Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity! ~ Psalm 133:1
A few days ago, I drove to St. John the Forerunner Monastery for a one-night stay. It is such a blessing that we have our beloved monastery nearby, so that we can have a spiritual respite from our busy modern life. While I was checking in at the bakery, one of the sisters came to me with “an unusual request.” The sisters had two baby goats—10 days old!—that needed a home, and they had found someone near Salem to take them. But they needed to transport the goats half-way.
“Would you be able to take the goats to Portland with you, to give them to their new owner?” I gladly agreed. We discussed all of the details, then as we finished up the sister said, “They should sleep during the drive. It’s a good thing it’s a pair, because if it was one goat by itself it would cry the whole way there!”
She was right. After a few bleats when they first got in the car, they quickly settled into the straw in their cardboard box and nuzzled up to each other, sleeping nearly all of the drive.
Companionship is an amazing thing—the myriad psychological, emotional, spiritual, and physiological benefits which come from having companions. From the very beginning, God saw that we needed companionship: “It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him.” (Genesis 2:18).
The absence of companionship likewise has many ill effects: depression, anxiety, fear, neurosis, despair, delusion, and more. Psalm 133 (quoted above) extols the benefit of “dwelling together.” You can imagine the inverse: “Behold how bad and how unpleasant it is to be alone.” We weren’t meant to be alone. We were meant to love and to be loved. Just as this is in God’s nature, so it is in ours.
Now, there are many books that could be written about companionship, whether expressed through the relationships of marriage, kinship, friendship, camaraderie, or union in the Body of Christ. However I want to focus on one particular manifestation: the companionship between various “bodies” of Christ. Just as the two goat kids found solace, comfort, and greater courage to face the unknown by being together, so do Orthodox institutions receive the same benefit when they encourage and build upon their companionship, their interconnectedness.
It’s a big and dangerous world out there, and we Orthodox are but a small minority. Yes, we should cast out fear in the perfect love of God (paraphrasing St. Paul). However we must also admit that it is daunting to be such a small voice in the vast cacophony of American culture. Thus it is all the more essential that we support and build up the Orthodox institutions we have.
This past Lent we had the joy of participating in a number of pan-Orthodox services here in the Portland area, and even hosting one. We should make these gatherings of the Portland Orthodox churches a priority in our lives. Also when another parish has its feast day it is a blessed opportunity for us to celebrate their joy with them.
One of the strongest companions that our community of St. John has along the road of life is the very monastery which bears our name. We are among a handful of Orthodox church communities in the United States that are within driving distance of an Orthodox monastery. And even fewer parishes have a monastery with such a deep spiritual lineage. (For more on that, read about Gerondissa Makrina in the book, Words of the Heart.) St. John the Forerunner Monastery is our monastery. I don’t say that in a possessive or exclusive way. What I mean is that she is there for us, just as we are there for her. We receive consolation, spiritual renewal, and powerful intercessory prayers; the monastery in turn receives our prayers, our support, and the love that the members of one spiritual family have for each other.
There are many ways to express and appreciate this companionship between our parish and the monastery: Pray for the sisters and Gerondissa Efpraxia; visit the monastery and worship with them; teach your children about the spiritual warfare that the sisters engage in on our behalf; offer your financial support toward the completion of the monastery’s construction project; give your talents to them through work days or by volunteering; encourage your fellow parishioners to foster this relationship.
Our unity (with the monastery) in Christ is expressed and fulfilled through our actions.
Lastly I must mention the most direct and obvious companionship which our parish has: our relationship with Agia Sophia Academy. Only a tiny fraction of Orthodox churches in America have an Orthodox parochial school. Many churches dream of it, and we have that dream right here.
However let me be honest for a moment: Having ASA under our roof means that conflicts can arise. We have to share space; we don’t always communicate well; there are misunderstandings and misconceptions and numerous ways in which the devil can cause division.
Yet in the midst of this, we must not forget that it is a rare gift to have this Orthodox institution under our roof. ASA is a ministry to children, a service to our greater community, and a beacon of Orthodoxy. The faithful teachers and staff who work at the school are there because they have a passionate desire to instill the Faith—and they give up opportunities for better-paying jobs to do this. We must foster a more peaceful companionship with this Orthodox institution.
My brothers and sister, we need each other. It is not good to dwell alone! Our Lord has blessed us with a thriving monastery, a vibrant pan-Orthodox community, and a dedicated Orthodox school. We need the companionship of every Orthodox person and every Orthodox institution. Though the Church is small in America, through our devotion to each other in the bond of Christ’s love, we can become a profound witness to this nation.
Please Note: I am neither advocating for ASA to stay under St. John’s roof nor to go elsewhere. Regardless of where ASA is, we should continue to be supportive of this worthy Orthodox ministry.
“Walking into a consecrated church is like walking into heaven.” ~ St. Gregory of Nyssa
In 313, Christianity, for the first time in its history, became a “legalized” religion. The Roman Empire under St. Constantine the Great ended its persecution of Christians. For the first time they were permitted to worship openly. Immediately following this proclamation, thousands of churches were built within the empire—from the landmark basilicas constructed by St. Helen on the holy sites in the Holy Land, to the glorious cathedrals built by St. Constantine in his new capital city, to the intricate churches carved in the cliffs of Cappadocia, to the churches in the monasteries on Sinai, in the wilderness of the Jordan, and on the remote mountains of Greece. Everywhere Christians were zealously dedicated to erecting churches. Many of these churches exist until today, constructed of stone and built to last millennia.
The zeal for building churches has remained as a primal instinct among the Orthodox. In native Orthodox lands, churches, as well as chapels and shrines, are scattered across the countryside, wedged between tall buildings in the cities, and perched on precarious mountaintops. Each place of worship is a testament to the faithful’s desire to offer the best to God—be it a great offering or small. In the Slavic lands, after the fall of Communism, hundreds of churches were built or rebuilt. Even today the Slavic people have not ceased to build awe-inspiring churches, monasteries, and chapels. Their love for God is continually manifested in the offering of a sanctified dwelling place for God.
The sanctification and completion of a church is found in its consecration. This is its sacramental “setting aside” as a space that is wholly dedicated to the worship of the Triune God. A consecration is also described as the baptism of the church. The altar is washed and clothed in a white baptismal garment called a katasarkion (“upon-the-body cloth”), which is never again removed. The walls and icons of the church are anointed with Holy Chrism, the same Chrism which is used to anoint during Chrismation. The antimension (the decorative cloth icon upon which the Holy Gifts are consecrated during the Divine Liturgy) is blessed.
Most importantly, in a consecration the church receives the relics of martyrs, which are permanently encased within the altar. These relics impart the grace of God upon the sacraments that are performed in the church and sanctify those who worship in the church. They bring the presence of those holy martyrs into the liturgical services.
As Orthodox Christians—many of us converts to the Faith—we must grow in that zeal which our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world possess: the zeal to build beautiful and God-pleasing churches. A building is only worthy as a dwelling place of the living God when we offer Him our very best. (Remember Cain, who gave to God an inferior offering, which God did not accept.)
Let the search for our permanent church home be at the forefront of our thoughts and prayers, so that we can soon have the opportunity to give God our best offering!
As we begin Great Lent this month, I would like to tell the story of a recent saint in our Church, St. Nicholas Planas, whose feastday is on Saturday, March 2. St. Nicholas was a simple and humble parish priest outside of Athens. He lived just this past century. (He is not to be confused with more famous St. Nicholas the Wonderworker of Myra, who is celebrated on December 6.)
What is most notable about Papa-Nicholas (as people called him) are the things which are lacking in his life. He was no theologian and in fact had very few words to say at all – even to his closest followers. His life has no astounding feats of asceticism; he was a parish priest on the outskirts of a city. He did not die for the Faith or preach to the multitudes. He built no monasteries, no philanthropic institutions, nor even a single church.
Yet each year on March 2 the Orthodox Church universally recognizes Papa-Nicholas as a saint worthy of veneration and emulation. This is because he did the most important thing that any Christian can do, a simple task that he unwaveringly followed to his salvation and canonization: he listened to and performed God’s will to the fullest degree possible within his circumstances. For this reason the Church joyously proclaims in a hymn to St. Nicholas:
As a simple shepherd of Christ God’s lambs, you did tend your flock well on the pasture of piety, nourishing their spirits with ceaseless supplications and leading them to Christ, O wise Father Nicholas. (Megalynarion for St. Nicholas Planas)
Simplicity is the theme of Papa-Nicholas’ life. He was a simple parish priest, who modestly performed the sacraments and services of the church, who cared for his flock with meekness, and who treated all with love and in innocence. It is this very simplicity which serves as an example for all of us.
St. Nicholas was born in 1851 on the Island of Naxos. He lived there until he was 14 years old, when his family moved to Athens. He was married at 17 and had one son; his wife died a few years later, leaving him a widower. Soon thereafter, he was ordained to the diaconate and eventually to the priesthood. (At his first parish the famous writer Alexandros Papadiamantis was the chanter.)
Papa-Nicholas was a rare spectacle, even in the rustic agrarian villages that surrounded Athens in the early 20th Century. He was quite short, even by Greek standards; people would often kiss him on the head like a little child. He was hunched over and always looking disheveled. He wore the most tattered raso, even though in later life his church wardens (like parish council members) would insist upon buying him new clothes. He would simply give them away. He had a slow gait and used a cane for much of his later years.
Papa-Nicholas was known for traveling with a handkerchief full of paper scraps – names of those whom he remembered in prayer. He also a carried little box around his neck with the relics of saints. He called the handkerchief and the box, “My invoices and my contracts.”
Papa-Nicholas was visited by saints many times in his life. He would hold vigil with St. John the Baptist, serve liturgy with St. Phocas the Bishop, receive mystical medicine from St. Panteleimon, and walk in rainstorms late at night by the light of an angel, without feeling a drop.
Eventually he became the priest at the Church of St. John the Hunter, which had only eight families. His annual salary was a piece of the Christmas lamb.
For 50 years Papa-Nicholas served Divine Liturgy every day. Through revolutions, snowstorms, and even the invasion of the English and French in 1917 he never ceased to serve Liturgy daily.
Papa-Nicholas would refuse to distinguish between people, regardless of stature, wealth, health, or any other difference. He gave communion to lepers. He walked many miles to visit the wealthy and the poor in times of need. Rather than correcting people verbally, he would pray intensely for them such that saints would appear in their dreams to correct them. He lived a life of patience and compassion toward his fellow humans and obedience toward God.
Papa-Nicholas departed this world in 1932. Yet his simplicity and his boundless love for humanity live on in the story of his life. May he be an example to all of us as we enter Great and Holy Lent.
Footnote: Our son Nicholas was named after St. Nicholas Planas, who has a special place in our family.
Every January we celebrate one of the great feasts of the Church: Theophany, the Feast of Lights, our Lord’s Baptism. Central to that feast is the role of our beloved patron, St. John the Baptist. St. John lived in strict asceticism in the Palestinian desert. He foretold the coming of the Messiah, the Christ whom he baptized in the Jordan River. We commemorate St. John the Baptist on January 7, the day after Theophany, which is our parish Name Day.
St. John is known as the Forerunner, because he announced Jesus’ coming. For this reason he is also considered the greatest–and the last–of the Old Testament prophets. All of the prophets foretold the coming of the Messiah, who would redeem the people of Israel. However St. John is the greatest of these prophets because Jesus Christ came in his own lifetime.
St. John’s ministry was to prepare the way for the Lord. He preached a baptism of repentance, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 3:2) Through repentance the people could be cleansed of their sins. In this way St. John prepared them for the arrival of the Messiah: “Behold,I send My messenger before your face, who will prepare Your way before You. The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord; make His paths straight.” (Mark 1:2-3) As the Lord’s messenger, St. John is often depicted with angel’s wings. (The Greek word, angelos, means both “messenger” and “angel”.)
Our beloved saint’s image can be found in many places in our church, since he is our patron: on both sides of the iconostasis and also in the narthex. Furthermore, in (almost) every Divine Liturgy we commemorate him by singing his hymn.
However, besides the icons and hymns, what does it mean to have a patron saint of a parish? Every Orthodox church is named after a saint or an important feast day, just as every Orthodox Christian is given the name of a saint at baptism. How is St. John the Baptist special in our lives, since our church bears his name?
As our patron saint it means that St. John is a special protector and intercessor for our community. His prayers guide us and safeguard us from harm. He watches over us more closely.
Yet our relationship with St. John should not be one-sided. His closeness to our community can be strengthened by our own devotion to him. He is someone to whom we should pray regularly: for the protection of our families and our church community. We sing his hymn each Sunday; but we can say the hymn as a prayer each day, or add a simple prayer like, “Holy St. John the Baptist, pray for us!”
This is truly what it means to have a patron saint: a special relationship with one of God’s holy servants, who can pray for us, and whom we can seek in times of need. In this new year, let us pray to St. John all the more fervently, singing his hymn and asking for his intercession:
“The memory of the just is celebrated with hymns of praise, but the Lord’s testimony is sufficient for thee, O Forerunner; for thou hast proved to be truly more venerable than the Prophets, since thou wast granted to baptize in the stream Him Whom they proclaimed. Wherefore, having contested for the truth, thou didst rejoice to announce the good tidings even to those in Hades: that God hath appeared in the flesh, taking away the sin of the world and granting to us great mercy.” (Apolytikion for St. John the Baptist)
Through the prayers of St. John the Baptist, may you have a blessed New Year!
One of our most beloved modern saints, St. Porphyrios of Kafsokalyvia (on Mount Athos), is commemorated on December 2, which falls on a Sunday this year. It has only been five years since his official canonization, though the faithful of Greece and throughout the world had been venerating him for years before that.
The most well-known book in English about St. Porphyrios is Wounded by Love, which describes his life and shares some of his spiritual wisdom. It is a fitting title for a book on St. Porphyrios, who from an early age was overtaken (“wounded”) by a deep love for our Lord Jesus Christ. The phrase comes from one of the Vespers hymns about St. Hilarion the Great: “Ὁ ἔνθεος ἔρως κατέτρωσε,” “Divine love [literally divine eros] wounded you.” St. Porphyrios made it his life’s focus to pursue Christ’s love unwaveringly. Just as our Lord relentlessly pursues every person—though we reject Him and betray Him and sin against Him—so too did St. Porphyrios strive relentlessly against the passions and the fallen self to enter the loving embrace of our Savior.
Here is a small taste of the divine wisdom St. Porphyrios offers to us:
“Love Christ and put nothing before His Love. He is joy, He is life, He is light. Christ is everything. He is the ultimate desire, He is everything. Everything beautiful is in Christ.”
“A person can become a saint anywhere. He can become a saint in Omonia Square [in Athens, synonymous with vice and corruption], if he wants. At your work, whatever it may be, you can become saints—through meekness, patience and love. Make a new start every day, with new resolution, with enthusiasm and love, prayer and silence—not with anxiety so that you get a pain in the chest. … Look on all things as opportunities to be sanctified.”
“Do not strike at the evil directly, but, disdaining the passion, turn with love to God. Occupy yourself with singing hymns, the triumphant hymns of the saints and martyrs and the Psalms of David. Study Holy Scripture and the Church Fathers. In this way your soul will be softened, sanctified and assimilated to God.”
“Turn your mind towards God continually. Learn to love prayer; converse with the Lord. What counts above all is love, passionate love for the Lord, for Christ the Bridegroom. Become worthy of Christ’s love. In order not to live in darkness, turn on the switch of prayer so that divine light may flood your soul. Christ will appear in the depths of your being. There, in the deepest and most inward part, is the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is within you (Luke 17:21).”
“Those who desire and crave to belong to Christ and who abandon themselves to the will of God become worthy. It’s a great thing, all-important, to have no will. The slave has no will of his own. And it is possible for us to have no will of our own in a very simple manner: through love for Christ and the keeping of His commandments. ‘He who has my commandments and keeps them, he is the one who loves me; and he who loves me shall be loved by my Father and I will love him and will manifest myself to him.’ (John 14:31)”
“Souls that have known pain and suffering and that are tormented by their passions win most especially the love and grace of God. It is souls such as these that become saints, and very often we pass judgment on them. Remember what Saint Paul says, ‘Where sin abounded, grace flowed even more abundantly’ (Romans 5:20). When you remember this, you will feel that these people are more worthy than you and than me. We see them as weak, but when they open themselves to God they become all love and all divine eros. Whereas previously they had acquired different habits, they now give all the power of their soul to Christ and are set on fire by Christ’s love. That is how God’s miracle works in such souls, which we regard as ‘lost.’ We shouldn’t be discouraged, nor should we rush to conclusions, nor judge on the basis of superficial and external things.”
I strongly encourage you to read Wounded by Love, to learn the spiritual wisdom of St. Porphyrios. And may his prayers intercede on our behalf!
Life is beautiful. What a profound and enduring statement! Despite tragedy, anguish, violence, greed, and all the hosts of ills which exist upon this earth, still humanity clings to this simple phrase: Life is beautiful. It is a statement that transcends religion and philosophy, a statement that is proven by the irrefutable reality of creation. Even those who have no faith cling to this simple phrase. Because if life isn’t beautiful—even though it is at times also tragic—then it is meaningless.
Herein we see the stamp of God’s own beauty, expressed in terms which are approachable for all. Life is beautiful. Why? Because beauty is an attribute of God. As the Creator, He ensured that beauty was interwoven with all aspects of creation: From the inner workings of a cell to the design of the galaxies; from the intrinsic kindness which inhabits every human heart, to the joy we feel when we behold something that is undeniably breathtaking. Again and again, when He created the cosmos, “God saw that it was good.” (Genesis 1)
Just as our Creator loves the beautiful, so we, as icons of God, have an innate desire for beauty. One of the great tragedies of our contemporary world is the diminishing and even denial of beauty, which has become widespread in our society, due to both the predominance of the “functional” or “utilitarian” approach, and also the ascendency of subjectivity over objectivity.
Subjectivity has increasingly become the mode of modern existence. Nothing has transcendence or immutability; everything is in the eye of the beholder. If you say that something is such-and-such, it must be. And if I say it is the opposite, that must be as well. There is no compass, no anchor by which the human experience can judge rightly the beauty or goodness or truth of anything. In the modern subjective world, even the ugliest thing can be called “beautiful,” while the beauty of the truly transcendent is diminished or ignored.
In addition to the subjective worldview, modernity has exalted the functional over the beautiful. In post-Reformation Europe, and then America, utility and function became the primary determining factor of an item’s worth. (Only those things which were dubbed “art” were somewhat exempted.) As utility became a virtue, artistry and beauty became less and less important—luxuries not seen as useful or necessary to our existence.
In America the exaltation of the functional can be seen clearly in the modern Christian worship space. Everything is stripped away until only the essential functionality is all that is left. There is no need to incorporate anything of beauty for beauty’s sake. Furthermore, when utility is mixed with the “virtue” of frugality, it becomes a moral injustice to spend the extra money to make a mundane thing beautiful. The house of God becomes sterile and cold, and there is no shame in using a warehouse or movie theater to worship the uncreated, all-powerful, loving, and beautiful God. Nothing is sacred. (Sacred comes from consecrated, which has the Latin root dedicated or devoted.) If a room is used as a worship space one hour and as a concert venue the next, it can never be sacred.
In contrast to the modern American church, an Orthodox church stands out. It prefers beauty when utility would suffice. It gives voice to the artisans who desire to glorify God through their works of wood and metal and paint and stone. It reveals a purpose in the smallest accents and seemingly inconsequential details. Yet through this all it expresses unity in the one purpose for which it exists: the worship of a loving God, Who joyfully reveals Himself in the beauty of His creation.
Fr. Stephen Freeman, a well-known Orthodox blog writer, experienced that profound beauty in the Church and described it:
I can recall being in a parish that has a particularly well-rendered icon of the Rublev Trinity (the three angels in the visit with Abraham) in the parish altar. I was officiating Vespers. As the sun began to set, the dying rays of the evening sun caught the icon and it began to “luminesce” in a manner I had only read about. The icon shone brightly with a light that appeared to come from within. This is not easily accomplished in the painting of an icon but is certainly a proper goal of its execution. It is a revelation of the heavenly light (iconographically). Both the orientation of the Church and the quality of its iconography became one with the service that was being offered and a beauty that is all too rare was revealed. There was nothing to be said, but as the choir sang, “O Gladsome Light,” the icon wordlessly proclaimed the same.
This month we have the special opportunity to learn more about the essential and salvific role of beauty within Orthodox spiritual life and worship. Dr. Timothy Patitsas, Assistant Professor of Orthodox Christian Ethics at Holy Cross School of Theology, will offer a talk on Beauty and the Orthodox Way at our parish Nativity retreat, Friday and Saturday, November 9 and 10.
Poor Saint Thomas. He sure has a bad rap. Though he was one of the most zealous – and youngest – disciples of our Lord, though he eagerly wished to die with Jesus, though he spread the Gospel through many countries and continents, though he died a martyr’s death in India: despite all this, most people know him for the moniker “Doubting Thomas.”
A Doubting Thomas is someone who doesn’t believe without proof. This title comes from the 20th Chapter of St. John’s Gospel, when, after His resurrection, Jesus appears to all of the apostles but Thomas. When the other disciples tell Thomas of the resurrection, he says, “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.” (John 20:25) Eight days later our Lord comes to the apostles again, this time with Thomas present, and He offers His body as proof, saying “Do not be unbelieving, but believing.” (John 20:27) Thomas then believes and confesses that Jesus is Lord and God.
Because of this story, St. Thomas is called Doubting Thomas. He is shown as an example of what not to do in matters of faith; a person should simply believe without needing proof. (In fact some people call the icon of this event, which is remembered on the Sunday after Pascha, “The Doubting of Thomas.” The actual title of the icon is “The Touching of Thomas.”)
In truth, matters of faith are not as simple as this. And Thomas is not the lone skeptic that we make him out to be. Which of the disciples believed that Jesus had risen from the dead without seeing first-hand? None of them. The myrrh-bearers found the empty tomb and encountered an angel. When the apostles heard the news from them, they called it “idle tales.” (Luke 24:11)
Then Jesus appeared to two of the disciples on the road to Emmaus. They told the others, yet still they did not believe. (Mark 16:13) In fact, the apostles remained unbelieving until Jesus himself appeared to them. And He said, “‘Why do doubts arise in your hearts?'” (Luke 24:38)
You see, doubt is not unique to Thomas. It is something that all of our Lord’s followers suffer from. (Including us!) Furthermore the desire for first-hand experience is not inherently a bad thing. The first thing St. Peter did when he heard of the resurrection from the myrrh-bearers was to run to the tomb to see for himself.
Part of the problem is in the unnecessary contrasting of proof versus faith. This is a false dichotomy. While we as Christians must be comfortable with the unknown – the things which are beyond understanding, accepted only by faith – we are also a people who know God, who experience Him first-hand and “touch” Him as Thomas did.
Our Christian life is really a combination of experience (proof) and trust (faith). It can be expressed by these simple words: “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24)
Now let us return to St. Thomas. He was one of the most zealous of the twelve apostles, after St. Peter. It was St. Thomas who, before our Lord’s death and resurrection, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with Him!” (John 11:16). In his youth and his faith he did not fear death.
After our Lord’s ascension into Heaven and the day of Pentecost, St. Thomas travelled the most of any apostle. St. John Chrysostom said that he “toiled through the grace of God more bravely, more zealously and tirelessly than them all, so that he went preaching over nearly all the earth, not fearing to proclaim the Word of God to savage nations.” According to Church tradition, St. Thomas founded churches in Ethiopia, Palestine, Mesopotamia, Parthia (Iran) – where he baptized the Magi – and India.
In the city of Meliapur, India, he converted the wife of a local ruler, for which he was thrown in prison, tortured, and finally pierced with spears. Thus perfecting his life by the martyrdom for which he longed, St. Thomas entered the Heavenly Kingdom.
On October 6, we commemorate this zealous follower of Christ, the Apostle Thomas. May we learn from his zeal, his faith, and his desire to experience God first-hand, so that we may likewise come closer to the mystery and the reality of our Lord and God.
As we enter the new ecclesiastical (church) year, I would like to offer a theme for the year: Philoxenia (fee-lok-se-NEE-a): “Love for Strangers”.
On past Sundays I have spoken about this rich word and how it is central to our spiritual lives. Please allow me another moment to explain.
Philoxenia is the outpouring of God’s love, expressed by and through each of us. We can become fountains of God’s love, showering it upon those around us. In the world there is only philophilia – love of friends/family. As our Lord says, “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.” (Luke 6:32-33)
Philoxenia is a love that reaches beyond the close ties of kinship and camaraderie. It reaches out to those whom we don’t know well, even to complete strangers. It is a love that recognizes the icon of Christ in everyone, that sees the immense value of every human, not just those with whom we are comfortable.
Philoxenia can be expressed in our parish in two concrete ways. First, we can seek fellowship with people whom we don’t know well. This means that we look at Sundays in a different way: Rather than viewing Sundays as a time to connect with our friends and koumbari (since we can do this on other days of the week), we turn our focus to those who are unfamiliar. We seek not only the brand-new faces, but also the faces of people whom we have seen week after week, yet have rarely ever conversed with. These are our brothers and sisters in Christ who remain largely unknown to us – unless we seek them out. (And sometimes these people can be too shy to reach out to us!)
Philoxenia can also be expressed in our parish through the wonderful gift of food. When we prepare food for another person, we are saying, “I care about you. I spent time and effort to make this for you.” The Sunday fellowship can become just this kind of opportunity: An outpouring of love expressed through food. I encourage you to do this! Sign up for a Sunday or two, and share whatever foods are special to you. It can be simple or complex. As long as it is peanut and sesame free, it can include whatever ingredients you would like. (Our parish will continue to have an allergen-free table reserved only for those who are unable to eat the other prepared food.) When we put love into our meal preparations, that love is received by those who partake. It is a blessing to emulate Abraham and Sarah, serving their best food to the visiting angels. “Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some have unwittingly entertained angels.” (Hebrews 13:2)
Philoxenia ultimately is the love which Jesus has shown us, who were foreigners estranged from God through sin. “You, who once were estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, He has now reconciled in His body of flesh by His death, in order to present you holy and blameless” (Colossians 1:21-22) “Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone.” (Ephesians 2:19-20)
Philoxenia is our path toward theosis, toward union with God, Whose love is ever-abundant, pouring forth upon all of creation and every human being made in His image and likeness. As our love expands beyond the small circle of family and friends, it becomes energized by God (a synergy!) and we enter into communion with Him.
May God grant us His love which encompasses everyone around us: true philoxenia!
What’s in a nickname? (To paraphrase Shakespeare.) It seems that nicknames have been around as long as proper names have. In the Bible we learn that the Apostle Thomas was called “Didimos” (“The Twin”), James and John were called the “Sons of Thunder,” and Simon was called “Zealot.”
Some nicknames are so predominant that we forget the person’s real name. The chief Apostle, Peter, was actually born with the name Simon. Yet he was named “The Rock” (Petros in Greek, or Cephas in Aramaic), and his nickname became the only name we remember.
So what is in a nickname? A nickname implies familiarity, closeness. It means the person is not a stranger but rather a family member or a friend. It’s someone you care about or love, and often times using his or her formal name, like “Jonathan” instead of “Johnny,” would feel awkward or standoffish.
In Orthodoxy, our fondness and kinship toward the Mother of God is expressed in the nickname “Panagia.” While “Theotokos” is her proper title – which roughly translates as “The One Who Gave Birth to God” – she is affectionately referred to as “The All – Holy One” or Panagia. (The accent is on the I, “pan-a-GI-a,” and the G is pronounced like in good, not as in George.) When Orthodox Christians say Panagia, they are showing their fondness for her, expressing that she is their mother, not only God’s mother.
As a convert to Orthodoxy, this has been a personal revelation which took years to unfold. I came from a Lutheran background, which was not overtly anti-Mary, but just kind of ignored her importance. As such, I had no closeness to her. She was just a concept: The woman who gave birth to Jesus. As I entered Orthodoxy, the Church compelled me to pray to her through the worship services; yet my personal devotion to her – and to all of the saints – was almost non-existent.
I would hear cradle Orthodox talk about the Panagia as though she was their very own mother, who was actively working in their lives. I yearned to feel the same, and even I tried using the nickname, but it didn’t feel right, so I stuck with “Theotokos.” Eventually I realized that the only way to become close to her is to pray to her. This may sound quite obvious; but it’s a worthwhile lesson: We can only know the saints and the Panagia if we pray to them. Otherwise we will only know about them. If I want them to be members of my family, I have to talk to them. In fact they are already members of my family, the Body of Christ, but they have been estranged from me by my upbringing. I need to draw myself closer to them through prayer.
I began by praying the Paraklesis to the Theotokos, then Akathists and other prayers. As I prayed these words, I began to see how the Panagia intercedes for us in a way that only a mother can. Her little baby boy, whom she nursed, hand-fed, taught to walk and to speak, is the God Before All Ages. This great paradoxical mystery is the cause for our veneration of her, and the source of our boldness to ask for her intercession. Jesus is compelled to listen to the requests of His mother, who raised Him, nurtured Him, protected Him.
The joy of knowing the Panagia is to realize that her heart is not small. It is great enough to encompass us all. She desires to talk to her Son about your concerns. Pray to her!
This is the month of the Panagia, as we enter into a two week fast preparing us for the celebration of her falling asleep, the Dormition. We have the blessing of singing the Paraklesis service to her each night during these two weeks. Please make it a priority to participate in as many of these Paraklesis services as you can, to grow closer to this important family member in the Body of Christ.
Later this month, I will travel to the “Garden of the Panagia,” Mount Athos in Greece. I will be gone August 20-31, and will celebrate the Panagia’s Dormition a second time, since Mount Athos follows the Old Calendar. I pray that the Panagia will intercede in your lives.
Through the prayers of the Most Holy Theotokos, Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on us and save us!
It’s with a heavy heart that I write this month’s newsletter article. I’m very grateful to Fr. Matthew for asking me to take this issue to share some heartfelt thoughts with all of you.
First, I can’t even begin to tell you how much all of you mean to Presvytera and I. From the day we arrived you welcomed us with open arms and showered us with love. You have cared for and supported us in countless ways over the years we’ve been with you. You exemplify what it means to be a community that lives their Orthodox Faith, striving to put the teachings of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ into practice. May you continue to grow in grace and mature to the measure of the stature, which belongs to the fullness of Christ.
In recent years this parish has gone through some significant changes, most notably it’s growth and more recently, having to say goodbye to its founding and beloved pastor, Fr. Theodore. As we all know, change is inevitable as it’s a part of life. Though it’s often difficult, it challenges us to grow in ways that we may not think we need. Change can also teach us a lot about ourselves, if we care to know. Oddly though, when change occurs we typically want things to go back to the way they were. If life were only so simple!
I have to say that when my family and I have gone through changes, especially tough ones, we have struggled because like most, we don’t like being pushed outside our comfort zone and taken away from what’s familiar to us. (Sometimes, though, change is welcomed, especially if we’re already outside our comfort zone.) One of the things that life experiences have taught us in regards to change is that our Lord is always with us and cares for us beyond measure. We are greatly comforted knowing that our Lord always has us in the palm of His hands. He is our Comforter no matter what happens in life. We have learned that as time passes and we move through the seasons of life we see the wisdom and the wonder of God and it is only then that we look back and see how His divine providence has been guiding us and putting us precisely where He wants us to be.
The one thing that has always helped us through challenging times is gratitude. When Presvytera and I begin to go down the road of worry and fear we encourage one another citing numerous times where God has guided us in ways unknown to us at the time. When we focus on being grateful, fear and worry go away because we acknowledge the many times God has proven His fidelity and love for us, time and time again. Gratitude is the antidote to many things. If we chose to think of all the times God has blessed us and cared for us we would never worry. We would never feel threatened by change because we would trust in the providence of God. I share these words with you for my own sake, as a reminder for me, but also for all of you. God is guiding this community and will continue to, so be faithful to our Lord Jesus Christ and seek first His Kingdom. He will take care of all your needs, always!
There is a reason why this church has grown so much over the years, not simply in terms of numbers but even more so, spiritually. St. John was founded on services, sacraments, and study. First and foremost it has always been a truly worshipping community. Stay true to this. Attend the divine services whenever they are offered and whenever you can. This is seeking first the Kingdom of God. Second, the holy mysteries, especially Confession and the Eucharist have been the cornerstone of life and healing. Participate in them and prepare for both accordingly, thoughtfully and prayerfully. Finally, the emphasis at this church on learning Holy Scripture, the teachings of the Orthodox Faith, the Holy Fathers and the lives of the Saints—all have been the foundation of this community. God has blessed this church because the faithful who comprise it seek His blessings. Continue to do so.
God has blessed all of you so much! Don’t forget that and don’t lose sight of how the Holy Spirit has worked through the hearts and minds of the both the clergy and the faithful at St. John. Be humble, thankful, and servants to one another. Above all, love! Never forget the two greatest commandments and strive to fulfill them by asking our Lord to give you the love to love Him and all others. Presvytera and I have been so blessed to be a part of this community and your lives. We will be forever grateful.
With all our love,
Fr. Timothy, Presvytera Vicki and Family