Tuesday, January 31, 2006

About Iconography

The following article was written by my friend, Dan Cassis, an iconographer. (Dan and his wife were among the first to teach me about the Orthodox way.)

Iconography can probably be better understood when compared with the philosophy of Western art, which may be stated as: "Art is the expression of the individual and the influence of his environment at a particular period of time". Western art seems to have evolved without a common denominator, and as a result does not adhere to strict rules. If rules are made, the artist is free to change or alter them during the process to the point where the act or process can become the subject of his art. In other words, it can be art for art's sake. This idea has gained a great deal of momentum over the past century in Western culture as evidenced by its rapidly changing and diverse styles. Iconography, on the other hand, is not "art for art's sake", but "art for the edification of mankind". It is not the expression of only one person, but the expression of the historical Christian church, its Traditions, and Holy Scripture. The icon painter or iconographer is required to be a Christian, and from the two-thousand year old Christian values, derives his inspiration for expression. The originator or creator of this art form is the unbroken Tradition of the Church. The artist is like a musician who uses his talent to interpret and perform the composer's musical composition. For this reason, iconography has not experienced the drastic stylistic changes that Western art has because it kept its roots and built on them. Western art is seen as a process of revolutionary statements where the present one exists in disagreement or negation of the one it preceded. It seems as though its purpose is "how to be different". Iconography, on the other hand, has been going through a "slow evolutionary process", and its purpose is "how to be better" rather than "how to be different". This consistent style gives iconography a timeless and universal quality, which can truly be referred to as classical. It is also the most noble of all arts, because its subject is God. The word "icon" is usually considered to apply to a religious picture of two dimensions or relief. But, to the Orthodox Church, the term is a theological one. "Icon", from the Greek, means image as in reflection. And the icon is, in fact, a manmade reflection of the incomprehensible; an earthly image of the heavenly pattern. The veneration, which an Orthodox Christian accords to this image, is not one of worship, but of adoration. In respecting the image, the believer pays homage to its Prototype. Man is too insignificant a creature to be able to see his God directly in this life. The mystic, other worldly quality of Byzantine icons, their expressively non-naturalistic form, echoes this humility of man in exaltation of God. The beginnings of Byzantine art are found in the earliest days of Christianity. Combining Greek, Roman and Middle Eastern influences, it quickly evolved to an abstract, stylized form for the instruction and inspiration of the faithful. Because of the destruction of images in the eighth century (iconoclasm), little remains before that time. But of the later works, there are roughly three main schools: the Constantinopolitan, featuring asceticism and imperial grandeur (Russian iconography is its direct descendent); the Macedonian, with less starkness, more roundness of form; and the Cretan, with elongated features and somber colors. Partial or complete adornment with silver or gold metal covering as an expression of piety became common after the fifteenth century. As a form of inspiration, the icon is to the eye the same as music is to the ear; as incense is to the smell; as veneration to the touch; and as Holy Communion to the taste. Although, as mentioned, these may seem superficial, the intent is to charge all of our senses and guide us toward a higher and spiritual understanding. For those who may not be familiar with icons, at first glance they may appear rather strange, but further observation will reveal various unique qualities. As one gazes at an icon of a saint, the pose will be straight forward, austere, and serious because it is a confrontation with the Kingdom of God. It will be matter of fact and not an ostentatious or theatrical pose. The saint will not contain any worldly or mundane characteristics, but portray a solemn and spiritual quality. The eyes of the saint will be rather large symbolizing faith in God; the nose will be long and slender denoting dignity; the mouth will be small, the ears large indicating humility and obedience to God by being able to listen more to His Word and speaking very little. The forehead of the saint will be rather large showing spiritual wisdom and the overall appearance will be slender from fasting and control of worldly temptations. Finally, this art will look abstract and unnatural because of inverse visual perspective where the vanishing point will not be somewhere in the picture, but in the eye of the viewer. The scene will expand rather than diminish, symbolizing that we, the viewers live in a finite world and we gaze at a window of eternity. Also, through this symbolic inverse perspective we understand the fact that man cannot, on his own, walk in God's domain, but God, through His Grace, comes to us and lifts us up.The icon invokes a sense of divinity, yet it maintains an anthropomorphic form. It attracts the gaze of the believer and in its own way guides and directs his prayer. In the historical context, the Church realized the importance and the necessity of providing this visual aid, together with architecture, music, the fragrance of incense and the participation of communion to provide "a total work of art" creating a heavenly environment to bring the believer closer to his God.

Copyright by Dan Cassis. This article and photos of icons wriiten by Dan are available at his website, byzantineiconsbycassis.com. This article has been included here by permission of the author. (The 11th century Russian icon, the Theotokos of Vladimir, accompanying this article is in the public domain.)

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Spirituality & Art

I’m sitting on a bench surrounded by vibrant European paintings. It’s quiet and peaceful in the room with an occasional museum guest meandering about. I like it here. I’m a member of this museum so I come here often, sometimes to see new exhibits and other times just to visit the ancient antiquities along with the European paintings and sculpture that have become like old friends.

Not far from where I’m sitting hangs a 17th century Italian oil panting by Guido Reni of St. James the Greater, the Apostle of Jesus and brother of St. John. I look at the face of St. James, a working man who poured every drop of energy into serving Christ, his Master. The tireless one looks tired, physically exhausted. Where does he look for strength? I can see the answer in his eyes, peering up undistracted beyond the confines of the frame, past this temporal earth, into heaven itself, where his heart feel at home. As he looks upward, the light descends from above to shine on his face, glowing with a soft divine radiance. In his eyes I see expectation, faith, and hope. His Master sees him from above and hears his prayer.

This painting teaches me how to live, to dedicate my whole life to Christ, embodying the Faith in the world and, though living in the world, keeping my eyes focused through prayer on the One who looks down upon me from heaven. It reminds me to maintain an awareness of the heavenly reality present around me as I live every day in a distracting, constraining world.

The painting of St. James the Greater is good art. It reflects Beauty, teaches Truth, points us to the ideal of human life, and inspires us to achieve that ideal. Before I came to this room to sit and write, I walked by many other works that communicate the beauty of divinity, humanity, and the creation. Unfortunately, I’ve also seen a lot of pieces prominently displayed that are devoid of beauty, empty. If they communicate anything, their message proves uninspiring, even depressing and fatalistic. Much of Western art has declined to the point of irrelevance and heresy.

The Western world’s art has become irrelevant because of the heresy pervasive in our culture. By heresy I mean lies about God, mistaken notions about humanity, and false ideas about reality. Our culture does not know the true God, our Creator, the source of Beauty and Truth. When we do not know God we lose our knowledge of Truth and Beauty. Since we have rejected the source of Truth, we don’t believe in Truth anymore, only individual, personal truths. Artists who deny Truth do not inspire us to pursue Truth, nor the One who reveals all Truth.

Our spiritual ignorance has caused us to reject Beauty in favor of ugliness because we see the world as full of corruption and pain, having lost the hope of wholeness and Beauty. Since we don’t believe in Beauty as an ideal the artist doesn’t inspire us through art to pursue Beauty. We are left to wallow in the ugliness of the world without reaching out to the One who is pure Beauty, who has endowed the creation with beauty, and who heals and restores the beauty of humanity. We don’t pursue what we don’t believe in, what we have let go. How can the Western tradition of art be saved? Return to the Creator, the source of all Truth, Beauty, Peace, Love, Honor, Justice, Virtue, and every other heavenly ideal.

Another favorite painting of mine is a portrait of a woman who represents Truth. Except for a thin, translucent veil, she is innocently nude, the naked Truth, unembellished and unadorned. In her pure hand she holds a peach with a single leaf, the heart and the tongue, which keeps and speaks the Truth. She is beautiful. I’m sorry that more people don’t recognize her, appreciate her, love her, know her, and seek her. If we did, we would see her reflection in more pieces hanging on gallery walls.

The most spiritual art in the world is the iconography of the Orthodox Christian Church. Iconographers actually consider icon painting as more a form of prayer than a form of art. Icons are central to our way of life, a way of worship and prayer. Unlike the Western art of our culture, which has changed dramatically down through the ages and often portrays the artist’s personal views, the Orthodox iconography of the East has remained consistent, communicating what the whole Orthodox Church has believed and will always believe. Iconography must maintain consistency from generation to generation because it reveals the Truth preserved and lived in the Orthodox Christian way of life. An icon painted today looks remarkable like those painted in the early Church. As the Holy Scripture has been accurately transcribed from ancient times until today, Orthodox iconography has also maintained the theology of the Church, which is why we say that icons are “written,” not painted. As the Holy Scripture is a verbal icon, the image of Truth in the form of words, Orthodox Christian icons are the visual equivalents of the Holy Scripture. They reveal God Himself with Truth, Beauty, Peace, Wisdom, Holiness, and other divine ideals.

I’m comforted by the preservation of the ideals within the sacred images of the Orthodox Church, but I’m discouraged at what is happening to the contemporary cultural art produced in the Western world, including America. Iconography produced within the Orthodox Church and Western art forms are very different kinds of art. The value of iconography is firmly established. Western art that recognizes God and reflects Truth and Beauty can also have great value for us all, but our secular society seems lost, disoriented, cynical, and in despair. I hope that in finding the true God, found in the holy icons, Western artists will find inspiration themselves that will inspire the rest of us and point us toward God Himself with all the good things that find their origin in Him.

Copyright © 2006 by Dana S. Kees. (The painting, Laurel Branch, by Bouguereau is in the public domain.)

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Current News: Palestine & Israel

To find out what is currently happening in Israel & Palestine, I like to check out multiple sources from different perspectives. CNN has a Middle East page. BBC has a special In Depth section on Israel and the Palestinians . National Public Radio (NPR) offers Middle East radio news coverage on the internet. Also try the International Middle East Media Center and the Middle East Media Research Institute, an organization that translates primary Arabic sources into English. My favorite Israeli source is Independent Media Review and Analysis. Other Israeli sources include Haaretz and the Jerusalem Post. I also like to read a personal blog published by Tal G in Jeruselam. Aljazeera, the Palestinian News Network, and the Palestinian Media Center offer an Arab perspective on the situation. Photos from the Palestinian Territories are available on PalestineToday.com. Let us pray for peace in the region, and especially for all the Orthodox Christians who have continued to keep the Faith while living in a land of violence.

Copyright © 2006 by Dana S. Kees. Photo of Palestinian Christians from PalestineToday.com.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Spirituality & Sexuality

In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, He made our first father from the dust of the earth and breathed into him the breath of life so that he became a living being. Adam, the first man, was alone in Paradise. Only the plants and animals surrounded him. “It is not good for man to be alone,” said God, but none of the creatures in all of the creation was good enough for Adam, whom God had created in His own image.

God caused Adam to fall into a deep sleep. Then, He opened up one of Adam’s sides, removed a rib, and closed his side with flesh. From that rib God fashioned our first mother, Eve, to be Adam’s suitable compliment, the one to complete her husband. When Adam saw her for the first time, he exclaimed, “This one is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh. She will be called ‘woman’ because she was taken out of man.” Adam had found his wife, and she her husband. The Holy Scripture explains, “This is why a man leaves his father and mother and they become one flesh.”

The act of becoming one flesh involves sexual union, the joining of two bodies, male and female, but the unity should be understood as more than just a physical act. The oneness between husband and wife is intended to be a complete unity that encompasses every aspect of their life together. It’s not just a bodily union, but the holy union of spirit, mind, will, and emotion, as well as body. Sex is designed as a physical expression of the intense mental, emotional, and spiritual intimacy shared between a husband and wife every day of their lives.

Through the Holy Mystery of Marriage two independent beings are spiritually joined by our Creator in a holy, blessed relationship. Marriage is like a holy temple built from a man and woman by God himself. Within this temple the sacred act of sexual expression takes place, an ancient ritual that dates back to the beginning when God made our first parents and gave them the instructions to “be fruitful and multiply.” The use of sex outside of marriage is sacrilege, the rejection of true human nature as we were created to be, and the selfish and dishonorable misuse of a graceful, divine gift. Within the temple of marriage, however, sex is a pure, spiritual act of thanksgiving performed by two bound together by the Spirit in an enduring and pervasive unity.

Orthodox Christians should always treat sexual expression within marriage as a spiritual act of love. Our own self-centeredness and corrupted natures can pervert our understanding of sexuality, but the more we purify our hearts and grow in spiritual maturity the more we can comprehend the mystery of sexuality. If married couples sanctify (set apart for a holy use) thier sexuality by bringing it under the influence of the Holy Spirit, they can learn from their own sexual expression and use their sexuality for good.

Through the joining of their selves together, a husband and wife dive deeper into the knowledge of each other. This is not merely intellectual knowledge but knowledge learned through experience, an intimate knowledge that should reflect the depth of knowledge a husband and wife possess of each other’s mind, heart, and will. As with our knowledge of God, the knowledge that a man and woman joined in marriage gain about each other should fill their minds and also descend deep into their hearts to dwell.

Sexual expression can teach husband and wife about the selflessness of love. When a man loves his wife and expresses his genuine love through their sexual union, sex is a form of self-surrender, the giving of himself to the one who completes him for her benefit. The wife surrenders herself to her husband in the same way for his benefit. Their mutual service to the other should remind them both of the complete self-surrender marking their whole existence together. She is the physical extension of him, flesh of his flesh. He is part of her, as much as her own body. They join together, each losing the self in the lover through the blessed union. This unity exists long before their bodies meet in sexual union and begins even before the first romantic gaze or thought of the moment. Its genesis is found in the enduring love that permeates every aspect of their lives.

The unity enjoyed by husband and wife through sexual expression is joined by another mystery, the creation of a new life, a child given being through their union. The child is a separate person from his parents, yet he is part of them, finds his existence in their oneness, and comes through them into the world as a living soul who bears their image. God has not designed us with the capability to individually produce children independent of the opposite sex. We need each other to realize both the unity of sexual expression and the bringing forth of a new generation, two wonderful aspects of our human existence.

The spiritual ignorance and evil in our culture has resulted in a corrupted understanding of sexuality and hostility toward sexual wholeness. The Holy Scripture reveals to us that in ancient times our ancestors lost their knowledge of the true Creator God as their hearts became self-centered and darkened. When they forgot the identity of the true God, in whose image they had been made, they also lost the spiritual knowledge about their own identity as human beings. They fell into spiritual confusion, which resulted in sexual confusion. As men and women began creating gods and devising myths based on their own misunderstandings they also abandoned their natural relationships with each other, rejecting how God had designed them to be. All of the sexual sin in our culture finds its root in our loss of divine knowledge, real spirituality, and authentic love. As Orthodox Christians, may we keep the Faith, dedicating ourselves to holiness, purity, wholeness, and love, while rejecting everything that seeks to draw our hearts from God, who made us in His image and has shown us the way to be truly human, as He created us to be.

Copyright © 2006 by Dana S. Kees. (Icon from the IconoGraphics Colorworks Library, Theologic.com. Used by permission.)

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Sacred Life Within the Womb

In America, abortion is often seen as a political issue concerning the competing rights of two individuals: the rights of a woman and the rights of an unborn child. The Orthodox Christian Church views abortion in the light of the sanctity of the mother’s womb and the precious life present within this sacred space.

As Orthodox Christians we should pray for the innocent children, as well as the mothers and practitioners, whose lives have been touched by the terrible act of abortion. To paraphrase our priest’s words, it is not for us to judge anyone, but to pray for everyone. We should pray that everyone finds peace. May we all live the Faith, reaching out to young expectant mothers by showing them the inexhaustible love of God. May we also offer them the practical support they need to care for their children in a stable, loving, spiritual environment.

The following is a prayer we prayed during the Divine Liturgy this past Sunday.

O Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son, Who are in the bosom of the Father, True God, source of life and immortality, Light of Light, who came into the world to enlighten it, Thou wast pleased to be conceived in the womb of the Virgin Mary for the salvation of our souls by the power of Thine All-Holy Spirit. O Master, Who came that we might have life more abundantly, we ask that Thou might enlighten the minds and hearts of those blinded to the truth that life begins at conception, and that the unborn in the womb are already adorned with Thine image and likeness; enable us to guard, cherish and protect the lives of all those who are unable to care for themselves. For Thou art the Bestower of Life, bringing each person from non-being into being, sealing each person with divine and infinite love. Be merciful, O Lord, to those who, through ignorance of willfulness, affront Thy divine goodness and providence through the act of abortion. May they, and all of us, come to the light of Thy Truth and glorify Thee, the Giver of Life, together with Thy Father and Thine All-Holy and Life-giving Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.
Selections from early Christian writings and a recent letter from His Eminence, Metropolitan Philip concerning life within the womb and its destruction by abortion are available on the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America website (antiochian.org). A more detailed explanation of the Church’s historic understanding of life before birth and abortion is described in a “friend of the court” brief filed with the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of the Holy Orthodox Church. The full text of the brief is available at orthodoxinfo.com.

Selections from the “friend of the court” brief follows:

Among the most highly regarded of ancient Christian writings is the Didache, which dates from the late first century. Its teaching is unambiguous: "Do not murder a child by abortion or kill a newborn infant." Id. at II, 2. This is echoed in another didactic writing universally esteemed in the ancient Church, the Epistle of Barnabas, from the early second century: "Never do away with an unborn child or destroy it after its birth." Id. at XIX, 5.

The writings of the Fathers of the Church and other authorities further attest to the unanimity with which abortion was condemned. Among the earliest was the philosopher and apologist Athenagoras of Athens, who wrote to the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (c.177) to defend Christians against false charges of murder: "What reason would we have to commit murder when we say that women who induce abortions are murderers, and will have to give account of it to God?" St. Basil the Great (c.330-379) was unequivocable: "A woman who deliberately destroys a fetus is answerable for murder." St. John Chrysostom (c.345-407) who in his famous homilies railed against men who secured the abortions of their illegitimate offspring, called their actions "even worse than murder." Of such men who impelled women to have abortions, he said, "You do not let a prostitute remain a prostitute, but make her a murderer as well."

Among the earliest testimonies that fetal development was irrelevant is that of St. Basil the Great, who wrote that "any hairsplitting distinction as to its being formed or unformed is inadmissible with us." He also condemned suppliers of abortifacients, regardless of the stage of pregnancy: "'Those who give potions for the destruction of a child conceived in the womb are murderers, as are those who take potions which kill the child."

St. Basil's brother, St. Gregory of Nyssa (c.335-394), saw the fetus as a complete human being from the time of conception, and specifically rejected theories based upon formation or quickening: "There is no question about that which is bred in the uterus, both growing, and moving from place to place. It remains, therefore, that we must think that the point of commencement of existence is one and the same for body and soul." Even Tertullian of Carthage (c.160-c.230), a prominent Latin ecclesiastical writer who seemed to accept the formed/unformed distinction as a biological matter, dismissed its moral importance: "Abortion is a precipitation of murder, nor does it matter whether or not one takes a life when formed, or drives it away when forming, for he is also a man who is about to be one."

Though less specific, Holy Scripture also recognizes that an unborn child's life is sacred, and begins no later than conception: "'Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations." Jeremiah 1:5, 6. Also noteworthy is St. Luke's use of the same Greek word, brephos (baby), for both the unborn St. John the Baptist (Luke 1:44) and the newly-born Christ child (Luke 2:12). Even more indicative are those examples, in both Old and New Testaments, where God enters into a direct personal relationship with a specific individual before birth, by "consecrating," "appointing," "calling," and //setting apart" the unborn child through His grace. This testifies to the Bible's view that the fetus is not only a human being but a person. That this understanding of an unborn person's receptivity to divine grace extends back to conception is further evidenced by the ancient practice, as formalized in the Church calendar, of celebrating not only the conception of Christ (Annunciation, March 25), but that of His mother (December 9), and St. John the Baptist (September 23).

Historic Christianity recognized conception as the time at which life and soul were united, and regarded abortion at any stage of pregnancy as homicide. Though the Orthodox Church, for historical reasons relating to its organizational and doctrinal continuity with historic Christianity, is more acutely aware of this fact, this should not be taken as sectarian pleading. Rather, it is a unique witness to an older and sounder tradition that is our common heritage. The fact that the theological writings of Christian antiquity were formulated by men with little understanding of biology, but whose views are entirely compatible with our modern understanding, is further testament to their moral perspicacity.

(The Amicus Curiae Submitted to the Supreme Court, No. 88-605, In The Supreme Court of the United States, October Term, 1988, WILLIAM L. WEBSTER; STATE OF MISSOURI, Appellants,v. REPRODUCTIVE HEALTH SERVICES; PLANNED PARENTHOOD OF GREATER KANSAS CITY; HOWARD I. SCHWARTZ, M.D.; ROBERT L. BLAKE, M.D.; CARL C. PEARMAN, M.D.; CARROLL METZGER, R.N.C.; MARY L. PEMBERTON, B.S.W., Appellees. On Appeal From The United States Court of Appeals For the Eighth Circuit. Orthodoxinfo.com, full text available at http://www.orthodoxinfo.com/praxis/abortion.aspx.)

Copyright © 2006 by Dana S. Kees. (The 13th century icon is in the public domain.)

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Our Evening Prayers

Evenings offer us an opportunity to calm ourselves, reflect on the passing day, and nurture our souls. When we stand before an icon of Christ and pray as the sun descends behind the horizon, we can gain a new perspective on our lives today and tomorrow. Our worship, thankfulness, and pleas for help rise to our loving God like the smoke of sweet-smelling incense.

If you want to develop a life of personal prayer, but you don’t know where to start, evening prayer may be a good place to begin.
The Evening Prayers are available on the website of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America (antiochian.org).

Keep in mind that while our personal prayers are essential for our spirituality, these prayers are always meant to be understood in the context of the whole Orthodox Christian way of life. We must not only understand the life of prayer in terms of my prayers, personal prayers, but also in terms of our prayers, the prayers we offer to God as a spiritual family when we gather together for worship.

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

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Together in Spiritual Community

American culture advocates individualism and self-reliance. Many Americans have applied these values to their understanding of spirituality. We tend to think that “my spirituality is just between me and God.” We don’t like trusting in or depending on others.

Our Creator didn’t design us to live as isolated human beings. He made each of us to be in relationship with other people. Even within the mysterious being of the One True God, we find three persons eternally existing in one essence: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in relationship with each other. Our Creator possesses relationship within His own being, and He has made us in His image as relational creatures. Furthermore, God has made us male and female, forming a complete humanity, each sex designed differently to complement and complete the other.

After our first ancestor’s turned away from their Creator in Paradise, the entire human race eventually drifted away from the light of the knowledge of God into spiritual darkness. Within the world’s darkness, God gathered together a group of former slaves, the Israelites, to be His own people, a people of light. For centuries, God’s presence dwelled with them, He revealed Himself to them, and He taught them the path of true religion, the spiritual way. In the fullness of time, our Creator came into the world as a human being to gather together all of humanity, both the Israelites he had chosen centuries before and every other group of people living on the earth. Jesus Christ, the One through whom all things were made, chose Twelve Apostles and built His Church upon those Apostles.

The Church was not an institution, but a family with a common Father, and a spiritual community of disciples with a common Master. The Church was an ekklesia, a sacred “assembly” of those who believed in Christ. The original Church was not an organization to be served by people, but an organic community gathered together around the Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, One God, now and forever. The organization within the community served the people, not the other way around. The family included a hierarchy, with Christ at the top, but the hierarchy existed within a family, a brotherhood of believers, that will endure until the end. I find comfort knowing that if I am sick, someone will bring me medicine. If I am also hungry, someone will bring me food too. If I need conversation, there is a close friend within the Church, my family, who can listen. God has brought us together, gathering us around Him, for our own good. We have not been rescued from darkness, evil, chaos, corruption, and death individually, but together as the Church. Christ has revealed Himself to His Church and will remain with her through the presence of the Holy Spirit until the end of the age. He has made her one body, His own body to minister to each other within the Church and outside to the people of the world, whom God loves. Within the Church He has kept the Orthodox Faith, the fullness of the Truth, preserved and lived for generation after generation until now.

We can’t heal ourselves of the spiritual sickness inflicting our souls and preventing us from spiritual growth. The Church is the divine hospital established on earth in the middle of human existence where we can find healing for ourselves. Christ, the Great Physician, restores us to wholeness through His Church. Only in the Church can we find the holistic medicine, called the Holy Mysteries, that purify and restore us to good health. Through the Holy Mysteries, the love and grace of God transforms our lives, bring us into union with Him, and also unites us with each other.

The Orthodox Christian Church today is the same Church founded by Christ upon the Holy Apostles generations ago. We have been called to preserve the Faith we have received and embody the Faith in the world around us, as our ancestors have done for thousands of years. As imperfect as some of us are (let me speak for myself), we live a common spiritual life and walk together down the same illumined path toward spiritual perfection (theosis), the way leading to selflessness, humility, love, healing, peace, harmony, and the open gates of Paradise.

Copyright © 2006 by Dana S. Kees. Photo copyright © 2004 by Dana S. Kees.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Spiritual Religion

Every one of us has a religion. Our religion is the way we understand reality and the way we live in the world according to our understanding. It is our worldview and our way of life. We can say, “I’m spiritual, but not religious,” but our spiritual health is determined by our religion whether we realize it or not. We live according to what we believe.

Every religion tells a story, the single story that explains all of reality, what is real in the world. All the individual stories and teachings present in each religion are all part of that religion’s one story that describes who God is, who we are, our relationship with God, our true identity, our purpose in life, who we can become, and the way to reach our fullest human potential. Our religion is more than a list of doctrines. It is a comprehensive way of thinking and believing that helps us to make sense of life in the world. If each of us wrote down the story of humanity’s relationship with our Creator from the beginning, through the present, until the end of time, then each of us would probably describe on paper the content of our religion. Our religion determines how we comprehend the world around us and how we live every day.

The world is full of religions with their particular stories. While the different religions in the world appear to have many common teachings and tell similar stories, when one understands each religion in terms of its main, “big-picture” story, one finds that each religion is really very unique and different, and contradicts others. Since we were all created by the same Creator in His image, we should expect to see some commonness among the various religious traditions of the world. We do find similarities on the surface, but the commonness doesn’t run very deep because we have corrupted the Truth with our ignorance. All religions, or at least most of them, contain truths about human existence from which we can learn. The problem is that the truths are accompanied by misconceptions, corruptions of the Truth. In order to find spiritual health, we need the right religion, containing the knowledge of the Truth in its purest, uncorrupted fullness. We need the religion that tells the spiritual story of the human race the way it really happens. Only when we see reality as it really is can we truly find spiritual wholeness. When we know who the true and living God is, and we know who we are, we can form an intimate relationship with our Creator nourished by His divine, transforming love and grace.

The true religion does not just tell us how to see the world. It is also a lifestyle, the spiritual way of life, the path toward spiritual perfection laid out for us by the One who created everything that exists. One who walks the spiritual path of true religion not only walks the path made by God, but walks that path with God Himself as a companion and guide. Imagine having been blind from birth, living isolated in an urban apartment most of your life without much contact with the outside world, even through the media. Suddenly you find yourself able to see, standing in the middle of a beautiful, misty, sun-lit forest. It’s a strange new sight, one that’s incomprehensible and indescribable. It’s a little scary. Fortunately for you, a guide who knows the forest emerges from the shadows, introduces himself, and offers help. You graciously accept his offer. He explains to you the nature of the forest, what all the strange objects, like trees, are around you, and the interaction among the living things who live there. Beyond explaining to you how to understand your new-found reality, your guide also teaches you how to survive in your new environment so that you enjoy life rather than fall victim to the many mistakes that could potentially make you sick or kill you. He teaches you what paths are safe and which are not, what food will nourish you and what will hurt you, and how to protect yourself from the natural elements. As you spend time with your guide, you grow close to him and learn from his knowledge and wisdom. On the path of true religion, the way of spirituality, the One who created the universe, brought you into existence, and knows all things, acts as your guide.

Orthodox Christianity is the the way of spiritual religion. Our way of understanding reality and our way of life have been revealed by the Creator Himself. Orthodox means “right belief” and “right glory.” Christian applies to those who follow Christ, the Son of God. An Orthodox Christian is a member of the sacred community established by Christ where the divine knowledge and the spiritual way of life has been preserved and lived through the ages for thousands of years. We have been called to keep the true Faith, to embody it in the world, to allow the light of divine Truth to shine through us, and to invite each person who seeks union with God to join us in our common life.

“We have seen the true light, we have received the heavenly Spirit; we have found the true faith, worshipping the undivided Trinity: for He hath saved us.” – from the Divine Liturgy

Copyright © 2006 by Dana S. Kees. Photo copyright © 2004 by Dana S. Kees.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

The River of Fire

The River of Fire (Copyright © 1980 by the St. Nectarios Press) is a discourse delivered by Alexandre Kalomiros in 1980. The complete text is available online at the St. Nectarios Press website. The River of Fire describes who the true and living God really is: infinitely good, loving, kind, and merciful. The brief text addresses the presence of evil and death in the world, the difference between how Orthodox Christians and pagans view the creation, and the existence of heaven and hell. The River of Fire is a great resource for helping one understand our relationship with God and the path of salvation that leads to Paradise. (The text includes valuable notes with great primary source material.)

In addition to the St. Nectarios Press website, I have also found the text on Silouan, a personal website.

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

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Authentic Spirituality

Spirituality is the relationship between us and our Creator. Since God fashioned us in His own image, we come to know ourselves by knowing the One in whose image we have been made. Through our relationship with Him, God transforms us into a more perfect reflection of Himself. By relinquishing our own self-centeredness so that we may commune with Him, we grow into spiritual maturity and bring all aspects of our being and life under the influence of the Spirit.

The goal of spirituality is theosis. To attain theosis is to perfectly reflect, as a polished mirror, the divine image and likeness of God, and to live in constant intimate communion with the Spirit, the source of all purity, love, harmony, wholeness, happiness, meaning, and every other good and perfect thing. Theosis allows one’s own being and life to shine with the radiance of divine light. This is true enlightenment, illumination by the knowledge and presence of God.

Theosis is the fulfillment of our human potential. Since we have drifted away from God, the source of Life and Light, and have descended into spiritual darkness, corruption, and chaos, the goal of spirituality is to become truly human, as God created us to be. When we reach theosis and our human nature is restored to its intended glory, we are fit for dwelling in Paradise, the kingdom of heaven, in the presence of the Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, One God, ever-loving and eternally existing.

Many Americans don’t really understand spirituality. They possess a rather vague and shallow conception of the nature of spirituality and seem to assume that personal spirituality is just one of many parts of a person’s life, disconnected from other parts. Spirituality is treated as one category in a series of categories that make up a person’s existence. When someone understands himself or herself as being divided into a number of disunited categories, then he or she cannot find true wholeness.

How many young adults in our culture, or older adults for that matter, invest their time, energy, and hopes in building a satisfying “professional life” while neglecting the spiritual life? Maybe they have honest intentions of focusing on their spirituality at a later time, but spiritual neglect will affect the whole person. Those who try to divide their lives into separate parts, like professional, spiritual, academic, family, and romantic parts, and consider spirituality as merely one of those parts, will fail to fulfill their life potential. They will fail because their understanding of spirituality, the self, and human existence is based upon false assumptions informed by American cultural ideas rather than founded on the Truth revealed to us by our Creator.

Instead of dividing our lives into separate compartments and seeing ourselves as a sum of individual parts, each one of us should see our life as a complete, unified whole. We are not like wooden cases with a series of shelves, each shelf representing a different aspect of life. Instead, we are like perfect spheres of glass with every particular aspect of life mystically present within. Through the center of this sphere runs an axis that radiates pure light. This light does not originate with us, but with God, who shines His divine light through us. On this axis our lives revolve. The axis is our spirituality, our relationship with God, in whose image we have been made. When we place our spirituality at the center of life and develop our relationship with God, all the aspects of our lives will harmoniously rotate in one fluid motion around a central axis. When the axis of spirituality glows brightly, the divine light permeates our whole lives, influencing every aspect of our existence.

If we desire to improve all of the various aspects of our lives, then we must place spirituality at the center of our priorities and attentiveness. If we ignore our spirituality, the axis around which our lives move, or subordinate our spirituality to any other priority, then we will fail to fulfill our identity and ultimate purpose in life. On the other hand, if we attend to our spirituality and develop it, all aspects of our lives will coexist in harmony. Through intimate communion with our Creator we will find wholeness and balance.

A tree’s roots dive deep and stretch wide beneath the soil, its source of nourishment. Toward the heavens the tree stretches its broad fruit-bearing branches. A healthy tree produces healthy fruit. Humans are like trees in the sense that we find overall health and wellbeing when we possess healthy roots. Spirituality is the root system of the human soul. When we maintain healthy roots, the Spirit nurtures us through our roots so that we mature, reach toward the heavens, and bear healthy fruit (good actions) in our lives.

Copyright © 2006 by Dana S. Kees. Photo copyright © 2005 by Dana S. Kees.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Our Spiritual Story, Pt. 3: The Orthodox Church

After the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the growing Church “continued steadfastly in the Apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in breaking of bread, and in prayers.” The uncompromising faith and unshakable courage that enabled Christ’s followers to boldly proclaim the divine message brought harsh persecution upon the young Church, beginning in Jerusalem. Stephen, a deacon who was known for his great faith and wisdom, became the Church’s first martyr. Those who stood by witnessing his killing laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul, a zealous enemy of the Church who consented to Stephen’s execution. Devout men carried Stephen’s lifeless body to its burial place and mourned for him, while Saul, determined to destroy the Church, persistently infiltrated the homes of believers, taking both men and women to prison.

Saul intended to expand his offensive against the Church to include the city of Damascus in Syria. He asked the Jewish high priest to write letters addressed to the synagogues in Damascus that would give him full authority to arrest any members of the Church he found there, both men and women, and bring them to Jerusalem. As Saul journeyed toward Damascus, a brilliant light shining down from heaven suddenly engulfed him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” “Who are you, Lord?” he asked. The voice replied, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” To persecute the Church, the “body of Christ,” is to persecute Jesus Christ Himself.

Since Saul had been blinded by the heavenly light, his traveling companions led him into the city. Christ sent one of His faithful servants, Ananias, to heal him. Ananias said to Saul, “Brother Saul, the Lord, even Jesus, that appeared to you on the way here has sent me so that you might receive your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Saul immediately regained his sight and was baptized into the Church. Soon thereafter, Saul, also known as Paul, began fearlessly proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the astonishment of all who had known his brutal reputation.

Stephen’s martyrdom prompted many believers to leave Jerusalem and move to Antioch, a major city in Syria near the Mediterranean Sea. According to tradition, St. Peter founded the church in Antioch in AD 34. As the message about Jesus spread in the city, both Jews and Gentiles (non-Jews) believed the Gospel and became disciples of Jesus. Paul and his fellow worker, Barnabas, spent a whole year with the church in Antioch teaching the people. Antioch is the place where the disciples of Jesus were first called “Christians.”

As the Christians in Antioch worshiped, prayed, and fasted, the Holy Spirit said to them, “Dedicate Barnabas and Saul to me for the work I have called them to do.” Paul and Barnabas were ordained and sent out from Antioch to take the Gospel of Jesus deep into the Roman world.

Over the next several years, Paul and his missionary companions traveled throughout the vast Roman Empire, including modern Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Cyprus, Turkey, Greece, and Italy. They proclaimed the Truth, established local churches, passed on the Faith handed down to them, and offered spiritual guidance to the new believers.

Empowered by the Holy Spirit, Christ’s Apostles, including Paul, continued to spread the Gospel throughout the known world during the first century. They faithfully remembered the instructions and promise Jesus had given them before His ascension into heaven:

All power is given to me in heaven and on earth. Go and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And I am with you always, even to the end of the age.

Jesus had promised His disciples that His Church would endure, invincible. By ordination with the laying on of hands, the Holy Apostles upon whom Christ founded His Church passed on the Faith and authority they had received to the next generation of bishops (episkopoi). The bishops who succeeded the Holy Apostles continued to guard the Faith entrusted to them and to oversee the local churches. As the Church grew, the bishops needed help caring for the thriving Church. Bishops ordained presbyters (presbyteroi), also known as priests, granting them the authority to pastor the local churches and carry out the work of the Church on their behalf.

Church tradition affirms that Peter, before he left Antioch for Rome, appointed Euodius as his successor in the city. The early Church historian Eusebius reported that Ignatius, the second bishop of Antioch, was ordained as bishop in AD 69, only about 36 years after the Apostles witnessed the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, followed by the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Bishop Ignatius experienced the consequences of persecution. Escorted by armed guards, he traveled to Rome for his execution. During the journey, Ignatius spent the last days of his life writing letters to several churches, including those in Ephesus, Philadelphia, Smyrna, and Rome. He also wrote a personal letter to his friend, Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna. When he arrived in the city of Rome he was martyred, torn apart by wild beasts.

Polycarp was a young man when the Romans killed Ignatius. According to Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, Polycarp had been a disciple of the Apostle John and knew others who had seen Jesus when He walked upon the earth. Just before his own martyrdom, Bishop Polycarp was brought before a Roman proconsul for trial. The proconsul demanded, “Swear an oath and I will let you go - revile Christ!” Polycarp replied, “I have served Him eighty-six years and He has never done anything wrong to me, so how can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”

For many years after Pentecost, Christians endured persecution. Many suffered and died during the first three centuries of the Church. At the beginning of the fourth century, however, the life of the Church would change dramatically when Constantine the Great became emperor of the Roman Empire. Under Constantine’s rule, the Church transitioned from being a persecuted community to having official status within the empire. As the Church would later proclaim, the Empire that killed the Martyrs was conquered by their Faith. Emperor Constantine moved the capital of his empire from the city of Rome in the West to the city of Constantinople, the “New Rome,” in the East. This new Christian empire, now with an eastern orientation, became known in later times as the Byzantine Empire. Constantine declared the Christian Faith as the state religion, endowed the Church’s bishops with legal authority, and built glorious church buildings throughout the land. The Church would no longer need to hide from the authorities and worship in secret.

During the Byzantine Empire, the bishops of the Church from all over the world, many of whom bore the scars of severe persecution, joined together in Seven Ecumenical Councils to deal with pressing issues facing the Church. On matters of theology the Councils did not adopt new doctrine, but affirmed and defined the Orthodox Faith taught by the Holy Apostles and preserved by every succeeding generation of the Church since her beginning. The greatest accomplishments of the Councils include the formal recognition of certain early writings as Holy Scripture and the adoption of the Nicene Creed, a statement of faith summarizing the Orthodox Faith of the Christian Church:

We 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 ages, Light of Light, True God of True 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 was made man;

And was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried;
And the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures;

And ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of the Father; And He shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead, Whose kingdom shall have no end.

And we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, and Giver of Life, Who proceedeth from the Father, Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified, Who spoke by the Prophets;

And we believe in One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. We acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins. We look for the Resurrection of the dead,
And the Life of the age to come. Amen.

Five major centers of Christianity, called Patriarchates, eventually emerged in the early Church: Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. Each bishop who served to shepherd one of these churches bore the title, “Patriarch.” Each Patriarch was responsible for the Christian churches within his particular geographic region. Although the Church was organized according to Patriarchates, the individual jurisdictions together constituted one body, the Church of Jesus Christ, the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.

One of the most significant events in the history of the Church occurred a little over a thousand years after its founding. The Patriarch of Rome, who had been honored by his brother bishops as “the first among equals,” declared himself to be the supreme bishop over the whole Church. The Roman Patriarchate also decided to change the Nicene Creed, which had been formed, adopted, affirmed, and accepted by the whole Church. When the other four Patriarchates refused to accept Rome’s innovations, the Roman Patriarchate, the only Patriarchate in the western world, completed its break with the Church in the East and eventually became known as the Roman Catholic Church. The other four Patriarchates, remaining undivided and continuing to preserve the Faith, became known as the Orthodox Christian Church. (“Orthodox” means “right teaching” and “right worship.”) About 500 years after Rome withdrew itself from the Orthodox Church, many Christians in the West broke from the Roman Catholic Church, protesting Roman claims concerning the Pope and other theological ideas. Thousands of different churches have developed within the Protestant movement.

The Holy Orthodox Church founded by Jesus Christ upon His Holy Apostles remains alive in the world today as it has for two thousand years. The Patriarchates of Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, and Constantinople still exist. As the Church has grown through the centuries, new jurisdictions have joined the ancient patriarchates. The Orthodox Christian Faith was brought to America from the Old World by devoted missionaries and hopeful immigrants who have established the Church firmly in the New World. Many jurisdictions of the Orthodox Church, including Antiochian, Greek, and Russian, are represented in America.

We are together the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, the mystical body of Christ, and the living Temple of the Holy Spirit on earth. Let us continue living the Orthodox Faith, the spiritual way of life.

Copyright © 2006 by Dana S. Kees. Adapted from “The Spiritual Story of Our Human Race,” The Mystery of You: A Collection of Writings, Vol. 1, Copyright © 2004 by Dana S. Kees.
(The icon is from the Iconographics ColorWorks Library, Copyright © 2001 Theologic Systems, Theologic.com. Used by Permission.)

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Our Spiritual Story, Pt. 2: The Creator Among Us

Near the dawn of the first century, when Emperor Octavian, also known as Caesar Augustus, reigned over the expansive Roman Empire, a young Jewish girl name Mary lived in the land of Israel. One day the Creator of all things sent His messenger, the Archangel Gabriel, to visit Mary and announce to her astonishing news, that while remaining a virgin she would give birth to a child unlike any other: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Highest will overshadow you, so the holy child born of you shall be called the Son of God.”

In the town of Bethlehem, near Jerusalem, the Virgin Mary gave birth to her Son, the Christ, whom she named Jesus. The Holy Gospel According to St. John reveals the mysterious identity of Jesus Christ, the son of Mary and Son of God:

In the beginning the Word existed, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. Everything was made through Him and nothing that has been made was made without Him. In Him was life and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness did not understand it. He was in the world, and though the world was made through Him, the world did not know Him. He came to His own, but His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, those who believe in His name, He gave the power to become the sons of God, not born of blood or the will of the flesh or the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.

Jesus Christ, God in human flesh, the Son through whom everything was created, came down from heaven and became one of us, a human person on earth. He united His divinity with our humanity so that we might regain the divine image and likeness we once possessed in Paradise. He came to heal us from death, physical and spiritual, and restore harmony within the creation.

As Christ traveled throughout the land of Israel during His ministry on earth, He proclaimed the Truth, embraced the poor, forgave the sins of the repentant, and healed the sick. Many believed in Him and became His disciples. Others did not. At the urging of the Jewish religious leaders, His fellow Israelites, the Romans crucified Him among criminals on a rough wooden cross. As generations of His disciples would later sing in remembrance of His death, “Today is suspended upon the Tree, He who suspended the land upon the waters. A crown of thorns crowned Him, who is the King of Angles. He is wrapped about with the purple of mockery, who wrapped the heavens with clouds.”

While Jesus hung on the cross, a dying criminal crucified nearby made a last request of Christ: “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus replied to him, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” In His death, Christ reveals His love for all of us and His desire for us to be united together with Him. He revealed to us the divine way back to Paradise: “How could He have called us if He had not been crucified, for it is only on the cross that a man dies with arms outstretched? Here, again, we see the fitness of His death and of those outstretched arms: it was that He might draw His ancient people [the Israelites] with the one and the Gentiles [all the other people in the world] with the other, and join both together in Himself” (St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation, pp.55-56. St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.)

Even though Christ died, death could not contain Him, the King of All. He had promised His enemies, speaking about His body, “Destroy this Temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” After three days, according to His word, the Immortal One arose from the dead, inaugurating a new age and assuring His disciples of immortality. Over a period of several days He appeared to His Twelve Apostles and other disciples before ascending into heaven to reign forever with the Father and the Holy Spirit.

On the day of Pentecost, not many days after Jesus was received into heaven, the disciples were gathered together when the Holy Spirit descended from heaven like a rushing wind upon the Church, the community of disciples. Before His ascension, Jesus gave His disciples this promise: “I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, who will abide in you forever – the Spirit of Truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it does not see or know Him, but you know Him for He dwells with you and will be in you. I will not abandon you as orphans, but I will come to you. I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” As the divine presence, or glory, of God once dwelled on earth in the form of a cloud among the Israelites both in the Tabernacle and in the Temple, our Creator took on human flesh, having been born of a woman, to walk among us and bring us all back into His presence. Finally, after Christ ascended into heaven, the Holy Spirit descended to the earth to indwell, guide, and empower the Church, the new Israel chosen by God and the new Temple of God on earth. As the Church, we “are built upon the foundation of the Apostles and Prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief corner stone, in whom the whole building, properly framed together, grows into a Holy Temple in the Lord.” We have been built as a holy dwelling place for God, the living “body of Christ” indwelled and motivated by His Spirit (Eph. 2.20-22, 1 Cor. 12.27).

When the Holy Spirit descended upon the Church, the Apostles received the spiritual power to carry throughout the world the Gospel (“good news”) about who Jesus Christ is, what He has done for us, and who we can become through Him. On the very day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came, many unbelievers who witnessed the divine event believed the message the Apostle Peter proclaimed to them. They asked the Apostles, “What shall we do?” Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children, and to all who are far away – for all whom the Lord our God will call.” On this day alone, about three thousand people were baptized into Christ and received into His Church.

Copyright © 2006 by Dana S. Kees. Based on “The Spiritual Story of Our Human Race,” The Mystery of You: A Collection of Writings, Vol. 1, Copyright © 2004 by Dana S. Kees. Photo copyright © 2006 by Dana S. Kees.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Our Spiritual Story, Part 1: In the Beginning

In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was formless and dark, and the Spirit moved over the waters. Then God brought light into the world, spread stars and planets across the heavens, and commanded the waters to gather into seas so that dry land appeared. He made the seas burst with life, launched birds into the air, and caused all kinds of plants, creeping things, wild animals, and cattle to inhabit the freshly created land.

From the dust of the earth God made a man, Adam, in His own image and likeness and breathed into him the breath of life so that he became a living soul. Then God formed a woman, Eve, the mother of all the living, to be Adam’s suitable compliment. In the East, in Eden, God planted a garden where He placed our first parents. He blessed their mystical union and dwelled with them in the midst of the Garden of Paradise.

Although our first parents lived in Paradise in communion with our Creator, who lavished His ever-flowing love and grace upon them, they wanted something else. Not content with Paradise, their self-centered desires turned their hearts away from the One who made them. Their rejection of the source of Life brought physical and spiritual death into the world. The harmony and wholeness permeating creation turned to corruption, brokenness, and chaos. Because of our first parents’ sin, every generation of descendents to inhabit the earth after them would be born with a corrupted nature, endowed with an inclination toward evil and destined to taste both the pain of sickness and bitterness of death.

Although the invisible attributes of God are clearly visible in His creation, our self-centeredness drew us away from our Creator. Our ancestors who lived in ancient times forgot the One in whose image they had been created, for when they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God nor were they thankful for all He had done for them. Instead, their thoughts became worthless and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and traded the glory of the immortal God for images of humans, birds, and animals.

Since humans can only truly know their Creator by living in relationship with Him, our ancestors drifted away from the Truth, losing their spiritual knowledge of God. In ignorance they devised myths and developed religions patterned after what they observed in the creation, but were blind to the Creator Himself who possesses all wisdom, knowledge, power, goodness, and love. Sensing their spiritual natures, humans craved a connection with God, but they had lost the intimate communion they once enjoyed with the One in whose image they had been made.

A people known as the Israelites (descendents of a man named Jacob, also called Israel) lived in ancient Egypt. The Egyptians enslaved the Israelites, forcing them to build cities for the Pharaoh, but they cried out to God, praying for relief from the oppression of their slave masters. One day an Israelite named Moses, who had run away from Egypt, was watching his father-in-law’s sheep in a far-off land. He saw a curious sight, a bush unconsumed by fire though engulfed in flames. Approaching the bush, Moses heard a voice from within the flames call his name: “Moses. Moses.” Through the fire, the Immortal One who created all things spoke to Moses these words: “I have seen the suffering and oppression of my people in Egypt, and I have heard their cry because of their slave masters. Now I will send you to Pharaoh so you can bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.” By divine appointment, Moses reluctantly became a prophet, the one who would lead the Israelites out of slavery and into a future of hope.

As Moses led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, the Creator remained with them and guided them in the form of a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. He led them through the desert to a mountain called Sinai (on the modern Sinai Peninsula). At Sinai, the Creator spoke to the Israelites, these newly liberated slaves: “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I brought you to myself on eagles’ wings. Now, if you will obey me and keep my covenant, then you shall be my prized treasure above all people. The whole earth is mine, but you shall be my kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

The Israelites agreed to follow the ways of the true and living God. Although the nations of the world continued to live in spiritual ignorance, our Creator chose to reveal Himself to this one nation, His own. He gave them specific teachings to help them live as a good, holy, and loving people. Even more, God gave Moses this incredible, mysterious message: “Tell the Israelites to make me a sanctuary so that I may dwell among them.” According to the exact pattern God gave them, the Israelites made the Tabernacle, a sacred tent where the Creator would live in the midst of the people He had chosen as His own.

The centerpiece of God’s holy sanctuary was a wooden chest covered in gold called the Ark of the Covenant. On the Ark’s cover rested two golden cherubim, winged angelic creatures, who faced each other with wings outstretched to overshadow the Ark. The faces of the two cherubim look down in humility toward the cover. The Ark of the Covenant would become the throne of the Creator on earth where the divine presence would dwell among the people.

When the Israelites completed the Tabernacle as God had commanded, a cloud covered the tent and the visible glory of the God filled the Tabernacle. The Creator who cannot be contained had moved into His new home. The cloud remained over the Tabernacle by day. By night the divine fire burned within the cloud in the sight of all the Israelites.

From Mount Sinai, the Israelites journeyed to the land God had prepared for them, the land given the name, “Israel.” The greatest king of Israel, King David, desired to replace the Tabernacle with a permanent Temple, a house where God could live. “Look here,” said David, “ I’m living in a house made of cedar, but the Ark of God is still in a tent.” God responded, “Are you to build me a house to live in? I haven’t lived in a house since the time that I brought up the Israelites from Egypt, even to this day, but I’ve dwelled in a tent. In all the places I traveled with the Israelites, did I ask any of the rulers whom I had commanded to shepherd my people Israel, ‘Why haven’t you built me a house made of cedar?’” Although God did not intend to move from the Tabernacle immediately, He promised David that his son and successor, Solomon, would build a Temple in Jerusalem. When Solomon ascended to the throne of his father, he indeed built a majestic Temple for God to dwell. At the completion of the Temple’s construction, King Solomon called the elders and leaders of the Israelite families and tribes together. When all the people had gathered before the Temple, the priests lifted up the holy Ark, the throne of God, and carried it into the Temple. When they had set the Ark in its place in the inner sanctuary, the Holy of Holies, the divine cloud filled the Temple. The priests could not perform their service because the visible glory of the Lord had filled His house. When he saw this, King Solomon said, “I have built you a house to live in, a place for you to dwell forever!”

God promised the Israelites that He would live among them as long as they lived lives of spiritual purity and goodness, reflecting the holy, loving character of the One who dwelled among them, but even though the Holy One lived in their presence on the earth, the Israelites turned away from Him and drifted toward self-centeredness, darkness, idolatry, and other forms of evil. Time after time, because of His great love, God raised up prophets and sent them to warn His people, calling them to end their rebellion and turn back toward Him, but the people would not listen.

Some Israelites in Jerusalem, full of pride, believed that they were invincible no matter how they lived because the Temple stood in their city. God sent His prophet Jeremiah to stand at the gate of the Temple, God’s house among humanity, and proclaim His message to the people:

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and what you do, and I will cause you to dwell in this place. Do not trust in lies, saying, “The Temple of God! The Temple of God! The Temple of God!” If you thoroughly change your ways and your behavior, if you execute justice between a man and his neighbor, if you stop oppressing the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, stop shedding innocent blood in this place, and stop following other gods to your own hurt, then I will cause you to dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers, for ever and ever. Behold, you trust in lying words that don’t benefit you. Will you steal, murder, and commit adultery, swear falsely, burn incense to Baal, and walk after other gods whom you don’t know, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, “We are safe to do all these abominations?” Has this house which is called by my name become a den of thieves in your eyes? Behold, even I have seen it.
The Israelites did not listen when God reached out to embrace them. Since they continued to live in rebellion against the God who loved them, they lost the material things in which they placed their hope and trust. The nation of Israel was taken captive, the city of Jerusalem seized, and the Temple destroyed. Empire after empire ruled the land. By the first century A.D., Herod the Great, King of Israel under the Roman Empire, had built another glorious Temple where Solomon’s Temple once stood.

Since the beginning of time the spiritual story of humanity had been unfolding. God made the nation of Israel, called them to a special purpose, and had been actively involved in the lives of the Israelites to prepare the world for what He was planning to do. During this time, the reign of the Roman Empire, the world we live in and the relationship between us and our Creator was about to change forever.

Copyright © 2006 by Dana S. Kees. Adapted from “The Spiritual Story of Our Human Race,” The Mystery of You: A Collection of Writings, Vol. 1, Copyright © 2004 by Dana S. Kees. NASA imagery is in the public domain.

Friday, January 06, 2006

A Walk Through Winter Woods

I took a walk this morning on the hill behind my family home. Snow flakes were falling among the trees, descending from the misty white sky to land on moist brown leaves covering the ground. I walked along a familiar path, sometimes stopping to watch the snow fall around me. I saw leaves on the floor holding tiny puddles of melted snow and feathery grasses catching delicate flakes. The birds sung among the trees, gently swaying in the soft wind. The smell of wood burning stoves in nearby homes brought a distinctive scent to the air.

The city and suburbs with their man-made structures constructed from artificial materials, tiny close-clipped lawns, strategically placed shade trees, and neatly arranged landscapes deny people the joy of immersion in the overwhelming beauty and power of creation, an icon that points us to the Creator Himself.

Everyone doesn’t like winter. Naked trees that look like splintered sticks jut out from the ground and lifeless leaves hang loosely from branches. Some rest silently on the cold earth among hay-golden weeds. Everything looks dead. I like it still.

The forest in winter isn’t merely a place of death and barrenness. It’s a place full of hope and potentiality where things lay dormant, waiting. When winter turns to spring the naked will be clothed with vibrant green and the dead will give way to life.

As I walked along, a thin branch of thorns caught my clothes. Thorns have a long history. In the beginning of time our first ancestors lived in Paradise. Discontented, they turned away from their Creator, the source of life and harmony, renouncing their intimate spiritual communion with the Creator in favor of self-centeredness and separation. When they separated themselves from the One who is the source of all life they brought death, physical and spiritual, into the world, upon us and the whole creation. No longer would humanity enjoy the good life. Our first parents’ sin cursed the ground, the same ground we have inherited: “It shall bring forth thorns and thistles to you, and you shall eat from the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread until you return to the ground for out of it you were taken. You are dust and to dust you shall return.” Why does death exist in the world? Our race, humanity, has turned away from our Creator since the beginning. The spiritual deadness, disharmony, and corruption in our personal lives is intertwined with the physical death, chaos, and decay of the whole world. As our good and loving Creator gives us spring after winter, He also gives us spiritual healing, forgiveness, and renewal when we hurt ourselves by our own sinful pride, self-centeredness, and rebellion.

A walk through the woods during winter can remind us of our own spiritual journeys. In times when our relationship with the Creator seems rather lifeless, we can always look forward with faith and hope to the spring, when we will be renewed. Our ancestors’ sin brought death into the world, but God, because of His great love for humanity, came into the world to destroy sin and death so that we, with the whole creation, may be restored to our newly-created glory.

In His birth, Jesus Christ, the One “though whom all things were made,” joined His divinity to our humanity. In His baptism He purified and sanctified the waters of the earth for our baptism. In His crucifixion on the cross and resurrection from the grave He destroyed the power of sin and death within the creation. Even though we turned away from our Creator, He came after us, like the father who ran to meet his prodigal son, returning home from a self-destructive life of sin. God created us in His own image and likeness. He desires for us to regain our image and likeness so that we may be truly human, the way he created us to be. As I walked in the woods, I saw evidence of God’s good favor. Even in winter the forest shines with beauty and, although signs of death abound, life remains: evergreen trees reach into the sky, deer leave their tracks impressed in the soft mud, and birds sing among the branches.

How do we turn toward our Creator, the source of life, away from our self-destructive way of being and behaving? The way back to Paradise is repentance. Repentance means to change one’s mind. It is like walking down a path, turning around, and walking the other way. Repentence is a lifelong journey, a journey that leads us to Paradise, the renewal of our human nature, and to our goal, theosis, when we perfectly reflect the brilliant, eternal image and likeness of our Creator. This “journey” is the Orthodox Christian way of life, a practical lifestyle that brings transformation through the joining of our personal freedom with God’s healing grace.

Americans live in a cultural environment where ignoring the ever-present spiritual reality can be easy. We need reminding about how sinful and corrupt we are, and how loving and powerful our Creator is. Great Lent, which begins forty days before Pascha (Easter), is an important time of year when the Church reminds us to honestly look into our own hearts to see those aspects of our lives that have descended into lifeless darkness and that need renewed. Great Lent is not a time for feeling sorry for ourselves or beating ourselves up, but a season for admitting and dealing with our own souls, who we really are. By turning away from our own selfish and self-destructive desires, God can transform our dormant spirituality into reality, our deadness into vibrant life, our ignorance into experiential knowledge, our corruption into purity, our separation into communion, our disequilibrium into harmony, our chaos into peace, and our self-centeredness into perfect love.

Great Lent is coming in a few months. We can all look forward to walking down this winter path, recognizing the coldness in our own hearts, toward Pascha, when we celebrate the resurrection of Christ, who warms our hearts to melt the coldness therein by the pure light of His divine love. Great Lent is on the way, but let's begin to look at our hearts right now. Let’s look into the depths of our souls to find the effects of sin and spiritual corruption so that we may turn away from the sickness that will destroy us and turn toward our loving God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the One who creates, heals, sustains, and eternally renews.

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

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Living in Harmony with the Creation

The Orthodox Christian way of life involves living in harmony with the creation around us. We recognize the spiritual nature of the creation, honor, and care for it. Living in harmony with the creation is a result of being in communion with the Creator Himself. Our existence as human beings is intertwined with the existence of the whole creation. When I teach a course on theology and spirituality I almost always begin with the creation, the beginning of the universe and the beginning of our (human) race.

The creation has been on my mind lately, perhaps for a couple of reasons. First, I’m in the process of writing the beginning of a book that begins with the story of creation. Second, I’m writing this current entry while on holiday in Appalachia. As much as I enjoy the benefits of living in one of the Unites States’ major cities, my heart finds solace in the beauty, quiet, and simplicity of the rural hills, even in winter.

A few articles on the creation come to mind. "Through the Creation to the Creator," by Bishop Kallistos Ware, can be found on In Communion, the web site of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. Three sermons delivered by Patriarch Ignatius IV in 1989 on the creation are available at stathanasius.org: ATheology of Creation, A Spirituality of Creation, and The Response of Christians.

Copyright © 2006 by Dana S. Kees. Photo copyright © 2005 by Dana S. Kees.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Resources: Daily Readings for Spiritual Nourishment

The Holy Scripture is central to the Orthodox Christian way of life. Through the Scripture, God speaks to all of us as the Church and also to each one of us individually. (I recommend the artcle, "How to Read the Bible," by Bishop Kallistos Ware, available on orthodoxphotos.com). The Church has given us special Scripture readings for each day of the year to spiritually nourish our souls. In addition to reading the Holy Scripture, we have an opportunity every day to commemorate particular Saints of the Church or significant events in our spiritual history.

I use a free program, available on the internet, called Menologion 2.0. It displays the Saint or event commemorated for the day, the Scripture reading, special songs dedicated to the Saint or event (troparia & kontakia), and at least one icon pertaining to the day. The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia maintains a helpful list of Saints with information on their lives. The Orthodox Church of America (with Russian roots) website contains daily Scripture readings, stories of the Saints' lives, a special section on the Saints of North America, a calendar listing the commemorations for each day, and articles on the formal recognition of a departed holy person as a Saint in the Church.

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