Monday, December 31, 2012

Fr. Barron comments on Effective Evangelization

I couldn't resist the opportunity to share this video. I'm becoming more and more a fan of Fr. Barron's short YouTube videos, but this one is one of my favorites. Whether you're Roman Catholic, Eastern or Oriental Catholic, or Eastern or Oriental Orthodox, it doesn't matter. If you want to evangelize the culture around you effectively you MUST allow the joy of friendship with Christ to shine through you. You must be transparent so that the light of Christ can shine through you onto others.

I've often found that Roman Catholics, in their efforts to evangelize, are too focused on apologetics (which in many areas have become little more than winning debates), ethics, or dogmatic teaching. Many Easterners say that Roman Catholics need to get their Liturgy right and then their efforts at evangelization will be more effective. But I find that oftentimes Easterners rely too much on the beauty of their liturgical services (and they are beautiful) to evangelize. What needs to happen among both Catholics - Eastern and Western - and Orthodox is that we need to radiate the joy of Christ in our lives. It's wonderful if our liturgies are beautiful, but if we ourselves are not joyful then no amount of beautiful artwork or chant is going to bring this culture to Christ. It's also wonderful to share the dogmatic and ethical teachings of our Faith, but if people don't see the joy in us that flows from our Faith in the Blessed Trinity the no amount of apologetic debates is going to bring this culture to the Triune God that loves us infinitely.

As Fr. Barron says, our joy flows from our relationship with Christ. This is why the topic of Christian spirituality is so important for our day and age, and it is why this blog exists. Let us enter more deeply into relationship in Christ, then we can go out and invite others to "come and see" why we are as joyful as we are. May heaven consume us!

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Christ is born! God is Revealed!

This Christmas season the liturgical texts of the Byzantine and Maronite Churches have reminded me of an aspect of Eastern spirituality that I have always found particularly appealing; that is, the unknowability of God. By this we do not mean, of course, that we can in no way come to know anything of God or about God. God has revealed Himself to us through creation, His actions throughout history, and most particularly through Salvation History as revealed in the Scriptures. The fulness of God's revelation has come to us in the Person of Jesus Christ, whose birth we are currently celebrating (incidentally the Byzantines celebrate Christ's birth not for twelve days or until Epiphany, but until the feast of the Presentation in the Temple on February 2). No, what we mean by the unknowability of God is the impossibility of human language and human concepts to fully grasp and communicate the infinite mystery of God. Every Sunday in the anaphora of the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom before recounting God's deeds in creation and redemption the priest (and through him we the people) prays:

"IT IS FITTING AND RIGHT to sing to You, to bless You, to praise You, to give thanks to You, to worship You in every place of your dominion: for You are God, beyond description, beyond understanding, invisible, incomprehensible, always existing, always the same; You and your only-begotten Son and your Holy Spirit."

We are reminded here that words cannot suffice to describe God, intellectual concepts cannot fully grasp him, nor can the eye of the mind see or understand God in His essence. The Scriptures remind us that God's ways are not our ways, that no man can look on the face of God and live, that only the Son knows the Father, and those to whom the Son reveals Him.

In the Maronite tradition the texts of Safro/Morning Prayer remind us of this unknowability of God. In the Sedro we pray:

"Son of God, Word and image of the Father, his only begotten and well-beloved Son, you are the infant that neither mind can encompass, nor the spirit comprehend, wisdom fathom, science know, nor knowledge reveal. No description can portray you, O Lord, no name name you, no language explain you, no lips pronounce you."

Such a message, in my opinion, is extremely important for our day and age. We live in an age where we want nothing but forensic, scientific, "factual" knowledge. If something cannot be weighed, measured, calculated, dissected, poked, and prodded, then it is either not real, or its truth is relative. Even within the Church there is this strong desire for such "forensic" knowledge. In my experience the Churches of both East and West, Catholic and Orthodox, have emphasized often their own theological positions to such an extent that God seems little more than a concept, an intellectual exercise, or a list of dogmatic beliefs.

What the liturgical texts of this Christmas season teach us is that God is not a list of philosophical or dogmatic truths that we have come to believe. Nor is He something that scientific study can analyze. Rather, "God is the Lord, and has revealed Himself to us!" as we pray every Sunday in the Byzantine tradition. God is a Person, or rather a Trinity of Persons, that we come to know through personal encounter. This personal encounter with God is only possible because God has first sought us out and revealed Himself to us. He loves us so much that in creating us He desired to be in relationship with us, to know us and to be known by us. Do we not read, after all, that when God first created Adam and Eve He used to walk with them in the garden, conversing with them in the cool of the evening! Although we lost this intimacy with God through our own sinfulness, He has always sought us out and sought to restore that intimacy, that ability to converse with Him face-to-face as with a friend.

When God revealed His name, YHWH, to Moses He revealed also His deep love for us. We often translate YHWH as meaning "I am who am," or "I am who I am." This translation is fraught with Greek philosophical concepts. YHWH is translated into Greek as "ho on" meaning, "I am the one who is," or "I am the essence of being itself." This of course is true. But it actually fails to accurately translate the Hebrew YHWH. YHWH means active being or active presence. According to Fr. John Custer the best translation of the Hebrew would be, "I will be there as who I am." Fr. John says,

"What God went on to promise Moses is that He would be actively present in the lives of His people..."

Fr. George Maloney also speaks of this active presence of God in his book Bright Darkness: Jesus - Lover of Mankind. The point is that God is not an abstract being, somewhere "up there." Rather God is actively among us, always with us, always present to us. Are we present to Him?

This is especially true in this Christmas season where we celebrate the birth of the Word of God made flesh. As Archbishop Joseph Raya likes to point out in so many of his writings, the ultimate revelation of a person is the revelation of a person's face. Through Jesus' birth God has revealed His face to us! If, as Jesus said, the eyes are the lamp of the soul, then by looking into the human eyes of Christ we behold the very soul, the very heart of God! God is not abstract, He is not a list of dogmas that we believe in. No, God is a living Trinity of Persons that is constantly inviting us to join in their dance of love. Dogmas are, of course, important. But relationship is even more important. While dogmatic knowledge of God is foundational for our relationship with Him, we must be humble about dogma and admit that it does not say everything that there is to say about God. We can ultimately only come to know God by moving beyond dogma into the realm of the "bright dazzling darkness" or the "dark night of faith" where all concepts are laid aside and we simply behold God in awe and wonder. May heaven consume us!

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Another Prayer Rule!

Hi Everyone,

I'm sorry I've been absent for some time. My family and I just moved from the Northern Virginia area to the Northern Kentucky area (Greater Cincinnati). The move has been quite an adventure, but my wife and I are both very happy with it because we're in a much better place and we're closer to family here. It's nice to be back in the area that I grew up in - albeit on the Kentucky side of that area.

Another happy circumstance that came from the move is that I've stumbled across another prayer rule focused on the Jesus Prayer. I found this rule in the prayer book Let Us Pray to the Lord: Volume 1, Daily Office published by Eastern Christian Publications. This is an excellent little prayer book that I highly recommend, especially to those who are interested in the Slavic (Ukrainian, Russian, Carpatho-Russyn/Ruthenian and, to some extent, Romanian) usage of the Byzantine tradition. Although my favorite prayer book is still the Publican's Prayer Book put out by the Melkite Greek Catholic Eparchy of Newton, I find Let Us Pray to the Lord to be a wonderful source of prayer as well, particularly if you'd prefer a prayer rule that is more centered around the Divine Office/Liturgy of the Hours.

Towards the back of the book there are a couple pages on the Jesus Prayer, including a short rule intended for monastic use, but certainly usable/adaptable for the purposes of us lay folk as well. The rule itself comes from the typical edition of the Casoslav/Horologion published originally in 1950 in Rome as part of the historic Ruthenian Recension. The Recension is a very interesting multi-volume liturgical publication that was the result of years of turmoil within the Slavic-Byzantine Catholic Churches as they struggled between a desire to cling to "Latinizations" on the one hand, and a desire to restore the authentic Byzantine tradition on the other. One of my personal heroes, Metropolitan Andrew Sheptytsky, was at the center of the turmoil, fighting tooth and nail to restore authentic Eastern praxis. The Recension was Rome's response to the turmoil after being asked to intervene. Interestingly, the result was a recension so "purified" of Latin influence that it was/is used among the Orthodox in the Slavic lands as well.

But setting aside the background of the Recension itself, the book provides the following simple rule for the Jesus Prayer:

After making the Sign of the Cross, each of the following prayers are said with accompanying prostrations:

O God, be merciful to me, a sinner!

O God, cleanse me of my sins, and have mercy on me!

O Lord, You are my Creator, have mercy on me!

O Lord, forgive me, for I have sinned without number.

Then we pray:

O Virgin Lady, Theotokos (Mother of God), save me!

My holy guardian angel, protect me from all harm!

Holy (your patron saint), pray to God for me.

Then we pray the Jesus Prayer 100 times. If there are divider beads on your prayer rope, one would pray "Most Holy Theotokos (Mother of God), save us!" on those beads.

The beauty of such a simple rule is its ease of adaptation. One could just as easily pray 33, 50, 100, 150, or even 300 Jesus Prayers with such a simple rule. It is also an easy rule to memorize since all the prayers are so short. I actually find this rule to be much easier to perform and adapt than the Rule of St. Pachomius I posted some time back.

The only thing I find wanting in this simple rule is the lack of closing prayers. I like to have closure at the end of my prayer rule. Such a lack is easily remedied, however. I just simply pray:

"It is truly meet to bless you, O Theotokos. You are ever-blessed and all-blameless, and the Mother of our God. Higher in honor than the Cherubim, and more glorious beyond compare than the Seraphim. You who without corruption did bear God the Word. You are truly Theotokos, we magnify you."

And then:

"Through the prayers + of our holy fathers, O Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us."

It's simple, it's easily remembered, it is adaptable! I'm quite pleased to have rediscovered this little rule and will be using it much more often from here on out. May heaven consume us!

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Custom-Made Mequtaria

The following pictures are of a custom-made mequtaria that I did for a customer. It is a 41 knot mequtaria (including the joining knot) divided with a bead every 10 knots. Originally he wanted it with purple beads, but I didn't have any available so he said the white(ish) beads would be just fine. Enjoy! :)

Friday, December 7, 2012

A Roman Catholic's Journey to Eastern Catholicism: Part 4 The Journey Continues

Shortly after my official introduction to the Byzantine tradition in Michigan my wife and I moved to Northern Virginia so that I could pursue graduate studies in psychology (for various reasons those studies were quickly abandoned). Before we moved, however, I made sure that there was at least one Byzantine parish in the area. In fact, there are several. The one that we began attending regularly is called "Holy Epiphany of Our Lord Byzantine (Ruthenian) Catholic Church." We attended Liturgy there for the first several months after our move, and I came to know the pastor and a number of parishioners, all of them wonderful people. It was here that my prayer rope-making business really got a good start. The pastor noticed my rope, and when it came out that I had made it he asked if I'd be willing to make one for him as well. He kept saying over and over that my ropes were "like the old ropes" where the knots were separated instead of being all squished together like the majority of today's prayer ropes. After I made a rope for him he excitedly showed it to a number of folks, and it wasn't long before the parish bookstore started carrying my ropes as well. I also made a rope for a visiting Jesuit priest who had been learning to celebrate the Divine Liturgy in order to gain bi-ritual faculties and help out some of the local Byzantine parishes.

During one of my conversations with the pastor in the sacristy a gentleman walked in and began chatting with us. The pastor quickly showed him his new prayer rope that I'd made, and the gentleman, being very impressed, asked if I'd make one for him as well. I was very happy to do so. While we were chatting it came out that I was looking for a job because my wife, who was seven months pregnant at the time, had just undergone surgery and I'd just dropped out of graduate school in order to find a job to support my family. It turns out that the gentleman was none other than Jack Figel, founder and owner of "Eastern Christian Publications" in Fairfax, VA. He had been looking for some help with the publishing company and I quickly accepted his offer. A couple of days later I embarked upon a journey that has all but solidified my identification as an Eastern Catholic.

Working at Eastern Christian Publications was life-changing for me. I had access to tons of books and articles on the Christian East (both Catholic and Orthodox), her theology, spirituality, tradition, etc. I also came to a deeper understanding of the problems and struggles of ecumenical relations between Catholics and Orthodox, as well as the struggles for identity among Eastern Catholics and what their role in the Catholic Church as a whole ought to be. What was truly amazing for me, however, was the hours and hours I got to spend shooting and editing video footage of guest lecturers such as the leading Byzantine liturgical scholar, Fr. Robert Taft, S.J., or professor of iconology at St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary, Prof. Richard Schneider, and folks of similar dynamism. I was also privileged to edit hours and hours of video footage by Met. Kallistos Ware, Fr. David Anderson, Archpriest Lawrence Cross, Met. Jonah (former Metropolitan of the Orthodox Church in America), Fr. Maximos Davies, and others. Being able to listen to and absorb their wisdom and experience, as well as reading some of the works of folks like Archbishop Elias Zoghby and Fr. Cyril Korolevsky, really formed my love and understanding of the Byzantine tradition. For me, these experiences brought the tradition to life in a way that, I believe, would've taken decades of study otherwise. I'm very grateful for the time that I spent working at Eastern Christian Publications, and I whole-heartedly recommend any and all of their publications to both Catholics and Orthodox alike.

Shortly after I began working at Eastern Christian Publications I had occasion to attend the local Melkite Greek Catholic parish in McLean, VA. The parish is called "Holy Transfiguration Melkite Greek Catholic Church." I'd known about the parish prior to moving to Virginia because of the search I'd done for Byzantine parishes online. I'd always intended on checking the parish out once we got settled because of my curiosity about the Melkite tradition ignited by the lecture I'd listened to by Bishop Nicolas Samra on the Jesus Prayer. Unfortunately it took a number of months for us to get settled, and it wasn't until just a week or two before Christmas in 2008 that I was able to attend my first Divine Liturgy there. I was immediately blown away by both the celebration of the Liturgy itself, and the strength and warmth of the community there. It wasn't long before my wife and I officially became parishioners. We've been attending there ever since. Both of our children have been baptized, chirsmated, and communicated into that parish, and if I could I would have the same for all of our future children. What working at Eastern Christian Publications did for me on an intellectual level, Holy Transfiguration solidified and raised it up to a more spiritual level. What I'd learned from the metropolitans, bishops, priests, monks, and scholars through conversation became experiential through participation in Holy Transfiguration's rich liturgical life and the love with which the Liturgy is celebrated there.

Now that my wife and I are preparing to move from the Northern Virginia area back home to my beloved Greater Cincinnati area, I'm going to feel the loss of the community at Holy Transfiguration most keenly. There is no Melkite parish in the Cincinnati area, and the closest parish that celebrates the Byzantine tradition is a small mission out in Dayton, Ohio. Most likely we will not be able to make it out there. But I do look forward to broadening my perspective on the traditions of the East after our move. There is a Maronite Catholic parish in Cincinnati which we plan on checking out and, possibly, making our home parish. If I had my way, however, there would be a Melkite parish in Cincinnati some time in the next few years.

Perhaps as my pilgrimage to the East continues I may post some of my experiences in the Maronite tradition and the great insights that that tradition has to offer us. In the meantime I will remain a Byzantine at heart and will look forward to the day that some sort of Byzantine parish is firmly established in Cincinnati. May heaven consume us.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

A Roman Catholic's Journey to Eastern Catholicism: Part 3 The Jesus Prayer

While in Ann Arbor, two other circumstances - or perhaps encounters is a better word - fostered my journey into Eastern Catholicism. Actually the two are almost inseparably related. Mr. Richard Marquis, twin brother of Byzantine priest Fr. Joseph Marquis, gave me a talk on CD about the Jesus Prayer. The talk was presented at Sacred Heart Ruthenian Catholic Church by Bishop Nicholas Samra (now Eparch of the Melkite Greek Catholic Eparchy of Newton). Thus was fostered my introduction both to the spirituality of the Jesus prayer, as well as to the Melkites.

Bishop Nicholas' talk had a deep impact on me. I had heard of the Jesus Prayer before, but had only been given a vague description. With all this talk about breathing techniques and whatever else that are often associated with the Jesus Prayer, I simply presumed that it was some sort of modern pseudo-New Age style of prayer being adapted for Catholic use (like "centering" prayer). Little did I realize that the Jesus Prayer was such an ancient and traditional way of prayer. Bishop Nicholas' talk served to clear up all my misconceptions about the prayer. There were still a few problems that I had, but mostly in terminology. Sayedna (an affectionate name used among the Melkites to refer to their bishops) spoke about God's "energies" and allowing those energies to penetrate us. The only other place I'd heard any talk about "energy" was from my wife, who was studying massage therapy at the time. I immediately began to associate that with some sort of New Age drivel. But, I thought, perhaps Sayedna was speaking of "energies" within a certain context. I decided it would be best if I looked more deeply into the Eastern/Byzantine understanding of this word.

Since listening to that talk, the Jesus Prayer has become my constant companion. I grew up in an environment that fostered a strong devotion to the Holy Name. As a young boy my brother read a booklet on devotion to the Holy Name, then promptly wrote the name of "Jesus" on little scraps of paper and taped it to the doors of every room in our house. Every morning when I'd wake up and leave my bedroom I would see the name of Jesus and be reminded to breathe out my first prayer of the day. Studying the life of St. Francis of Assisi also instilled in me a great devotion to the name of Jesus. He had such a strong devotion to Jesus' name that he would lick his lips any time he would say it, because the sweetness of Jesus' name tasted like honey on his lips. There were also stories about how Jesus' name had been worn out of the Bible that St. Francis used because he would kiss the name anywhere he would see it printed. I was also taught to bow or make the Sign of the Cross any time I would hear or say the name of Jesus. I was also taught to whisper a prayer any time someone would take that precious name in vain.

During my time in the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, one thing that always really stuck out to me was the strong devotion to Jesus' name, and the strong sense of its power. I remember standing at prayer meetings during intervals in the music when everyone would just simply whisper words of praise, thanksgiving, adoration, and worship to God. The most common praise given was the lovingly whispered name of Jesus. Friends of mine would seem to be drawn almost into an ecstasy simply from lovingly and attentively repeating Jesus' name. For me, repeating the name at prayer meetings always seemed to refocus my prayer on the person of Jesus himself rather than on what I was experiencing during those times of intense and very emotional prayer.

So this introduction to the Jesus Prayer was, for me, the continuation of a long process that had begun early in my life. I was shocked to learn that certain breathing methods and other physical methods associated with the Jesus Prayer had absolutely no connections to the New Age movements, but were actually very ancient methods of prayer used by some of the greatest mystics of the Christian East.

Shortly after listening to the talk I decided to order my first "chotki," or "prayer rope." It was made by the monks if St. Isaac Skete, who are more well-known for producing mounted reproductions of various icons, as well as painting their own icons. When the rope arrived I was surprised by the simplicity of the design. It was simple wool with a couple of plastic beads. That's it! I thought to myself, "I wonder if I could make one of these." I had grown up making traditional style rosaries using beads and wire, as well as the plastic "missionary" rosaries made from plastic beads and knotted strings. A quick YouTube search produced one video on tying the traditional knot used for making prayer ropes - the knot is known as the "Angelic Knot" because it was supposedly taught to St. Pachomius by the Archangel Gabriel. I spent hours and hours sitting in front of that video, watching it closely, examining every move, then going over to a website to read instructions and again examine every move. I made every mistake I possibly could've, so that by the time I had my first knot tied I had the entire process memorized. It took me at least two hours to tie my first knot. From there I kept practicing, tying knot after knot until I had finally made my first prayer rope. I still have that little rope. It's a 33 knot rope and isn't bad for a first attempt. I keep it tucked away in a drawer along with a few other prayer ropes as a reminder of how God has blessed me with this gift of being able to make prayer ropes. Every now and then I like to pull it out and prayerfully finger it, letting the knots pass through my fingers and quietly whispering the name of Jesus, thanking him for this gift.

It was also from the talk given by Bishop Nicholas that I first heard of the Melkites. Previously I had only known about the Ruthenian Greek Catholics, who are more commonly known in the U.S. simply as the "Byzantine Catholic Church." I had thought that they were the only Eastern Catholics, other than the Maronites, and was surprised to learn, therefore, that there was also this group called the "Melkites." At one point in the talk Bishop Samra simply chanted "Lord, have mercy" in a traditional Byzantine tone (the same way the Greek Orthodox would chant it). That chant had an almost haunting effect on me. I wanted to hear more. I decided I needed to check out these "Melkites" at some point. I would be afforded that opportunity when my wife and I moved to the Washington, D.C. area (shortly after we discovered that she was pregnant with our first child!).