Monday, November 27, 2017

What is our work? What is our goal in life? What is our purpose?

“Labor not for the meat which perisheth, but for that meat which endureth unto everlasting life...” (John 6:27)

What is our labor, that is, what is our work as Christians? This is obvious on some level: our work is our career, and we fit Christ and His Church in where there is room. Work comes first. Then family. And then God.

Although it is good that God is in the equation, of course the above statement is completely backwards. Probably that is pretty clear to most, but less so to others. To understand a concept hypothetically correctly is not the same as modeling that hypothetical understanding as a reality in our everyday lives. As Christians we are to be lovers of labor, are we not? Yes – that is true. And the Lord said in Genesis when casting Adam and Eve out of Paradise that we would eat our bread by the sweat of our brow, did He not? Yes – that is true too. The problem is not the facts – we know these. The problem is how we apply these facts to our lives – how we apply theory to practice.

I think this excerpt from the Apostolic Constitutions is helpful for us as we consider this question of applying theory to practice:

“...the occupations of the faithful are a sideline, whereas worship of God is their real work. Therefore, make your occupations a sideline, for your sustenance, but make worship of God your main business, as the Lord said: ‘Labor not for the meat which perisheth, but for that meat which endureth unto everlasting life’ (John 6:27); and again, ‘Jesus answered and said until them, this is the work of God, that ye believe on Him Whom He hath sent.’ (John 6:29)”

The quotations from St. John’s gospel above are the words of the Lord himself – not the commentary of the Evangelist. Interpreting these, and the piece above from the Apostolic Constitutions, St. Nicodemus the Hagiorite writes in his outstanding book Christian Morality:

“Christians should regard their occupations and handiwork … not as vocations, [but only] for the sake of earning their livelihood, and … they should regard prayer and piety as their work and occupation primarily and intrinsically.” (p. 270)

Prayer and piety are our occupation. And what then is our goal? St. Theophan the Recluse informs us here:

“True, one may know man’s final goal: communion with God. And one may describe the path to it: faith, and walking in the commandments, with the aid of divine grace. One need only say in addition: here is the path - start walking!” (St. Theophan The Recluse, The Path to Salvation: A Manual of Spiritual Transformation)

St. Theophan is talking here about salvation of course. Yes – communion with God in this life (St. Seraphim calls it the acquisition of the Holy spirit below), but a transfiguration which continues into the next life as well. This is salvation from the Orthodox understanding. Not just morality; not just being good – these are the foundations upon which is built transfiguration in this life into the sons and daughters of God, and eternity with Him in the next life. The theological term for this is theosis, and you can find an outstanding pamphlet about this here where you can learn more – HIGHLY RECOMMENDED:

“Theosis: The True Pupose of Human Life” by Archimandrite George, Abbot of the Holy Monastery of St. Gregorios, Mount Athos (

So our work is prayer and our goal is salvation. Our purpose in this life is do everything we can do to support these. All else must be secondary. We ourselves should be, at best, third place in our priorities.

1. God (that is, our work of prayer and piety, leading to our goal/purpose)
2. Our neighbor (service to others for the sake of Christ is a crucial aspect of striving for our salvation – see below)
3. Ourselves

St. Seraphim of Sarov instructs us here:

“Fasting, prayer, alms, and every other good Christian deed is good in itself, but the purpose of the Christian life consists not only in the fulfillment of one or another of them. The true purpose of our Christian life is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God. But fasting, prayer, alms and every good deed done for the sake of Christ is a means to the attainment of the Holy Spirit. Note that only good deeds done for the sake of Christ bear the fruit of the Holy Spirit. Everything else that is not done for the sake of Christ, even if it is good, does not bring us a reward in the life to come, nor does it bring the grace of God in this life. This is why our Lord Jesus Christ said, ‘Whoever gathereth not with me scattereth’ (Matt. 12:30). (St. Seraphim of Sarov, “Conversation on the Goal of the Christian Life”)

See also, of course, the list of good deeds that we are to accomplish in this life in Matthew’s 25th chapter: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, giving shelter to the stranger, visiting those in prison and who are ill.

To me this is all great news! There is no secret as to what we must do – how we must spend the precious and fleeting time gifted to us in this life. Given that struggle is part and parcel of our Orthodox lives, now all we have to do is get our priorities in order. And work. As St. Theophan says above: “here is the path – start walking!”

And perhaps we should leave it at that. But I fear if we do we are missing something rather crucial: our children. It is wonderful for us to get our own priorities straight, but if we do not actively make it clear to our children that our work is prayer and our goal is salvation and everything else is secondary we have, at best, done half the job. Certainly no one will argue with this. It is good to include the kids. Get them involved. Tell them the right things. BUT – if we are honest – we at best give this lip service. Here is an example from our parish Church School which helps to illustrate this. I have been teaching Church School since we founded our school at St. Vladimir’s about 15 years ago. It did not take long for me to realize that the absolute LAST priority that parents have during the week is to see to it that their kids do their Church School homework and come to class prepared. Last. Nothing is lower. Other school work, sports, music, everything is given a higher priority in the average home. Of course there are exceptions. But they are few. For the most part the kids do not even look at their Church School books from the moment they leave my class on Saturday until they return 167 hours later the next Saturday. Undoubtedly this is due almost exclusively to my own significant shortcomings as a teacher which lead to me not motivating the students appropriately. I am not upset at this reality. However, I am arguing here that this reality is not acceptable for us as Orthodox Christians, not matter how bad a teacher might be (in this example), but despite the shortcomings of others in any example. That we need to do more than pay lip service to making God #1 in our lives. We need to model it ourselves and we need to teach it to our children in word and deed.

Thank God, the Nativity Lent is upon us! Lenten periods are excellent times of year to assess our spiritual priorities and make needed changes. If we all sincerely reflect on our priorities I am sure – my family included – we will make changes in the way we approach our spiritual lives. For example, we will MAKE time for the Divine Services, rather than squeezing them in when there is “free time”. St. Nicodemus writes in the same Christian Morality that I quote above that it is a shame that in his time laxity has become such a problem that people no longer go to church twice per day as they are required to do. Yes – twice per day. Of course, if they miss one visit because they live too far from church or something happens on the farm they can make up for this by spending an hour, or at the very least 30 minutes, standing in front of the icons and completing 300 Jesus Prayers with prostrations. I am not suggesting we adopt this practice. If we all came to church twice per day that would be wonderful, but given our spiritual level in our days let us plan to walk before we run, and come to church every Saturday night in addition to Sunday morning during the upcoming Lenten period. Just add Saturday night to your usual Sunday morning visit to St. Vladimir’s. And if you are already a regular worshiper on Saturday nights try to add one more service to your schedule during the week during this Lent – just one more. If we can do this, we don’t just talk the talk of prayer and piety, but we begin to walk that walk. And this is what our children need from us: not words – but action. Or perhaps better put, actions that reflect our words. May God strengthen us all to undertake a sincere struggle while asking the Lord’s blessing on this struggle. If we do this we can have great hope that the upcoming fast will be one which is for us and our family truly salvific. May God grant it!

Fr. Gregory

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

St. James Liturgy is this Sunday - a Simple Primer

This Sunday, with Archbishop Peter’s blessing, we will serve the ancient Divine Liturgy of St. James the Brother of the Lord. This Liturgy has been used in and around Jerusalem since the very early time of the Church. It is significantly different than the Liturgies of St. John Chrysostom and St. Basil the Great – the two Liturgies that we are most familiar with since these are the two Liturgies that are regularly served in the Orthodox Church on Sundays. The principle difference is the focus on the spoken prayers of the celebrants rather than the hymnography of the service. Therefore, the choir parts are significantly simpler than at the Liturgies of St. John or St. Basil. The St. James Liturgy does have a few similarities to the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts (of St. Gregory the Diologist) that we celebrate on Great Lenten weekdays (mostly because these are the two more ancient Liturgies, while the Liturgies of St. John and St. Basil are less ancient, but by no means modern, yet have been “developed” liturgically and hymnographically over the centuries, while the St. James Liturgy has not experienced such development). At the Liturgy of St. James the Gifts ARE consecrated, whereas at the Presanctified Liturgy the Holy Gifts are consecrated at the Liturgy on the Saturday or Sunday previous.

Although the Liturgies of the Church are named for saints, the saints themselves did not WRITE these Liturgies, rather, they WROTE DOWN and recorded the authentic liturgical expression of the Church as they found it, and thereby passed it down to us. The St. James Liturgy has essentially fallen out of use in much of the Orthodox world, but because of the academic work of Johann von Gardner (later Bishop Philip of Potsdam) the usage of the Liturgy was revived first in the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, and later in Russia.

We include here two videos of the St. James Liturgy in Russia filmed in the last few years. The first is from the St. Petersburg Theological Academy and is significantly shorter (it contains the highlights of the Liturgy from the year 2016). The second is from Saratov and is virtually the full Liturgy of St. James from 2015. Please note that in the videos the faithful are communed differently than at the other Liturgies of the Church. Archbishop Peter has not blessed this practice, and so we will commune as we usually do, from the chalice with a spoon, this Sunday. The rule for Confession and Communion is according to the usual practice.

St. Petersburg Theological Academy

Saratov Theological Seminary

Please do not hesitate to ask me before or after this Liturgy if you have any questions. I look forward to seeing you all at St. Vladimir’s for this unique liturgical expression of the Holy Church this Sunday!

Fr. Gregory