Fr. Patrick’s Meditation from Aug/Sept, 2012, Parish Newsletter

I am often asked questions about the culture of Orthodox Christianity. When this happens I usually have to clarify the question by asking, “Do you mean… ethnic culture, spiritual culture, administrative culture, etc.?” It’s a very difficult question to answer without considering the bigger picture. First of all, Orthodoxy is not a compartmentalized culture. It is a culture of integration: faith with life and life with faith. I believe we all agree that ideally God should be included in all aspects of our lives. But is He? This is a real question which, when answered, gives the real answer to questions about the culture of Orthodoxy. The culture of Orthodox Christianity is a culture which seeks to incorporate the presence of God in all aspects of one’s life. What do we often hear when people having traveled overseas describe their experience of an Orthodox country? “I could sense the life of the Church everywhere.” This was my experience in Lebanon, at least where we visited, and I have heard the very same thing from people (Americans in particular) who have traveled in Russia, Greece, the Balkan states, etc.

Whether we like it or not the culture of the Church which stands out most starkly in America is its ethnic culture; maybe it’s because Orthodoxy’s ethnic heritage stands out so dramatically in comparison to the Anglo-Saxon culture of America. The other day I was driving down Shafer Drive when one of our neighbors stopped me to say hello. The first words out of his mouth were, “We thought we would see you at Greek Fest last Sunday. We love it. Every year we plan and meet several of our friends over there for food, especially the desserts, and for the dancing. Does your church ever think they’ll do something like this?” Over the last several years I have gained a deeper appreciation for the ethnic heritage of the Orthodox Church. Yes, I love the food and all the related cultural amenities, but more importantly what has made a bigger impression is the cohesiveness of ethnic cultures. Greeks, Middle Easterners, Slavs, at least within their own cultures, are peoples who stick together. Maybe it is somewhat easy because of the homogeneity of their cultures, but there is a very real cohesiveness within these cultures that, in my view, is worth examining.

What concerns me most, and what I am meditating on here, is the spiritual culture of Orthodox Christianity, and its ability to cohesively hold men together in a splintering world. In comparison to Western Christianity the Orthodox Church, I have heard said, seems like a dinosaur. The Orthodox Church has not “gotten with it” regarding the changing times of post-modern society. The faith demands on the Orthodox Christian today are as great as they always have been. Theological, moral, disciplinary standards have only evolved in their revelation to the Church, and their content is immutable. In comparison, author Ross Douthat had this to say about the loss of an authentic (western) Christian core which started in the mid-twentieth century: “The mainline churches made few demands on those who flocked into its ranks in the 1950’s. In effect, many members acquired only a thin gloss or a ‘veneer’ of religiosity… (and) to some of their children, even the weak requirements of church membership seemed too burdensome or too pointless to assume.” The culture of Orthodox Christian spirituality is founded upon very real “demands;” demands which cannot be altered for the sake of convenience, disagreement, or political correctness. This does not mean that there cannot be struggle with the demands of our faith, or that on a case by case basis the application of standards can be pastorally modified, but the Church’s cohesive call to holiness cannot be altered.

The most compelling question I would like to ask here is this: What’s so bad about demands? The loving demands that are put on the Orthodox Christian are there for one reason: eternal life with God. Why do men argue with this, or say they are unnecessary, and even worse, just blow them off? The truth of it is, the Orthodox Church in the west has been deeply affected by clergy and laity alike putting demands on the Church, consequently compromising this cultural foundation. Some ask, “Why should we follow the antiquated practices of Liturgy (other than on Sunday,) Festal celebrations, Confession, personal prayer, fasting, a tithing stewardship, koinonia (Christian fellowship)?” These profound practices are the very foundation of our Holy Faith and without them, sadly, we will become a mere “veneer of religiosity,” and even worse than marginalized: pointless. Maybe this is what St. Paul meant when he said, “…in the last days [men will] hold the form of religion but deny the power of it” (2 Tim. 3:1-5).

In my meditation following my trip to Lebanon I made this comment: “What impressed me was not the beauty of the Lebanese culture, but rather the faith that made the culture of the Lebanese people beautiful.” It is my hope that we can continue to grow in appreciation for our own culture of Faith. Obviously we are not an ethnically homogenous people, so there is only one cohesive Truth that can hold us together: our Orthodox Faith which so beautifully prays: “Let us love one another so that with one accord (heart/mind) we may confess: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Trinity one in essence and undivided.”

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Fr. Patrick’s ’12 Pascha Sermon

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Christ is Risen!

Just in case you’ve forgotten the reason I offer a few words at this time is not that I think I have anything important to say, but mostly to give you a rest after standing all this time.  We should be a little tired after the usual Lenten season and Holy Week, though wouldn’t you agree that it’s been a beautiful Lenten season and an inspiring Holy Week?

This is a feast of Life and a feast of Light.  In all our gifts from God nothing that we do can earn these gifts.  It’s because of God’s love for us that He gives them to us.  He wants so much for us to receive them, and to become sons and children of God; sons by adoption those who follow the Son of God.

In the world of darkness sometimes it’s hard to imagine how anybody can really come to know the Lord.  As we struggle with our desires, or sins, our uncertainties and doubts, our fallen nature, it truly is a miracle for any man, any woman or any child to be given the Light and to receive the Light, and to recognize Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Savior of our souls, and all that He did for us.

I recall in college, when before I started coming back to the church more regularly, there was a Pascha at St. Elias Antiochian Church, a small little parish in LaCrosse, with about half the people who are here on a good day.  I hadn’t really done much that lent and when I spoke to the priest he simply encouraged me to come to church.  So I came.  And when I came that night, in spite of all my lack of preparation and relative disinterest up to that point something remarkable happened.  I cannot explain it, I guess ultimately it lead me here to this place where I now stand in these beautiful white vestments (by the way, handed down to me by His Grace, Bishop ANTHONY).

Anyway, something happened that day.  That for some reason as the people who couldn’t hold a candle to what you all sing here, so beautifully and wonderfully coordinated as always, they couldn’t hold a candle to this, somehow in the beauty of their sincere hearts and faith the Light of Christ was shown [to me].  And when they sang “Christ is Risen,” on that day, I started to believe.  I may have [believed] before that, I’m not sure, but sure after that I started to believe.  It was remarkable, the clarity after that, the clarity of everything I was hearing, which having grown up in the Greek church I didn’t really understand very much when I was a kid.  I had to follow a book and I never knew where they were so I was guessing all the time.  After I got older I figured it out.  But it all made sense.  And I knew that somehow in my youth, all those years going to church, my parents dragging me, Mom always reminding me even still today that I wasn’t always happy about going to church, they went and they took me.  We hardly ever missed [church,] maybe three times in eighteen years.  Somehow the Word of God came through all of that.  Because when you proclaim the Truth the soul hears it, when you proclaim the Truth the soul knows, whether it’s in English, Greek, Arabic, Russian, Romanian, Spanish, whatever.  Whether you understand it or not when Truth is being proclaimed it enters the heart and it rests there, it resides there until one day hopefully we respond to it with conviction, commitment and trust.

I was not in a particularly pious state of life at that time and I honestly don’t know why God gave that to me.  It was a little tiny thing but it was greater than the expanse of heaven.  For any of you who have experienced this, and I hope that you all have in one way or another, to even have a drop of this Light, a little beam of it just somehow penetrating the darkness of our lives, and we begin to see clearly of what life is for, what life is about, then things begin to make sense.  Our priorities change, the order of our lives become ordered by the will of God as we desire and pursue a life in His Kingdom not just in some distant future but today, for the Kingdom of God is near in the Resurrected Christ.  And for us to live near Christ, well, it is heaven.  Pray God help us to live near Christ and remember Him always.  We pray God give us a little grace, just a little., maybe on this night for all of us, maybe somehow through this Lenten journey and Holy Week, or maybe in the season of Pascha.  Who knows when it will come?  But as Christians here we stand ready to receive, ready to enjoy this great Feast, and to give glory to God Who loves and Who came to this earth in the flesh, Who taught us, Who healed us, Who suffered for us, Who died for us, Who was buried for us and Who rose from the dead so that He might be the first born of the dead, and that we might follow Him in the Resurrection unto Life Eternal!  May we see this clearly in the face of all that we are going through in this life; to trust in God and continue to seek Him with all our hearts, again, to live with Him now and always.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Christ is Risen!

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CHRIST IS RISEN! Pascha, 2012

Christ is Risen!  Indeed He is Risen!  Great Lent, 2012, has passed.  Holy Week is come and gone.  Pascha is here and the season of Life, Light and Joy has begun.  It was another wonderful time of preparation and celebration at St. Ignatius and we share here just a few memories of God’s blessings from this year’s Pascha.  This was the first year where inclement weather prevented us from processing outside after lighting our candles.  It is rare to have serious thunder storms so early in April.  We made do, however, and processed indoors and did the reading of the Resurrection Gospel and all the rest from in front of the closed Holy Doors.  The thunder outside could not compete with the thunderous singing of “Christ is Risen” inside!

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Fr. Patrick’s Meditation from April, 2012, Parish Newsletter

   “Remembering a sin that we have committed does not mean that the sin has not been forgiven.  This remembrance of our sins is only a warning to us lest we become proud and sin again.  In fact, we – not God – are the ones who cannot forgive ourselves.”

Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica

      Many years ago I had the opportunity to become familiar with Orthodox prayers from several different sources.  There was one prayer in particular that made a big impression on me; it included asking God to forgive a long, enumerated list of a wide variety of more and less common sins.  There is one sin from that list that keeps popping up in readings, conversations, and probably most commonly while hearing confessions.  That sin is called, “the remembrance of wrongs.”  I have sought explanation about this sin and believe I have been able to understand its meaning and nuances.  At this holy time of the year it is very appropriate to meditate on the topic of forgiveness.

Are there good remembrances and bad remembrances of sins?  It seems to be so.  Since the Elder has explained somewhat here the good remembrance let us look at the bad remembrance.  It is my experience that the bad remembrance has two components.  First, there can be certain attachments to a sin which continue to arouse one’s interest.  Yes, even one who is sincere in their repentance can still be attracted to the sins from which they are repenting.  Therefore remembering a past sin can be a major source of temptation and provocation, especially if it is remembered with nostalgia and in detail.  Second, there is the distinct possibility that one remembers their sins because they are afraid that God has not forgiven them.  This is something I’m certain every priest hears from time to time as a confessor: spiritual children re-confessing certain sins “just in case” God didn’t hear and forgive them the first time.  When this is the case I am always compassionate, but there are times when I have to be both compassionate and firm.   If the remembrance of our sins is based in doubt over God’s forgiveness then we are adding sin to sin.  One must be reminded in these situations that God’s forgiveness is, like His love, absolute and unconditional.  What are we preparing ourselves for during the holy Lenten season?  It is the entrance into the death and resurrection of our Lord.  While we should be doing this every day of our lives the annual journey of Lent and the celebration of Pascha is time set aside not as a simple commemoration of a distant, dusty past but as a complete and present affirmation of the work of the Cross and the mystery of the empty tomb.

When one uses words like “absolute” and “unconditional” when referring to God’s forgiveness it must be understood that this does not mean “cheap grace.”  First of all, since God’s grace can never be earned (what could a man do to earn/deserve this priceless gift?) it can never be “cheap.”  The point is this: when Jesus died on the Cross He did not did not die for only some sins, He died for ALL sins.  While the covering of this grace is beyond comprehension, we are yet asked to understand – and accept – this grace as the gift of love in which it is intended.  When in Confession or in our daily prayers we ask God to forgive our sins we are essentially asking for a gift that we have already received.  Why do we do this?  We find an answer in the Elder’s words “we – not God – are the ones who cannot forgive ourselves.”  The confession of sin is an act of contrition where we openly admit our mistakes, before God and our confessor, and offer our conscience at the altar of forgiveness.  Each of us must know that a man can deceive himself into thinking there is nothing “wrong” with him and therefore he doe not need confession, but the clear truth is that a man can never deceive his conscience.  The cleansing we receive through sincere confession readies the soul through the conscience to stand before God in judgment; it is the preparation of man’s inner heart and mind to receive the great gift that has already been given.  Our belief in this gift is vital to our growth in virtue which, when lacking, according to St. Peter’s second letter, is a direct result of forgetting that we’ve been “cleansed from [our] old sins” (1:3-9).  Or to put it in a more colloquial way, “The man who forgets his past is bound to repeat it.”

Beloved, if we must, let us remember our past sins, but only in ways that are helpful; beyond this let us more importantly remember the Cross and the empty tomb, now as we once again approach Holy Pascha, and always.  The love of God is seen in the Life that He has given us and desires us to receive.  May we receive it joyfully and each day realize with thankfulness that the Kingdom of God is near!

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March Meditation – St. Nikolai Velimirovic

… Meditate On These Things                    Philippians 4:8

 Commentary of the Sunday of Forgiveness and Fasting (abridged)

“For a soldier in battle, the first rule is not to surrender to the enemy.  A lonely, hungry, cold and naked soldier will be greatly tempted to give himself up to the enemy.  The cunning enemy will make use of his predicament in all possible ways.  The enemy may himself be hungry, cold, ragged and naked, but he will, to show an illusion of the abundance that he has, throw the soldier a little bread and some piece of clothing.

Satan is constantly seeking men, right from the day when he deceived the first man.  He seeks to draw Christ's soldiers to himself with every possible delusion, luring him with false promises and showing him his illusory wealth.  There is none hungrier than he, but he shows bread to the hungry, calling on them to surrender.  There is none more naked than he, but he attracts men to the colors of his false and illusory clothing.  There is none poorer than he, but he, like a magician at a fair, rubs two coins together and skillfully shows the onlookers the millions he seems to have.  “He is a liar; and the father of lies” (John 8:44), and all his power and all his possessions have only an illusory existence.  Pointing out to His followers all the devil's deceits and weapons, the Lord Jesus showed them, by both word and deed, how to resist and with what weapons to fight.

Christ Himself is the main weapon for us His followers; His presence with us and His power within us are our chief weapons.  But, apart from Christ's own presence and power that are our main weapons in the battle against the evil spirit, the Lord Jesus, with His aid, has offered other sorts of weapons.  These weapons are: constant repentance, constant almsgiving, constant prayer, constant joy in the Lord, fear of the Judgment, willing endurance of suffering for His sake with faith and hope, the forgiving of insults, looking on this world as it is as though it has no existence, partaking in His holy Mysteries, vigils and fasting.

When fasting is understood in a true, Christian sense it is not legalistic or pharisaic.  There is very little value in abstaining from food without abstinence from [sin] and the illusion of earthly riches.  The hypocrites are they who fast, not for the sake of God, nor for their own souls, but because of men, that men should see their fasting and praise them for it.  They have indeed received their reward.

The most important regulation that we are given about fasting is that we do so for the sake of God and for the salvation of our soul.  And this means: fast from all evil thoughts.  Do the same with your tongue.  Do the same with your heart.  Do the same with the will of your soul.  In other words: bridle and restrain your inner man, who is of priority and importance, from every evil, and incline him to everything that is good.

Keep your senses from everything that is superfluous and dangerous.  Restrain your eyes from constantly wandering; restrain your ears from listening to anything that does not serve the soul's salvation; restrain your nose; restrain your tongue and your stomach; restrain the whole of your body from becoming over-refined and demanding of you more than it needs for survival.  This is fasting that leads to salvation.  This is the fast that Christ recommends, a fast free of hypocrisy, a fast that drives out evil spirits and brings man a glorious victory and many fruits, both in this life and the next.  How could a Christian not rejoice when he arms himself with this fasting against his soul's most fearsome opponents?

So let us open our eyes while there is still time.  Let us be firmly convinced that the final victory will belong to Christ, our King and Commander.  Let us, then, hasten to take up the victorious weapon that He has offered us for the battle – the precious fast – the weapon that is, when rightly borne, fearsome and deadly to our enemy.

Let us refrain from excessive eating and drinking, so that our hearts do not fail us (Luke 21:26) and drown in corruption and darkness.  Let us refrain from choosing earthly treasures, so that Satan may not separate us from Christ and suggest surrender to us.  And when we fast, let us not fast for the praise of men but for our soul's salvation and the glory of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.”

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