Tuesday, May 30, 2006

On a Personal Note

My friends, after having lived and worked for several years in one of the largest and most culturally diverse cities in the United States, I'm now in the process of transferring to more simple and serene settings in the Appalachian Mountains. Instead of investing time reading, writing, and blogging, I'm currenly packing, spending time with friends, and doing all the other things necessary for the move. I hope to resume publishing regular posts soon. My journey continues. Good health to you all. - Symeon

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Christ the Eternal Tao

Before the Word came into the world
The sages sought Him out in every place.
They saw Him not, but sensed His presence everywhere.
They found Him in living beings,
in mountain crags and
Flowing streams, in seas and winds.
He was not these things.
But He spoke in these things, guiding them.
All things followed His Course.
Therefore the sages called Him also
by His other name:
The Way (Tao),
The Course that all things are to follow.

The trees, the birds, the rivers and winds:
These had no choice;
Man alone is given choice;
Man alone can follow or go his own way.
If he follows the Way, he will suffer with the pain of the world,
But He will find the Original Harmony.
If he follows his own way, he will suffer only with himself,
And within him will be chaos.

- Christ the Eternal Tao, The Second Ennead, “The Coming of the Way,” Chapter 10.

Hieromonk Damascene explains the Orthodox Christian view of ancient religions evident in Christ the Eternal Tao and in his approach to the Tao Teh Ching:

“Religious syncretism, in its modern forms, regards all paths as possessing equal truth simultaneously, and in so doing is forced to overlook certain basic distinctions, or to offer complicated explanations in order to rationalize these distinctions away. The ancient Christian teachers, on the other hand, took a more honest and discerning approach, which in the end proved to be more simple, natural, and organic. Rather than mixing all the religions together like the moderns do, these ancients understood that there was an unfolding of wisdom throughout the ages. They saw foreshadowings, glimpses and prophecies of Christ not only among the ancient Hebrews, but also among other people who lived before Him, and they saw the writings of pre-Christian sages as a preparation for Christ as the apogee of revelation.” (P.40)

“Avoiding the common pitfalls of religious syncretism, Christ the Eternal Tao shows Lao Tzu’s Tao Teh Ching as a foreshadowing of what would be revealed by Christ, and Lao Tzu himself as a Far-Eastern prophet of the Incarnate God.”

All passages are from Christ the Eternal Tao by Hieromonk Damascene, Valaam Books, 1999. The book is available from St. Herman Press. The icon of Christ shown here was written by Andre Rublev. The icon is in the public domain.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Women Are Human Beings Too

In the beginning, God created human beings in His own image and likeness. The Greek word in the Holy Scripture that means "human being," anthropos, is in the masculine form. Since it is a masculine term, does it only refer to men? Were only men created in the image and likeness of God? Are women less than human?

St. Basil the Great answered these questions in the 4th century:

But that nobody may ignorantly ascribe the name of human only to the man, it [the Holy Scripture] adds, "Male and female he created them" [Gen 1.27]. The woman also possesses the creation according to the image of God, as indeed does the man. The natures are alike of equal honor, the virtues are equal, the struggles equal, the judgments alike. Let her not say, "I am weak." Weakness is in the flesh, in the soul is power. Since indeed that which is according to God's image is of equal honor, let the virtue be of equal honor, the showing forth of good works. There is no excuse for one who wishes to allege that the body is weak. And why is it simply delicate? But through compassion it is vigorous in patient endurance and earnest in vigils. When has the nature of man been able to match the nature of woman in patiently passing through her own life? When has man been able to imitate the vigor of women in fastings, the love of toil in prayers, the abundance in tears, the readiness for good works?

The above quote is from "On the Origin of Humanity: Discourse 1" from On the Human Condition by St. Basil the Great, Translated by Nonna Verna Harrison, (Crestwood, NY: Saint Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2005. This is part of the SVS Press Popular Patristics Series. In the text presented in the book, St. Basil expresses the theology of the Church in the Greek rhetorical style. I recommend reading the primary text by St. Basil first before reading the translator's introduction. The book is available from Saint Vladimir Seminary Press and Amazon.com.

The biography of St. Basil the Great can be found on the website of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North America (goarch.org).

The image of the icon of St. Basil, who is standing on the left, is from St. Philip Orthodox Church in Ft. Lauderdale, FL. Used by permission.

Friday, May 12, 2006

The Return of the Empires

I recently read an article in the Christian Science Monitor, a highly respected source for international news, about a movement supporting the establishment of the Caliphate, a single Islamic nation of 1.5 billion Muslims that would "stretch from Indonesia to Morocco." The article, "The Caliphate: One nation, under Allah, with 1.5 billion Muslims," by James Brandon, is from the May 10, 2006 edition of the paper.

On the other hand, the NeoByzantine Movement is dedicated to the formation of Nea Byzantia, a NeoByzantine Union of Orthodox Christian countries. The movement's website, neobyzantine.org, includes information on Orthodox Christianity, the Byzantine Empire, and the NeoByzantine movement itself.

Which empire would you rather live in? (A rhetorical question.)

The actual establishment of such empires may seem unlikely, but the potential influence of these political ideas upon the people of the world is something to consider.

For a good article related to the Byzantine Empire, read Father Joseph Huneycutt's recent article, "Who was Constantine the Great?" on his Orthodixie Blog. The article first appeared on the Da Vinci Dialogue website.

The above image of Hagia Sophia ("the Church of Holy Wisdom"), once among the greatest churches in the Christian world, has been enhanced to show what the church would look like without the four minarets built around it by the Muslims. Hagia Sophia was constructed by the Emperor Justinian in the Imperial City of Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Christian (Roman) Empire known as the Byzantine Empire. After the Islamic Invasion, Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque. Today, it is a museum. For Orthodox Christians, it remains a symbol of the day when the Orthodox Christian Faith was the Faith of an Empire. Current photos and a brief history of Hagia Sophia can be found at orthodoxwiki.com. (The larger, original version of the above image is available here on orthodoxwiki.com.)

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

The Death That Rocked the World

Jesus Christ was crucified on a hill called Golgotha, “The Place of the Skull.” At the time of his crucifixion in the first century it was located outside of the walls of Jerusalem. Today, the place of Christ’s crucifixion rests underneath an Orthodox Christian chapel inside the Church of the Resurrection (a.k.a. Church of the Holy Sepulchre). The rock of Golgotha that held the Precious Cross is visible underneath the chapel’s floor.

The death of Jesus Christ on the Cross was a cosmic event. St. Luke describes the scene:

It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this he breathed his last. (Luke 24.44-46, RSV)

St. Matthew adds,

and the earth shook, and the rocks were split; the tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many. When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe, and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!" (Matthew 51-54, RSV)

What effect did Christ’s death have upon us and the whole universe? Hieromonk Damascene’s article, “What Christ Accomplished on the Cross” (orthodoxinfo.com), explains the Orthodox Christian understanding of the event. Frederica Mathewes-Green’s essay, “Christ’s Death: Rescue Mission, Not Payment for Sins” (beliefnet.com), is also worth reading. My previous post on the “River of Fire” relates to the subject as well.

Copyright © 2006 by Dana S. Kees. (Photograph from the Pictorial Library of Bible Lands, Bibleplaces.com. Used by permission.)

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Frederica Mathewes-Green

Khouria Frederica Mathewes-Green is one of my favorite contemporary Orthodox Christian authors. Her essays, books, and radio commentaries reveal the Orthodox way of life in its beautiful mystery and down-to-earth practicality.

Her personal website contains essays and selections from her books, including, Facing East, At the Corner of East and Now, The Illumined Heart: The Ancient Christian Path of Transformation, The Open Door, Gender: Men, Women, Sex and Feminism, Real Choices, and First Fruits of Prayer.

The Christianity Today website contains links to her columns and an interview with her about iconography. She also talks about her own spiritual journey in another interview.

Several of her articles appear on beliefnet.com.

In addition to her writings, one can hear her radio commentaries on the National Public Radio (NPR) website. They include commentaries on beauty in Orthodox worship, Holy Week and Pascha (Easter), abortion, and the role of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Serbia.

In an article on the Wall Street Journal's Editorial Page (OpinionJournal.com), she explains why unity between the Orthodox Christian Church and the Roman Catholic Church is difficult to achieve. The article explains well how the Eastern Orthodox perspective on unity differs dramatically from the Western Roman Catholic view.

Her National Review Online articles are also available online.

Additionally, she has recently contributed an article to the Da Vinci Dialogue.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

A Look at Paradise Through Poetry

In his collection of Hymns On Paradise, St. Ephrem the Syrian, who lived during the fourth century, uses theological poetry to reveal the indescribable beauty of Paradise and explain our relationship to it. It’s a great example of how Orthodox Christian theology, rooted in the East, remains unconfined by rigid Western academic explanations and philosophical descriptions. Instead, Orthodox Christian theology is regarded as a mystery, encountered through personal experience, and expressed through stories and poetry.

Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press has published an English translation of St. Ephrem’s hymns, originally written in the ancient language of Syriac-Aramaic. The translator is Sebastian Brock, who also wrote the book’s lengthy introduction. As an added bonus, St. Ephrem’s commentary on the Book of Genesis follows the hymns. (I would recommend reading the hymns themselves before reading the introduction.)

Here are a few selections from St. Ephrem’s Hymns:

Blessed is he for whom Paradise yearns.
Yes, Paradise yearns for the man whose goodness
makes him beautiful;
it engulfs him at its gateway,
it embraces him in its bosom,
it caresses him in its very womb,
for it splits open and receives him
into its inmost parts.
But if there is someone it abhors,
it removes him and casts him out;
this is the gate of testing
that belongs to Him who loves mankind.

Blessed is He who was pierced and so removed
the sword from the entry to Paradise.

Forge here on earth and take
the key to Paradise;
the Door that welcomes you;
the Door, all discerning,
conforms its measure to those who enter it:
in its wisdom
it shrinks and it grows.
According to the stature and rank
attainted by each person, it shows by its dimensions
whether they are perfect,
or lacking in something.

(Hymn II, 1-2)

Paradise delighted me
as much by its peacefulness as by its beauty:
in it there resides a beauty
that has no spot;
in it exists a peacefulness that knows no fear.
How blessed is that person
accounted worthy to receive it,
if not by right,
yet at least by grace;
if not because of good works,
yet at least through mercy.

(Hymn V, 12)

Around the trees the air is limpid
as the saints recline;
below them are blossoms,
above them is fruit;
fruits serve as their sky,
flowers as their earth.
Who has ever heard of
or seen
a cloud of fruits providing shade
for the head,
or a garment of flowers
spread out beneath the feat?

(Hymn IX, 5)

In His justice He gave
abundant comfort to the animals;
they do not feel shame for adultery,
nor guilt for stealing;
without being ashamed
they pursue every comfort they encounter,
for they are above
care and shame;
the satisfaction of their desires
is sufficient to please them.
Because they have no resurrection,
neither are they subject to blame.

The fool, who is unwilling to realize
his honorable state
prefers to become just an animal,
rather than a man,
so that, without incurring judgment,
he may serve naught but his lusts.
But had there been sown in animals
just a little
of the sense of discernment,
then long ago would the wild asses have lamented
and wept at their not
having been human.

(Hymn XII, 19-20)

I highly recommend this translation of the Hymns On Paradise. It’s available from St. Vladamir’s Seminary Press and also on Amazon.com.

A previous essay related to St. Ephrem of Syria, "The Way of Humility," has also been posted on Symeon's Journal.

Copyright © 2006 by Dana S. Kees. Photo by Dana S. Kees. The selections from the hymns are from Hymns on Paradise by St. Ephrem the Syrian, Introduction and Translation by Sebastian Brock (Crestwood, NY: SVS Press), 1990. ISBN 0-88141-076-4 .