The Journey from Jehovah’s Witnesses to the Orthodox Church

February 27, 2010

Updated 01/01/2011

Every once in awhile, I get the question: “How did you find your way to Orthodoxy from Jehovah’s Witnesses?” I always have to answer that it was not me finding my way to the Church. That puts the wrong emphasis on the  journey. The journey begins and ends with God. So, I usually answer that question with a one word answer: “God.” He does the leading. Sometimes, like St. Paul, we “kick against the goads” and our journey may have a detour or two (Acts 26:14). In the final analysis, however, God gets all the credit for the journey.

So, I begin this story (which will probably take a few installments) only to share a bit of my spiritual journey. There’s nothing special in my story. But, if some of my experiences might be of some help to others in their journey, then it will be worth the telling.

I was just a few days shy of my eleventh birthday when Jehovah’s Witnesses came to our door in Garden Grove, California in late Spring, 1965. As the oldest hearing child of deaf parents I interpreted into sign language what the visiting woman wanted to tell my Mom and Dad. Our family was nominally Protestant but we were not churchgoers. My Dad gave the Witness lady 50 cents for the book Let God Be True. A couple weeks later she returned. This time she had the magazines Watchtower and Awake! We started taking the magazines regularly from this woman. My Mom and Dad had no real interest in them, but I found Awake! (the JW news magazine) interesting reading. The Watchtower (the JW doctrinal journal) was more difficult and less interesting reading for me. We bought other JW books as this lady continued to visit us.

However, the visits from this Witness lady stirred some spiritual interest in me. I had a reverence for God and the Bible but no religious education. I started reading the King James Bible we had in the house and got several chapters into it. Soon after the chapters on Noah and the Flood I bogged down. I asked my folks to take me to church. My Mother’s family had belonged to the Presbyterian Church so I started attending Sunday School there. However, there didn’t seem to be much substance to what I was learning. In contrast, the Witness who came to our home seemed to have answers to everything and didn’t mind all my questions. Now I started actually reading articles in the Watchtower and the doctrinal books. I was invited to a public lecture at the local Kingdom Hall (the JW meeting place) and my parents took me there. It was quite a contrast from the Presbyterian Church. They sang a song or two but the meeting was focused on learning. Witness meetings are primarily lectures and studies on their doctrinal beliefs. Everyone was very friendly and I obtained more Witness literature.

I should mention here, that during this spiritual arousal which had been prompted by the visits of the Witnesses, an important event occurred. I knew my knowledge and understanding of God was inadequate, but I firmly believed God had sent his Son, Jesus, to be my Savior. So, independently of my contacts with the Witnesses, in earnest prayer I placed myself in God’s care. It was a small step at the time, but an important one. I believe that my spiritual life and journey as a follower of Jesus began at that time.

As the Witnesses continued to visit me, they showed me some verses in the King James Bible to prove to me that God’s name is Jehovah. God had a name? Why didn’t any other religious group use God’s name? They reasoned with me that Jesus could not be God since the Bible clearly showed that Jesus and the Father were distinct. Who was Jesus praying to if he was God? The Witnesses cited the wars, earthquakes, and famines since 1914 onwards as proof we were living in the “last days” as a fulfillment of Jesus’ words at Matthew chapter 24 about the “sign” of his return. The Witnesses explained to me that the hope of heaven was only for 144,000 people and that unnumbered millions would be rewarded with everlasting life on a paradise earth. I obtained a copy of the JW Bible translation–the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures (NWT) and started using it in my studies. The Witness explanations made sense to me. Of course, I had very little religious training and nothing to counter their explanations. At that time, there really wasn’t much in the way of quality refutations of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Later I learned the significance of why the name Jehovah does not appear in the New Testament and some of the problems with the Witnesses’ teachings regarding 1914 and problems with their teaching about the 144,000, but I’ll explain that more fully in later installments.

For Jehovah’s Witnesses, their religion is “the truth.” For example, someone who has been a member for 5 years would say: “I’ve been in the truth for 5 years.” That implies, of course, that other religions were false. Other religions are considered part of “false religion,” which they identify with “Babylon the Great” from the book of Revelation. The Witnesses claim their religion is the same faith as the early Christian Church. All other Christian Churches are referred to as “Christendom” and regarded as apostate. The Witnesses who were studying with me referred me to the book The Two Babylons (written by a Protestant minister), which supposedly proved the Babylonish origins of “apostate Christendom.” I borrowed the book from my Witness friends and noticed it was primarily written to “expose” Catholic beliefs and practices. I thought that was okay. After all, I thought the Catholic Church was the most apostate church of all. I had no real knowledge of the Orthodox Church, but from I heard from my JW friends, it was probably just as bad. (I learned later how the methodology of looking for Babylonish origins was flawed.) Since I now believed that all other religions were false, I adopted the belief of my Witness friends that God was using the Watchtower Society as His exclusive agency to give spiritual food to His people. By now I had completely stopped attending any services at the Presbyterian Church and considered anything connected to traditional Christianity as apostate and spiritually unclean.

My parents started to get concerned about my growing interest in the Witnesses and they discouraged me from reading so much of their books and magazines. Even though I was only 12, my spiritual appetite could not be quenched. I decided to read the Witness literature on the sly. I kept Witness publications in my locker at school and would read them there. When I was at home alone, I’d pull out JW literature from a secret stash I had and read it. Occasionally, I’d visit my grandmother in another city and I’d walk over to the Kingdom Hall for part of the Sunday meeting. Back at home, I’d go out riding on my bicycle and end up at the local Kingdom Hall for the meeting or at a Witness home. The Witness lady started having a “Bible Study” with me in her home once a week. We read and discussed the book “Things in Which It is Impossible for God to Lie”, and would look up the cited Bible verses. I did not tell my parents what I was doing and since I was a kid who never got into trouble they didn’t quiz me about what I was doing. A few months later, my teen-age “rebellion” escalated. I would sneak out of the house to go door to door preaching with the JWs on Saturday morning or sometimes would go with friends to do so after school. Witness parents in the congregation would use me as an example for their kids. “See what David has to go through to go to meetings and field service!” Fortunately, the Witness kids did not hold that against me and I started making friendships among the other kids in the congregation.

Witnesses were told to highlight the chronology chart showing 1975 from the "Life Everlasting" book in their door to door work -- Oct. 1966 Kingdom Ministry

About this time (1966) the Watchtower Society published the book Life Everlasting in Freedom of the Sons of God. At the end of the first chapter, the book developed a chronological table from the creation of Adam and Eve stating that 6,000 years of mankind’s existence would end in the year 1975. For Witnesses, this was significant as it meant according to their understanding of biblical eschatology that Christ’s Millennial Reign could begin then. (Witnesses believe that the Millennium mentioned in the book of Revelation is a future event.) It also meant that Revelation’s “battle of Armageddon” (understood to be the destruction of all who reject the message preached by the Witnesses) could be over by then and the earth would start being returned to a paradise like the Garden of Eden. I still remember attending the local Congregation Book Study (at that time held at a neighbor’s home) as we read pages 26-30 of Life Everlasting in Freedom of the Sons of God and its explanation of the significance of the 6,000 year chronology:

“In this twentieth century an independent study has been carried on that does not blindly follow some traditional chronological calculations of Christendom, and the published timetable resulting from this independent study gives the date of man’s creation as 4026 B.C.E. So six thousand years of man’s existence on earth will soon be up, yes, within this generation….According to this trustworthy Bible chronology six thousand years from man’s creation will end in 1975, and the seventh period of a thousand years of human history will begin in the fall of 1975 C.E. So six thousand years of man’s existence on earth will soon be up, yes, within this generation….So from the standpoint of Jehovah God these passing six thousand years of man’s existence are but as six days of twenty-four hours,….So in not many years within our own generation we are reaching what Jehovah God could view as the seventh day of man’s existence. How appropriate it would be for Jehovah God to make of this coming seventh period of a thousand years a sabbath period of rest and release, a great Jubilee sabbath for the proclaiming of liberty throughout the earth to all its inhabitants! This would be most timely for mankind. It would also be most fitting on God’s part, for, remember, mankind has yet ahead of it what the last book of the Holy Bible speaks of as the reign of Jesus Christ over earth for a thousand years, the millennial reign of Christ. Prophetically Jesus Christ, when on earth nineteen centuries ago, said concerning himself: “For Lord of the sabbath is what the Son of man is.” (Matthew 12: 8). It would not be by mere chance or accident but would be according to the loving purpose of Jehovah God for the reign of Jesus Christ, the ‘Lord of the Sabbath,’ to run parallel with the seventh millennium of man’s existence.

Even though it was cautiously worded, this “new light” (new doctrinal emphasis by Watchtower leaders) about 1975 greatly excited the Witnesses I knew. I remember attending a “Service Meeting” at the Kingdom Hall where we were instructed to highlight the chronological chart (that showed the 1975 date) as proof that “this present system of things [world] does not have many years left” as we offered the “Live Forever” book from door to door. We were told “not make any predictions about Armageddon coming in a certain year” but to “let them [the people who would buy the book] read the chapter and see what the evidence indicates” so that they’d discover the 1975 date on their own as they read the book. (See scan of October 1966 Kingdom Ministry.)

The emphasis on 1975 was repeated in other JW publications as well. I remember distributing issues of Awake! magazine that emphasized the year 1975 and we’d hear Circuit Overseers (traveling representatives of the Watchtower Society) refer to the year 1975 in their lectures (such as this example from 1967). In 1970, the title of the main lecture at circuit assemblies was even entitled “Who Will Conquer the World in the 1970s?” There was genuine excitement generated by this sort of emphasis made.

The main lecture for Circuit Assemblies in 1970 was "Who Will Conquer the World in the 1970s?"

Occasionally, we’d hear a few statements by some leaders that seemed to put some cold water on our excitement about the 1975 chronology. In the main, however, almost all the JWs I knew felt that the chronology for 1975 was reliable and we felt that the world couldn’t last much longer past 1975 anyway.

In the March 1968 Kingdom Ministry (page 4), Witness leaders reminded us there were only "90 months left" before the Fall of 1975 to encourage more "pioneering" in the "short period of time left" before Armageddon

So, if Armageddon was coming soon, the question I faced was: would I be among those God would preserve alive? Being faithful to God meant some specific things: Besides living a moral life (which included some distinctive Witness interpretations), it was necessary to become actively involved with attendance at meetings at the Kingdom Hall (2 hours on Sundays, 2 hours on Thursday or Friday night, and one hour at a smaller group meeting at someone’s home). It was also necessary to go from door to door discussing the Bible and distributing Witness literature. Ten hours a month door to door was suggested as a minimum. Many put in 75 to 100 hours a month in the JW evangelization work. These were referred to as “pioneers.” If I was “unfaithful” by not doing these things, I could end up being destroyed at Armageddon.

I had always been a bright student with good grades but now my energies focused on these religious pursuits. Instead of planning to go to college after high school graduation I decided I wanted to work at the Watchtower headquarters in New York as a “Bethelite.” After all, there was not much time left before the End. I was going to graduate from high school in 1972. I concluded it would most likely be a waste of time for me to go to college as Armageddon would most likely come before I could graduate from college. In addition, Witness youth were discouraged from going to college or a university as that was considered spiritually dangerous. Instead, we were encouraged to become full time door to door evangelists. I still remember the shock my high school counselor had when I told her I didn’t plan on going to college. She told me, “You owe it to God and the Church to go to college.”  I shared that at one of the Witness meetings and the audience roared.

I had, of course, completely accepted the counsel from the Watchtower Society in the May 22, 1969 Awake!:

“If you are a young person, you also need to face the fact that you will never grow old in this present system of things. Why not? Because all the evidence in fulfillment of Bible prophecy indicates that this corrupt system is due to end in a few years. Of the generation that observed the beginning of the ‘last days’ in 1914, Jesus foretold: ‘This generation will by no means pass away until all these things occur.’ Therefore, as a young person, you will never fulfill any career that this system offers. If you are in high school and thinking about a college education, it means at least four, perhaps even six or eight more years to graduate into a specialized career. But where will this system of things be by that time? It will be well on the way towards its finish, if not actually gone! This is why parents who base their lives on God’s prophetic Word find it much more practical to direct their young ones into trades that do not require such long periods of additional schooling… True, those who do not understand where we are in the stream of time from God’s viewpoint will call this impractical. But which is really practical: preparing yourself for a position in this world that soon will pass away? or working toward surviving this system’s end and enjoying eternal life in God’s righteous new order?” (page 15)

However, there were moments of doubt. As an avid reader, I visited bookstores and came across the books Apostles of Denial by Edmund Gruss (a professor at a Baptist college) , The Inside Story of Jehovah’s Witnesses by William C. Stevenson and Anthony Hoekema’s study on Jehovah’s Witnesses. (These were among the better anti-JW materials I came across.)  I didn’t buy the books, but read much of them from the bookshelves in the store. My Seventh-day Adventist neighbors gave me the book God’s Channel of Truth — Is it the Watchtower?, which also challenged me about Watchtower history, especially with the documentation it gave about Beth Sarim, the house built by the Watchtower Society in San Diego, California to house Old Testament prophets (a belief the JWs had dropped in the 1940s).  While not persuaded to become either a Baptist or Seventh-day Adventist, these books planted even more doubts in my mind, but I submerged them. The doubts never completely left me and would surface periodically the next fifteen years.

By the time I was 15, my parents gave up their opposition to my involvement with the Witnesses. Even though they still disagreed with JW beliefs, they were impressed with my teenage Witness friends and felt they were a beneficial influence for me. I was baptized at a large Witness convention at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles in 1969. The baptism itself had very little ritualism about it. After a lecture, we baptismal candidates were asked two questions about our faith and our dedication to God. We were told we should get baptized without delay. In assembly line fashion over 2,000 were baptized by immersion that day in a public swimming pool. I changed into swimming trunks and followed the line to a man who dunked me in the water. He uttered no words. He said no prayer. All he did was dunk us in the water. I was excited, though, to finally be baptized!

Ironically, the very day I was baptized, the July 18, 1969 issue of Time magazine reported on our series of conventions worldwide. Towards the end of the article it referred to our predictions about 1975 (which were referenced in the special public talk at the conventions):

The Witnesses have what they believe is Scriptural proof that the end is coming. For one thing, their interpretation of Biblical chronology reveals that Adam and Eve were created in the autumn of 4026 B.C., or 5,994 years ago. Linking 6,000 years to the six days of God’s creation, they believe it fitting that there be a sabbath-like rest thereafter, beginning in 1975—though Witnesses cautiously avoid a flat prediction linked to that year. (Scan of original article)

We were all following the encouragement we received from the Watchtower Society to devote more time in the door to door work, especially in view of the times. With Armageddon so near, the lives of our neighbors were at stake. The internal monthly pamphlet Kingdom Ministry encouraged “pioneering” (spending 100 hours a month in the preaching work). The March 1968 Kingdom Ministry referred to the “ninety months left” before the Fall of 1975:

“In view of the short period of time left, we want to do this as often as circumstances permit. Just think, brothers, there are only about ninety months left before 6,000 years of man’s existence on earth is completed. Do you remember what we learned at the assemblies last summer?  The majority of people living today will probably be alive when Armageddon breaks out, and there are no resurrection hopes for those who are destroyed then.  So, now more than ever, it is vital not to ignore that spirit of wanting to do more.”

A few years later, the May 1974 Kingdom Ministry commended those who sold homes and property which would allow them funds to “pioneer” in the short time left before “this old system” (this wicked world) ends:

“Reports are heard of brothers selling their homes and property and planning to finish out the rest of their days in this old system in the pioneer service. Certainly, this is a fine way to spend the short time remaining before the wicked world’s end.–1 John 2:17.” (Scan of article)

In September 1973, my application to work at the JW headquarters in New York (“Bethel”) was accepted. My parents were extremely unhappy. Even though they were disappointed I had not pursued college, now they saw that I was giving up everything to live and work for room and board at the Watchtower’s factories where their books and magazines are produced. It was hard to disappoint them but I felt I was doing what God wanted me to do. I considered my parents’ opposition a test of my faith and I would not allow them to keep me from serving Jehovah. The local JW congregation raised the money I needed to fly to New York. I left small-town Idaho and moved to Brooklyn, New York. Talk about culture shock!

Jehovah's Witness Headquarters in Brooklyn, NY

The years before 1975 were exciting times at Bethel. The factory was working night and day to keep up with the orders for JW books. I became a lead person in the book sewing department on the night shift. There were about 2,000 Bethel workers in the factories and residences on Brooklyn Heights just across from lower Manhattan. I made many new friends with young men from all over the country who also had given up everything to work at Watchtower headquarters. We had a four year commitment but many of us wanted to stay even longer. Many of the group of guys who came in with me did not expect to finish our 4 year commitment before Armageddon would strike. I vividly remember when one day a small group of us “newboys” from the bindery were invited up to the room of our floor overseer, John Adams, before lunch. He had a commanding view from his room overlooking Wall Street and the Twin Towers across the East River. We complimented him on his view and he replied, “How many of you think that by the time your 4 years are up, this will still be here?” To be honest, I had some doubts that Armageddon would wipe out Manhattan by then, but I didn’t voice it on that occasion. Nor did anyone else. (Note: recent news reports indicate that the headquarters in Brooklyn will be relocated upstate.)

Lower Manhattan viewed from Brooklyn Bethel

Next: Life at Bethel, the World Headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses

For further reading:

My resignation letter from Jehovah’s Witnesses (written in 1980)

The Presanctified Liturgy

February 24, 2010

The Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts weaves together Vespers and the Eucharistic portion of the Divine Liturgy. All the while maintaining the weekday chant of the Great Fast, preserving the “Bright Sadness” of the season. Since this is a Eucharist service we begin with “Blessed is the Kingdom.” But the mode immediately switches to Vespers with the normal Vesper’s psalm of creation. The evening prayer of the Church connects the setting of the sun to God’s creation in Genesis. From here we go to the Great Litany of the Divine Liturgy. We pray for God’s mercy for all things.

As we proceed to the antiphon Psalms of Liturgy the Church selects the Steppeni, or Psalms of ascent (Psalms 120 – 134). These were originally composed for the Hebrew pilgrimage to the temple. As Jewish pilgrims go to the temple on great feasts they sing these Psalms. The Church selects these Psalms as a reminder that we are on a pilgrimage to Pascha during this Great Fast. Just like the Hebrews before us we are marching to the new temple, Jesus Christ. During the first Passover pilgrimage in the Gospel of John, Jesus drives the money changers from the Temple. “His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’ The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will

The Presanctified Liturgy from Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church in Claremont, New Hampshire. This video includes opening prayers. The Presanctified Liturgy begins about 21:35 minutes into the video and lasts about an hour and a half.

you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.” (John 2:17-22). By singing the Psalms of ascent we affirm Jesus’ claim.

The Vesper’s stichera proclaim the themes for the day. The daily dose of Genesis and Proverbs bring us the next step closer to Pascha in our reading cycle. We pick up the communion service with the Great Entrance, not of the bread and wine, but the real body and blood of Christ. The hymn for the entrance affirms this truth and the entrance is made in silent awe for the true body and blood of Christ that enters our midst. In the east we do not pour out elaborate services of adoration to the Eucharist, we fall silent in awe when this real presence is brought forth.

Following the pattern of the normal Divine Liturgy we prepare to receive the Eucharist. There is no anaphora (offering) for the gifts are already the body and blood of Christ. But we prepare to receive them as we do during the Divine Liturgy. At the same time we maintain the character of the Great Fast with the special melodies that strike that mode of Bright Sadness.

After breaking our fast with the perfect food for our pilgrimage to Pascha, we conclude as we do every Great Fast prayer service, with prostrations, singing “Having suffered the Passion for us.”

Taken from bulletin insert prepared by Steve Puluka, based upon the book  by Father Alexander Schmemann, Great Lent: Journey to Pascha.

Lenten Meditation

February 24, 2010

Here, with music and in video form, is a superb meditation on Great Lent:

Spiritual Reading for Great Lent

February 21, 2010

A good discipline to develop during Great Lent is to devote oneself to more spiritual reading. First, one should devote more time to reading Holy Scripture.

Many other great books and spiritual classics are also available online.

Here are some links to good reading material – in case you don’t have enough to read!

Here they are,  from various sources on the web:

New Testament (pdf download from the Eastern Orthodox Bible)

Old Testament (Brenton’s Translation of the LXX)

Old Testament (New English Translation of the LXX)

The Apostolic Fathers (Vol. 1) Kirsopp Lake, translator

The Apostolic Fathers (Vol. 2) Kirsopp Lake, translator

The Early Christian Fathers (Bettenson)

The Philokalia — The Complete Text

St. John of Karpathos

St. Mark the Ascetic

The Paradise of the Holy Fathers (Vol. 1)

The Paradise of the Holy Fathers (Vol. 2)

Life of St. Antony by St. Athanasius

Life of St. Mary of Egypt by St. Sophronius

Vitae Patrum : Lives of the Desert Fathers

Selections from the Sayings of the Desert Fathers

St. Gregory of Narek

Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith by St. John of Damascus

The Path to Salvation by St. Theophan the Recluse

The Conversation in the Snow with St. Seraphim of Sarov

The Way of the Ascetics by Tito Colliander

Letters of Elder Macarius of Optina

Indication of the Way into the Kingdom of Heaven by St Innocent of Moscow

A Treasury of Russian Spirituality by G. P. Fedotov

A History of Monastic Spirituality by Luc Bresard

Father Kosmos – Apostle of the Poor

The Jesus Prayer by Fr. Lev Gillet

The Struggle with God by Paul Evdokimov

The Deep Meaning of Fasting by Matthew the Poor

The Glory of God Hidden in His Creatures by Olivier Clement

Martyrdom: Death and Resurrection by Olivier Clement

The Face of Christ in the Old Testament (Selections) by George Barrois

The Message of the Bible (Selections) by George Cronk

Sundays of Great Lent

February 21, 2010

The Church’s weekly celebration of the Resurrection cannot be stopped during the Great Fast. We continue to commemorate this saving day without fail. The command of our Lord to remember provides the high point for the week. On Sunday we have the lamp of our journey lit. Saturday will always be the day of rest from creation. But Sunday is the day of the new creation. The day Christ rises from the grave he makes us a spiritual creation. We are born again in the death and resurrection of Christ.

From the earliest days of the Church the celebration of the Resurrection was the central act of worship. From this Feast of Feasts the rays of the resurrection stretch to the entire year through the Sunday Eucharistic celebration. The joy of this new creation spreads to the entire year. During the Great Fast Sunday becomes the thematic turning point for each week. The journey to Pascha begins with the expulsion of Adam on the Sunday of Cheesefare. Then on each successive Sunday we change focus. During each following week we elaborate on the theme. Step-by-step we approach the destination, Pascha.

On the first Sunday we commemorate the triumph of true worship, the Sunday of Orthodoxy. This historical event, the restoration of icons for use in the Church, affirms that our journey is not alone, but as a pilgrim Church together. I don’t follow my own feelings or decisions, but place myself in the company of the faithful in the Church.

On the Second Sunday the paralytic stands for my own spiritual illness before God. As I make the journey back from exile must ask the Lord for his healing power. I acknowledge my need for healing along the way.

At the mid-point of the Great Fast the Church plants the cross in our midst. Following Christ will entail taking up the cross daily, willingly as he did. I must expect no better than what our Lord received.

On the fourth Sunday the Church offers the “Ladder of Divine Ascent”. This book by Saint John Climacus spells out all the behaviors that build up our souls and those that tear it down. Each is like a step on Jacob’s ladder to heaven.

Finally, Mary of Egypt provides us with an example for turning my own life around. She found the Lord and came from the life of sin and death to the new life in Christ.

Taken from bulletin insert prepared by Steve Puluka, based upon the book  by Father Alexander Schmemann, Great Lent: Journey to Pascha.

Lord Have Mercy!

February 20, 2010

Homily for Forgiveness Vespers

February 20, 2010

By Father John Parker at his blog Ascent:

Modeled on St John Chrysostom’s Catechetical Homily

I thought it might be helpful to us if we began the fast with an exhortation which matched the beautiful Paschal Sermon of our Father among the Saints, John Chrysostom.

May the Lord bless our ascetical effort and sanctify us all thereby!

If anyone be devout and love God,

Let him commence this radiant fast with joy!

If anyone be a wise servant,

Let him, rejoicing, enter into the school of repentance.

We who have wallowed long in sin,

Let us now begin our return.

If anyone has strayed from the first hour,

Let him today repent with zeal.

If anyone has sinned from the third hour,

Let him with gratitude embrace the fast.

If anyone has fled God from the sixth hour,

Let him have no misgivings about his prompt return;

Because he shall in nowise be turned away therefore.

If anyone has indulged the flesh since the ninth hour,

Let him draw near, fearing God alone and trusting in His mercy.

And if anyone has turned away only at the eleventh hour, Let him also not hesitate to turn back with haste.

For the Lord, who is longsuffering and full of compassion and mercy, will accept the last even as the first.

He restores him who repents at the first hour,

As He does him who turns back at the eleventh.

And He shows mercy upon the last,

And cares for the first;

And to the one He gives,

And upon the other He bestows gifts.

And He both accepts the confession,

And welcomes the intention,

And honors the contrite heart and rejoices in the return.

Wherefore, enter all of you into the holiness of your Lord;

Offer your repentance,

Both the last, and likewise the first.

You rich and poor together, repent, for today we stand outside the closed gates of paradise.

You sober and you heedless, prostrate yourselves before your King!

Return to the Lord today, both you who have sinned with knowledge and those who have done so in ignorance.

Your pantries are full; empty them to the hungry.

The belly enslaves us, let no one be dominated thereby.

Enter all of you into the Great Fast;

Stripped of heavenly wealth by sin, all draw near to God’s rich loving-kindness!

Let no one despair in his sinfulness,

For the Bridegroom comes at midnight.

Weep all of you for your iniquities,

And draw near to the life-giving Cross of our Lord.

Let no one put confidence in the flesh,

For the Devil has deceived us all thereby, and therewith enslaves us to sin.

By turning from God, we are made captives.

We have called good evil and evil good, and put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter.

And Isaiah, foretelling this, did cry:

Woe to those who put darkness for light, and light for darkness!

We are embittered, for we are banned from Eden.

We are embittered, but it is we who have mocked God.

We are embittered, for now we shall surely die.

We are embittered, for we have succumbed to the serpent.

We are embittered, for we are fettered in chains.

We partook of a fruit, and met the deceiver.

We were entrusted with paradise, but we chose Hell.

Our eyes were opened to see the nakedness of sin.

Be pleased, O Lord, to deliver us!

O Lord, make haste to help us!

This is the acceptable time, let us repent!

This is the day of salvation, let us crucify the passions!

The end is at hand and destruction hangs over us!

The end draws nigh, let us come again to our senses!

The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, what first-fruit shall we offer?

Let us delay not, lest we remain dead in the grave, sold under sin!

For God desires not the death of the sinner, but that he should turn from his wickedness and live!

So, let us choose life, and live, for the mercy of God endures forever!

To Him be glory and dominion

Unto ages of ages. Amen.

The Great Lenten Prayer of St Ephraim

February 15, 2010

This prayer is one of the main prayers of Great Lent. Towards the end of this video clip are some powerful words from St. John Chrysostom on the application of fasting to all areas of life:

Great Canon of St Andrew of Crete

February 14, 2010

St Andrew of Crete & St Mary of Egypt

Great Lent begins on Clean Monday, which this year falls on March 7th. For the first few days of Great Lent, the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete is chanted. The beginning of the Canon reveals its appropriateness for the first week of Great Lent:

1. Where shall I begin to lament the deeds of my wretched life? What first-fruit shall I offer, O Christ, for my present lamentation? But in Thy compassion grant me release from my falls.

2. Come, wretched soul, with your flesh, confess to the Creator of all. In future refrain from your former brutishness, and offer to God tears in repentance.

3. Having rivaled the first-created Adam by my transgression, I realize that I am stripped naked of God and of the everlasting kingdom and bliss through my sins.

4. Alas, wretched soul! Why are you like the first Eve? For you have wickedly looked and been bitterly wounded, and you have touched the tree and rashly tasted the forbidden food.

5. The place of bodily Eve has been taken for me by the Eve of my mind in the shape of a passionate thought in the flesh, showing me sweet things, yet ever making me taste and swallow bitter things.

6. Adam was rightly exiled from Eden for not keeping Thy one commandment, O Savior. But what shall I suffer who am always rejecting Thy living words?

7. I have willfully incurred the guilt of Cain’s murder, since by invigorating my flesh I am the murderer of my soul’s awareness, and have warred against it by my evil deeds.

8. I have not resembled Abel’s righteousness, O Jesus. I have never offered Thee acceptable gifts, nor divine actions, nor a pure sacrifice, nor an unblemished life.

9. Like Cain, we too, O wretched soul, have likewise offered to the Creator of all foul deeds, defective sacrifice and a useless life. Therefore we too are condemned.

10. In molding my clay into life, O Potter, Thou didst put in me flesh and bones, breath and vitality. But, O my Creator, my Redeemer and Judge, accept me who repent.

11. I confess to Thee, O Savior, the sins I have committed, and the wounds of my body and soul which murderous thoughts like robbers within have inflicted upon me.

12. I have sinned, O Savior, yet I know that Thou art the Lover of men. Thou strikest compassionately and pitiest warmly. Thou seest me weeping and runnest towards me as the Father recalling the Prodigal.

13.  In old age even, O Savior, do not cast me out empty to hell as I lie prostrate before Thy gates. But before my end, in Thy love for men, grant me release from my falls.

14. I am the one by my thoughts who fell among robbers; and now I am all wounded by them, full of sores. But stand by me, O Christ my Savior, and heal me.

15. The priest saw me first and passed by on the other side. Then the Levite took a look at my sufferings and disdained my nakedness. But stand by me, O Jesus Who didst dawn out of Mary, and have compassion on me.

16. O Lamb of God, Who takest away the sins of all, take from me the heavy yoke of sin, and in Thy compassion grant me tears of compunction

17. It is time for repentance. I draw near to Thee, my Creator. Take from me the heavy yoke of sin, and in Thy compassion grant me tears of compunction.*

18. Abhor me not, O Savior, cast me not away from Thy face. Take from me the heavy yoke of sin, and in Thy compassion grant me release from my falls.*

19. All my sins, voluntary and involuntary, obvious and secret, known and unknown, forgive, O Savior, for Thou art God; be merciful and save me.

20. From my youth, O Christ, I have rejected Thy commandments. I have passed my whole life without caring or thinking as a slave of my passions. Therefore, O Savior, I cry to Thee: At least in the end save me.

21. I have squandered in profligacy my substance, O Savior, and I am barren of virtues and piety; but famished I cry: O Father of mercies, forestall and have compassion on me.

22. I fall prostrate before Thee, O Jesus. I have sinned against Thee, be merciful to me. Take from me the heavy yoke of sin, and in Thy compassion grant me tears of compunction.

23. Enter not into judgment with me, by recording my deeds, demanding an account of my words, and examining my motives and desires. But in Thy compassion disregard my terrible past and save me, O God All-Powerful.

The various parts of the Canon that are chanted during the first week of Great Lent are gathered together and chanted in their entirety during the fifth week of Great Lent. More about the Great Canon of St. Andrew (with additional texts) can be read here.

The radio program Icons in Sound: The Beauty of Orthodox Liturgy produced a radio program about the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete with selections from the Canon sung in English by a choir with harmonization arranged by Archbishop Job, of blessed memory. The program is in mp3 format and runs about a half hour, giving a great snapshot of this profound Lenten experience. Mp3 recordings of the 9 Odes of the Canon by the same choir can be listened to here. (Text and music arrangements of the Canon can also be found at this resource.)

Forgiveness Vespers

February 14, 2010

This article by Frederica Mathewes-Green, originally appearing at Beliefnet, chronicles the preparation for Great Lent in the Orthodox Church and gives a good description of Forgiveness Vespers that occur the evening before Lent begins.

Journey into Orthodox Christian Lent

On Sunday night I am going to have to apologize to someone. I am going to have to apologize to about a hundred people, in fact–one at a time, face to face. I’m looking forward to it.

For Orthodox Christians, Lent begins differently than it does for Protestants and Catholics. The observance of Ash Wednesday is dramatic and beautiful, but is not in the Eastern tradition. For us, Lent comes in gradually over a period of weeks, like a cello line subtly weaving itself into our lives.

Ten Sundays before Easter (or, as we call it, Pascha) we hear the Gospel lesson of the Publican and the Pharisee; before we begin the season of self-denial, we recall that it is futile to boast of self-denial. The Publican’s model of heartbroken repentance is instead our aim. To reinforce that lesson, during the following week there is no fasting. The Orthodox pattern is to abstain from meat, fish, and dairy products on Wednesdays and Fridays year round, but this is one of the few weeks that is suspended and feasting is the rule.

The next Sunday we hear the Gospel of the Prodigal Son, perhaps the most beloved parable in the Bible. The icon of this scene shows the son in worn, torn clothing and his feet wrapped in rags; he cradles his sorry head in one hand while reaching the other out tentatively toward Jesus. There is nothing tentative about Jesus’ responses — he is running toward the son, his arms open to embrace, and a scroll tumbles from his hand: “For this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”

Orthodox confess their sins in the presence of a priest year round, as their consciences prompt them, but everyone must make a confession in Lent before receiving the Eucharist on Pascha. This icon reminds us of the sharp paradox of making confession. The awkward pain and embarrassment of admitting our wrongs is the necessary condition for release and joy. Being thoroughly known, yet loved anyway, is life’s greatest joy. But it lies on the other side of this thorny divide: you must allow yourself to be thoroughly known. Blessed are those who take that risk voluntarily and early, without having to reach the state of the Prodigal Son.

By the third Sunday, a watershed is reached. The Gospel readings concern the Last Judgement, and no punches are pulled. Here is the choice: humility like that of the Publican or Prodigal Son, which opens our hearts to receive divine love–or the cataclysmic rewards of stubborn pride. This Sunday is also called “Meatfare Sunday,” and as the name suggests, you eat meat this day, because you won’t be eating any for a long time to come.

During all of Lent, Orthodox strive to abstain from eating certain foods. This is not a matter of ritual purity; on Pascha the tables will groan with beef, pork, and fowl. If these foods were unclean, we wouldn’t dig into them with gusto on the holiest day of the year. Nor does our refraining from these foods somehow benefit God or make him like us more. Fasting is a form of self-discipline, like lifting weights or jogging. It builds the muscle of self-control, one useful in many situations besides eating. If we can master the temptation to reach for a cheeseburger, we can resist other daily temptations as they come along. As with athletic training, everyone acknowledges a common standard, but adjusts it to their own health and spiritual needs. Some would find this fast so taxing that it would sour them spiritually, and they must do less; perhaps they can build up to it in time. Others find it not stringent enough. No one is to judge any one else’s fast, or even notice it. But it helps that we all look to a common standard. Since we all fast from the same things at the same time, we can support each other, trade recipes, and, when necessary, commiserate.

With the following Sunday, seven weeks before Pascha, Lent begins in earnest. This is called “Cheesefare Sunday,” and from now until Pascha we will abstain from meat, fish, dairy products, wine and olive oil. At the evening Vespers service we trade the bright chant melodies for more sober ones, and say for the first time the prayer of Ephrem the Syrian, a fourth century hermit. We will recite this over and over throughout Lent:

“O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, faith-heartedness, lust of power, and idle talk.”

If you were in our church on this Sunday evening you would see us do something surprising. We fall to our knees and then place the palms of our hands on the floor, and touch our foreheads down between our hands. This is called “making a prostration.” You may have seen Muslims worshipping this way toward Mecca. This traditional middle-eastern physical expression of worship was used by Christians for centuries before the founding of Islam, and of course the Hebrew scriptures are full of references to people “falling on their faces” before God.

We stand up again, and recite the next passage of the prayer:

“But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to Thy servant.” Here we do another prostration.

“Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own sins and not to judge my brother: for Thou are blessed unto ages of ages. Amen.” Then comes a final prostration.

At last we reach the Rite of Forgiveness. As vespers comes to a close, the members of the church form a large circle. At the end nearest the altar the two ends overlap, as a subdeacon turns to face my husband, the priest. He bows to touch the ground, honoring the image of God in this person, then stands to say, “Forgive me, my brother, for anyway I have offended you.” After the subdeacon says “I forgive you,” he too bows to the ground, and asks for and receives the same forgiveness, and then the two embrace. Each of them then moves over to the next person in line. Over the course of an hour or so, every single person in the church will stand face-to-face with every other person. Each will bow to the ground and ask for forgiveness; each will bestow forgiveness on the other.

As my husband says, “When we do this, we do something the devil hates.” Teenaged brothers and sisters forgive each other. Small children solemnly tell their mothers, “I forgive you.” Folks who have been arguing about the church budget for months embrace with tears.

In fact, tears are the common coin of the evening. Some weep hard as they look in each face and think how they have slighted, ignored, or resented this person during the year — a person now revealed as bearing the face of Christ. Some weep as they are forgiven, over and over, in a nearly-overwhelming rush of love and acceptance. Some weep and hug so much they hold up the line, but no one minds. A toddler is ignoring the line and going on his own steam from person to person, tugging on a skirt hem or trouser leg and looking up to ask, “Forgive?”

This is how Lent begins for us. It’s an exhilarating kick start for a time that will get much harder. The number of services during Lent increase dramatically — during Holy Week there are eleven — and they get longer as well. Food simultaneously gets shorter. Old knees don’t like prostrations. In all this, though, we rejoice; we look forward to Lent as a time that is invigorating and challenging. In the company of our friends we can run this race. It is good that it begins with forgiveness.