Archive for July, 2015

Nothing to Fear

Thursday, July 30th, 2015

“Christianity makes me feel threatened”, you say. Forgive me, but I think this is simply a holdover from your evangelical past. There’s nothing of the sort in Orthodoxy. God doesn’t “threaten” or “punish”, nor does He ever get “angry”; these anthropomorphic expressions do not describe God as He is in Himself, but rather the way in which His presence is experienced by the ego.

I think here of a comment by Schuon: “Hell is the reply of Reality to the ego that wants to be absolute.”

Or, turning to a very different source, there’s the Christian author C. S. Lewis. “The gates of Hell,” he writes, “are locked on the inside”, a line quoted with approval by Metropolitan Kallistos Ware in his book The Orthodox Way. By the way, his Eminence goes so far as to say in that book that Satan himself might be saved, though what God’s relationship with the Devil may be is “none of our business”.

True, it’s the rare Orthodox authority who espouses universal salvation so explicitly as St Gregory of Nyssa or St Isaac the Syrian. But this doesn’t mean everyone else in the Church is convinced of the opposite: that some will necessarily suffer eternal damnation. On the contrary, the Orthodox faithful are entirely justified, without in any way departing from the teachings of the Church, in hoping all may be saved.

The only thing one must not believe or teach as an Orthodox Christian is that people can be saved in spite of themselves, or as it were against their will. On the contrary, repentance (metanoia = a radical “change of mind”) is necessary, whether here or hereafter—a free act of self-abnegation, a willing “death” of the ego and its passions.

But is this really so different from Pure Land Buddhism, the tradition you say you are now considering? The Bodhisattvas don’t save those who don’t wish to be saved: the nembutsu must be uttered with total faith, which means not without a struggle, not without effort, not without putting aside all our likes and dislikes, our attachments and fears.

For a different, but I think complementary take, on what I’m saying, I suggest you listen to this podcast (courtesy of Ancient Faith Radio):

The speaker is an Orthodox priest in Canada. What he says in these reflections is standard Orthodox teaching on the subject of God’s “anger”; there’s nothing at all idiosyncratic about it. I hope he helps to convince you that (to appropriate Roosevelt for quite a different purpose) you have nothing to fear but fear itself!

Yin and Yang in the Altar

Friday, July 3rd, 2015

Without doubt there were deaconesses in the early Church. What you call the “liturgical and pastoral functions” of these women never included, however—and in an Orthodox context never could include—“leading a service”. An all-male priesthood has always been the norm and the rule.

The women’s “liturgical functions” would have included assisting the priest at the altar, and their “pastoral functions” would have involved ministering to women in labor, visiting the sick, and perhaps also baptizing women (for, as you probably know, in the early Church one was baptized naked).

There is some debate at present among Orthodox Christians as to whether this early office should be restored. Some worry it would send the wrong signal and lead certain people to suppose that a female diaconate can, and should, serve as a path toward a female priesthood. Others say, no, this was always understood to be a very different office and role.

Some  argue that menstruation is an issue—that blood must be kept away from the altar. As you may know, in the strictest of Orthodox contexts, women are asked not only not to receive communion during their time of the month, but not even to remain in the nave during the consecration of the Mysteries. But this has nothing to do with the fact per se that they are women. It’s about the relationship between communion and blood.

During a visit to a monastery some years ago, when I was working in the gardens after communing that morning—with the Blood of Christ still “in my system”—I accidentally cut myself. A monk who saw what happened immediately rushed to my side, whipped out a cloth to wipe the cut, and told me he would later dispose of the cloth by burning it, this being a traditional Orthodox method of handling sacred things no longer in use.

Frankly, though, I don’t think menstruation was, or is, what’s at stake in this context. For women, and not only older women, can and do serve the priest in the altar in women’s monasteries, where (of course) there are no other men beside the clergy.

You ask for my “personal” opinion. I suppose I’m in favor of deaconesses, though I readily admit there may be aspects to this question that I don’t understand. It seems to me, however, quite apart from the usefulness and practicality of having women serve women in the specific contexts I’ve mentioned, that the presence of deaconesses—the presence of a responsive yin moving at the behest of the initiating yang around the altar and about the church—could only add to the symbolic power of the Liturgy.