Friday, December 29, 2006

Get Religion

I check out a few websites almost every day for relevant news coverage. One of my favorite websites for daily viewing is The site doesn't just cover religious news stories, but provides analysis on how the secular press handles new stories related to religion. The site derives its name from a quote by William Schneider: “On the national level the press is one of the most secular institutions in American society. It just doesn’t get religion or any idea that flows from religious conviction.” I find the way the press covers the Orthodox Church and our way of life particularly interesting, but the way the secular press covers religious stories in general is worth considering. Press coverage tells us a lot about our society and culture.

Read Orthodixie as a suppliment to


Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The DaVinci Code at Christmas

A few days ago, before Christmas, I watched The Da Vinci Code. I hadn't read the book and was waiting for a copy of the movie to make its way into my hands. I walked up the road to talk to one of my neighbors the other night as he cleaned out his garage. He owns The Da Vinci Code DVD. The conversation turned to the film. We talked about Church history. He let me borrow the DVD.

I stayed up late that night. What did I think of the movie? I was entertained. It was sort of like National Treasure in a way. It's an interesting piece of fiction. It's perhaps more like science fiction than historical fiction. I could write an analytical article describing the historical and theological inaccuracies in the film, but that's like writing about the scientific inaccuracies in Star Wars, Dr. Who, or Battlestar Galactica. The movie not only misrepresents the early Church but even misrepresents the heretics. The history and world presented by Dan Brown is like what one might encounter when traveling into an alternate universe. (Watch Dr. Who or Stargate.)

Some people may confuse the fiction in this film with reality. If the movie were presented as a documentary, then the movie should be condemned as a work of heresy, a deviation of the truth that can lead people away from a healthy understanding of God and, therefore, themselves and their relationships with others. The movie isn’t' a documentary (which would be offensive), but fiction. It's based on a novel. The twisting of the truth in the movie just makes the movie look kind of ridiculous to the knowledgeable. Nevertheless, it's entertaining. It reflects the yearning and confusion of our society.

The movie can have a positive effect. After watching the film there may be those who want to learn what is really going on. Fiction can peek people's interest in the real story behind it. On the other hand, the movie can just confuse a lot of people who are already confused about what is true and what is false. In the first century St. Paul the Apostle wrote to St. Timothy saying, "The time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths" (RSV). Nothing has changed. The truth is far more interesting and beneficial than fiction, but deeply knowing the Truth takes time, calls us to get over ourselves, and requires personal committment.

Anyone who wants to know who Christ is, who St. Mary Magdalene is, what the Church is, and what the holy grail is can find the real meaning in the Orthodox Church, the original, ancient Church rooted in Christ and founded upon the Holy Apostles. We regard Mary Magdalene as "Equal to the Apostles" and sing to her, "When God, who is transcendent in essence, came with flesh into the world, O Myrrhbearer, He received you as a true disciple, for you turned all your love toward Him; Henceforth you would yourself work many healings. Now that you have passed into heaven, never cease to intercede for the world!" Within the Orthodox Church the truth has been preserved and lived for 2,000 years. For us the truth doesn't need to be rediscovered. It's a way of life. To many Americans, however, the Orthodox way of life remains an unknown secret, brilliantly shining, but hidden in the shadows of ignorance.

In The Da Vinci Code story secret symbolic meaning is applied to Leonardo Da Vinci's 15th century mural, The Last Supper. If people seek to discover what the early Church, the Orthodox Church, has believed since the beginning, they can find the meaning within the Church in our sacred iconography. What is the true meaning of Christmas? Who is the One who was born in a cave and laid in a manger? The holy icons teach it today as they have for centuries. When those who live the Orthodox way look deeply into the image they can see the truth in the icon and look beyond the wood and paint to encounter the One Himself who has been born among us.

Copyright © 2006 by Dana S. Kees. The image is in the public domain.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

A Christmas Message from the Ancient Patriarchate of Antioch

The Nativity of our Savior Jesus Christ dawns upon us each year to remind us of God's infinite mercy and love for His entire Creation, and to call us to reflect again on the sublime Mystery of the Divine Incarnation, without which our salvation would not be possible.

Christmas should constitute, for all of us, an occasion of spiritual renewal, a moment of meditation on our life, acts, behavior, and on our commitment to live in Christ.

Peace and joy was poured upon earth at the moment the Divine Child appeared in a humble cave. The pure-hearted, humble shepherds were the persons who received Him, not the world's powerful leaders.

Christmas is an invitation, for all of us, to contemplate on the heavenly message and to strive for peace, which is not, unfortunately, attainable nowadays, in the cradle of the Good News, in the land of the Incarnation, and in many regions of our suffering, crucified world.

Images of massacre and destruction are shown and diffused every day, as well as images of the violation of the dignity of the human being for whom the Glorified Son consented to dwell among us, in order to restore our affiliation to the Father, to enable us to sit with Him on the Day of Judgment.

We pray Our Lord, during this honorable season of Christmas, the New Year and Theophany, to grant us peace and stability, praising God and acclaiming with the Angels:

"Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, goodwill to men.”

+ His Beatitude Ignatius IV, Patriarch of Antioch and All the East

(I received this photo along with the Christmas message from one of our bishops in the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese of North America.)

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The Bronze Serpent: A Sign of Healing

After God had liberated the Israelites from oppressive slavery in Egypt, when Moses was leading them to their own homeland, the people complained to Moses, "Have you brought us out of Egypt into the wilderness so that we'll die here? We don't have any food or water. We can't stand this worthless food." (God had been providing them with food all along, but they wouldn't be satisfied.)
Because of their lack of faith, serpents came from the wilderness to invade their camp. Many of the Israelites died from snake bites. The people approached Moses in repentence saying, "We have sinned by complaining against you and against God. Pray to God on our behalf so that He will take these snakes away from us."

Moses prayed for the people. God mercifully replied, "Make a serpent and place it on a pole. Whenever someone who has been bitten looks upon it, he will be healed."

Following God's instructions, Moses made a bronze serpent and placed it upon a pole. God healed everyone who looked upon it.

The bronze serpent that Moses raised up in the age of the ancient prophets pointed to the time when God would dwell among humanity to heal us all from the affects of death, giving us the fullness of life. Speaking about Himself, Christ proclaimed, "No one has gone up to heaven except the One who came down from heaven, the Son of Man. As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, the Son of Man must also be lifted up so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life."

Orthodox bishops often carry a staff as a symbol of their authority as shepherds of the Church. A staff may be crowned with two serpents facing each other, each one looking upon the Cross centered between them. The bishop is the chief physician who oversees the Church, the spiritual hospital founded by the Great Physician, Christ Himself. When we see the bishop's staff we should remember that Christ came to heal us. He was lifted upon the Cross to triumph over death, which had infected humanity and the whole cosmos. Through the Cross, the Tree of Life, we have life.

The Orthodox Way is the way of the Cross, the way of divine healing. Within the Orthodox Church we participate in the divine life and receive the healing grace of God that transforms us into true human beings who embody divine love, live in communion with our Creator, and promote harmony in the world around us.

A couple photos of Metropolitan Philip with a staff like the one described here is available on Wikipedia.

Copyright © 2006 by Dana S. Kees. The public domain image of "Moses and the Brazen Serpent" by S√©bastien Bourdon is available at the Art Renewal Center. Used by permission.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The Real St. Nicholas

Although the myth of Santa Claus is associated with Christmas, the Orthodox Christian Church commemorates St. Nicholas the Wonderworker, Bishop of Myra, every year on December 6th.

For information on St. Nicholas visit the website of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North America or Orthodoxwiki.

The State Newspaper in South Carolina published a story about the Feast Day of St. Nicholas.

Thanks to an Orthodixie post, I discovered that a new movie, Nicholas of Myra, is currently in production.

(The icon is from the IconoGraphics Colorworks Collection, Used by permission.)

Monday, December 04, 2006

A World Split Apart

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, an Orthodox Christian writer, delivered the commencement address to the Harvard University graduating class of 1978. He had won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1970. In 1974 the Communists deported him from his beloved Russia. The speech he delivered at Harvard on June 8, 1978, entitled, A World Split Apart, describes the decline of Western culture. His words remind us about the connection between our present cultural sickness and our loss of spirituality. I find his words inspiring. They remind me of how critical Orthodox Christian spirituality is to the healing and renewal of American culture.

"If the world has not come to its end, it has approached a major turn in history, equal in importance to the turn from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. It will exact from us a spiritual upsurge, we shall have to rise to a new height of vision, to a new level of life where our physical nature will not be cursed as in the Middle Ages, but, even more importantly, our spiritual being will not be trampled upon as in the Modern era. This ascension will be similar to climbing onto the next anthropologic stage. No one on earth has any other way left but -- upward." - Alexander Solzhenitsyn, A World Split Apart

The text of the speech, A World Split Apart, is available on the Columbia University website or at The National Review Online.

You can listen to a recording of the original speech (including the original English translation from Russian) at the American Rhetoric site.

Read more about Alexander Solzhenitsyn at

The photo from Wikipedia is in the public domain.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

When Constantinople & Rome Meet

The Ecumenical Patriarchate has provided an informative website about the recent meeting between Patriarch Bartholomew & Pope Benedict in Constantinople.

Frederica Mathewes-Green wrote an article on the Opinion Journal of the Wall Street Journal Editorial Page entitled, "All for One? The Idea of Unity Divides Catholics and Orthodox Christians." The article is worth reading when considering the dialogue between East and West.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Orthodox Theology: A Spiritual Experience

If presented with a choice of reading an article on spirituality or one on theology, most Americans would probably prefer reading about spirituality. Maybe they think of spirituality as something to be experienced while theology is an academic subject that is studied. In reality, theology and spirituality are intertwined. Spirituality may be understood as our relationship with God. Theology is knowing God. The only way we can know God is through experience. We experience God within a relationship. We can study theological ideas about God, but to really know God and become true theologians we must encounter him through an intimate spiritual experience.

Some people think of theologians as professors who write complicated books and long philosophical articles published in Latin-titled journals. My priest once explained to me that a theologian is one who prays. The only way to know God is through prayer. Only three Saints in the Orthodox Christian Church are called theologians: St. John the Theologian (the Apostle), St. Gregory the Theologian, and St. Symeon the New Theologian. These men are theologians, not because they studied theological ideas or wrote philosophical works, but because they practiced theology as a way of life. They knew God by living a life of prayer within the Church, the mystical body of Christ. They could eloquently express theology in words because they experienced the divine life.

While intellectual knowledge from schools and books can tempt a person to become arrogant, proud, and overly confident in his (or her) own understanding, the true theologian encounters everything in creation with humility and love. Aware of his own imperfection, the theologian lives a dynamic life of repentance and healing by divine grace. The true theologian immerses himself in the Mystery of the Church and lives the spiritual way of life. He seeks purification, enlightenment, and union with God. Theology isn't just a collection of information aimed at explanation. Theology is the path of personal transformation. The image of God within us is restored and we are transformed into the likeness of Christ, who shines with divine brilliance.

One of my professors said something like this recently, perhaps quoting from another source: "Orthodox theologians are concerned with the spiritual health of people, not with theological discussion and arguments separated from the care of souls." This is the kind of theologian I hope to be, one who personally knows God and is healed within the mystical relationship for the benefit of others, that they may also know God and be healed, restored, and transformed into the divine likeness.

Lord, have mercy on me. Help me to be a theologian.

Copyright © 2006 by Dana S. Kees. Photo © 2006 by Dana S. Kees. My collection of class notes for a current course on theology has been a source for the last three paragraphs. Information on the lives of the Saints (links provided) is available on the websites of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America and the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia.

Monday, September 11, 2006

St. Raphael of Brooklyn

"Rejoice, O Father Raphael, Adornment of the Holy Church! Thou art Champion of the true Faith, Seeker of the lost, Consolation of the oppressed, Father to orphans, and Friend of the poor, Peacemaker and Good Shepherd, Joy of all the Orthodox, Son of Antioch, Boast of America: Intercede with Christ God for us and for all who honor thee." - Troparion of St. Raphael

"Today the memory of blessed Raphael hath shone on us; For having received Christ’s call, he faithfully took up his cross and followed Him becoming a fisher of men. Let us cry aloud to him saying: Rejoice O Father Raphael!" - Kontakion of Saint Raphael

During the past few weeks I spent some time at the Antiochian Village Conference and Retreat Center in Ligonier, PA with my fellow seminarians from the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese of North America. The event at Antiochian Village provided me with a great opportunity for theological training and fellowship with seminarians, clergy, and lay people from around the country.

While staying the Village I visited the place where the body of St. Raphael of Brooklyn, the Shepherd of the Lost Sheep of America, is buried.

You can read about St. Raphael of Brooklyn on the Antiochian Village website. More photos of St. Raphael are available at

Copyright © 2006 by Dana S. Kees. Photo of St. Raphael: public domain.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

On the Road Again

In early June, I moved from one of the largest cities in the United States back home to the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia. I've enjoyed the summer immensely, but now I have to move on. In a few days I'll travel northeastward to pursue theological studies, priestly training, and spiritual formation in an Orthodox Christian seminary, appropriately connected to a monastery.

Due to my change in location and schedule, I don't know how often I'll be able to publish a post on Symeon's Journal. One of my goals has been to create a library of articles and resources for people who are interested in the Orthodox Christian way of life. The archive represents such a collection. I don't know what changes will occur in the look and content of Symeon's Journal in the future, but I hope it will remain a place where people can visit to find spiritual inspiration, guidance, and information about the Orthodox Christian Faith.

I ask all Orthodox Christians to please pray for me as I continue on my journey.

Peace, Symeon

Photo copyright © 2006 by Dana S. Kees.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Militant Islam

The Middle East Research Institute TV Monitor Project (MEMRI TV) is a great resources for those who want to see video from the Middle East. MEMRI TV includes videos related to children and violence. Go to MEMRI's Jihad and Terrorism Studies Project site for articles. In a recent article, Dr. Muhammad Al-Huni criticized how the word "resistance" is used in Arab politics.

According to the Syrian-American Psychologist Wafa Sultan, "There is No Clash of Civilizations but a Clash between the Mentality of the Middle Ages and That of the 21st Century." Watch her enthusiastic Al-Jazeera interview on MEMRI TV or YouTube.

Visit the website of Walid Shoebat, a former terrorist in the Palestinian Liberation Organization who now speaks out against terrorism. The site includes his story and several interviews (at the bottom of the page), including a great CNN interview.

The Frontline website contains a section on "the Evolution of Islamic Terrorism." A Wide Angle episode on Suicide Bombers is perhaps the best I've seen of its kind.

Look at the images reportedly taken during a protest by Muslims in London on

Check out both DhimmiWatch and JihadWatch for current news related to militant Islam. has a page dedicated to Islamic Studies.

A map from the University of Texas indicates the influence of Islam in the world.

Although Turkey is often considered a pro-Western country, Islamic influence remains strong. Orthodox Christians still experience persecution there. (Many Orthodox Christian churches, some mentioned in the Bible, existed in what is now Turkey. The city of Constantinople, now called "Istanbul," was once the capital of the Christian Byzantine Empire and served as one of the five centers of Christianity in the ancient world.) Read the report from the United States Helsinki Commission, Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, entitled "Ankara's Efforts to Undermine the Greek Orthodox Church in Turkey."

Dr. Mohammed Abu Nimer, a conflict resolution specialist at the School of International Service at American University, has written "Nonviolence in the Islamic Context," an article on the Fellowship of Reconciliation website.

You may also read my previous posts, St. John of Damascus on Islam and Return of the Empires.

(The above image of the Islamic Ottoman Turks invading Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Christian Empire and one of the major centers of Christianity in the ancient world, is in the public domain.)

Saturday, August 19, 2006

African-American Orthodox Christianity

As I hope that Appalachian people who seek "the old time religion" will come home to the Orthodox Christian Church, the Church revealed in the pages of the Bible, I also hope that African-Americans across the land will come home. Many of them don't realize how deeply the roots of ancient Orthodox Christianity run through the African soil.

In his article, "African-American Orthodoxy" Albert Raboteau wrote that "the resonances or points of convergence between Orthodoxy and African-American spirituality are profound." To learn more about those "points of convergence" read his article at or on the St. Mary of Egypt Orthodox Church website.

Father Moses Berry is the pastor of Theotokos Unexpected Joy Orthodox Christian Mission. Listen to an interview with Father Moses on Come Receive the Light entitled, “Finding My Heart's True Home: An African American’s Story” (February 25, 2006).

Read an article about Father Moses, “Descendant of Slaves Conducts Lenten Series at Virgin Mary Orthodox,” from the Northwest Indiana Times (March 8, 2003).

Man Opens His Family Album for Slavery Museum” is an article about Father Moses from the Associated Press/Joplin Globe (Sunday16, 2000). Visit the Ozarks Afro-American Heritage Museum website to learn more about Father Moses and his work.

To learn more about St. Moses the Black (pictured here), read the article entitled "Orthodox St. Moses the Black Inspires Compassion" on the DirectionsToOrthodoxy site. The story of St. Moses is also available on the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia website.

This post has been inspired by an Orthodixie post on Black Orthodoxy.

The image of St. Moses the Black is in the public domain.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Learning from the Shakespeareans

If you are a teacher who loves children and who cares deeply about their education then the film, The Hobart Shakespeareans, may bring tears to your eyes.

The Hobart Shakespeareans is a documentary about a dedicated public school teacher, Rafe Esquith, and his students. Those of us who are educators within the Orthodox Christian Church can learn much from this teacher and the educational environment he creates with the help of his students.

We have the Holy Scripture, the stories of the Saints, the holy icons, the Divine Liturgy, and the whole dynamic living Tradition of the Church. What if we teach our spiritual way of life the way Rafe Esquith teaches classical literature, history, music, math, and so on. The story of the Hobart Shakespeareans shows us what Orthodox Christian education for both children and adults could be and indeed should be in America.

Visit the POV website for a synopsis of the film and excerpts from Rafe Esquith's book, There Are No Shortcuts. He comments On American Schools, On Teacher Selection, and On Teaching. A special section for educators includes "Rafe's Classroom Secrets." The video of David Brancaccio's interview with Rafe Esquith and a transcript of the interview are available on the NOW website. (Scroll down the transcript text of the show to find this interview.)

Listen to Michelle Trudeau's report, "Inner-City Teacher Takes No Shortcuts to Success," on National Public Radio. Also, read the brief article on the Hobart Shakespeareans present on the site.

Read the October 14, 2003 Washington Post article, "Pursuing Happiness, Through Hard Work," by Jay Mathews.

You can also visit the official Hobart Shakespeareans website.

Information on Rafe Esquith can be found at UCLA Spotlight and Wikipedia.

Ron Clark, a young teacher from North Carolina who moved to New York City to teach in Harlem, is also a dedicated teacher. You can listen to an interview with the actor Ernie Hudson about his own life and The Ron Clark Story, a recent TNT movie.

Watch a video about Ron Clark from (56k or broadband).

The August 2006 issue of Reader's Digest included the article, "A Class by Himself," written by one of Ron Clark's former students.

An article by Ron Clark can be found at

More information is available on the Ron Clark Website, including resources for teachers.

Copyright © 2006 by Dana S. Kees. The image is in the public domain.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Unlearning to Learn: Spiritual Education

I used to keep a Yoda action figure on the shelf above my computer desk. It reminded me of the wise sayings Yoda imparted to Luke during his Jedi training in the swamps of Degobah. One of my favorite sayings in The Empire Strikes Back is Yoda's instruction to Luke, “You must unlearn what you have learned.”

Those who desire to become Orthodox Christians begin their spiritual journey into the Church and its way of life as catechumens, those who are being instructed in the Faith. During their time of preparation catechumens experience a process both of learning and unlearning. By unlearning, I don’t just mean unlearning particular ideas, but also unlearning one’s entire concept of reality and way of thinking. It’s learning by experience. The Orthodox Christian way of life can’t be just learned by taking classes and reading books. It is learned by immersing oneself into the spiritual way of life as much as possible in the midst of the Church. Our way of life is absorbed by participating in it. As one gradually learns the Faith as a catechumen he or she must shed prior misconceptions about spirituality, the self, God, relationships, life, and the world.

Secular people who consider themselves “spiritual, but not religious” must unlearn what American culture has taught them about reality. That’s not easy. The culture continuously reinforces its constantly evolving teachings. Every time we watch popular TV, read the news on the internet, see an advertisement in a magazine, or talk with friends who are themselves influenced by secular culture we receive a lesson from the culture about what we are supposed to think and how we are supposed to live. Sometimes seculars have been influenced by religious traditions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, and Paganism. If these worldviews and belief systems are not unlearned then the person may consciously or unconsciously blend together Orthodox Christianity with an incompatible and contradictory way of life. This results in confusion. To develop an Orthodox Christian ways of thinking, feeling, and living one must unlearn the the old ways in order to learn a whole new way of seeing the world and experiencing life. When a person unlearns the old ways and learns the new ways then he or she will probably be able to more clearly see the errors and omissions of the way of life left behind. On the other hand, once a person understands the Orthodox Christian way of life through experience he or she may discover that Orthodox Christianity fulfills all those positive, nurturing things attractive about the former way of life.

At seventeen years old, Marjorie Corbman wrote A Tiny Step Away from Deepest Faith, a book about her teenage search for meaning. In her book, she described her journey to becoming an Orthodox Christian:

“I stopped being a Wiccan when I looked into the history of the religion. I stopped being a pagan because I was simply believing in my own personal fancies, my own ideas, and my God was as small as I was. I wanted something larger. I waited for a pantheon—any pantheon—to take hold of me. Any religion of old, any forgotten wisdom, any god or goddess willing to grab me. To my utter dismay, I began to feel the Christian “pantheon” drawing me in—Jesus, Mary, the Magdalene…I stuck with Gnosticism until I looked into the history of that as well. In time I realized what ancient faith I was looking for, what religion, what Tradition, what Person. It—He—was not what I wanted. But I was looking for Truth.

My Jewish childhood prepared me for a lot of things. Of course it prepared me for traditional Christianity when I finally came to Him, as traditional Christianity comes directly out of Judaism. But above all Judaism gave me a sense of tradition—of history understood as a process of following the One True God. Ancient prayers, written for me, soaked in thousand-year-old wisdom—my childhood is full of rituals and prayers, Shabbat candles and Torah scrolls, Kiddush cups and braided bread, although none of this was explained to me very well—and this sensibility carried me through to the rest of my life until now. When I cross myself, bow, kiss my icons in the morning, and pray—O Heavenly King, O Comforter, the Spirit of Truth who art in all places and fillest all things, the treasury of good things and Giver of Life—I sometimes remember this, where I came from. Everything I had then is not gone, but has been fulfilled—abundantly” (53-54).

Many people in America have been heavily influenced by Roman Catholicism or Protestantism. Some Americans have rejected Christianity based on their negative experience with the Roman Catholic Church or the Protestant movement (Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, Independent, etc.) Unfortunately, when such men and women encounter Orthodox Christianity, they assume that their negative experiences with Roman Catholicism or Protestantism also relates to Orthodox Christianity. They judge Orthodox Christianity unfairly based on predjudice. In order to learn to live the Orthodox Christian Way, such individuals need to unlearn their misconceptions and false assumptions so they can see and know Christianity as it really is in its most ancient, purest, and fullest form.

People who have rejected Roman Catholicism or Protestantism aren’t the only ones who need to unlearn in order to learn. Christians outside of the Orthodox Church who are coming home to the ancient Church from Roman Catholicism and Protestantism also need to humbly unlearn the Christianity they thought they knew in order to discover the fullness of the Christian Faith in the Orthodox Christian Church. In his book, One Flew Over the Onion Dome, Father Joseph David Huneycutt offers valuable advice for those who teach catechumens the Orthodox Christian Faith:

“Orthodox Christianity is the Church. All other manifestations of 'church' have subtracted from the Church. Having grown up in the Baptist tradition, I heard the Epistles anew, seemingly for the first time, when I became Orthodox. St. Paul was writing to the Church. And here I was, now a member of that same Body, the Church, hearing his writings in a whole new light. No longer did I have to struggle to hear the writings of St. Paul speaking to me personally. From time to time that may be the case, yet the Epistles were and are to the Church. It is a “we thing” that we take personally; it’s hard to explain to an outsider. But like all families, clarity comes within the confines of membership. There’s no other way to experience marriage and family without participating in it.

Not utilizing the whole of the canon of catechism and the Scriptures in teaching Seekers about the Faith is a mistake. It is incorrect to view all outsiders as Catechumens. Converts need to reexamine, on their own terms, previously held beliefs and assumptions about Christ, the Church, and salvation. For the Orthodox to assume that those coming to Her from other Christian backgrounds need merely to add icons, incense, and liturgical worship is an erroneous assumption. It is best to just start from scratch. “Scratch,” in this case, is that Faith which has been preserved and handed down from generation to generation in the Church” (77-78).

I generally don’t like to compare Orthodox Christianity with other faith traditions because Orthodox Christianity stands alone, witnessed by the presence of all the Saints who have lived in all ages. Sometimes, however, helping people unlearn their misconceptions means helping them understand how the Protestantism and Roman Catholicism of the Western World came out of Eastern Orthodox Christianity and developed into what they are today. I recently left a comment on a post about my experience explaining Orthodox Christianity to people in Appalachia. Here is part of the post:

“My native culture is often antagonistic toward and resistant to Roman Catholicism….One of the greatest obstacles preventing Appalachian people from opening their hearts, minds, and souls to Orthodox Christianity, once they encounter it, is that is appears too “Catholic,” meaning “Roman Catholic,” to them. I find it important for people to now about Church history. Becoming Orthodox doesn’t mean becoming Roman Catholic, but it doesn’t mean being Protestant either. Rather, becoming Orthodox involves leaving behind both Roman Catholicism and the protest against Rome to proceed deeper into ancient times to find the Apostolic Church revealed in the Bible.”

Explaining Orthodox Christianity to Protestants can be difficult, even if they know the content of the Bible. If a Protestant asks, “What is the Orthodox Church?” a simple answer may be something like this: “The Orthodox Church is the original Church, the Church founded by Jesus Christ upon His Apostles 2,000 years ago, and that has continued keeping the Faith until today.” Since the questioner has not yet begun to unlearn his or her Protestant way of understanding Christianity and hasn’t learned about the place of the Orthodox Church in history, that answer may not make sense to the person.

The conversation could turn into a discussion about particular points of doctrine. Trying to see Orthodox Christianity through a Protestant lens (or any other foreign lens) is like someone trying to see what he or she really looks like by looking into one of those odd-shaped funhouse mirrors. As a square peg doesn’t fit into a round hole, the Orthodox Christianity is incompatible with a Protestant understanding and approach to Christianity. For Protestants to understand Orthodox Christianity, they must learn Christianity all over again from the beginning. As catechumens they will learn Orthodox Christianity, the Christian way of life in its original, purest, and fullest form, the Faith that incorporates right faith and right belief in a complete spiritual way of life.

Becoming an Orthodox Christian isn’t just about unlearning incorrect information about the universe in order to become philosophically right about theological ideas. While the word Orthodox implies having “correct belief,” correctness isn’t the goal. Pride and arrogance can cause people to be so concerned with defending their right position and pointing out why others are wrong that they lose the spiritual reason that correct belief is important. Being an Orthodox Christian means knowing who God really is, who we really are, what the world is really like, and who we can really become by reaching our full potential. Knowing who we are and knowing who God is allows us to have a healthy relationship with God and mystically commune with Him. Only within a relationship with God can we spiritually grow and experience the personal healing and transformation that brilliantly restores the dust-covered divine likeness within us. In other words, Orthodox Christianity isn’t about being right as much as it’s about becoming spiritually good through our relationship with God.

Jesus Christ is the Truth. When Pontius Pilate asked Jesus, “What is Truth?” before sending Him to be crucified, Pilate asked the wrong question. The real question is “Who is Truth?” Truth is a person, the Son of God, the One who is truly human like us and truly God at the same time. He is God in human flesh, the embodiment of Truth, Life, and Love. Knowing the Truth isn’t about objectively having the right answers to theological questions, but it’s about having a good, intimate, beneficial relationship with Jesus Christ Himself. When we know the Truth experientially through a relationship with Him then we begin to take on His image, the shining divine image that radiates love, purity, humility, peace, patience, and wisdom. Knowing the Truth doesn’t just make us right, it makes us good.

Teaching catechumens the Orthodox Christian Faith means helping them unlearn misconceptions they have picked up so that they can learn the spiritual way of life without confusion. The process of unlearning is important for catechumens but it isn’t for catechumens only. All of us who are Orthodox Christians must continue to be reminded of what we believe so that we can unlearn the ideas that we pick up from cultural propaganda. Let’s continue learning the good and unlearning the bad so that we keep the Faith once and for all delivered to the saints in its fullness.

“Therefore, brothers, stand fast and hold on to the traditions that you were taught, whether by word or by our letter” (St. Paul’s Second Letter to the Thessalonians 2.15).

Corbman, Marjorie. A Tiny Step Away from Deepest Faith: A Teenager’s Search for Meaning. (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2005), 53-54.

Huneycutt, Father Joseph David. One Flew Over the Onion Dome: American Orthodox Converts, Retreads, and Reverts. Salisbury, MA: Regina Orthodox Press, 2006), 77-78. Hear an interview with Father Joseph about the book on Come Receive the Light. Also, visit Father Joseph's blog, Orthodixie.

The image of the Holy Gospels is from St. Philip Orthodox Christian Church in Ft. Lauderdale, FL. Used by permission.

Copyright © 2006 by Dana S. Kees.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The Monastery of St. Catherine at Sinai

In the days when the Pharaohs ruled Egypt, Moses was watching his father-in-law's sheep in the land of Midian. While on Mount Sinai, Moses looked up and saw a bush that was burning, but remained unconsumed by the fire. When he approached the bush to see why the flames didn't harm it, he heard a voice from inside the burning bush call to him, "Moses. Moses." "Here I am," he answered. "Do not come any closer," commanded the voice, "Take your shoes off your feet because the place where you are standing is holy ground. I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob."

The ancient Monastery of St. Catherine, located at the base of Mount Sinai, is one of the Orthodox Christian Church's hidden treasuries of prayer, worship, knowledge, icons, relics, manuscripts, and other precious gems. The monastery is a lush spiritual oasis in middle of the desert and in the midst of a dry, barren world. It's a holy place where people still commune with the living God who once appeared to Moses in a burning bush.

You can visit the official website of The Holy Monastery of St. Catherine at Mount Sinai. (The English portion of the site is currently under construction.) is a great resource for learning about the Monastery of St. Catherine. Learn about the history, architecture, icons, and other artistic treasures from articles and images on the website. has provided an interactive monastery map. An Orthodoxwiki article on the monastery is also available.

Read about the life of the Great Holy Martyr Catherine of Alexandria at the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America website. Another article appears on the site of the Orthodox Christian Fellowship at the University of Wisconsin - Madison. Each article displays an icon of St. Catherine.

Copyright © 2006 by Dana S. Kees. The image of St.Catherine's Monastery is from the Pictorial Library of Bible Lands, Used by permission.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The Falling Asleep of the Virgin Mary

Today is the Feast of the Dormition (“Falling Asleep”) of the Mother of God. The mother of our Lord submitted herself to the will of God as spoken by the Archangel Gabriel. She conceived by the Holy Spirit and gave birth to her Son, Jesus Christ, the Son of God and Savior of the world. Her own life was wrapped up in the life of her Son. She suffered with Him, not only as a disciple, but as His loving mother. When her only Son was dying, hanging by the nails of a rough wooden cross, she was there with him. She stood before the Cross next to her Son’s beloved disciple, John. Jesus spoke to John saying, “Here is your mother,” and to Mary, “Here is your son.” From the Cross, Christ placed his mother under John’s care and established her as the mother of the whole Church, the family of His disciples. After her Son’s death, burial, resurrection from the dead, and ascension into heaven she remained with the disciples. On the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came upon the Church she was there with the Apostles. Can you imagine how much the early Church loved and respected the devoted mother of our Lord?

In the icon of her falling asleep, Mary’s body lays on a funeral bier with the Apostles gathered around. Her Immortal Son, the Risen Lord, appears in all His radiant divine glory beside her lifeless body. Christ has come to receive His mother into His heavenly kingdom. In His hands, He holds the pure soul of his mother, wrapped in the white swaddling clothes of an innocent child. The portrayal of the Virgin Mary as a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and held by her Son echoes the icon of Christ’s Nativity, which shows the Virgin Mary with the infant Jesus, wrapped in swaddling clothes and laying in a manger. As Mary cared for Jesus after his birth when He came into the world, Jesus cared for His mother after her physical death when she left the world.

Let’s remember the words of the Archangel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary, “Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women!” Let’s also keep the following words of Christ from today’s Gospel reading in our hearts: “And it happened, as He spoke these things, that a certain woman from the crowd raised her voice and said to Him, ‘Blessed is the womb that bore You, and the breasts which nursed You!’ But He said, ‘More than that, blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it!’” (Luke 1.28; 11.27-28, NKJV). The Virgin Mary is honored, not only because she is His mother, but because she, as His mother, believed the word of God and followed it with complete faith, love, and humility. She shows us what a true disciple of Jesus Christ should look like.

“Calling to remembrance our all-holy, immaculate, most blessed and glorious Lady Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary, with all the saints, let us commend ourselves and each other and all our life unto Christ our God.”

Copyright © 2006 by Dana S. Kees. The icon of the Dormition is in the public domain.

Monday, August 14, 2006

The Pantocrator

"I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end," says the Lord, "who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Pantocrator." - Revelation 1.8

Jesus Christ is the Pantocrator, the Almighty, the Ruler of All. He is the Compassionate One who loves us and cares for us, the Great Physician who heals us, and the Immortal One who has triumphed over death to give us life. As the King of the Universe, Christ watches over us from His throne in heaven, yet He is always present among us on earth.

The vault of the heavens is You, O Lord, Fashioner;
and the Holy Church's great founder;
likewise establish me in unfeigned love for You,
for You are the height of things sought for,
the staff of the faithful and the only Friend of all.

You are my strength;
You are my power and might, O Lord;
You are my God;
You Who is not absent from Thy Father's arms.
You, Lord, are my joy.
You have deigned to visit our lowliness and our poverty.
To You, therefore, I cry out with Habbakoum the Prophet:
Glory be to Your power, O Friend of Man.

The Greek word pantocrator or pantokrator is found in the Greek New Testament. The image of the Pantocrator is from the Monastery of St. Catherine, located at Mt. Sinai. The image is in the public domain. The above prayers have been taken from The Service of the Great Paraklesis to the Most Holy Theotokos, available on the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia website.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Mount Athos, the Holy Mountain

For over a thousand years Orthodox Christian monks have lived on the peninsula of Mount Athos, also known as Hagion Oros, the Holy Mountain. Twenty Orthodox Christian monasteries rest on the peninsula. Only monks live there. Mount Athos is an autonomous region of Greece inaccessible to the outside world except by boat. A certain number of male pilgrims are given special permission to visit. Mount Athos is a holy place whose inhabitants have separated themselves from worldly influences and cares in order to dedicate themselves entirely to living the spiritual way of life in a continual state of prayer, worship, and communion with God. They seek self-transformation, enlightenment, and union with God through divine grace.

Check out Mount Athos: The Holy Mountain, a website provided by Macedonian Heritage, for a nice introduction to Mt. Athos and information on visiting there. Investigate the official Mount Athos website, and read a Pilgrim's Guide to Mount Athos at the Friends of Mount Athos website. Really good information on Mount Athos has also been provided by and Orthodoxwiki.

Visit the Hellenic Ministry of Culture's Treasures of Mount Athos exhibition site. The full catalogue of the exhibition, including images and detailed descriptions of the treasures, is available on the site.

Neil Averitt wrote about his recent trip to Mount Athos in "Mt. Athos, Of Monks and Men," an article published in The Washington Post on Sunday, August 6, 2006. You can find a commentary on this article at

The above image of Mt. Athos is available on Wikipedia. Permission has been granted to copy, distribute and/or modify the image under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts, and no Back-Cover Texts. A copy of the license is included in the section entitled "GNU Free Documentation License".

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Ancient Manuscripts from the British Isles

An ancient book of Psalms, preserved in a bog for centuries, has been discovered in Ireland. The Psalter seems to be more than a thousand years old, created during the time when Orthodox Christianity flourished in the British Isles. Robert Siegel’s interview with Pat Wallace, director of the National Museum of Ireland, is available at Information is also available on the BBC News and National Museum of Ireland websites.

Many other ancient manuscripts from the Orthodox Christian British Isles have been preserved. The Book of Kells, produced by Orthodox Celtic monks and known for its beautifully ornate style, is perhaps the most famous. Wikipedia contains a good article on the Book of Kells. Another article about it can be found on the website. Visit Orthodoxwiki for an article on the Lindisfarne Gospels.

"A Brief History of the Irish Orthodox Church" by the Monk Nicodemus has been provided by the Orthodox Christian Information Center.

You may also read my previous article, "The Ancient Spirituality of the British Isles."

The above image from the Book of Kells shows the beginning of The Gospel of Jesus Christ According to St. John. The image, available on Wikipedia, is in the public domain.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Orthodox Christianity in Japan

The son of a samurai and son-in-law of a Shinto priest, Takama Sawabe was a fierce Japanese nationalist. He hated Christianity and all foreign influences in his country. One day he angrily confronted the Orthodox Christian missionary to Japan, a Russian priest-monk named Nicholas (Nicolai). Father Nicholas spoke to him:

"Why are you angry at me?" Fr. Nicholas asked Sawabe.

"All you foreigners must die. You have come here to spy on our country and even worse, you are harming Japan with your preaching," answered Sawabe.

"But do you know what I preach?"

"No, I don't," he answered.

"Then how can you judge, much less condemn something you know nothing about? Is it just to defame something you do not know? First listen to me, and then judge. If what you hear is bad, then throw us out."

After listening to Father Nicholas and learning about the Orthodox Christian way of life, the nationalist samurai who had once endorsed Shintoism now believed in Jesus Christ and was baptized, becoming the first person to embrace Orthodox Christianity in Japan. At his baptism, he appropriately received the Christian name Paul, after St. Paul, one of the Church's greatest Apostles who, before his conversion, had used his authority to violently persecute the Christian Church. Paul Sawabe would eventually be ordained an Orthodox Christian priest. You can read about Father Paul (pictured here) in a brief article on the Japanese National Diet Library website dedicated to Portraits of Modern Japanese Historical Figures, which includes another photo, and on Orthodoxwiki.

Father Nicholas, the missionary who taught Paul the Orthodox Christian Faith and baptized him, was later consecrated as bishop and is today known as St. Nicholas of Japan.

According to the the book, Missionaries, Monks, and Martyrs, St. Nicholas worked hard to learn about Japanese language and culture:

Along with language learning, Nicholas studied the culture and history of Japan. He read their mythology and literature, and learned about Confucianism, Shintoism, and Buddhism. He even attended the sermons of popular Buddhist preachers and public storytellers in hopes of understanding the mind of the Japanese. For close to seven years he continued this intense study. Eventually, he became one of the foremost scholars of the Japanese language and went on to translate service and prayer books, catechism books, and the Scripture, as he waited for opportunities of evangelism to open within the country. (111)

Articles on the life of St. Nicholas of Japan are available on the website of Transfiguration of Our Lord Russian Orthodox Church in Baltimore and on Orthodoxwiki. An icon of him can be seen on the Orthodox Church in America website. The Antiochian Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom and Ireland has provided a great article by Fr. Gregory Hallam on the mission strategy of St. Nicholas of Japan, and its relevance for the Orthodox Church today.

You can read about the Orthodox Church in Japan on Orthodoxwiki. The official website of the Orthodox Church in Japan contains photos of Holy Resurrection Cathedral in Tokyo. "The Orthodox Church Singing in Japan" website offers an article by Maria Junko Matsush on St. Nicholas and the music of the Orthodox Church in Japan.

On the same music-themed site you can listen to the Troparion of Pascha (Easter) sung in Greek, Romanian, and Japanese according to the musical tradition of the Orthodox Church. In English, the words of the troparion are "Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death and on those in the tombs bestowing life!"

This post is dedicated to my good friend Nicholas, who grew up in Japan, the land of his ancestors. Several years ago, Nicholas believed in Jesus Christ, renounced both the Buddhism and secularism of his past, and was baptized into the Holy Orthodox Christian Church at Pascha (Easter), when we celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. At baptism, he received the name of his patron saint, St. Nicholas of Japan, as his own. May God grant him many years!

The photo of Father Paul Sawabe is in the public domain. The above dialogue between Sawabe and St. Nicholas and the cited quotation is from the book, Missionaries, Monks, and Martyrs: Making Disciples of All Nations by Luke Alexander Veronis, (Light and Life Publishing, 1994), 111-112.

Orthodox Christianity in China

Orthodox Christianity arrived in China around the year 1685, perhaps earlier. Centuries later, 222 native Chinese Orthodox Christians were murdered during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. The new Chinese martyrs included faithful men, women, and children. Their priest, Mitrophan, whose birth name was Jichong, and his family, were among the innocents tortured and killed.

An article on the history of Orthodox Christianity in China is available on the website of Dimitris Papadias, a professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. The Orthodoxy in China website has published an article entitled, "The Chinese Martyrs of the Boxer Rebellion," by Father Geoffrey Korz, which originally appeared on the Conciliar Press site. "Accounts of the Martyrs of the Chinese Orthodox Church," an article that lists the names of martyrs and offers information about them, is also available on the "Orthodoxy in China" site.

The icon of the Holy Martyrs of China can be viewed on Orthodoxwiki. An explanation of the icon is on the website of the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Pacific.

An Akathist to the Chinese Martyr Saints, composed with the blessing of His Grace, Bishop SERAPHIM, bishop of Ottowa and All Canada (OCA), has been included in the Christian Classics Ethereal Library.

For information on St. John the Wonderworker, also known as St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco, check out the website of St. John the Wonderworker Orthodox Church, part of the Orthodox Church in America.

For more information, you may visit the website of the Orthodox Metropolitanate of Hong Kong and South East Asia, which is part of the ancient Patriarchate of Constantinople.

Also, you may read my previous post on Christ the Eternal Tao.

(The icon of St. Mitrophan shown above is by the hand of Nana Quparadze. The icon is used here according to fair use with credit given to the Orthodox Metropolitanate of Hong Kong and Southeast Asia. This icon and others are available on the Orthodoxy in China website and at Orthodoxwiki.)

Friday, August 04, 2006

St. John of Damascus on Islam

St. John of Damascus grew up in Syria under Islamic rule. A few decades before his birth, Islamic forces had invaded and captured Syria, part of the Christian Byzantine Empire. Although his family members were Orthodox Christians, they were closely associated with the state. St. John, like his father, held a high position within the Muslim caliph's government. Since St. John lived as an Orthodox Christian during the very early years of Islam, near the time of Mohammed, he was in a unique position to comment on the new religion the Arab merchant introduced to the world.

Read what St. John of Damascus said about Islam (also known as Mohammedism) in the post, St. John of Damascus on Islam, from the biblicalia blog.

The St. John of Damascus School of Theology at Balamand University in Lebanon has provided a helpful webpage with more information on St. John of Damascus.

Copyright © 2006 by Dana S. Kees. Photo by Dana S. Kees.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

The Church and State

In America, the phrase "separation of church and state" is often invoked in discussions on the relationship between religion and politics. Different people have different views of what the phrase means and what the ideal interaction between religious groups and political bodies might look like. According to conventional wisdom, "politics and religion don't mix."

Most Americans don't realize that a separation between Church and State has been practiced in Orthodox Christian lands for over a thousand years. An Orthodox Christian country is healthiest when both the Church and the civil government work harmoniously together. In his book, The Orthodox Church, Bishop Kallistos Ware quotes the Byzantine Emperor John Tzimisces: "I recognize two authorities, priesthood and empire; the Creator of the world entrusted to the first the care of souls and to the second the care of men's bodies. Let neither authority be attacked, that the world may enjoy prosperity" (41).

Unlike the situation with Roman Catholicism in past centuries, the Orthodox Christian Church is not over the government. It does not assume the powers of the State. On the other hand, the Orthodox Church is not controlled by the government either.

Some writers have attempted to rewrite certain parts of history regarding the early Church. One idea floating around American culture is that Emperor Constantine the Great, the first emperor of the Christian Byzantine Empire, compelled the Orthodox bishops gathered at the Council of Nicaea in AD 325 to declare that Jesus was God. Therefore, according to the allegations, Christian doctrine was decided in the fourth century under the political influence of Constantine, a politician. In actuality, the Council at Nicaea didn't decide any new doctrine, but only reaffirmed what the Church had always believed since the time of the Apostles. Having arisen from persecution only a few years before, the Church defended the Faith its martyrs had been killed proclaiming. The gathered bishops intended to clearly distinguish the true Christian Faith from the new heretical ideas espoused by a priest named Arius, who taught that Christ was a created being and not God Himself, as the Church had always believed and taught. The Council condemned the teachings of Arius, and formulated a Creed that rejected Arianism. The Nicaean Creed eventually included these statements:
I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Only-begotten, Begotten of the Father before all worlds, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, Begotten, not made; of one essence with the Father, by whom all things were made. Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and became man.
Sometimes the State may try to control the Church. In such cases, the Church must peacefully defend the Faith for the good of the people. Even after the Christian Church condemned the false teachings of Arius with one voice at the Council of Nicaea, some continued to support his doctrine. When a supporter of Arianism became emperor of the Christian Byzantine Empire, he tried to influence Basil the Great, bishop of Caesarea. Despite the pressure placed upon him by the emperor's officials, St. Basil refused to hold back his attacks on the error of Arianism:
Finally, in a heated encounter, the praetorian prefect lost his patience and threatened Basil with confiscating his goods, with exile, torture, and even death. Basil responded, "All that I have you can confiscate are these rags and a few books. Nor can you exile me, for wherever you send me, I shall be God's guest. As to tortures you should know that my body is already dead in Christ. And death would be a great boon to me, leading me sooner to God." Taken aback, the prefect said that no one had ever spoken to him thus. Basil answered, "Perhaps that is because you have never met a true bishop." (The Story of Christianity, Vol. 1, Justo L. Gonzalez, HarperSanFrancisco, 1984, p. 185)

In recent times the Orthodox Christian Church has spoken out against the government's failure to preserve the Orthodox Christian Faith in its governance of the people. Patriarch Pavle, spiritual leader of the Orthodox Church in Serbia, denounced Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic during his rule of Serbia. Milosevic was eventually indicted on charges of crimes against humanity in Kosovo. Father Sava, a Serbian priest, stated that Milosevic had "brought ruin upon the Serb people." He also declared that "the Milosevic regime does not support the Christian values we are fighting for and want to preserve" (BBC News Online, "Orthodox Church Attacks Milosevic," June, 29, 1999).

As the Church must sometimes defend the Faith and people from a straying government, it must also address problems within the Church. When Arius introduced heresy into the Church, Constantine convened the Council of Nicaea so that the Church could deal with the problem. In an Orthodox Christian country, problems concerning the Faith affect the whole nation. In this council, and the ones that followed it, the Church condemned heresy and upheld the true Faith. Last year, one of the Church's chief bishops (a Patriarch) was removed from his position by his brother bishops when he became involved in a controversy with political implications that affected both the Church and the people of his land. Although the Orthodox Church itself is incorruptible and whole, she is composed of imperfect individual.

From an Orthodox perspective, the separation of Church and State doesn't mean that the State operates as a secular institution apart from the Faith. The Church is responsible for caring for the souls of Orthodox Christians, citizens of the eternal Kingdom of Heaven. The authority and power of the Church is within the realm of this heavenly kingdom, not the civil government. The Church does not hold secular power. The Church offers a spiritual voice within the culture and her bishops offer guidance to the leaders of the State according to the Faith of the Church, the way of life handed down from generation to generation since the Apostles. The State cannot control the Church, but must protect and care for the faithful people of the Orthodox country as is the duty of a sovereign nation's government.

Since we don't live in an Orthodox Christian country, but as Orthodox Christians in the United States of America, let's remember our prayers:

For our Metropolitan PHILIP and our Bishop..., for the venerable Priesthood, the Diaconate in Christ, for all the clergy and the people, let us pray to the Lord.

For the President of the United States and all civil authorities, and for our Armed Forces everywhere, let us pray to the Lord.

That He will aid them and grant them victory over every enemy and adversary, let us pray to the Lord.

For this city, and every city and land, and for the faithful who dwell therein, let us pray to the Lord.

For healthful seasons, for the abundance of the fruit of the earth, and for peaceful times, let us pray to the Lord.

Lord, have mercy.

Here is my favorite picture of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Patriarch Alexy II, shepherd of the Russian Orthodox Church. The photo, from the St. Petersburg Times, was apparently taken at Pascha (Orthodox Easter).

Copyright © 2006 by Dana S. Kees. (The above photo of President Putin and Patriarch Alexy II, taken Christmas 2000, is in the public domain. The portions of the Great Litany and Nicaean Creed have been taken from the Service Book of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America.)

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Take Me Home: The Church in the Hills

A few days ago my mom and I drove up a narrow country road to the place where my great-great-grandparents, the Burgesses, once lived. The wild woods have overtaken where their family home stood. Born in 1857, my great-great-grandfather came to Grapevine Creek from Missouri with his mother and brother after a family tragedy during the Civil War. As an adult, he served for more than forty years as a horse-riding Methodist lay minister in the mountains. He's now buried in a small hill-top cemetery not far from my home.

On the way to see where my ancestors lived we passed a little white country church called Grapevine Chapel. My Mom grew up in that church. She served there as the vice-president of the youth group and sung in the Grapevine Octet. Since I grew up next door to my grandparents, my mom's parents, I went to Grapevine Chapel with my grandmother on occasion. She drove us up Grapevine Creek, about a mile past where we lived, in her red '69 Ford Falcon. It was a brief but scenic drive, nice on a Sunday morning. The white wooden church with a cross-topped steeple sat beside the road in a grassy field. The structure had been built a few miles away in the 1800's as a Methodist Church, but was moved to its present location on Grapevine Creek around 1929, where it became the independent community church it is today. Through the door we entered into the pine interior and walked on the hardwood floors to my grandma's usual place among the solid pews. She sat down on her inch-thick square cushion and I rested beside her.

At the beginning of the service we stood and sang the old hymns from well-worn hymnals. We sang attentively, with feeling. I don't know exactly how to explain the way Appalachian people sing in their churches. Try to image a room full of men and women with thick Appalachian accents singing "Amazing Grace" unhurriedly, deliberately, almost mournfully, with a sense of reverence, remembrance, and hopeful yearning. The rich harmonies underlie the moving melodies. They skillfully bend the notes with their mountain dialect. Perhaps this is the Scots-Irish version of the blues. As they sing, the words sometimes make grown men cry. A lot of our culture's music is about going to heaven. Appalachian people embrace the reality of suffering and death, but also look forward with hope to a time when there's no more of pain and sorrow.

As the singing is enthusiastic, so also is the sermon. A good preacher, according to conventional wisdom, is one who knows the Bible and can get everybody, including himself, excited about it's message. It might be said of a calm, uninspiring preacher with little theatrical ability, "He's a good teacher, but he's just not a preacher." Preachers don't have to be formally educated and a lot of churches specifically want preachers that aren't. "A seminary can ruin a preacher," some say. For these people, the only school book a preacher needs is his Bible and the only teacher is the Holy Spirit.

Members of these churches rightly believe that the Bible is the authoritative word of God. They sincerely want to believe and live out the "old time religion," the true Christian Faith revealed in the Bible, the same Faith of the early Church found in the Book of Acts, the same Faith preached by Peter and Paul. As the old song goes:

Give me that old time religion.
Give me that old time religion.
Give me that old time religion.
It's good enough for me.

It was good enough for Paul and Silas.
It was good enough for Paul and Silas.
It was good enough for Paul and Silas.
It's good enough for me.

The Appalachian people try to stick to the Bible and keep the old time religion of the Apostles alive as much as they know how. Despite their best efforts, though, these churches lack something the early biblical churches that are mentioned in the Bible possessed. What are country churches missing that the early churches had? Let's take the ancient church in Antioch for example. What can the ancient church of Antioch teach the country churches in the Appalachian hills?

Jesus Christ, the Son of God, founded His Holy Church upon the Apostles He had chosen. After the Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension of Christ, the Holy Spirit descended upon the Church on the Feast of Pentecost. The Spirit empowered her to do the work of Christ on the earth and to take the Gospel throughout the world.

According to the Book of Acts, when the church in Jerusalem heard that people in Antioch were receiving the Gospel and believing in Jesus, the Jerusalem church sent Barnabas to Antioch. When Barnabas saw what was happening there, he traveled to Tarsus to bring Paul back with him. Paul and Barnabas spent a whole year with the Antiochian church and taught a large group of people about the Faith. (The disciples of Jesus were first called Christians in Antioch.) At the right time, according to the will of God, Paul and Barnabas were sent off from Antioch on their world-changing missionary journeys.

What happened to the church in Antioch after the age of the Apostles? The Apostles entrusted the leadership of the Church, indwelled and guided by the Holy Spirit, to their successors. From generation to generation the bishops of the Christian Church who proceeded the Apostles shepherded the faithful. One the most famous pastors of the church in Antioch is Ignatius, the second bishop of Antioch, who lived during the time of the Apostles and knew the Apostle John. Ignatius served the church in Antioch until, refusing to deny Jesus Christ, he was taken to Rome, thrown to wild animals, and martyred for the Faith.

Eventually, the church in Antioch became one of the world's five major centers of Christianity, called patriarchates. The Patriarchate of Antioch, shared responsibility with the Patriarchates of Jerusalem, Constantinople, Rome, and Alexandria to shepherd the world's Christians.

What happened to the Patriarchate of Antioch? After 2,000 years, the Patriarchate of Antioch is still alive and thriving. In fact, all of the Patriarchates are still part of the Church, except for the church in Rome. The church in Rome, under the leadership of its bishop (the Pope) failed to hold on to the Faith and went its own way about a thousand years ago, forming what is called the Roman Catholic Church. With Rome gone, the Church revealed in the pages of the Holy Bible became known as the Orthodox Christian Church. (Orthodox means right faith and right worship, or right glory.)

The Patriarchate of Antioch is even present in our country. When Christians of the Patriarchate of Antioch emigrated from their native lands of Lebanon and Syria to America they brought the ancient Christian Faith with them to the shores of America and established churches throughout the land. People may be surprised to learn that several churches in Appalachia are still part of the Patriarchate of Antioch. St. George Antiochian Orthodox Cathedral in Charleston, West Virginia, is the seat of His Grace, Bishop THOMAS, who was consecrated as bishop in Damascus, Syria, in 2004. (The cathedral is named after St. George, an early Christian martyr.) With Bishop THOMAS as our shepherd, the cathedral is the spiritual center of Orthodox Christianity in West Virginia.

Although the Church founded by the Apostles in biblical times still exists, most people in America don't realize that the ancient Church is still around. Here's why: Since the United Sates has been dominated throughout history by Roman Catholicism and the many Protestant groups (Baptist, Methodist, Pentecostal, independent, etc.), relatively few Americans have had any contact with the Orthodox Christian Faith. That's changing thanks to Orthodox Christian missionaries and immigrants who have come to America from the lands of the Bible. We are in a very special point in history when people are discovering the ancient Church and coming home to her. In some cases, entire congregations have united themselves with the Church. Some pastors who had dedicated their lives to bringing sinners to the foot of the Cross in repentance now not only bring men and women to the Cross of Jesus Christ, but they bring them through the Life-Giving Cross into Christ's Holy Church. The Patriarchate of Antioch, with a missionary legacy that dates back to Paul and Barnabas, has been instrumental in bringing the message of the Orthodox Church to North America and welcoming home those who seek to be united with the very Church that we read about in the pages of the Bible. His Eminence, Metropolitan PHILIP, who shepherds all the Antiochian Orthodox churches in North America, has offered this invitation: "Come home, America! Come home to the Faith of Peter and Paul!"

The Orthodox Christian Faith is the fulfillment of Appalachian religion. First, there was only the Orthodox Church, then the church in Rome broke away to form the Roman Catholic Church. Later, the Protestant movement broke away from the Roman Catholic Church. All kinds of different churches emerged out of Protestantism, including the countless denominations, associations, and independent churches in Appalachia. Now with the presence of the Orthodox Christian Church in America, Appalachian churches have the opportunity to return back to the Church of the Apostles and to discover the spiritual depths of the true Faith they have never fully known.

What would happen if Grapevine Chapel became an Orthodox Christian temple? I can imagine returning there to see a spiritual community with renewed faith, life, and vision. Walking through the doors on Sunday morning I enter the atrium and light a candle as a sign of my prayer before an image of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Asking for the forgiveness of sins, I calm my senses, leave all my worldly cares behind, and prepare my heart for heavenly worship. Then, I enter the main part of the church and stand at one of the pews. Although the central worship service, called the Divine Liturgy, hasn't begun yet, the service of morning prayer is already going on. I hear the familiar prayers sung in ancient tones and smell the sweet incense, mingled with the prayers of the saints, as the smoke rises up to God. Our worship reflects the heavenly worship revealed in the Book of Revelation. It's beautiful. The service is led by a man who has been called by God and ordained by the Church as a link in a chain of ministers that extends through history all the way back to the Apostles. Our worship is liturgical, meaning that it is the work of the people. There are no instruments to be heard except the human voice as the people sing prayers and spiritual songs, some of them over a thousand years old. We didn't just come here to listen to a sermon, but to worship God together with all our hearts. When the morning prayers conclude, the Divine Liturgy begins. The little church is full of mystery. The worship I see reminds me of the reality I can't physically see with my eyes, but that I know is present all around me. We are not alone in our worship. God is with us and we who worship the Holy Trinity on earth are joined by the saints, angels, archangels, cherubim, and seraphim in heaven. This is heavenly worship, the way worship in the hills should be. This is Orthodox Christian worship, ancient worship, timeless worship, the worship of the true and living God.

For generations the churches scattered throughout Appalachia have tried to live a spiritual life of faith and hope based on the Bible. They've tried to trust in God and live the old time religion. It turns out that the old time religion of mountain churches isn't as old as we thought. (The Bible itself can be dated to the time of the Apostles, but the way most mountain churches use and interpret the Bible is no more than 500 years old. Some of the interpretations, assumed to be ancient, are much newer.) For years the people of Appalachia have been missing something. They've tried to be a church the best way they know how while being separated from the Orthodox Christian Church, the historical New Testament Church that has continued to live the fullness of the Christian Faith in the lands of the Bible and beyond. The people in the hills have tried to study the Bible passed down to them without the benefit of the interpretation that has been passed down along with the Bible in the Orthodox Church. They've tried to worship God with all their hearts without having the opportunity to experience the true, ancient, heavenly worship of the Orthodox Church. I'm happy to know that the Orthodox Christian Church has come to the Appalachian hills, the land of my ancestors, with arms open wide to welcome us home. Come home to the Faith of the Apostles, the Faith of the Fathers, the Faith of the Orthodox, the Faith that has established the universe.

Images: Photo of Grapevine Chapel in 1959 (from family collection); Photo of St. George Orthodox Church by Dana S. Kees; Russian Orthodox icon of the Crucifixion (Public Domain); Image of what Grapevine Chapel might look like today as an Orthodox Church (original and enhanced photos by Dana S. Kees. The dome actually belongs on top of the Orthodox Church of St. Mary Magdalene, which rests on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, from image in the Pictorial Dictionary of Bible Lands, Used by permission).

Copyright © 2006 by Dana S. Kees.

Monday, July 24, 2006

In the Mountains

I recently visited the lake for a few days. Near sunrise and dusk, I watched the cloudy-white mist glide slowly across the water between the mountains.

I love the Appalachian mountains, where my roots grow deep. I live inside an ever-changing icon. Every green thing, every leaf and blade of grass, points me to God, who created all things and dwells among us.

I often find myself looking at a scene or driving down a country road and thinking, "This would be a wonderful place for a monastery." In the hills we find silence, touched by the sound of birds and breeze. The blue sky arches above the earth's browns, greens, and yellows. Red, orange, and purple flowers are scattered about. Each piece seems to rest in the right place. God is here. This is a good place for prayer. It’s a good place to work and encounter the wonders of life.

Monks are friends of both the Creator and the creation. I've heard of monks like St. Seraphim of Sarov who, through the Holy Spirit, became so gentle, loving, and peaceful that the wild animals in the forest befriended them. Although the world has fallen into chaos, these prayerful saints lived harmoniously with the animals as though it were still Paradise.

A monastery here would be good for the monks who strive to pray without ceasing, shed themselves of their own prideful self-centeredness, achieve divine enlightenment, and experience theosis, union with God.

A monastery would also be good for the people in both the surrounding country and in the nearest city. It seems to me that one reason people in my generation are so apathetic about their own spiritual health is that they're so busy with distractions, disconnected from places of peaceful rest, and immersed in the quicksand of secular culture. Young Americans are enslaved to a harmful worldview, reinforced by friends, the media, and the culture.

A monastery in the mountains would offer people a place of refuge, somewhere to run to, away from an environment that nurtures pride, self-centeredness, chaos, and confusion. People need a quiet place, a holy place, where they can reorient themselves, reconnect with their souls, look honestly at their own hearts, and allow their ever-loving Creator God to reach deep within them to heal their hurts. They need to disconnect themselves from a world full of ignorance and misguided ideas so they can seek, find, and be changed by the Truth who sets us free. A monastery in these very hills would provide us with a place of constant prayer for the benefit of our nation and the whole world, a world that needs guidance, divine help, and peace.

Yes, this would be a wonderful place for a monastery.

Let us pray to the Lord. Lord, have mercy.

Copyright © 2006 by Dana S. Kees. Photograph copyright © 2006 by Dana S. Kees.