Upcoming Fordham Conference on Orthodox/Catholic Encounters

Those interested in such things, and especially interested in how tradition, secularism, and fundamentalism are features of this, should check out the upcoming Patterson Triennial Conference at Fordham in June.

Apologizing—It Does a Body Good

Several years ago the dairy industry launched an ad campaign with the slogan: Milk, it does the body good. There are certainly health benefits to drinking a glass of milk, especially after a workout, and when we feel better physically, we often feel better and do better psychologically and spiritually as well. Doing ourselves well, however, is not something that we should do only on the physical side. It can also work in the reverse. There are things we can do in the spiritual, psychological, and emotional dimensions that can be good for us physically (as well as spiritually, psychologically, and emotionally). One very important thing we can do is become better at apologizing.

Apologizing is never an easy thing to do and yet it is a core ethical and religious practice. James, one of the leaders of the early Christian church, put its importance this way: “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed [James 5:16].” The point here is that apologizing (after you’ve committed a wrong) heals you. It also helps repair and heal damaged (or even broken) relationships.

Apologizing can help heal you physically and emotionally. Carol Orsborn, Ph.D., has written on the physical benefits of apologizing. When we refuse to apologize but know we should, we are more likely to overeat, have headaches and stomach aches, and lose sleep. On the emotional and spiritual side, when we apologize, we begin the process of releasing feelings of shame and guilt. Apologizing for something we did wrong also helps us grow in humility, which helps prevent us from committing additional wrongs against that same person (or persons). Finally, apologizing helps to heal the broken relationship itself. It helps the offended person reframe their view of us and rethink, in a more positive manner, how he/she/they might interact with us in the future.

So, if apologizing is a healthy thing to do, how do we do it? Well, a simple outline can be applied to any situation. First, tell the person you are sorry: “I am sorry I ____.” Second, state a hope that forgiveness might come: “I hope you will forgive me.” Third, offer to repair whatever you can repair: “I will buy you a new ____” or “I will develop a habit of taking out the garbage,” etc. Finally, end with a thank you, either: “Thank you for forgiving me” (if you were forgiven) or “Thank you for listening to my apology” (if you are not forgiven—they might forgive you later).

A significant reason for holding to the four point model I just shared is that it can help us avoid three common mistakes we might make, mistakes that would render our apology a non-apology. So, for instance, avoid the word “but,” lest you end up being a butt. As an example: “I am sorry I shouted at you but you were just saying things you knew would push my buttons.” That is not an apology. The word “but” de-emphasizes the first half of the sentence in order to make the point in the second half. When we catch ourselves using “but” in this way, we are being butts and merely continuing the disagreement. Another thing to avoid is to avoid apologizing for the other person. For example: “I’m sorry you feel hurt/offended/angry.” That’s not an apology. An apology includes ownership for something we did to hurt, offend, or anger. A third thing not to do is be iffy about it. For example: “I’m sorry if I upset you.” We know if we’ve upset another person. Being “iffy” about something we know merely continues the hurt and pain and is not apology.

Apologizing might not come easy, but it can benefit our health physically as well as spiritually. It can also repair and even build relationships. Our apologies can benefit other people that way too! So, if the holidays didn’t go as you intended or you have recently misstepped, then offer that apology! It will heal you and those around you.

Reframing How We Think of the Priesthood in the 21st Century

The priesthood . . . it’s a significant office whether one is Catholic (Eastern or Roman) or Orthodox (Eastern or Oriental).  Those ordained to the office are typically called “father,” referencing that they are to be, like St. Paul, a father in the Gospel to their parishes.  Yet, in too many churches, there are two errors that are often made:  the priest is to fulfill a particular vision of “piety” and the priesthood is an entrance into holiness that others cannot attain.  Both are misguided, even if popular.

With regard to the first, the vision of “piety” often includes: poverty, or at least low income, constant availability, frequent serving of services, a concern for the trappings (cassock, beard, publicly worn prayer beads and black clothing) and placing his family (at least if Orthodox or Eastern Catholic) below the needs of the parish.  In short, the priest is to adhere to a lay perception of the monastic ideal even if not living in a monastery.  How this plays out will vary based on the parish and context.  I know Roman Catholic priests who put in insane hours each week.  I also know what Orthodox clergy are typically paid and that some jurisdictions think 1-2k/month is adequate.  Goodness, I know of a bishop who thinks it’s a real improvement that in one parish his priest is paid a few hundred dollars, sleeps in a classroom of the dilapidated church building, and bathes in the boiler room in a cattle trough purchased at the local feed store.  That last might be a bit extreme, and could say more about that particular bishop and parish than anyone else, but sadly the $1-2k isn’t.  Nor is it unusual to expect that the priest will offer services throughout the week, even if it is very very difficult to work around an outside employment and children’s activities or very very sparsely attended when accomplished.  All of this is paired with the usual microscope that priests are under (for every lay person has an opinion–OK opinionS about his/ her priest and/or priest family).

The second problem might function as its mirror opposite.  An Orthodox priest-blogger has recently shared with us a piece wherein St. Nikolai Velimirovic argued that the priesthood is the greatest honor and the means by which the priest has come into contact with the “eternal source of Grace.”

Although I think the reposting is well-intentioned, and St. Nikolai possibly meant only to speak to the blessedness of ordination, his words went too far (at least it did for us in our theological context–perhaps there was warrant for them at the time he spoke them).  The priesthood is not the greatest honor.  The greatest honor is to Christ first and all the baptized second.  The priesthood serves the baptized.  The greatest sacramental honor is to receive Christ, is to be baptized and receive the Eucharist.  That is the greatest honor and it is something inherently open to all.   The priesthood is sacramental and is special, but it’s not the Eucharist.

Ironically, these two misguided views of the priesthood can reinforce one another.  Clergy themselves are often quite guilty of it.  So, a priest or layperson identifies the priesthood with the poverty, with the never ending services, with placing the priest’s family’s needs second to the parish, and in order to help compensate, in order to help justify the priest’s situation in life, over-inflates the sacramental nature of his priesthood.  I think this is a real temptation for some clergy.  Or, it can go the other way, the priest or layperson might view the priest in an idealized, sacramental way, and so believe the only way that could be fulfilled in the here and now is to show a willingness to live in poverty and serve to the detriment of the priest’s family, and to be under the microscope of the parishioners.  In its sickest form, lay people might believe the hyper-sacramental fluff and therefore feel justified (and take glee in) making the priest operate as an underpaid hireling.

In the end, neither approach is good.  The priesthood is not a pretext to familial poverty and the priesthood is not the greatest means by which one can encounter God’s grace (for that is already open to every baptized Christian in the Eucharist).  What we need is to reframe how we look at the priesthood.

So, lest I end only on saying what we should “not” do (with the apophatic, if you will), let me suggest a few things we “should” do (the cataphatic, if you will):

  1. See the priesthood as flowing out of the priesthood all believers already have with regard to their standing within creation.  The Church is to creation what the Levitical Priesthood was to Israel.
  2. Understand that the priesthood functions to facilitate entering into the depth of God’s grace–that the priesthood serves the purpose of entering into Thanksgiving (Eucharist) together as a community with God.
  3. Realize that priests have families and responsibilities first and foremost as heads of their households as much as any other baptized member of the church.  This will mean reconsidering their salaries but also respecting their time.  If done truly, it will mean ceasing to judge them with our “parishioner microscope,” if you will.
  4. Accept that the priest’s authority comes from Christ and to the extent that the priest adheres to the Gospel, not to the extent that the priest fulfills some wish/desire/agenda we have (be it political or religious).
  5. Allow for a freedom whereby priests feel they accept or resign a call without guilt.  If a priest has been a full time priest for ten to fifteen years but wants a new career, and resigns the parish, let us not judge.  He has not rejected the call of “the eternal source of Grace.”  This is no small matter, either.  If a priest went to the bishop and gave him a resignation as rector of a parish and asked not to be transferred to another, what would happen (at both the deanery and parish levels)?  Ask yourself that.

These five points are not all encompassing.  There is more that could be said, but if we are going to see Orthodoxy and/or Catholicism thrive in the 21st century, reframing how we think of the priesthood must be part of that.  The alternative might survive, but sadly could do so all too easily for the wrong reasons.



Christmas: An Honest Look at its Origins

As we enter into December, approximately 2 billion people will prepare to celebrate Christmas, a holiday dedicated to the birth of Jesus. We will also enter into a time of internet debate over the origins of Christmas. Many will stake their claim on its alleged pagan roots, claiming that the story of Christmas and its celebration on December 25th is simply a copy of paganism. Indeed, a quick look at YouTube will demonstrate just how popular it is to make videos pontificating on this subject. For many, it is an attempt to discredit a major world religion. On the other hand, one can find some videos made by Christians who think the majority of Christians are wrong and committing idolatry. One may even find videos of Muslim scholars utilizing the supposed pagan origins of Christmas to discredit Christianity. A more careful look at the history of Christmas, however, shows that Christmas was not a copy of a pagan holiday.

The strongest theory suggesting that Christians began Christmas celebrations in order to take over a major pagan holiday (allegedly dedicated to the Unconquered Sun) comes from Hermann Usener, who published his case in 1889. Yet, Usener’s theory is not the only one around. Gerald Massey (also in the 1800s) claimed Christians copied Egyptian mythology surrounding the Egyptian god Horus. There are problems with both of these theories and an honest look at each can help point us in the right historical direction.

Massey claimed Horus was born of a virgin and baptized in a river by Anup the Baptizer, who was later beheaded but there are a few problems with this. First off, what Egyptians believed and celebrated about Horus changed over time and it is only somewhat recently that archaeological evidence has allowed us access to all of this. Early Christians wouldn’t have had access to all the variations in order to try to make up what Massey claimed. Second, what we do know about the creation story of Horus is a very, very long stretch from what Massey said anyhow. Horus’ mother was a goddess (Isis) whose husband (Osiris) had been killed by Seth (the desert god) and then dismembered. Isis gathered Osiris’ body parts (here we have the mythological support for the practice of mummification) and revived him just long enough for the two of them to conceive Horus. This may be an improbable conception, but with overtones of divine necrophilia, it’s not at all what Christians claim about Mary when they speak of her conceiving while yet a virgin. As for Anup, there’s simply no evidence he ever existed. He’s made up. A few later scholars attempted to link Massey’s claim to the Egyptian god Anub. There are a few hieroglyphs that claim Anub washed the pharaoh prior to coronation, but there is no evidence this was put into any kind of practice, as it would require someone to stand in for the god Anub. Even if it had, it certainly would not be a baptism as Jews or Christians have understood it.

Usener’s theory, unlike Massey’s, has one possible piece of supporting evidence. We have a ninth century copy of a calendar document from Rome from the year 354. This document notes that 30 chariot races were to be celebrated in order to honor the birth of “Invictus,” which is normally taken to be a reference to the Unconquered Sun. This document is taken to “prove” that Christian began copying a pre-existing pagan holiday on December 25th, but in actuality, it is not proof that Christmas began being celebrated on December 25th around the year 354 in order to copy a pagan holiday. Other earlier sources give different dates dedicated to the Unconquered Sun (in August, October, and one day in December, on the 11th, not the 25th). Furthermore, pagans had begun to use chariot races rather than altar sacrifices beginning only in the 320s. This means both the date of December 25th and means of celebrating (chariot races) were recent developments. Therefore, it’s more likely that the holiday calendar from 354 actually shows a pagan reaction to a Christian holiday. Rather than showing that Christians decided to celebrate Christmas on December 25th only because a pagan god was celebrated that same day, the evidence suggests pagans likely began celebrating a pagan god on December 25th because Christians were already celebrating Jesus’ birth on that day.

So why December 25th then? Well, because of something called the liturgical calendar. Early Christians tended to assume that Jesus was born and died at the same time (normally dated March 25th). They counted an even nine months out and came to December 25th as the day he was born. It is, in fact, that simple. Now, this is not without pagan parallels. Pagans likewise believed that the acts of gods and the lives of heroes lined up. During the second and third centuries it was not only the Christians who were focused on calendars and computing holidays. Pagans were also very much into it. It was a part of society’s fabric.

So, in conclusion, what can we say about Christianity’s alleged pagan origins? Well, we can say that both Christians and pagans were a product of their time by being concerned with calendars and computing holidays and dates. What we cannot say is that Christians borrowed a story of a virgin birth from ancient Egyptian religion. Nor can we say that Christians began to observe December 25th as Jesus’ birth in order to copy (or even take over) a pagan festival. When Christians celebrate Christmas, they do so in order to celebrate the birth of Jesus, whom they believe was born from Mary, who remained a virgin. There is no evidence early Christians thought they were celebrating the birth of a pagan god. An honest look at the history of the holiday might not be as controversial as many YouTubers would have you believe, but it can help Christians and non-Christians alike better appreciate Christmas. In a season dedicated to someone called the “Prince of Peace,” (Jesus), that’s a healthier place to be anyhow.

Forthcoming Book on Eastern Orthodox “Doctrine of Scripture”

Those of you interested in Eastern Orthodoxy, the Bible, biblical scholarship, and/or how all these connect, may be interested to learn of a forthcoming book from Fortress Press, What is the Bible? The Patristic Doctrine of Scipture. As with all titles, there are shortcomings, and one should be careful not to conclude that this one book settles the matter definitively.  Nonetheless, I look forward to getting my own copy and hope others will as well.  I consider one of the editors, Seraphim Danckaert, a friend, and another (Matthew Baker) I had begun to get to know during the last couple years of his life.  This book is yet another reminder of how impoverished we are by his loss, but I hope readers will benefit from his chapter in this book.  In full disclosure, I should note that I wrote chapter two.

Orthodoxy on the Road: 5 Suggestions for Attending Church While Traveling the US

I don’t do an extensive amount of travel, but I find myself in various parts of the United States a couple times a year.  Usually it’s for academic conferences, but also visiting family and friends (the Yahtzee is getting both in one trip).  One of my favorite things to do is visit Orthodox parishes all over the country, observing the different flavors of American culture through the lens of the Church.  Because the Church is the most familiar place to me in any locale (followed closely by Wal-Mart and the Super 8), the familiar similarities make the differences even more striking.

I love hearing “Blessed is the kang’um” at the start of the Liturgy in Texas.  There is a para-Russian joy in this California boy as he watches the snowfall through stained-glass windows during Orthros in Illinois.  The “college student convert” parishes dotting the West Coast, the “holy storage room” chapels in the rural southeast, the great cathedrals of the immigrant-heavy Midwest: all radically different, all radically Orthodox.  I’ve received communion by leavened-wafer intinction at a Western Rite parish; I’ve seen a congregation celebrate two dates for Christmas yet remain under one roof; I’ve attended Orthodox Vespers at the main altar of a Franciscan monastery.  As American as we are Orthodox, e pluribus unum doesn’t do us justice.

But I would never play Pollyanna: with these rich goods, of course, come difficulties and troubles.  The disjointedness of Orthodox jurisdictions makes it possible for the faithful to pick and choose their moral authorities.  Often, in situations where uniformity of praxis is vital, there is fundamental disagreement (such as fasting or the old/new calendar).  Many Orthodox priests are unable to deliver a homily that isn’t a straw man of another Christian tradition.  Sometimes I want to participate in the Divine Liturgy, but encounter the hardship of vastly different English translations from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, and even parish to parish.  The worst is when, in a parish of 100% English-speakers, surprise!  The liturgy will include no English.  Invite a friend to church?  Not likely, until I’ve vetted it.

Yet striking out to a parish you’ve never attended is a vital and necessary practice for establishing Pan-Orthodox unity in this country.  Some of us are fortunate enough to live in an area with several parishes in close vicinity (where I live, there are three within five minutes’ walk of each other).  Others have to drive several hours to the nearest parish.  Yet those of us who travel should take advantage of the wealth of culture available to us as American Orthodox Christians: the spiritual and cultural heritage of Christianity’s first thousand years, preserved in its fullness in the United States (of all places).  Route 66 has become, in a sense, a new Mediterranean Sea: cross over it, and you will find a dozen different cultures that share your same Christian faith.

I wanted to offer in this post some suggestions for travelers by land, sea, and air, who want to attend church in an unfamiliar place, as well as some “flip side” comments for parishes that want to better welcome visitors:

1) Plan your trip around the Church calendar.  As outlandish an idea as this may be in our fast-paced world, the best way to experience Orthodoxy around the country is to think ahead about when you will be where.  Give yourself time on Sundays and major feast days to put God first, and afterward catch your plane.  THE FLIP SIDE: Kudos to parish websites featuring an online calendar such as the one from Orthodox Web Solutions, making it much easier to plan around worship service times.

2) Google it.  Even with some of the excellent parish databases being put together online, Google Maps is still the best place to find a parish location and website.  There are two potential pitfalls to this method.  One, even parish websites with up-to-date service time information and calendars are often incorrect.  Unless you have a copy of the latest bulletin, your best bet when attending for the first time is to give them a call and ask the time of the service you would like to attend.  Two, don’t accidentally go to a schismatic or “poser” Orthodox parish.  A list of these groups was compiled once; I’m not sure how up-to-date it is anymore.  THE FLIP SIDE: Priests and parish administrators, remember that your website is often the “first impression” you give to inquirers and visitors.  It deserves some attention.  Ask tech-savvy volunteers from your congregation to help maintain it.

3) Find a service book and follow along.  Differing translations, hymns, and tones can sometimes make it difficult to follow along (the ACOB-USA “Committee on Liturgy” is ostensibly working to remedy this as part of American Orthodox unity).  Pick up a service book!  They’re not always easy to find.  Check the back, near the candles, or under the pews.  If you have a non-Orthodox visitor with you, encourage them to do the same.  We often forget how disorienting the worship of the Christian orient can be to the uninitiated.  THE FLIP SIDE: All parishes, even those discouraging congregational singing, should offer texts for parishioners to follow along.  Americans like to know what’s going on; if you want them to come back, help them feel like they were able to understand and participate.

4) Stay for the after-party.  Some of my best experiences visiting parishes have been at the ubiquitous “Orthodox coffee hour.”  Good food, good coffee, and making plenty of “small world” connections?what’s not to like?  THE FLIP SIDE: I love it when, after the service, the priest welcomes all the visitors and invites them to stay and fellowship.  I especially love it when parishioners come up to introduce themselves to me.  Simple acts like this are very meaningful.  “I was hungry, and you fed me (delicious baklava).”

5) E-mail encouragement.  Priests don’t get ordained for all the pats on the back, but an encouraging word can make a lifetime of service feel worthwhile.  If your visit to a parish brings you closer to God, e-mail the priest and say thank you.  They will really appreciate it.  THE FLIP SIDE: Thank you, all the priests out there.  Your faithful service has meant so much.

New Author on Red River Orthodox

Allow me to introduce myself.  My name is Andrew Jacob Cuff, and I am a PhD student in church history at The Catholic University of America.  I have been a reader and one-time guest author here at Red River Orthodox since its inception, and Father Oliver has recently invited me to become a regular author.  I will be honored to contribute a few occasional posts in the upcoming months during the hiatus Fr. Oliver mentioned in the last post.  I hope to enjoy many stimulating conversations with you all!

The Relative Silence Here

This is just a very quick post to apologize to readers for the long delays between posts and to inform readers that I am taking an indefinite leave of absence from blogging.  Recently, I became a full time chaplain.  That leaves less time for blogging and what time I do have, I really need to dedicate to finishing my book on iconography and ethics.  That should come first.  It’s not that I don’t think this blog has a role.  I think it does, and I do I hope to return to discussing Contructions of the West, but just not yet.  True, something big might happen that will inspire a post here but excepting that, I need to stay focused.  Stay tuned and hopefully I’ll get back at this down the road.

Newsweek and (Anti-)Religious Ignorance

Recently, an article in Newsweek has been making some waves.  Whether intended to be “controversial” or “myth debunking,” the reality is it was ignorance revealing (of the author and Newsweek itself).  Since I have not yet even found the time to start taking us through the chapters of Orthodox Constructions, as I said I’d do, I certainly wasn’t about to try to find time to offer a rebuttal.  Thankfully, Fr. Lawrence Farley has done just that.  Already, a shorter version of this rebuttal has been run online.  Here at Red River Orthodoxy, we are pleased to present a fuller version.  His response is worth reading because it is a reminder that the real problem with the Newsweek piece is not the culture wars but biblical literacy, church history awareness, and a willingness to perform honest scholarship (whatever one’s position on a given issue):

Fr. LF Responds to Newsweek Magazine