Thursday, June 29, 2006

Orthodox Christian Anthropology

In the Western world, anthropology is the name given to the academic “study of humanity.” It’s a broad field divided into several specific areas of study like cultural anthropology, linguistic anthropology, archaeology, and biological anthropology.

I’ve learned much about different cultures and religions through my formal American education, but I never really grasped the nature of humanity until I understood the anthropology of the (Eastern) Orthodox Christian Church, the most ancient Church in the world. Unfortunately, many Americans misunderstand both humanity as a whole and themselves in particular both because of their socialization in secular Western culture as well as the rationalist, academic approach to humanity championed in American education.

Orthodox Christian anthropology is not a Western, secular, academic study, but a way of understanding humanity with roots in the mystical spirituality of the Christian East. The knowledge contained within Orthodox Christian anthropology isn’t a collection of objective data collected by scientific means, evaluated, and turned into theories to explain certain aspects of human existence. Scientific inquiry is concerned with what can be investigated with the senses, tested, and measured. Orthodox Christian anthropology involves spirituality, real spirituality. Spirituality is our relationship with the Creator, in whose image we have been made. Our created existence is intertwined with the eternal God who is without beginning and end. Who knows more about humanity than the One who made us and breathed into us the breath of life? If we want to know about ourselves, we need to know our Creator (not just know about Him intellectually, but know Him experientially). The Infinite One has created the universe and endowed humanity with the reason and skill to scientifically explore His creation, but while we can investigate what God has made with scientific methods, science can’t study God Himself. We can only know about God what He reveals to us. Likewise, we can only deeply know ourselves by discovering what God has shown us.

Some people may imagine that God lives distantly beyond the universe, “up there somewhere.” That’s a tremendous misunderstanding. The transcendent One who cannot be comprehended or contained by the universe and brought all things into existence has been present and actively working within the world since the beginning. Throughout human history our Creator has revealed Himself to us and showed us what it means to be human. Orthodox Christian anthropology, then, is concerned with the knowledge that our Creator has revealed to humanity about what it means to be human, who we were in the distant past, who we are now, and who we are capable of becoming.

One of the problems with secular anthropology as taught in Western colleges is that the subject ignores or denies the Creator who possess all knowledge about us. As long as ignorance of God permeates the field, anthropology will never be able to adequately explain who we were in our primitive state, who we have become, or what we can achieve. Secular anthropology is ill-equipped to explain what it means to be truly human.

For almost two thousand years, the Orthodox Christian Church has preserved the sacred, divinely-revealed knowledge of true anthropology. While Christ established the Church in the first century AD, the spiritual story of the Church and the sacred knowledge it protects extends far back through 4,000 years of recorded human history to Mesopotamia, and back farther still to the beginning when our first ancestors came into being.

This sacred knowledge about humanity is kept within Holy Tradition, the ancient Faith inseparably infused with a complete spiritual lifestyle that has been lived by Orthodox Christians generation after generation since the time of the Apostles. Every generation is entrusted to protect the way of life handed down to them by their ancestors so that they may pass it on uncorrupted to the next generation. The goal of our way of life it to become truly human, achieving our full human potential by following the path shown to us.

What does Orthodox Christian anthropology tell us about humanity?

God created humans, both male and female, according to His divine image and likeness. He instructed the first man and woman, designed differently to compliment each other, to bring children into the world, filling the earth with humanity, and to rule over the creation (with love). Our first ancestors enjoyed childlike innocence, living in perfect spiritual communion with our Creator, and in harmony with the whole creation. Unfortunately, they turned away from God, the source of Life, bringing death into the world. Their actions ruined the harmony and balance within creation. The peaceful relationship between humans and other living creatures diminished. Chaos filled the cosmos. The living things blessed with health and wholeness found themselves stricken by sickness, decay, and destruction. Beyond the physical effects of death upon humanity, humans were also plagued by the spiritual effects. The image of God within us, though not destroyed, was disfigured; our divine likeness, lost. Since we isolated ourselves from God, having turned away from Him, we forgot the knowledge of God, ourselves, and the universe that is only achievable through spiritual experience. The pure, natural desires of the human soul, such as the inclination to love, gave way to destructive passions, self-centered desires that draw us away from God and wholeness, creating chaos in our hearts and in our relationships with others.

Primitive humanity existed as a single, relatively homogenous people possessing a single language. Cities existed even in the earliest periods of human history. Early humans seemed to initially prefer staying together instead of dispersing throughout the world. We are communal creatures even from the beginning. Eventually, primitive humans migrated from the east and settled on a plain in the land of Shinar, where they planned to build a new city for themselves. Humanity’s intentions may seem noble to contemporary American eyes, but the common urban experiment proved dangerous to the whole community. For their benefit, our Creator confused the languages of the people so they would disperse and scatter throughout the world. From one human community all the different languages, cultures, and people groups evolved.
The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. “For in him we live and move and have our being.” (The Acts of the Apostles 17.24-28, NIV)

Primitive humans, spread out across the globe, lived in a state of spiritual disorientation. They had lost the knowledge of the True and Living God who created everything. God remained ever-present with humanity and revealed Himself through the creation, but instead of peering through the creation to see the Creator Himself, they attributed divinity to the creation itself. Human ignorance has produced countless religious traditions that capture only a shadow of the spiritual reality.

When humans forgot God’s identity, we also forgot our own. Since God is the Prototype according to whose image we have been made, forgetting who the Prototype is results in confusion about what it means to be in the image of the Prototype. Because we lived in ignorance about God and ourselves, our hearts descended deeper into darkness. Our human behavior become inhuman, contrary to our created nature.

Ever since the creation of the world [God’s] invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse; for although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever! Amen.

For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error.

And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a base mind and to improper conduct. They were filled with all manner of wickedness, evil,
covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malignity, they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. (St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans 1.20-31)

God allowed humanity, whom He had endowed with individual freedom, to follow the desires of our hearts as we wished, but He didn’t completely abandon us to our own foolishness. Through the ages He revealed Himself to us and guided our race toward restoration. In the midst of darkness, he chose the Israelites, a group of newly-freed Egyptian slaves who were all descended from a man named Israel, to be His own nation, a kingdom of priests. Through His prophet, Moses, God handed the Israelites the Law to teach them how to live as a holy people in the presence the Holy God.

Our every-loving Creator who brought all things into being out of nothing eternally exists in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Holy Trinity created everything. The Father created through the Son (the Word) in the Holy Spirit.

The Gospel According to St. John describes God, the Son, by saying:
In the beginning was the Word, and Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1.1-5, RSV)

St. John continues by explaining how God came into the world to save us from death:
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father. (John [the Baptist] bore witness to him, and cried, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, for he was before me.’”) And from his fullness have we all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known. (John 1.14-18, RSV)

Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who was born of the Virgin Mary, came into the world and became human like us. The One who is fully God also become fully human, joining His divinity to our humanity, so that our divine image and likeness might be restored, becoming like Him.

We corrupted the image of God within us because of our own actions,

What then, was God to do? What else could He possibly do, being God, but renew His Image in mankind, so that through it men might once more come to know Him? And how could this be done save by the coming of the very Image Himself, our Savior Jesus Christ? Men could not have done it, for they are only made after the Image; nor could angels have done it, for they are not the images of God. The Word of God came in His own Person, because it was He alone, the Image of the Father, Who could recreate man made after the Image.

In order to effect this re-creation, however, He had first to do away with death and corruption. Therefore He assumed a human body, in order that in it death might once for all be destroyed, and that men might be renewed according to the Image. The Image of the Father only was sufficient for this need. (St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation, SVS Press, p. 41)

Christ Himself is the revelation of God in human form. He shows us who God is and what it means to be truly human. He was born into the world as an Israelite, fulfilling the purpose of the people called to be a kingdom of priests. He walked among us, even among His own people, but since humanity didn’t recognize Him some of those who belong to our race killed Him by nailing him to a cross. Christ was born in a mortal human body that could die, but since He is truly God, the source of Life, death could not contain Him. He arose from the dead as the first-born of the dead with an immortal human body, the kind of body we shall receive at the end of the age. He destroyed death itself with all of its physical and spiritual effects by his own death, and brought Life to the world.

He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities - all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the first-born from the dead, that in everything he might be pre-eminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and though him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (St. Paul’s Letter to the Colossians 1.15-20, RSV)

After Christ’s resurrection, He appeared to His disciples and then ascended into heaven. Not many days after His Ascension the Holy Spirit descended upon the Church, the community of Christ’s disciples. When the Holy Spirit came, the disciples who had gathered together heard the sound of a great wind rushing down from heaven that filled the house. The Spirit appeared, dividing into tongues of fire and resting upon each of them. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began speaking in foreign languages by His power. A curious crowd of people who had heard the sound of the Spirit’s arrival came together to the house where the disciples had gathered. The crowd listened and were amazed when they all heard the disciples’ voices in their own native languages. The Apostle Peter stood among them and proclaimed what Jesus Christ had done for all of humanity. As God had once confused human language for our own good, He reunited the languages on that day so that everyone could here the good news that God had come to heal and restore our human natures. After listening to St. Peter, about 3,000 people were received into the Church as Christians and began the journey that leads to liberation from death the transformation of the soul.

The Orthodox Christian Church, founded by Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is still present and active in the world with the constant help of the Holy Spirit. The Church is the spiritual community where we can live in communion with the Holy Trinity. Our way of life is the way of healing from death and the restoration of the divine image and likeness within us. The Orthodox Christian way is the path that leads us toward becoming truly human, as God created us to be. As members of the Church, the body of Christ on earth, we participate in the divine Life of the Holy Trinity. As the Apostle Peter instructed the early Church,

[Christ's] divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, that though these you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of passion, and become partakers of the divine nature. (2 Peter 1.3-4, RSV).

My Western academic training has taught me much about human diversity, but secular anthropology can only provide limited knowledge based on observation, scientific inquiry, and conjecture. Orthodox Christian anthropology provides a foundation, the knowledge our Creator Himself has revealed to us, upon which we can build a better understanding of all the different human cultures present in our world. It explains more adequately than secular theories the nature of primitive humanity, the reason human culture has evolved the way it has, the nature of humanity today, and our full human potential. A person influenced by secular anthropology will likely learn some interesting information, ideas, theories, and skills. Some of the teachings may reflect reality, while others will likely miss the mark. The Orthodox Christian Church offers Truth, not only in the form of doctrines and ideas that have been passed down through the centuries, but a spiritual way of life that leads us to personal transformation, restoration, and union with our Creator God. It is one thing to know what it means to be human. It is another to become truly human.

Copyright © 2006 by Dana S. Kees. (The icon is in the public domain. Primary sources noted within the text.)

Friday, June 23, 2006

The Ancient Spirituality of the British Isles

A couple days ago, a group of NeoPagans and others looking for either natural beauty or revelry joined at Stonehenge to celebrate the summer solstice. The Associated Press report about it has been picked up by CNN, Forbes, and the LA Times. BBC News also reported it. Photos of the event are available on the Festival Eye and BBC websites.

For centuries, in ancient times, spiritual darkness covered the British Isles, but the Creator sent His servants into pagan lands to dispel the darkness, enlighten the people with the light of the Holy Gospel, and bring them back to Him.

Patricus, son of Calpornius, was born in Roman Britain. At the young age of sixteen he was kidnapped by Irish raiders and taken to Ireland as a slave. Years after his escape and return home to Britain, God sent him back to take the Truth to his former captors. He is today known as St. Patrick, Enlightener of Ireland.

St. Patrick tells his life story in his Confessions. He begins his story with these words:

I, Patrick, a sinner, a most simple countryman, the least of all the faithful and most contemptible to many, had for a father the deacon Calpurnius, son of the late Potitus, a priest, of the settlement [vicus] of Bannavem Taburniae; he had a small villa nearby where I was taken captive. I was at that time about sixteen years of age. I did not, indeed, know the true God; and I was taken into captivity in Ireland with many thousands of people, according to our deserts, for quite drawn away from God, we did not keep his precepts, nor were we obedient to our priests who used to remind us of our salvation. And the Lord brought down on us the fury of his being and scattered us among many nations, even to the ends of the earth, where I, in my smallness, am now to be found among foreigners.

And there the Lord opened my mind to an awareness of my unbelief, in order that, even so late, I might remember my transgressions and turn with all my heart to the Lord my God, who had regard for my insignificance and pitied my youth and ignorance. And he watched over me before I knew him, and before I learned sense or even distinguished between good and evil, and he protected me, and consoled me as a father would his son.

St. Columba of Iona, a Celtic native of Ireland, took the Faith to Scotland and established a monastery on the island of Iona, off the Scottish coast. St. Columba declared, "My Druid is Christ, the Son of God, Christ, Son of Mary, the Great Abbot, The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit."

You can read about St. Patrick and St. Columba of Iona on the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia websites. Father Lester Michael Bundy has written a paper entitled St. Columba: Fact and Fiction. The complete Confession of St. Patrick is available in the Christian Classics Ethereal Library. OrthodoxWiki contains good entries on St. Patrick, St. Hilda of Whitby, St Aidan of Lindisfarne, St. Bede the Venerable, and St. Edward the Martyr, King of England.

Jesus Christ only founded one Church, His Church. All of the beloved Saints mentioned here lived in the British Isles when all Christians in both the East and West belonged to the Orthodox Christian Church. The Patriarch (Bishop) of Rome, who shared a brotherly equality with the other Orthodox Christian Patriarchs throughout the Eastern world (including Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, and Constantinople), was responsible for the spiritual care of the Christians in the West.

In about AD 1054, the Roman Patriarch of the Orthodox Church, claiming to be superior to the other Patriarchs and allowing the Faith handed down since the Apostles to be compromised, separated his Patriarchate from the Orthodox Church and formed what is known today as the Roman Catholic Church, taking the Western lands under its care with him. While some writings refer to the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church during the early periods of Christianity in the British Isles, Roman Catholicism didn't even exist in those days. Many Orthodox Christian Celtic and Anglo-Saxon Saints, such as Patrick of Ireland, Columba of Iona, David of Wales, Jarlath of Tuam, Aidan of Lindisfarne, Winefride of Holywell, Augustine of Canterbury, Hilda of Whitby, and Kevin of Glendalough, lived centuries before the break between East and West that led to the formation of the papacy and the Roman Catholic Church. The famous Book of Kells was created within the Orthodox Church by the hands of her Celtic monks long before the Celtic Christians were separated from their native Church.

Although AD 1054 is often considered the date of the Great Schism, the split between East and West, Orthodox Christianity actually continued in England a few more years until the Norman Invasion by William the Conqueror (a.k.a. William the Bastard) in AD 1066. William's conquest of England placed the country under the authority of the Roman Catholic Papacy. King Edward II (the Confessor), the next-to-last English king to reign prior to the Norman Invasion, is counted among the Saints of the Orthodox Church.*

The Church of England (or Anglican Church) began about 500 years later when King Henry VIII asserted his authority over the English churches in defiance of the Pope of Rome. In 1534, according to the king's wish, Parliament officially declared Henry VIII the head of the Church of England, completing the break with the Roman Catholic Church.

In the past few years several priests and laity within the Anglican Church have been returning to the Orthodox Christian Church, reconnecting with their spiritual roots. One such person is Timothy Ware, who was born in England, reared Anglican, studied at Oxford University as a student and also served as a professor at Oxford until his retirement. He is now a bishop in the Orthodox Church with the name Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia. As the articles in The Guardian and on the Orthodox England website seem to indicate, His Royal Highness, Charles, Prince of Wales may also be on his way to the spiritual home of the English people, the Orthodox Christian Church. Thank God. May they keep coming home and may God grant those who have returned many years!

*Read the manuscript of a lecture given by Bishop Kallistos at Westminster Abbey about St. Edward the Confessor.

Copyright © 2006 by Dana S. Kees. (The photos are in the public domain. They include Stonehenge, St. Columba's Bay, where St. Columba is said to have landed at Iona, and Whitby Abbey, founded by St. Hilda. The original public domain photos are from Wikipedia and/or OrthodoxWiki.)

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

The Beauty of a Holy Place

Nearly one thousand years ago, Vladimir, the Grand Prince of Russia, began looking for a religious faith suitable for his people. The ruthless pagan leader intended to find a spiritual way of life better than the traditional paganism of his land. Vladimir received visitors from different cultures with whom he enthusiastically discussed the religions of their native countries. He also sent emissaries abroad on a search for the right path for his people to follow. Both the Grand Prince and his traveling ambassadors remained unimpressed with the religions they encountered until they arrived at Constantinople, the legendary capital of the Christian Byzantine Empire. In the imperial city, Vladimir’s emissaries entered the renowned Church of Holy Wisdom to see how Orthodox Christians worship. When they had experienced the glorious beauty of the Divine Liturgy, they walked out of the church in a state of inexpressible awe. They returned home and reported to their Prince what they had encountered in the great church: “We don’t know whether we were in heaven or on earth for surely no such radiant beauty exists upon the earth. We can’t even describe it to you, but we do know that God dwells there among men and that their worship service is superior to those found in all other places. The beauty is unforgettable.”

Vladimir, whose grandmother, Olga, had become a Christian years earlier, sincerely embraced the Christian Faith and was baptized in AD 989, an event that changed his own life and led the whole Russian nation to Christ and His Church.

The Orthodox Christian way of life was born in the first century when our Lord, Jesus Christ, the human embodiment of Divine Beauty, came into the world and established His Church. For several centuries after Christ's death, burial, resurrection, and ascension into heaven, the Church worshipped in secret during several periods of intense persecution. Eventually, the (Roman) Empire that killed the Martyrs was conquered by their Faith. In the fourth century, under the leadership of the Emperor Constantine the Great and his devout mother, Helena, the once persecuted Orthodox Christian Church was raised up out of persecution to become the official Church of the new Roman Empire, called the Christian Byzantine Empire. For the first time, the Church once forced to worship in secret was able to build magnificent temples (church buildings) where they could worship the One True and Living God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God is supremely beautiful and the heavenly reality where God dwells is filled with His glory. Therefore, Orthodox Christian temples, adorned with polished marble and dazzling gold with intricate mosaics and richly painted icons covering the interior walls, were constructed to reflect the heavenly glory of God.

The Orthodox Church continues the tradition of building beautiful temples, holy places where heaven and earth meet. What makes these church buildings temples is that God dwells there, in the place where His Church gathers together for worship and prayer. (Although these buildings are commonly called churches, the word Church, literally meaning "assembly," actually describes the Christian community gathered inside.) God is always present with His Church, wherever she may be.

The interior of the Orthodox Christian temple is a reflection of heaven itself. The architecture doesn’t just symbolically represent heaven, but the temple is a physical place where the invisible heavenly reality is actually present with us on earth. This is a great mystery.

What does the invisible heavenly reality look like? This is what the Prophet Isaiah saw when God opened his eyes to the beauty of heaven:

In the year of King Uzziah’s death I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, lofty and exalted, with the train of His robe filling the temple. Seraphim stood above Him, each having six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called out to another and said,

“Holy, Holy, Holy, is the LORD of hosts, The whole earth is full of His glory.”

And the foundations of the thresholds trembled at the voice of him who called out, while the temple was filling with smoke. (Isaiah 6.1-8, NASB)

St. John was also shown the beauty of heavenly worship:

The four living creatures, each having six wings, were full of eyes around and within. And they do not rest day or night, saying:

Holy, holy, holy
Lord God Almighty,
Who was and is and is to come!

Whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to Him who sits on the throne, who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before Him who sits on the throne and worship Him who lives forever and ever, and cast their crowns before the throne, saying:

You are worthy, O Lord,
To receive glory
and honor and power;
For you created all things,
And by Your will they
exist and were created. (Revelation 4.8-11, NKJV)

The worship of the Orthodox Christian Church is heavenly worship. When we gather together in our temples for prayer, the whole Church, including both saints in heaven and those on earth, is mystically present as one body. Those of us who are daily running the race on earth are cheered on by our spiritual fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters who have completed this earthly life and now stand in the eternal glory of God. We are not alone. The great cloud of witnesses in heaven, including prophets, apostles, evangelists, martyrs, confessors, and all of Christ’s saints, surround us. The angels, archangels, cherubim, and seraphim are also there. Our churches are filled with holy icons, windows to heaven, that constantly remind us of the spiritual realty all around.

The Divine Liturgy, celebrated every Sunday morning in Orthodox Christian temples around the world, is the central service of worship for the Orthodox Christian Church, gathered together in prayer. Upon entering the church before the Divine Liturgy begins, you may find that a service of morning prayer is already in motion. The melodious sound of chanted ancient prayers and the smell of incense pervade the sacred place. The end of this prayer service, called Orthros or Matins, seamlessly flows into the beginning of the Divine Liturgy, which begins when the priest lifts up the Holy Gospels resting upon the altar, makes the sign of the cross with the book, and proclaims, “Blessed is the kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, both now and ever, and unto ages of ages!”

Like most of our services, the Divine Liturgy is mostly sung, involving a constant dialogue of prayer between the priest and the people, led by the choir and chanters. Some people pray aloud; others listen attentively and pray in silence with their hearts.

With the angels, we sing the thrice-holy hymn:

Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal: have mercy on us.
Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal: have mercy on us.
Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal: have mercy on us.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit:
Both now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

and sing the glorious Cherubic Hymn:

We who mystically represent the cherubim
and who sing the thrice holy hymn
to the life-creating Trinity
now lay aside all earthly cares that we may
receive the King of All
Who comes invisibly upborne by the angelic hosts.

Receiving the censor, the priest, dressed in glittering vestments fit for service before the King of Creation, prays as he censes the holy altar, the sanctuary, the icons, and also the people, because we bear the image of God within us. The sweet smell of the incense fills the temple, reminding us that God is immediately present in our midst. The rising white smoke, mingling with our prayers, brings to mind what St. John saw in his vision of heaven:

Then another angel, having a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, ascended before God from the angel’s hand. (8.3-4, NKJV)

Much more beauty exists in the Divine Liturgy than what I've described here. This reveals only a tiny glimpse of the heavenly reality present among us on earth. It’s something that must be experienced.

The temple where we gather together is beautiful and our spiritual worship, both ancient and timeless, is beautiful. The word Orthodox has a double meaning: right belief and right worship (or right glory). We believe the true Faith, having preserved what we have received since the time of the Apostles, and we worship the True and Living God in the manner He should be worshipped, in glorious splendor. This is the way of the Orthodox Christian Church, the way of divine beauty, the way of becoming beautiful with the radiance of divine beauty. In a broken, spoiled world where people desperately need real beauty in their lives, may we turn away from everything that corrupts the soul so that the divine beauty may shine within us, allowing the world to see through us the indescribably brilliant, enlightening beauty of our all-holy, ever-loving God.

“One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD, and to inquire in his temple” - Psalm 27.4 (RSV)

This article is the third part of a trilogy on The Beautiful Life. The other articles include Natural Beauty and The Secret of Being Beautiful.

Copyright © 2006 by Dana S. Kees. (The photo of St. Mary Magdalene Russian Orthodox Church, located on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, is from the Pictorial Library of Bible Lands, Used by permission.)

Thursday, June 15, 2006

The Secret of Being Beautiful

Beauty is central to the Orthodox Christian way of life. Since God is beautiful, and the goal of the Orthodox way is to heal the image of God within us and restore our divine likeness, then the goal of the Orthodox Christian way is to become beautiful, truly beautiful, radiating with divine beauty.

Even though I’m a man, I’ll admit that when I’m in a bookstore I sometimes skim over the covers of magazines that target young women. They’re fine examples of popular cultural propaganda endorsing an ideology harmful to the young, impressionable women of America. (Men’s magazines seem to now contain similar material.)

The American culture’s secular concept of human beauty is warped. The cultural theory regarding beauty seems to be something like this: If you look beautiful, you will feel beautiful. When you look and feel beautiful, you will improve your ability to be both successful and desirable in public and private. The pursuit of beauty according to the culture’s unspiritual understanding and immodest standards has become an overriding focus among many young American women. We have a whole nation of people trying to look different than they actually are. Teens are trying to look like young adults, older adults are trying to halt or reverse the inevitable, and everyone else in between tries desperately to conform to the cultural ideal, often provocatively so, in an attempt to convince the self and others, "I 'm worth something. I 'm desirable."

The beauty of creation that we can see with our physical eyes is worthy of appreciation. If we see the visible creation around us, though, without peering through it to see the Creator, we miss the Ultimately Beauty. Likewise, admiring the outward appearance of someone's body without encountering the beauty of the person’s soul is a shallow experience, like admiring the shiny wrapping paper covering a box without opening the box itself to see the gold-and-diamond gift inside. Within the person, unseen by physical eyes, but visible to the heart, is the image of God that gives every human person intrinsic worth. What makes a person beautiful is not what others see when the light shines down upon his or her physical form, but the heavenly light that shines through the person, illuminating the soul with the pure spiritual beauty of God. The truly beautiful person reflects the light of divine beauty from within, evident in the self-giving love, harmonious peace, passionless patience, centered simplicity, and content humility emanating from the heart, evident in attitude, present in speech, and manifested in action. As St. Peter taught, "Let not yours be the outward adorning with braiding of hair, decoration of gold, and wearing of fine clothing, but let it be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable jewel of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God's sight is very precious" (1 Peter 3.3-4, RSV).

The way of the culture may make people look picture-perfect, but it will cause their inner beauty to fade, their souls to degenerate, becoming ugly and cold, and their lives to be marred by pain and chaos. Americans spend a lot of time and money improving their physical appearance, while neglecting their spiritual health. Within the Orthodox Christian Church we live the Orthodox Christian way of life together. All of us need healing from the inner wounds that have disfigured our souls and corrupted our ways of thinking, feeling, and interacting with others. The Church is a hospital where our most unsightly blemishes are healed by the loving grace of God. Instead of magazine articles about temporary fixes and current diet trends, our enduring Orthodox Christian Faith contains ancient beauty secrets that are time-tested, deep-seated, and long-lasting. Rather than programs and regimens meant to help us look attractive for a while, the spiritual disciplines of the Orthodox way of life, like prayer and fasting (placing the physical body under the control of the spirit), open our hearts to receive divine beauty and also train the eyes of our hearts to see the beauty within others. The way of the culture may help us improve our looks, but the Orthodox way leads us into the very heart of God, the source of Beauty, who illumines the whole universe.

Copyright © 2006 by Dana S. Kees. (The icon of St. Barbara is from the IconoGraphics ColorWorks Library, Used by permission.)

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Natural Beauty

On the front porch of my family home, surrounded by the Appalachian hills, I sit in a white wicker chair and write. Only a few clouds hang in the otherwise clear sky. The warm sun shines down, touching everything green that covers this untamed ground with a hint of bright yellow. Light and shadow constantly change with the day’s progression. A butterfly fluttered close by just before I saw the hummingbird hovering around our ruby-red feeder. Birds have been singing all day. A couple of robins perched upon a line chirp in conversation. Two others, with outstretched wings distinctively marked, have been flying in and out of the branches since morning. The bees gather nectar among the open flowers. I sit here with all my senses open to the experience and take it all in.

The Earth is a beautiful place. However complex the whole ecosystem may be, appreciating the beauty of creation is simple. It’s not just a matter of the mind (this is not science), but a matter of the heart, deeply known.

The creation is beautiful, but if we don’t see beyond the beauty of creation we're missing the mystery that creation is trying to show us, the indescribable beauty of its Creator, the One who brought all things into existence out of nothing. The creation is an icon, a window to heaven, through which we can see the true and living God, the Source of all Life.

I’m reminded of something St. Augustine of Hippo once said:

The heavens cry out to God, "You made me, not I, myself." Earth cries out, "You created me, not I…." Look at the heavens, it is beautiful: observe the earth, it is beautiful: both together are very beautiful. He made them, He rules them, by His nod they are swayed, He orders their seasons, He renews their movements, He renews them by Himself. All these things then praise Him, whether in stillness or in motion, whether from earth below or from heaven above, whether in their old state or in their renewed one….And since He made all things, and nothing is better than He, whatever He made is less than He, and anything about these things that pleases you is less than He. So, don’t let what He has made please you so much that you withdrawal from Him who made them. If you love what He made, then love much more Him who made them. If the things which He has made are beautiful, how much more beautiful is He who made them? (Exposition of Psalm 148)

Every Saturday evening Orthodox Christians gather together for Great Vespers. We begin this time of evening prayer by reciting an ancient prayer. Through this prayer we remember the beauty of creation and worship the Beautiful One who brought it all into existence and fills it with his nurturing presence:

Bless the Lord, O my soul.
O Lord my God, thou art very great;
thou art clothed with honour and majesty.
Who coverest thyself with light as with a garment:
who stretchest out the heavens like a curtain:
Who layeth the beams of his chambers in the waters:
Who maketh the clouds his chariot:
who walketh upon the wings of the wind:
Who maketh his angels spirits; his ministers a flaming fire:
Who laid the foundations of the earth,
that it should not be removed forever.
Thou coveredst it with the deep as with a garment:
the waters stood above the mountains. At thy rebuke they fled:
at the voice of thy thunder they hasted away.
They go up by the mountains;
they go down by the valleys unto the place
which thou hast founded for them.
Thou hast set a bound that they may not pass over;
that they turn not again to cover the earth.
He sendeth the springs into the valleys,
which run among the hills.
They give drink to every beast of the field:
the wild asses quench their thirst.
By them shall the fowls of the heaven have their habitation,
which sing among the branches.
He watereth the hills from his chambers:
the earth is satisfied with the fruit of they works.
He causeth the grass to grow for the cattle,
and herb for the service of man:
that he may bring forth food out of the earth:
And wine that maketh glad the heart of man,
and oil to make his face to shine,
and bread which strengtheneth man’s heart.
The trees of the Lord are full of sap;
the cedars of Lebanon, which he hath planted;
Where the birds make their nests:
as for the stork, the fir trees are her house.
The high hills are a refuge for the wild goats;
and the rocks for the conies.
He appointed the moon for seasons: the sun knoweth his going down.
Thou makest darkness, and it is night:
wherein all the beasts of the forest do creep forth.
The young lions roar after their prey, and seek their meat from God.
The sun ariseth, they gather themselves together,
and lay them down in their dens.
Man goeth forth unto his works and to his labour until the evening.
O Lord, how manifold are thy works!
In wisdom hast thou made them all: the earth is full of thy riches.
So is this great and wide sea, wherein are things creeping, innumerable,
both small and great beasts.
There go the ships:
there is that leviathan, who thou hast made to play therein.
These wait all upon thee; that thou mayest give them their meat
in due season.
That thou givest them they gather:
thou openest thine hand, they are filled with good.
Thou hidest thy face, they are troubled:
thou takest away their breath, they die, and return to their dust.
Thou sendest forth thy spirit, they are created:
and thou renewest the face of the earth.
The glory of the Lord shall endure forever:
the Lord shall rejoice in his works.
He looketh on the earth, and it trembleth:
he toucheth the hills, and they smoke.
I will sing unto the Lord as long as I live:
I will sing praise to my God while I have my being.
My meditation of him shall be sweet: I will be glad in the Lord.
Let the sinners be consumed out of the earth,
and let the wicked be no more.
Bless thou the Lord, O my soul.
Praise ye the Lord.

Those who worship the true and living Creator God have been praying this prayer (Psalm 104) for nearly three thousand years. Today it forms a part of the constant heartbeat that gives the Orthodox Christian way of life its consistent rhythm, a rhythm that gives us absolute stability in a world swept away and tossed around, without an anchor, by the temperamental winds of popular opinion and faddish change.

Be attentive to the beauty of creation, soaking up its beauty with the senses God has given us to experience it. Like a mirror, the creation reflects the Creator Himself. Allow the creation to draw the attention of your heart toward God so that you may encounter His Beauty, remain ever-aware of His presence around us, and praise Him unceasingly from the depths of your created soul.

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

Monday, June 12, 2006

Three Recommended Books for Bookstores

I like small independent bookstores, especially warm, quiet, unpretentious bookstores that double as coffee shops. Big corporately-owned businesses have a lot more books, but a good independent bookshop ideally possesses fewer books of superior quality.

Any spirituality/theology/religion section is incomplete without books on the Orthodox Christian Church, the Church founded by Jesus Christ in the East almost two thousand years ago, and its ancient way of life that has endured from generation to generation since the first century. Orthodox Christianity is closer to the source of ancient Christianity, Christ and his Apostles, than any other path. The Orthodox Church is the ancient Church, still thriving in contemporary times. Although the Orthodox Faith has continued in the East since the time of the Apostles, secular Americans and those who are influenced by later Western forms of Christianity that have developed over the centuries still remain largely ignorant about the Orthodox Christian Faith.

Until I moved to the mountains a few weeks ago, I helped operate an Orthodox bookstore dedicated to connecting people with books that would help them along their spiritual journeys. Some of our customers were curious about Orthodoxy, some were more interested than curious, some were already on the path toward Orthodoxy, and others were Orthodoxy Christians on the way.

When I find that a bookstore, especially a locally-owned one, doesn't have any books on Orthodox Christianity, I sense that something is missing. At least one book on Orthodoxy should be present. What books, then, should be resting on the shelf? I have composed a very brief list of books that I would recommend for discriminating independent bookstore owners to consider including in their inventories. These books may serve as fine introductions to the Orthodox Christian way, or at least some aspects of it, for those who might consider themselves "spiritual, but not religious," yet open to the ancient Eastern Orthodox way of life.

Three titles on my list of recommended books include the following:

1. The Orthodox Church (Second Edition) by Timothy Ware (aka Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia), published by Penguin Press. ISBN 0-14-014656-3. More information about the author is available at

2. The Mountain of Silence: A Search for Orthodox Spirituality by Kyriacos C. Markides. Published by Image/Doubleday/Random House. ISBN 0-385-50092-0.

3. The Orthodox Way (Revised Edition) by Bishop Kallistos Ware. Published by St. Vladimir's Seminary Press. ISBN 0-913836-58-3.

I have limited the list here to only three titles, although I can think of several other books capable of serving as valuable additions to a bookstore's inventory.

Note: These books belong in the spirituality section.

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

Sunday, June 11, 2006

The Feast of Pentecost

Before Christ’s Death, Resurrection, and Ascension into heaven, he taught His disciples,
These things I have spoken to you, while I am still with you. But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you….Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. (John 14.25-26; 15.7, RSV)

St. Luke records what happened on the Day of Pentecost in his Acts of the Apostles:

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance (Acts 2.1-4, RSV).

Today is the Feast of Pentecost, the day we celebrate the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Church following Christ’s ascension into heaven. This is what the Church sings on the Feast of Pentecost:

Blessed art Thou, O Christ our God, who hast revealed the fishermen as most wise by sending down upon them the Holy Spirit: through them Thou didst draw the world into Thy net. Lover of mankind, Glory to Thee.

Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. The spring of the Spirit hath come to those on earth, dividing supersensuously into fire-bearing rivers, moistening the Apostles and illuminating them. The fire hath become to them a dewy cloud, lighting, and raining flames upon them from whom we received grace by the fire and the water. Verily the Comforter hath come and lighted the world.

Light is the Father; and Light is the Son; Light is the Holy Spirit descending upon the Apostles in fiery tongues, through which the whole universe was illuminated to worship the holy Trinity.

The Holy Spirit hath ever been, is and ever shall be; for He is wholly without beginning and without end. Yet He is in covenant with the Father and the Son, counted as Life and Life-giver, good by nature and a Fountain of goodness, through whom the Father is known and the Son glorified. And by all it is understood that one power, one rank, one worship are of the Holy Trinity.

In the icon of the Feast of Pentecost (pictured here), the Apostles sit together in perfect unity in a quiet, peaceful, harmonious state of prayer. The unapproachably brilliant glory of God shines down upon them from heaven as the Holy Spirit rests upon each them in flaming tongues of fire. In the darkness stands an old man who represents the World (the Cosmos) who, though crowned in glory, has been imprisoned in a state of darkness and death. In his hand, the World holds twelve scrolls, representing the teachings of the Apostles, the divine Truth by which they will liberate and enlighten the whole World through the radiant presence, unceasing love, and
inexhaustible power of the Holy Spirit.

On this day, let’s especially remember the prayer to the Holy Spirit that is central to the Orthodox Christian way of life:

O heavenly King, O Comforter, the Spirit of truth, who art in all places and fillest all things; Treasury of good things and Giver of life: Come and dwell in us and cleanse us from every stain, and save our souls, O gracious Lord.

Have a blessed feast day!

Copyright © 2006 by Dana S. Kees. Selections from the Holy Scripture are from the Revised Standard Version as annotated. The other selections quoted here have been taken from the prayers and services of the Holy Orthodox Church. The icon is in the public domain.