasting.”I believe in frequent Communion! But sometimes I wonder if in an effort to frequently commune the faithful some churches and priests may lessen the standards of preparation? In addition to our normal standards I personally like two of the standards mentioned above: attendance at Saturday evening Vespers, and Confession if one should miss Communion three Sundays in a row (barring illness or a unique situation). Why? Because discerning the Body and Blood of Christ is not necessarily as easy as one might think; and as Fr. Hopko wrote, there are many circumstances and temptations that interfere with our “readiness” to receive Christ into ourselves. God forbid we deceive ourselves about our readiness and ultimately become negligent in our preparation. Listen to what St. Paul said to those of the Church at Corinth who “ate and drank without discerning” and partook of the bread and cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, “many of you are weak and ill, and some have died” (1 Cor. 11). It is in this spirit of seriousness that I address these questions posed to me regarding preparation for Holy Communion and it is out of love that I set this challenge to examine more completely our preparation before partaking of God’s Holy Eucharist. This is in no way intended to measure one’s “worthiness” (for we all are only made worthy by the grace of God). Rather we must humbly ask ourselves questions such as these, “What have I done this week to prepare myself to meet God intimately in His Holy Eucharist?” or “Has anything happened this week to interrupt my preparations for Holy Communion?” It is my pastoral judgment that for those rare occasions when one finds that he has not prepared, I believe it would better to abstain from Communion (while still attending Liturgy) and set our sights on proper preparation for the next time . Please note that I say “rare” occasions; and that a situation such as this should be distressing enough to then make every effort to reconcile as soon as possible with the great gift of Holy Communion (if necessary, by means of Confession).

Yes, I joyfully receive all such questions and I suspect there will be more questions that arise from these thoughts. I welcome them with hope that we may all grow in our understanding of what it means to truly prepare to receive the precious Body and Blood of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ, “So that, together with Thine elect, we may also receive those incorruptible good things which Thou hast prepared for them that love Thee, O Lord.”

See the following web link for the complete text of Fr. Hopko’s article:

http://www.svots.edu/Events/Orthodox-Education-Day/Articles/2000-Fr-Thomas-Hopko-2.html

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Mission Monthly – May 2004

“He smiled. It was as he had always thought and she had not the slightest idea of what she was and what she did. That was as it should be, for to have begun to know her value would have been to begin to lose it.”

From The Dean’s Watch by Elizabeth Goudge

I must be honest, this month’s quote has not come from my own reading but is a beautiful passage from a book my Mother-in-law is reading. It obviously made an impression on her and in sharing it with me I obviously was also impressed. The fictional “she” character is a virtuous old woman named Miss Montague who possessed a depth of wisdom and humility. She called herself an “antiquity.” She was a woman absent of presumption and full of “quietness and receptivity.” Miss Montague touched me as a true matriarch, unassuming and yet extremely powerful in her lack of self-importance.

Pride is a cunning sin. Like the “prowling” one himself, pride seeks to devour Lord’s image within every man(1 Peter 5:6-11). As a sin of violence, pride eats away at the spiritual viscera of one’s own life and distresses the horizons of all we see and do. Pride twists all that is good, allowing it to appear as it was, while actually distorting it into an unrecognizable form. The Prophet Isaiah expressed this completely in the well known passage, “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil” (5:20). Pride deceives, deludes, defrauds, deforms, and destroys.

Why am I so impressed with the humble Miss Montague? Maybe because I’ve never met anyone like her. I have met parts of her in many people but never completely in any one person. She is one in whom the Kingdom of God is present and presented in a life set apart (holy), naturally providing safe haven for others where the only need to “prove” oneself is through the quiet and sincere pursuit of virtue. Maybe one day my own nature will reach this fine woman’s nature, for now I suspect it is my own need for “refuge” which draws me to her character. In an era where old age and life’s experience are disdained by a youth culture that disregards and distrusts tradition, I find myself yearning for patriarchal and matriarchal figures to comfort and encourage me while navigating the volatile demands of our “post-modern” society. But I suppose if I were to seek this from Miss Montague she would probably respond, “Why all the fuss, my boy? Time is a thing so soon to be finished with. Why not let it pass slowly through your fingers?” I am sure she would see much in our society as “selfish and ridiculous” and wonder why people so often seek their joy in the “intractable and explosive stuff of human nature.”

There was no sense of entitlement at all in the life of Miss Montague, which tells me another thing; she was a woman of deep appreciation. I am always concerned about my own capacity to be thankful; and as priest I am also concerned about helping others examine and increase their own sense of thankfulness. Thankfulness is the bedrock upon which our faith must be founded. The greatest gift God ever gave to His creation is the Gift of Himself—His very Body and Blood. Holy Communion is the common English term, but more accurate is Holy Eucharist. “Eucharist” comes from the Greek, “eu(f)charisto”, which simply means, “Thank you.” God Himself comes into us when we receive the Holy Eucharist. My response to this gift absolutely cannot be examined apart from my thankful (or thankless) responses in all areas of my life. Sadly, I often see a diminished spirit of thankfulness and an increased sense of entitlement permeating many areas of our lives. The spirit of complaining inevitably follows and we find ourselves no better that the Israelites who complained against God after being set free from Egypt. When asked whether or not she should “expect” a certain level of respect from within her society Miss Montague replied without complaint, “I do not have the right.”

Miss Montague knew that the depth of her value was only truly seen through the eyes of God. It was said of her that she could not take her eyes from the incredible glory of God’s love. When we take our eyes off of God and forget to be thankful, ultimately we can lose even what value we do have. Much of anyone’s sadness or discontent can be found in a lack of freedom from self-importance. It was also said of Miss Montague that as far as it was possible for a human being in this world she had turned from herself. “For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake, he will save it” (Luke 9:24). Thank you, Miss Montague, for helping me see a little more clearly the meaning of these words, and the freedom and joy that this sweet “saving” can bring.

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Mission Monthly – April 2004

“I think it best that a man should have a little bit of all the virtues. Therefore, get up early every day and acquire the beginning of every virtue and every commandment of God. Use great patience, with fear and long-suffering, in the love of God, with all the fervor of your soul and body. Exercise great humility, bear with interior distress; be vigilant and pray often with reverence and groaning, with purity of speech and control of your eyes. When you are despised do not get angry; be at peace, and do not render evil for evil. Do not pay attention to the faults of others, and do not try to compare yourself with others, knowing you are less than every created thing. Renounce everything material and that which is of the flesh. Live by the cross, in warfare, in poverty of spirit, in voluntary spiritual asceticism, in fasting, penitence and tears, in discernment, in purity of soul, taking hold of that which is good. Do your work in peace. Persevere in keeping vigil[ence] and remember at all times that death is near!”

John the Dwarf Sayings of the Desert Fathers

As we come to the end of Great and Holy Lent and prepare to embark on the great journey of Holy Week I will offer some final thoughts on the pursuit of virtue and the hope of our souls bearing good fruit from the Lenten discipline. My heart is already poised for the celebrations that lay ahead as another challenging Lenten journey comes to a close. My mind, however, will not yet let go of the reigns of restraint; though not simply out of obedience to the prescribed way of holiness held out to us by the Church, but also for fear that I might lose thankfulness for current challenges meant for my good during the Church’s season of repentance!

Often at the close of Lent each year the following scripture is recalled in my mind, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and men of violence take it by force”(Matt. 11:12). I am tired. My feet hurt. The days pass too quickly. There is always too much to do. There is always something I would rather be doing. With all my complaining (not to mention my sinfulness) is it any wonder the kingdom of heaven suffers violence! Where is my perseverance? Where is my vigil? Where is my treasure? Where is my thankfulness? It is questions such as these and their answers that compel me again and again to seek understanding of the warfare that is going on in the battleground of my heart. I feel as though I know what it means to do the right thing, yet as St. Paul said, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (Romans 7:7-25). It is this struggle that moved me twenty years ago to seek answers in Christ, and it is this struggle that still moves me today. And while I do not know if I have changed much over these past twenty years, I do know the answers haven’t changed. It requires a broad view to see the time-line of God’s creation of the world, man’s fall, and our redemption in Christ. It requires honesty to admit how we are still very much in the midst of our passions. It requires courage to desire repentance (change) in our fallen state. It requires violence and force if we ever hope to “take” the kingdom of heaven.

I always find it interesting when people discover the spiritual writings of the Orthodox Church. I remember when I first discovered the Philokalia while reading the spiritual classicThe Way of a Pilgrim. I was so intrigued by the reported contents of the Philokalia that I searched and searched for a copy. Eventually I found volume one, and then two, three and four, and then needless to say, I was overwhelmed! What I discovered was indeed a rich wealth of Truth and spiritual guidance, but also that in my pride I had fooled myself into thinking that I was even slightly ready for such wisdom. I discovered an important understanding of Jesus’ words, “Every one to whom much is given, of him will much be required” (Luke 12:48). I discovered that my faith is much more about action and much less about “spirituality.”

As I read these words of John the Dwarf I was reminded again of this last discovery, giving context again to the Lenten journey with all its challenges and blessings to grow in faith and virtue. Fr. Thomas Hopko writes, “The purpose of all prayer and fasting, of all liturgy and sacraments, of all spiritual exercises and ascetic practices, is to come to know and love God in all people and things, especially our enemies and the ‘least of the brethren.’ This is the purpose of the Lenten spring and of life itself.” In just a few short days we will enter into the joy of Pascha and celebrate the presence of the risen Christ for 40 days. During this season of celebration (and every Sunday—each a “little Pascha”) we are reminded that this gift of redemption is freely given with love and for love, and for our capacity to strive daily“to know and love God in all people and all things.” We must see how, on the one hand the purpose of our life is to live “from Pascha to Pascha” with joy, and how on the other hand the purpose of our life is to live in repentance, fiercely striving each day for virtue in every season of our lives. Beloved, Christ is risen!

Truly He is risen!

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Mission Monthly – March 2004

“Let yourself die in striving rather than living in laziness. For those who die trying to keep the commandments are martyrs just as much as those who died for Christ’s faith.”

Saint Maximus the Confessor

Persecution may be a word more difficult to define than we think. Most Orthodox Christians are aware of the persecutions that occurred in the first three centuries of the Church’s history. Fewer are aware of the various theological persecutions that arose while the Church made Her way through the Age of the Ecumenical Councils. [For example, the St. Maximus mentioned above had his tongue cut out and his right hand cut off while defending the Church against the Monothelite heresy. As defended by St. Maximus, the Orthodox Church teaches that Jesus not only has two natures, both divine and human, He also has two wills, both divine and human.] Most Orthodox Christians (especially those of “Byzantine” heritage) are aware of the oppression and persecution the Church endured when the Ottoman Turks conquered the Byzantine Empire in the 15th century; and I would hope that the vast majority of Orthodox Christians are aware of the great holocaust the Russian Orthodox Church bore under Communism for most of the 20th century.

There are some places today, Indonesia being one, where being a Christian could very well lead to death. Fr. Daniel Byantoro is a former Muslim from Indonesia who, to his peril, converted to Orthodox Christianity. While he is finishing a Doctoral studies program at Ohio State University it is my hope to have him visit our parish that we might hear directly from a man living under the threat of violence and death for his faith. In this country, however, Christians are not under the threat of physical violence or death for their faith in Jesus Christ.

The question I would pose here is, do we as Orthodox Christians of today feel or sense any kind of “persecution” from the freedom and relative ease of life with which we live here in America? Persecuted by freedom? One would hardly think so. This, however, is an argument that I am ready to pose because of the opportunity of choice that freedom affords her constituents. We are constituents of freedom, and unless a man is governed by any sort of moral or faith boundaries then his choices are really only restricted by opportunity, time or by what he can afford financially. Since most of us are educated and sophisticated enough to seek and find the opportunity, time and money to meet any need we may perceive in ourselves, what is it that is going to restrain us in our freedom when we are faced with ethical and moral temptations? Here, beloved, is our persecution: we live in a society that prides itself as free, but when this freedom includes choice without restraint, or when there is only a remnant of a common understanding of good vs. evil, right vs. wrong, true vs. false, then a free society is persecuting itself by a confusion of values, and ultimately by the very freedom upon which it stands.

I heard on the radio today that the Freedom from Religion Foundation has won another case to have a placard of the Ten Commandments removed from public grounds in LaCrosse, Wisconsin. No, we are not being persecuted like Christians in Indonesia but we are being persecuted as our Christian way of life is ridiculed and marginalized by political correctness, by homosexual claims of discrimination, by those who claim that a woman’s right to choose is a “self-evident” entitlement, by those who place value on human life based on usefulness or accomplishment, even by those who say you will find fulfillment in another drink or in the next bed you sleep in. Has man triumphed in the glory of his freedom? Hardly! Man has been seduced and vanquished in the consumption of his own freedom.

St. Maximus calls those who simply try to keep the commandments “martyrs”. In our day, this is so true! St. Maximus lost his tongue and right hand defending Jesus. Keep the commandments? No wonder Christians are marginalized—many Orthodox Christians can’t even get to Liturgy on time! What then are we to do? I believe we need to admit to the difficulty of living even the most basic of Christian lives and then do something about it! The Church challenges us much more than just to “be a good person and try not to hurt anyone.” Each Lenten season is a new beginning to put more effort into the basics of our Orthodoxy. For example, enter into worship more than just on Sunday and be on time; be faithful to daily prayer and scripture reading; practice the fast and address each meal with thankfulness and moderation (without snacking in between!); avoid idle talk and mindless or improper entertainment; practice silence; learn not to respond to passionate impulses; take responsibility when someone is hurt by your words or actions; seek repentance and Confession; love and serve others with humility and joy; live and defend your faith at work, at school, when you are with family or friends and anytime you are tempted to compromise or keep silent. These and many other examples are the martyrdoms of our day. I would choose to live in freedom over any oppressive regime but we have to know that when freedom is coupled with virtually limitless choices and we are not truly ready die by the governing commandments of God we will most certainly die at the brutal hands of our freedom. “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both body and soul in hell” (Matt. 10:28).

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Mission Monthly – February 2004

“It is impossible for the mind to escape disturbing thoughts, but it is possible, for any who take sufficient care, either to admit them or to reject them… . For this reason we use frequent reading and constant meditation in the Scriptures that thereby we may acquire a memory stocked with spiritual things; for this reason, again, is our oft-repeated chanting of the Psalms, that we may thereby win a constant sense of compunction. This is the reason also of our careful watchings and fasts and prayers, so that the mind, weaned from the things of this world, may not savor what is earthly but may behold the things of heaven.”

Saint John Cassian

I remember hearing a quote attributed to Fr. Alexander Schmemann where he said something like this, “The sins people committed fifty years ago are no different than the sins people commit today. The difference is that past generations knew what it meant to be ashamed.” This is a powerful allegation upon our generation, one which deserves our contemplation. It is possible to “behold the things of heaven.” says St. John Cassian, because “it is possible”to battle and be “weaned” from our temptations.

The first question that I would ask myself is do I take “sufficient care” to shield myself from disturbing thoughts? Here, maybe above all things, is truly the heart of the matter. In our day I believe that we as a people do not take sufficient care to guard what goes into our eyes, ears, mouths, and even what we touch, carelessly exposing ourselves to things that will indisputably disturb us. Secondly I also believe that in general we do very little to “stock our memories” with heavenly things.

I’ve probably shared this before so please be patient with me. Towards the end of my father’s life, as he struggled with his cancer, there were many times when his sleep patterns were very irregular. When he couldn’t sleep at night he would often go into the basement and watch television. We didn’t have cable in those days so all that was available was the network channels. It was a Friday night after midnight on NBC, Dad was telling me the next day, that he saw “virtually pornographic” music videos. He went on to say that he was at least “glad it was a late night broadcast so children would not be awake to see that trash!” I hated to break the news to him that music videos like that were being broadcast to the eyes and ears of our children 24 hours a day on MTV and VH1.

That was 14 years ago. This story is not only telling for its time but it is even more telling today because of the increasing freedom and frequency with which alluring images are being broadcast. The self-gratifying and explicit, violent and sexual content of virtually all entertainment and advertising fills our minds with disturbing images and ideas beyond comprehension. Sadly I doubt that few of us are even aware of how desensitized we have become to this disturbing reality. In many cases I actually hear people (and not only teenagers) say, “That stuff doesn’t affect me.” What is it about ourselves that we can often so casually expose ourselves to explicit and graphic imagery and believe that it won’t affect us? Maybe Fr. Alexander was right, maybe we have lost a sense of shame.

As Christians, and Orthodox Christians in particular, what are we to do in this world that imposes a standard that excludes people who aren’t up on the latest fad, fashion, taste, movie, song or sport? Some of us may be saying to ourselves, “I don’t really care about that stuff.” But make no mistake about it—we are all affected by “this world.” Maybe this is the most disturbing thought of all, that at times people (and yes, even Christians) are more interested in fitting into the standards of the world than into the standards of God’s Kingdom. Are we unaware, forgetful, or do we even care to see how severely opposed these two standards are?

In St. Matthew 11:12 we are told that “violence” will be required from us if we ever hope to acquire the possibilities of this promise. First we have to admit that we are desensitized and attracted to images and thoughts of the worldly mind. Secondly we have to stop being careless in accepting the standards of the world, and be proactive in rejecting them. We have to make direct choices that reflect a clear desire to feed our minds with heavenly thoughts and flee that which will certainly disturb us.

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