Another Update… Year in Review

This blog had been, like most blogs, generally ignored. It is not as though this space has not been in my thoughts and intentions. Frankly, this year has had many, almost too many, ups and downs and turns. It seems that once I am ready to write or publish thoughts on one event or happening, another arises and requires what attention I have left. Some of the events and happenings were not, at least at the time, things that needed to be discussed here. Per the aforementioned pattern, once they were able to be reflected upon other things were pressing. In order to bring passers-by up to speed, I am going to briefly review and reflect.

In my last post in April, I had recently been ordained in the Universalist Orthodox Church. This was joyous and eventful. I value what the UOC is doing and respect deeply their clergy. However, within a few months, I had parted company with them ecclesiastically. This was primarily due to differences in the pastoral approach. I was unable to continue establishing a mission or acting in good faith within that community with those differences.

I began a conversation with the Convergent Christian Communion via another former UOC clergy person. This community seemed to be a better fit pastorally and philosophically. While they are primarily of western Christian orientation they were open to establishing an Eastern rite wing. Another former UOC member and I were received into the CCC and the St John Chrysostom Eastern Rite connexion was established in June. Soon after yet another former UOC clergy person became a part of the CCC and ERC. This began a flurry of developing, planning, meetings etc.

Personally, this year has also been eventful. My father succumbed to cancer in May of this year. Due to covid and some other issues and miscalculations, I was unable to see him before he passed, a deep regret. I also came down with a virus the day before I was to fly to his funeral. I am planning a trip to visit the grave, visit family, and get some of the things left to me, such as his Airforce medals and flags. This has sparked reflection as to family connections, the passage of time, and my life with my own family.

During the summer my family and I also moved back to Bowling Green, Kentucky. While we love Florida and St Pete/Seminole area, my wife’s job was just not working out and there were long-term career concerns. A position opened at the school she previously taught at in Bowling Green last May. She applied and when she got the job we decided to move. This move has been difficult as far as housing and adjusting to the cold. We were going to buy a new home so we had a permanent place to move into when we arrived, however due to construction issues that fell through. We bounced around living situations until we could buy and make ready a home. Despite those frustrations, in the areas of work, friends, and a general sense of community- there has been confirmed this was a good decision.

Decisions, in general, have been difficult this year. When 2021 started there were hopes that the Covid would become less of a defining factor in our lives. That has not been the case as of yet. While it seems that as a society we have developed better tools, the variants are somewhat more manageable, and we have adjusted the demands of the pandemic; life still feels tenuous at times. It was sometime mid-2021 that it became all too clear that Covid would be a part of our lives for the foreseeable future. Settling into that perspective has helped me have a bit more of a stable outlook. Since the pandemic hit I have been in the pattern of putting some things off until it was ‘safe’ or the pandemic was over. While caution is still the norm and safety a primary concern, I have released myself to live life a bit more in the present and not put things off for the end of the pandemic. Many decisions were waiting for us to resume a ‘normal’ life, for after Covid. Now we are planning and doing understanding that covid and the accompanying precautions will have to be part of any decision or project we undertake.

One of those was completing my Masters of Theology. Given the passing of my father and the move across the country I was graciously given an extension for my thesis and finished in August 2021. Given the date of completion, the arrival of the bound copy to the seminary library, and ATS (accreditation) rules, I will officially receive the degree this May.

Reflecting on 2021 and looking to 2022 I am more and more devoted to living directly and fully. In 2017 I had a similar realization just before my heart attack, that I had been functioning on a lot of ideas that were about me or a perceived self I was projecting. There was a lot of effort, hiding, and compromising I was doing to keep up that ‘self’ I had created. I think we all struggle with that a bit. This year has reminded me how easy that sort of false self can be rebuilt even when it is a defense. There are subtle expectations, insecurities, views, etc that can slowly build walls and edifices that obscure our ability to live peacefully and truthfully. I hope to continue to reflect on those in me and projected by others this year as well.

In light of that, a message at the UU church rang true to me this past Sunday.

From the Description – “In our journey through life, we each carry burdens. What should we carry, and what should we — or could we — set down?”

I think that is a great question to return to as we approach another year and another turning of the wheel. I know it has been something on my mind for a while.

An Update

I have tried to write here weekly- that has for the most part meant bi-weekly. Over the last few weeks I was preparing for ordination and as a family dealing with needs of an inlaw. This all while trying to write a thesis. I wrote post drafts but never got back to them.

This past weekend I traveled to the UOC Cathedral Church for ordination. It was a beautiful service (other’s parts were, I had my awkward moments). It was both exciting and scary. As the bishop said during the homely, this is not the end of a road, it is a beginning. It can be easy to see ‘attainment’ of a position or ‘rank’ as the culmination of study, effort, and for many a long road. That is true, but not a complete picture. Ordination is the start and beginnings can be both exciting and daunting. We begin again everyday, but not always as a priest.

This weekend marks a few beginnings. First for me is ordination and a vocation. Second is St Thekla UOC received it’s antimins. This is St Thekla’s license to be a parish/community and celebrate the Eucharist. Unless a church has a consecrated holy table (and even then a church will have an antimins practically) an antimins is requited for a liturgy. Antimins basically means ‘instead of the table’ and in the Orthodox context ‘table’ refers to a consecrated holy table. The antimins was blessed and signed in the same liturgy I was ordained. St Thekla’s antimins was placed on top of the cathedrals antimins and liturgy was served on it. The missions work will shift as services and sacraments can be served. The work of the mission begins, like every day, anew- this time with more possibilities.

This also marks a significant break with the canonical church. This break happened some time ago for me, however this is a manifestation of that move and for the canonical church a stepping over the line officially. This goes hand in hand with moving toward an inclusive mission in my ministry.

Thank you all who have wished me well and who pray for me and for the community of St Thekla UOC.

Fr Basil

Beginning again in Lent.

Lent is, to my mind, one of the more beautiful times in the Church Calendar. I am not sure everyone shares my adoration. For some lent is stressful, for others it is something they don’t really understand and sort of endure. Even for those who are estranged from the Church, it is a time that reminds them of God. No matter ones orientation, Lent is a time to return to faith, or reorient ourselves. Lent is an event and one that asks us to engage in repentance, self searching, and a sort of reaffirmation of our faith and practice. This makes it a fruitful time of year for those returning to the faith. This week in the church we celebrated the Sunday of the Prodigal Son. This parable is rich with application to our lives, however I wanted to mention a couple on the idea of ‘beginning again’.

The first is some what obvious but should always be said. I think it is common to see the Prodigal Son as a story about leaving and returning from the faith. And while that is true, it is much more nuanced. The Prodigal Son is a narrative applicable to everyone, not just those who left the faith in some way and are returning. We all have areas in which we ‘leave’ and returning and repenting is something we should all, no matter how we view our faith, do everyday. Some refer to this narrative as the ” Lost son” and I think that is also helpful as it highlights this notion of orientation that is much nearer to the idea of ‘missing the mark’. There are areas in our lives and faith that we either neglect or we ‘misorient’ ourselves to and Lent is a good time to step back and reorient. If we think we don’t have any areas that we need to return or repent we are definitely in need of some time for reflection, we may be deluded.

A point often missed in this narrative is the fact that the son’s leaving is more a result of his problem, not the actual conflict. If we take a moment and look at his reasoning for leaving we already see that he is misoriented toward his father and his family. This starts with a thought. He has lost his bearings and that is why he ultimately becomes lost. He is already in a state of ‘delusion’ or mis-oriented. One could also say his thinking ‘misses the mark’. When the younger son asks for what is ‘his’ he is asking his father for his inheritance and in effect separating from him. In that day, the inheritance was something one did not normally get until one died or the Father is no longer leading the family. In this act the son orients himself to his father and family like one dead even though they are alive. There is also a sense that he is claiming a type of ownership of this wealth that his family created and seeing himself as autonomous. That’s one level of separation and delusion.

The second is when the son moves to a distant country. He is going out into areas unknown and away from his home and homeland. This points to a separation from family as well as culture and identity. For us moving is not such a big deal. We go to college far away, pursue jobs is other states or countries and for more and more people the physical distance in familial relationships is normal and not so much an issue. We have ways to communicate and connect that minimize the burden of distance on family, identity, and comforts. In this time communication over such distance would have been minimal and slow hindering family connection. He is also moving into another culture and finding important cultural markers like food, clothing, customs or religion would have been difficult. to move to a distant country would be to adopt or at least move toward another culture or even religion. This separation indicates a change in identity.

Finally, he squanders his inheritance in wild living. This is a reorientation toward morality or at least responsibility. This separation in some sense is one that separates him from himself and moves him into a sort of fully separated and misoriented person, especially to a reader in the Early Church. He has in effect ‘lost his mind’. At the end he is totally separated from what which gives identity, comfort and support. It is also important to note that he is squandering what he got from his Father. He got his inheritance, in reality, as a gift. He saw the inheritance as something he could do with as he pleased, not a part of a larger picture or in relation to others. The purpose of an inheritance was/is for one to build upon a foundation and support oneself and others. He just spends it on ‘himself’. We too have gifts or inheritances we squander.

All of these spring from misconceptions about himself and his relations to others. He finds himself separated, alone and wishing for the lowest food, of which no one would even give him. The son reasons his father gives better to the hired servants then he has now. That is to say that even in the furthest orbit of his fathers life people lived better than he was at that moment. He is ready to work for his living but understands that he needs to return to those relationships even to do that well and effectively. Here has has started his return. When he finally comes around the text tells us he ‘comes to his senses’. That is an important phrase in that this is not really a sort of moral turning, although that is present. He is realizing his misunderstandings and is now reorienting himself. It is often easy to see our spiritual life as a sort of set of moral choices, when they are often a set of smaller choices and movements. All the son really does and gets up and starts moving. His return, like his initial separation, that starts with an turning of a thought.

When comes down the road the Father comes to him. It is easy to overlook the Fathers role here. It is often commented that God is always happy when we come back. But it is the Father that restores him. The son actually attempts to come back and work and does not assume to have his ‘rightful’ role. He does not become a laborer (as his assumed) and work his way back up to ‘son’. For clarity, in that day comming back after leaving this way would be almost impossible and even dangerous. The Son isn’t really fully oriented until the Father restores him. The Father is looking for the son. Even when the son was misoriented to him the Father is correctly oriented. When the son returns he expresses this with an embrace and a kiss. He comes to the son restores him, this is possible because the son was reorienting himself. The son moves toward restoration and orientation in humility and the Father completes his return, healing the separation. Here we have to understand that in Lent we move toward God but it is ultimately God who restores us.

While I don’t have the space to address the response of the Older Brother, the Fathers statement to him is important. He says that his son was dead and is not alive, he was lost and now found. The separation from God is a death, and when we are misoriented we are lost. And Lent is a time to move toward life, the life of Pascha. It is a time to reorient and find our bearings in life.

I think one other point to make here is that is is easy to see lent as a time of working on major issues. Some come to Great Lent with an idea that they will have some sort of spiritual accomplishment like ending a habit or extending their prayer rule. Maybe they will see the light of Tabor? Probably not, and that is good. The son gets up and moves back toward home, but first he comes to his senses. Coming to our senses, that is were we start and that is the point of all the asceticism, services, and remembrances. Our spiritual life is about the small everyday movements. When a ship sails or a plane flies it gets to its destination by making lots and lots of small adjustments- small reorientations.

If we make Lent about something we can do we are actually starting to orient more like the Prodigal Son. If we forget and think we do all this on our own we are taking the gifts God has given us as ‘our own’ things and treat God as dead. If we misread the map of the Great Lenten journey and think the point is follow the fast perfectly or have some huge ‘breakthrough’ we soon we will find ourselves in another spiritual country. Worse yet, even in our so called asceticism we can spend our spiritual gifts on ‘wild living’ – the pleasure and pride in a sort of self-control ( a will-to power or jouissance) that asceticism separated from the life of God can foster.

As we begin again lets start with the beginning and come to our senses.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Christian and Pagan?

“Can you be a Christian and Pagan?” In the last year I have seen this question pop up in conversation, online, and within other blogs. In my last post I addressed part of the back and forth these groups have had about holidays and traditions. This is another one of those questions that the response is a resounding. “Kind of .. sorta” .

I first want to address that this is from an Orthodox perspective, so some of what I am about to walk through may not apply so much to other traditions, partly because they just don’t have a few contours both theologically and liturgically that Orthodoxy happens to enjoy.

This question needs some clarity. What do you mean by pagan? I suspect that many that are asking this question mean different things. In modern use Pagan can refer to several new religious movements. Few full Indo-European pre-Christian traditions survived to the present and thus the majority of pagan movements are recreations, restorations, or 19th and 20th century creative mixes of various movements. This word is also often used to denote “non-Christian” as well as indigenous religions.

The second use of this term is a more generalized bent to earth based practices or cultural practices that may have links to pre-Christian communities or considered ‘non-Christian’. This is more of a focus on the practices that some of the pagan and non-Christian religions share, such as ritual, home ritual, the wheel of the year, and a more direct and relational nature to the divine. Here it is important to note that many of these practices or practices akin to them are rejected in some Christian groups and accepted in others, like the Eastern Orthodox Church. Much of the information we have about so called pagan cultures either come to us via Christen scribes or clergy writings, or even canon law (often trying to get Christians to stop doing them or amending them) or we see them in the practices of Christians themselves who still had cultural practices that descended from previous pre-Christian societies. It should be noted that we have a lot of things we do culturally, often unofficially that fit the definition of pagan that are accepted by many Christians as ‘normal’ . Many have to do with ‘luck’ and the ‘baptizing’ or ‘Christianization’ of American national holidays.

As Christianity spread in specific times and places that already had customs and beliefs. These were by definition pre-Christian. Those persons did not just jettison their entire culture at once. Christian theology and ideas were communicated via the forms and customs (or adaptation thereof) these persons already had at hand. Those that did not conform with Christianity’s main theological tradition either was ‘baptized’ into practice, shifted, was done culturally and not ‘officially’ , or fell out of use. Christian theology formed in relation to these customs and beliefs and in every new area it spread. This ability was part of why it spread so far. So there a lot of pre-Christian practices built into Eastern Orthodoxy.

So, practically what might one mean when they say they are Christian and pagan? We can break that down into a few conception’s. One would be a sort of dual faith or syncretism. This would include something like praying to both Jesus and Thor or seeing them as expressions so the same idea or deity. Maybe also practicing a magic (or magik) tradition as well. This would be to try and practice both religions completely together. This would not really work. Paganism (esp neo-paganism) and Christianity as full religions can’t really co-exist in one faith as Christianity is pretty clear on not having other Gods. The New Testament also gives us the ideas that many practices were given up by those who converted, on that Acts 8: 9-13 and Acts 19 comes to mind. Neo- Pagan groups likewise would see monotheism, and many Christians notions as incompatible. It has ot be noted, however that the existence of pre-Christian and ‘pagan’ ideas and practices in Christian communities for such a broad swath of history attests to compatibility, influence, and cultural and religious trade.

The second is to see Christian themes in these religions, or practices, and incorporate them back into a faith. This would be so see Christian themes or Christ like figures in these religions and incorporate those ideas or expression back into ones faith and practice. Parts of this is doable, has been done (Even Paul uses Roman religious language to express Christian faith), and sort of encouraged. Seeing truth where it presents itself is great. Things like yoga and meditation have been shown to be helpful and when separated in some ways from their religious and cultural origins good practices. Is what you doing pointed to health and wellness and also based in good sense and science? Is what you are doing asking you to deny some core part of your Christianity? Is a personification of an idea or a deity? It has to be noted that even here, one of the other will be primary; either you are seeing Christ in another religions and traditions or you are seeing that religion in Christianity. You will always end up serving one master. Putting Christianity and another religion together will warp one or both and what will be left will likely be problematic. Reading/understanding/appreciating other regions positively and even learning from them as a Christian is not being a pagan. This is to be a Christian and see expressions of Truth (Christ) in other religious expressions. This really isn’t ‘both’, its a ‘sorta’.

Finally, related to the last, there would be the option of not focusing the deities but having more earth based, holistic, practices, or ritual. Orthodoxy is pre-modern and in many ways shares contours with pre-Christian religion. As stated before it was in that context Christianity grew and developed, many of the records we have of ‘pagan’ and vernacular religion comes to us already in use by Christians. Again, seeing truth where it presents itself is great. Marking Yule or midsummer is not a clash with Christianity per se. Many of the books we have about premodern and medieval ‘pagan’ practices focus on what Christians were doing unofficially and some time officially.

The second question I would want to ask is why would a Christian be drawn to a pagan religion or practice? From what I have seen it boils down to a couple theological points and ritual. Many Christian denominations have a church calendar that is basically Christmas and Easter. Other American holidays have been taken in like Valentines day, Thanksgiving and in some cases the 4th of July. That is a fairly flat ‘liturgical year’. Paganism offers something like the wheel of the year with a minimum of 8 holidays based on the lunar and solar cycles. (which is a sort of conglomerate of many pre-Christian calendars) . This imbibes the entire year with ritual. Add to this ritual one can do themselves and paganism can seem far richer than the Christianity one grew up celebrating.

I understand this impulse toward richer and more connected ritual and holiday traditions and it was one of the things that drew me from Protestant churches to Eastern Orthodox Christianity. In the Orthodox Church there is already a rich calendar and not surprisingly many of these feasts share themes and timing with the wheel of the year. I have already mentioned Yule and Christmas as well as Lughnasadh and the Dormition in earlier posts. A lot of Eastern Orthodoxy has developed in similar regions as the Proto-Indo-European religions and so there are bound to be similarities.

Families often have traditions and rituals that are woven into their family life, sometimes for generations. When coming to Christianity some will try or be tempted to ‘purge’ anything that isn’t neatly in that new found ‘faith’. Well meaning but ultimately misinformed or mistaken clergy are often a part of this process. ‘Pagan’ is often a term that gets used to disparage familial and cultural practices that are often important to respect. This sort of ‘purge; often reflects a young faith and is a simplistic and naively neat way to avoid the more ascetic and spiritually important tasks of engagement with ones family, self, and culture.

I have also talked to people wanting to find something that has a more positive view of humanity that doesn’t have all the fire and brimstone, and that is more inclusive and self reflective. Mostly I have seen people looking for something they can actively participate in ritually (with there whole being) and that has a trajectory toward healing. Again these are understandable and many pagan practices have some of these contours. Not to sound like such a cheerleader (but I was one) these are all things Orthodox Christianity has already. Most Orthodox Christens have a prayer corner (or home shrine) a prayer rule (home ritual), burn incense, bless their homes and objects, remember their dead ritually, and ancestors, and have prayer that is to God as well as saints (to intercede for us).

It is also important to note that Orthodox Christianity (and more progressive Catholics) have a theology not based on a metaphor of the law office which often says ‘your bad and need to be punished’ but the hospital which admits ‘you have been hurt and need healing’. The Orthodox Church also doesn’t have the theological concept of original sin, thus no one is born ‘bad’ or guilty’. The Orthodox Church has a conception called ancestral sin. The idea you were born into a world with issues and sin and because you are part of this world, down to your atoms, its going to affect you. Christ comes to reunite us with the divine and facilitate that healing and becoming like Christ, or theosis. A part of this is that Orthodoxy is ‘maximalist’ and includes the whole person.

So what about adding some ‘pagan’ stuff? First, I think the term ‘Pagan” is over used for many of the practices, traditions, and cultural observances we follow. Is it ok to celebrate the Church year but also mark the winter and summer solstice or participate in family or cultural customs? That doesn’t seem an issue as those are patterns God has given us. We celebrate and ritually process many things that are not ‘officially’ in the church. The question is what is the basis, is it our life in Christ or are we looking for other gods?

As an addendum this article is good on the historic practices of folk-magical practitioners who were Christians . Witchcraft, Catholicism, and Dual-Faith

Photo by Sayak Bala on Unsplash

‘The pagans are coming!’ and other Nativity time hyperbole.

The Nativity season is here and its one of my favorite times of year. What I am less looking forward to is the barrage if memes, posts, articles and such both claiming that Christmas or Nativity is Pagan, and the equal number ardently stating that Christmas or Nativity is entirely a Christian conception. This hyperbole isn’t helpful. Most, if not all tend to be on one end of this spectrum. The problem, like many things like this, is that neither position is wholly true or false. Big surprise.

This topic is a particular agitation to me. I am both Orthodox clergy and someone who has a MA in Folk Studies (Folklore) . I taught calendar customs as a base for my Intro to Folklore Class for about 8 years. Like many things that have to do with folklore, folk culture, tradition and customs, people rarely ask a folklorist… I think it is a sort of shared frustration for folklorists, especially when we read articles or see presentations that leave out an entire field and a wealth of research and knowledge on the subject. I will say there have been a few good, rants, on the subject but there are a couple things that are either left out our not explored very far.

First, a lot of calendar customs are similar across cultures. Similar, but not the same. This may be due to a basic human response to our surroundings and shared experiences. It is very common for religions with little or no contact with each other to have a holy day (hereafter holiday) around this time of year and the concept and metaphor of light. This is a product of human experience and Holy Tradition is also rooted in our human experience. There is something about that time of year and shift from dark to light that has a significance that humans respond to in deep ways. This will be true of other holidays and feasts of the Church. As example, Lughnasadh and the Dormition share a lot- which I discussed in an earlier post.

Related to that, it needs to be noted that just because something is related to nature that does not mean it is ‘pagan’. The idea that anything that has an orientation toward nature is pagan, heathen, or wicca etc is, to my mind, a rather recent concept and not an Orthodox one. Nature is not inherently bad or distant from our faith. Orthodox theology and tradition indicates that nature is a good thing, and that we are not only deeply related to it we can and do experience God through nature. Frankly, there isn’t really anyway around that, although some Christians try. The theology of the incarnation is rooted on the notion that God can and does sanctify and work though the material world. The incarnation is core to our understanding of icons, relics, and holy places.

There is a concept that lurks un-named in some Orthodox circles and response to pagan claims on Christmas which presents Holy Tradition as absolutely unique and that it has no relationship to any other custom. A sort of ‘golden tablet’ theory. This is often extended to even engulf certain cultures and/or ethnicities as being ‘orthodox’ by nature and thus ‘more’ Orthodox than others. I think that response needs to be addressed. As others have noted, Christians have baptized parts of cultures in which they find themselves. This is a basic human trait. Christianity grew in specific times and places that already had customs and and beliefs. Those persons did not just jettison their entire culture. Christian theology and ideas were communicated via the forms and customs (or adaptation thereof) these persons already had at hand. Christian theology formed in relation to these customs and beliefs and in every new area it spread. This ability was part of why it spread so far.

There are many parts of our cultural milieu that has become a part of the Nativity (Christmas) celebration. Most of these are not necessary so if they offend don’t do it. Trees, gifts, “Santa Claus” etc. But like most things, over the years they develop meaning, symbolism, and connection to our theology and life. If done well this is a good process. The ‘pagan’ concept associated with bringing trees in during yule or the winter solstice is about preserving and celebrating life, is a good one. The Yule log, with its vigil for light and life is also a good one. In Christ, these concepts and cultural expressions are good and values to aspire to as well.

To deny the Church’s relationship with culture is a dangerous gamble. While in the short term it may reflect a triumphant stance, it denies important theological points and cultural process that are always at work. Often, this stance is taken up to ‘protect’ the church. Somewhat ironically, it actually leaves the Church open to decay. This naïve understanding of culture blinds us to important ways that culture influences us and leaves us open to more problematic influences. There are concepts and philosophies that have been assumed as Christian that are far from it. Being more attuned to the cultural adaptations we make can help us be more discerning of Tradition and our own culture.

Tradition is also a thing we do in the present and not a ‘copy and paste’ from the past. When I lectured on tradition I made the point that if you want to kill a tradition, don’t let it change at all. That was always met with pushback, as I think there is a popular notion that tradition is old stuff we do over and over. A tradition frozen in form and practice will become a dead one because it cant breath or move. Once a tradition is ‘protected’ to the point of becoming dead or frozen, subsequent generations will have difficulty applying, understanding, and expressing the tradition in their context. The Orthodox Church’s Holy Tradition is a living tradition that speaks to and interacts with the cultures and times it encounters. Holy Tradition maintains its core foundation, Christ and the Gospel, by looking to the past to move forward. This is a difficult and even ascetic process at times but it has to be done. The ‘freezing’ of a tradition is actually easier, as it does not require one to encounter the other, deeply know your tradition, or exercise love.

So, is Nativity pagan? Kind of, and that is ok. What is more important is that we live our faith engaged and seek to live the depths of our faith and tradition.

Photo by Ellie Lord on Unsplash

Fasting, again

A couple weeks ago the online coffee hour (fellowship and discussion group of St Thekla UOC) I host, I discussed fasting. For a number of people that are coming into the church for the first time or coming back to the church after being away fasting can be a lot to undertake. The fasting ‘rules’ are a sort of ‘Gold Standard’ that most people really could never quite follow perfectly anyway. Following them perfectly is not the point. I advise people coming back to Orthodoxy or that are new to it consult clergy before attempting any fast. The fast needs to be something we come to not in choosing what we feel like we can do without, it needs to be a spiritual exercise that puts us in connection to the Church and a community in Christ. In the same way I discussed the prayer rule and developing that with council of clergy and community we avoid many pitfalls in fasting, prayer etc. by being in community.

Sometimes the word used is obedience, but it is a freely given one. Frankly, the fasting traditions (and just about anything in Eastern Orthodoxy) is not meant or intended to be undertaken alone and from our own ‘wisdom’. We need to do all things to increase our connection and obedience to God. Fasting should ‘feed’ our humility and meekness and not our pride. If we see our fasting bringing us pride we must change what we are doing and consult our spiritual advisor or clergy. Paraphrasing St John Chrysostom says, Fasting is like a medicine, it is beneficial if done well but to the inexperienced it can be harmful. Like any tool it needs to be used well.

With that I wanted to share a couple videos from the Hieromonk at Mull Monastery. While I may have worded some things differently I think there is good advice here.

Photo by Mor Shani on Unsplash

How long?

In recent weeks we have seen spikes in Covid -19 infections and positivity rates. We had hoped that this entire thing would be wrapping up, but that does not seem to be the case. “How long, O Lord?” I resonate with this line from Psalm 13 strongly these days. The balance between honesty and our orientation to God and faith that Psalm 13 expresses is important. At this time I think it is important to approach these things with honesty and work through what we are experiencing. The temptation is distract ourselves. While having things to take our mind off these issues and into better directions is a positive, distraction can lead to avoidance and that will not help us in these times. Its better to cry out and work though what we are feeling.

This is basically a second surge and it seems to be leading to a second lock down. It seems this second round of lockdown is going to be more frustrating, disheartening, and affect us deeper than the first. That, I think, is a realist and responsible assumption. Partially, I think this because this lockdown/surge is coming over the holidays. Many of us had hoped from some reprieve with family, even if minimal. This also means we are looking at this covid thing lasting over a year. That is a long time to be isolated and their are social and psychological consequences. Secondly, I think that for many of us the last lockdown meant we had to put a lot of things off that we were planning or needed to do. For a while it felt like there might be a light at the end of the tunnel (and not a train). That vision of an end helped orient us. This second lockdown is making the end seem harder to locate. This is disorienting and is making some of those things we put off seem like they are better left forgotten than hoped for.

Add to this an election that in places showed cracks in our processes. There is an added unsettled feeling. I see this in posts, conversations, elevated tensions, and the overall attitude toward this holiday season. I feel in myself a tug toward some despondency. This is definitely the time that a focus on the present, others, and workable solutions is important. Coming into advent in these locked down states, the idea of ‘slowing down’ can raise the hairs on ones neck. For me, focusing on advent and small things in the present is a good way to not focus on what we have lost and feel like we are losing in the wake of another lockdown/surge with out falling into distracting myself. Distraction just puts off this issues. Helping others and connecting helps be understand what I do have some agency in even in a lockdown.

At this point I hope we shift to looking out for one another. It seems hyper individualism and a lack of empathy and community is leading us into this next lockdown and we need some humility, compassion, and community to get though this. We will , more than ever, also need to understand when covid is under control there will be more work to do in the wake of our experiences this last year and in the coming months. Lord Have Mercy

I posted the above to Facebook recently and though it should also be here, with some additions. I believe that our prayers and actions need to be diverse in this time. Prayers for the end of the pandemic, of course. There are other concerns during this time that I think need attention, such as psychological and social consequences. These will likely be exacerbated by the economic issues as well. There are also those who now, once again, are stuck in situations (many abusive) and conditions that things like work, school, and outings help them escape from and/or mitigate.

My hope is that we can look at these things and deal with them directly. Our faith is an important part of that process. Part of this is to admit the difficulty and express how we feel, distraction can keep us from this important step. “Crying out” helps us to fully reflect and begin to work out our feelings, needs, and situations practically and honestly. I feel like Psalm 13 reflects this process of acceptance, reflection, and faith well.

How Long, O Lord? Psalm 13

To the choirmaster. A Psalm of David.

13 How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
    How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I take counsel in my soul
    and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

Consider and answer me, O Lord my God;
    light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death,
lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,”
    lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.

But I have trusted in your steadfast love;
    my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord,
    because he has dealt bountifully with me.

Photo by Noah Silliman on Unsplash

Fasting during a pandemic

With the beginning of the Nativity fast approaching I have seen a lot of articles and questions in Facebook groups about fasting. As we start the Nativity fast I wanted to give a few points that may help us in our preparation for Nativity. The Nativity fast is a great opportunity however as John Chrysostom says

“Fasting is a medicine. But medicine, as beneficial as it is, becomes useless because of the inexperience of the user.”

St John Chrysostom

Fasting immediately raises questions about food and ‘rules’. What can we eat and when? What I’m I not supposed to eat? When is fish allowed? Is wine the same a beer? Can we use oil other than olive oil? These are all valid questions, however they are often slowly pulling us away from the center of what fasting should be and produce in our lives. When I am asked about fasting the questions are often procedural and not about the practice itself.

What these more procedural questions can miss is the notion that fasting is a gift and a tool, not an obligation. It is not sinful, per se, to not fast. The food and the practice is not a moral one, it is an exercise or medicine to help us.. Chrysostom continues:

He has to know the appropriate time that the medicine should be taken and the right amount of medicine and the condition of the body which is to take it, the weather conditions and the season of the year and the appropriate diet of the sick and many other things. If any of these things are overlooked, the medicine will do more harm than good. 

St John Chrysostom

Our fasting should be in accord with our spiritual life, situation, and growth. Like many spiritual things, good spiritual counsel is needed and we must have at least some self reflection before starting a fast and watchfulness during a fast. Even if we follow all the rules, without prayer, reflection, watchfulness, and a proper ascetic vision fasting can be harmful.

First, it needs to be said that the rules we have for fasting were last modified well before the modern era and reflect a much different social, economic, and culinary situation. Attempts to shift these rules in their official form have been attempted and were on the table at the last, so called, ecumenical council a few years ago. As example, shrimp and animals without backbones are always permitted. That choice was made at a time and location in which shrimp and other animals without backbones (like octopus) were more the food of the labors and were not expensive. The idea was to not over burden people. That jus isn’t the case today.

This leads me to my first point. Part of the point to fasting is to slowdown and focus less on the status and ‘pleasure’ of food. The fast should be about simple meals with simple ingredients that make more time, mental space, and resources for reflection, prayer, and alms giving. In much earlier times money saved from not eating expensive food during the fast was given to those in need. I have seen people spend more money buying more expensive ‘fast worthy’ food, more time learning a ton of new recipes, and stressing over ingredients trying to follow the letter of the fast. That is not profitable for us. The fast should be more about living simply, with contentment, and stillness. Racing around, reading all the ingredient lists, letting food go bad, and occupying your time with stressing about food isn’t the spirit of the fast and will leave you worse off than when you began.

The fast is an exercise in distancing ourselves from the passions. During the fast we are also practicing saying no to things that are not moral, like food, as we also say no to sin. We should be fasting from sin. Fasts can help us see ourselves better and help us be watchful. As St John also discusses, our mouths should fast from hurtful comments, our eyes from objectifying gazes, our hands from stealing, our ears from accepting slander and defamation of our neighbor. If our entire body isn’t moving toward fasting in this way then we may be fasting in vain.

Fasting is also has a way of revealing the nuanced ways the passions sneak into our lives unnoticed. We see how attached we really are to things, like food. We also see how we react to those attachments being taken away. We learn a lot about ourselves as we see and interact with our attachments and our reactions. As we foster a time of stillness, reflection, and watchfulness the fasts should help quite the noise that makes it hard to see the passions at work in us. Fostering that stillness, reflection, and watchfulness makes us more receptive to God.

The fasts are also put in places in the liturgical year for us to prepare and approach important times and experiences in the year. Our life is full of cycles and that is reflected in the liturgical year. The cycle of feast and fasts are parts of us seeking Christ and to be apart of the sacramental and liturgical life. The times before feats are fasts in which we prepare. In order to have a feast we need the fast. Like any cycle one part supports and leads into the other. Great lent and ‘little lent’ or the nativity fast are as linked to each other as Nativity and Pascha. These are great points in the salvific narrative and great revelations and revolutions for mankind. We must be ready and open to hear and experience what these feasts have to tell us. Fasts are times to slowdown, listen, and repent. The Ascetic St John the Forerunner went before Christ and prepared people for his ministry. Likewise our fast should also act to prepare us to receive Christ.

In the pandemic we have much to worry about, precautions to take, and stresses. The pandemic has added to the overall stress load and noise that we all share. For many the pandemic adds to already difficult situations such as poverty, mental illness, special needs, or being a member of vulnerable populations. Others find themselves in the more vulnerable and difficult parts of our normal cycles of life such as having young children, deaths in the family, job stress, etc. The pandemic has changed most of our lives and for a large number of people getting through that in a somewhat peaceful, healthy, and safe manner (physically, mentally, and spiritually) will be all the effort and energy we can muster. We need to attend to our realities when looking toward the fasts so the fasts do not add to our stress, busyness, and overall noise in our lives.

Like any other year, as we approach the fast we need to do what we can to slow down, pray, reflect, be watchful, and look to the fast as an ascetic opportunity. Those who have fasted for years may find that they have to be a bit more lax with the rules in order to achieve the healing this medicine offers. This may even help us see if pride or arrogance have creeped in to our practice. This is part of the lesson of the Pharisee and the Publican that the Church offers us to contemplate before great lent. Others may need to place their focus on other aspects of the fast because they have enough with the pandemic and other needs to fast physically from food. Others may just need the consistent reminder to try and slow down and remain open to God in the midst of all the noise and distraction.

What we can and should start with, no matter our situation and experience is fasting from sin and the passions. Let our mouth fast from the snide comment. Let our hands fast from taking more than we need. Let our feet fast from putting others in danger with our presence. Let our eyes fast from objectifying gazes or judging them. Let our ears fast from accepting slander and defamation of our neighbor. We also may need to fast from judging ourselves to harshly, and putting unworkable expectations on ourselves. These are the important parts of the fast.

The other side of the fast must also be lived. We don’t just avoid sin, we seek to be like Christ. So this pandemic may afford us opportunity’s in this way. As our hands fast from taking more than we need let us extend our hands with giving and gratitude. As our eyes fast from objectifying gazed may be see the world with mercy and love. As our ears fast from accepting slander and defamation of our neighbor, let us hear the call of those in need. I also think we must fast from adding to the noise of this situation and instead seek to bring calm, reflection, and stillness to ourselves and others.

In a way the pandemic is forcing us to ‘slow down’. I get the sentiment, however I think for many, that pressure causes much more sound and fury. The situations are not easy but I think that in this midst we can look for those spiritual disciplines and efforts that will prepare us, quite the passions and make us receptive to Christ.

What does all that mean practically. I think a good first step is to not start with expectations from previous fasts or perceptions of ‘amazing’ fasting. Start with something small and build into something that works. The second step is to not allow a breaking of the fast to be a site of guilt. Breaking the fast even in a rebellious and frustrated manner is an opportunity to recalibrate and reflect. Moreover breaking the fast is an opportunity to return, change, and learn about ourselves.

So much more can be said on fasting and most likely will be the subject of the next couple posts.

Why the Universalist Orthodox Church?

I think a better question to start with may be why a non-canonical Orthodox church, or as some say, schismatic. This is a question I have asked myself during the process of deciding to go to the UOC. It is easy with these types of questions to give a list of faults and failures or to idealize a situation, and see greener grasses in another group. All groups have their ups and downs, failures, successes, and quirks. I have no illusions on this. Instead of a sort of ‘why that was bad and this is good’ type of narrative, I want to try and focus on the more salient points rather than a litany of supposed grievances, although that may be difficult. .

For review, I had been in the Antiochian church for years. In something like 2006 I was part of a group interested in founding a parish, chrismated in 2008, I took a step back in 2017 due to family issues and differences. I came back for a stent this last year. That is to say I have had some experience in the canonical church. Leaving was at once easy and difficult. Easy in that I think it was clear to me I believed in ways that were not inline with the canonical church’s vision and ethos. Difficult in that so much of our lives and spirituality are tied up in the Orthodox Church. So I think the answer to that first question starts with an admission I felt I had to do so. I had to.

This is an important distinction in order to head off an early misapprehension that people leave just to do what they want. That may be the case for some, but I have yet to meet any. If you want to just do what you want you will just leave all together, some do. I had heard that said about others who left. In frank terms I don’t think that many, if any, in the UOC or many non-canonical expressions of historical Christianity would really have formed or gone a non-canonical direction if they really felt they could stay. I am not saying there are not some jurisdictions that have formed for problematic reasons or turned into clergy clubs. I am saying people in the UOC and churches like it left because they had to do so. It is hard to word this well. Over all the canonical churches basically tell them to leave some times subtly, sometimes directly. Then these churches seemed shocked when they do.

I think the principle reason I felt I needed to leave the church was a basic ethos I have seen and felt in the church. I think the larger issues of LGBTQA+, women in sacramental ministry, and other so called ‘progressive stances’ intersect with this ethos. What is also forgotten are the areas of mental health, disability, and atypical persona. These groups get swept aside by this ethos as well. Well meaning priests who uphold the canonical stance on these issues who seek to minister to LGBTQA+ and seek to aid those with difficulty in the church because of others areas of need are hindered by this ethos as well. Priests and Bishops have written anonymously about the way many are being harmed by the church’s responses, and they aptly observe it it is Christian families, not the atheists, that tend to throw their LBGTQ+ children to the streets were they face further abuse.

I think a good example of this ethos would be the issues surrounding Fr Josiah Trenham (Archpriest). He has earned a place on the SPLC list. At the time of writing this there are some alligations of abuse. A summary of his comments at the World Congress of Families can be found here. While I think it a good example it is far from the only one or as isolated as I once hoped. His rhetoric, views, and rather toxic teachings have been condemned by some and lauded by others. I hear in him the fundamentalism and crushing religious aggression I (and others) fled from years and years ago. His prominent role in the AOCA plays into the issue. He has been censured (mildly) at times, however his views, materials, and status has remained, if not grown. Another taste here. Others that have come from the canonical church and the AOCA in particular such as Fr Joseph Gleason have expressed rather toxic and harmful views as well, Fr Trenham is not an anomaly.

I could list off priests and leaders from many jurisdictions and cite their toxic masculinity, homophobic and inflammatory rhetoric, and harmful views and treatments about a variety of issues. (On a positive note in my checking a couple of the more controversial examples have been removed – good on that podcast/blog distributor.) That isn’t quite the point. Any group will have problematic persons who’s teachings are an issue and even the best teacher and pastor will have their flaws and diverging points of view. That is expeted in some sense. The response to these things is an important consideration. The point is that these persons and movements keep coming and are defended, supported, and reproduced. The church seems to let it slide. What more concerning is that it seems to not only be the occasional mistake or temporary bad actor. It is a pattern, one that no one seems to want to do anything about. Finally even the most well meaning are often swept by this ethos especially in relation to those with other difficulties in being in church, intentional or not.

Compare that with the swift and relatively severe nature of the response to Fr Andrew Warwick’s expression of a pastoral response to LGBTQA+ persons and the message becomes clear. I have met and served with Fr Warwick (a lifetime ago) and to my mind is not outside the canonical church’s views on LGBTQA+. Quite soon after that article, Fr Warwick had to issue a retraction. This was followed by a letter from Mtr. Joseph to parishes that reasserted the churches resistance to progressive views. A response to my mind none of Fr Trenham’s behavior seemed to warrant. When I saw the retraction and accompanying commentary, my heart sank, as I sat in church and heard Mtr. Joseph’s letter read, my heart broke. Again we can makes lists of this and that infraction and such that would lead to more tension and scandalizing readers, that isn’t my point. The point is the example of inherent message and ethos. Toxic masculinity, homophobia, “tough it out” spirituality, and hyper conservative views are tolerated and even encuraged- a pastoral response, less so. Others have noted people are leaving the church over these issues. I am just another one of those.

There are many many great priests, deacons, sub-deacons, servers , and persons in the churches and I would hate for my comments to overshadow the great work they do and the ways they have brought Christ’s healing and compassion to a broken world. I more and more think they do it despite the larger archdiocese and this ethos. Those were the folks that kept me there, kept me working, hoping, praying and involved in ministry. In the end, being a part of this church with this ethos and inviting others to it is a problem. Living in the sort of cognitive dissonance was harmful to me.

Like any other large group the canonical church has plenty of members and people coming in the doors (and many leaving as well) . All in all as an organisation LGBTQ persons, talented women leaders, atypical persons, those with special needs, and others not coming isn’t ‘hurting them’ in areas that are noticeable. And as much as there are pastoraly minded and affirming priests that do what they can to minister to and commune LGBTQ persons in their parishes those are limited and fragile agreements. Not a great situation for spiritual growth or a feeling of consistency. This again becomes true for others that the church isn’t comfortable with or that are an inconvenience. The standard response to LGBT persons is a perversion of a call to celibacy as well as a deep and often willing misunderstanding of what we currently understand about gender and sexuality. Many times those with mental issues are confronted with rather archaic views, ‘tough it out’ spirituality, or at times dismissal of the medications that are helping them cope. In a word, harmful. This is pattern is reflected with other vulnerable groups relations to the church in which the sort of ‘tough it out ‘ spirituality was the common prescription.

Over the years I saw glimmers that the Church would develop better options for LGBTQ, ordain women deacons, and focus on some social issues that seemed to be terrible oversights. I heard great priests speak on these issues in wisdom and I saw people doing great things for people, outpourings of love and healing. I saw parishes reorganize to focus on those who had the hardest time being and staying in the church. This issue here of course that these sparks were never to be a fire. Further, many hierarchs seemed at the ready pour buckets of water on any small flame.

In 2017 I stepped back from the church because I was spiritually drained from this. I had been living in a cognitive dissonance between my understanding and convictions on social issues, LGBTQ, and equality in ministry. That ran through me like a cancer. We also found ourselves in a difficult position after my son was born, one that made clear aspects of the canonical ethos had issues. In short we found ourselves one of those groups that found it hard to be in church, found it hard to explain what we were going through, and was prescribed the ‘tough it out’ solution. We asked for help but in the parish seemed very content with leaving it alone. Frankly, the church was not well equipped to deal.

We were not the only ones. We saw a couple other families fall through this cracks and either leave or only come a couple times a year as well. I was a sub-deacon and had been on parish council at the time and still could not get a workable solution. In the end other things seemed more important to the parish and it was on us to tough through it to stay. That ethos hit us close to home. I hear this more than I would like from others who have faded out of the church over this sort of ethos. For us, that ethos had contributed to ignoring what was a chemical and heath issue for my wife and that put an incredible amount of stress on me. I left the parish in 2017 and had my heart attack January 2019. The parish we were in is frankly a great place and after we left there was some reconciliation, learning, and a coming together on both sides. We eventually kept good relations. No hard feelings exist now. Because it is a good parish it did its best, but over all the damage is done.

What this situation and research showed me was a sort of ethos in parishes that via non-action vulnerable groups to sort of ‘opt out’ or ‘self select’ out until the church was a comfortable place. “We don’t need X because no one here is asking for it” We were… These parishes often make it clear via their actions and non-action that if you have X need go else-where. Never directly, but the message is in the form. Parishes then seemed to be shocked when people do as they are implicitly asking them to do. To be fair all parishes have to make choices with their resources, but it is our ethos that tends to guide us in the allocation and the weakest, the least of these, need to be the first to be addressed. This is more rare than I wanted to admit.

So, the theme here has been the ethos and I have given a few points that I think illuminate that ethos. The more concrete issues of the churches response and stance on vulnerable groups, LGBTQA+, and equality are important and frankly enough to make an exit, however it is the ethos that killed any hope of working in the church or with it on these issues.

I want a church that has the apostolic succession and tradition of the East. At this point in my life it is how I think , feel, and understand God. I value and believe the theology. And that is frankly why I cant be in the canonical church. The UOC is jurisdiction seeking to express the fullness of the Eastern Orthodox traditions, but do so in ways that are as inclusive as possible. That is what I think reflects God’s mission here on earth.