The Story of Hogar Rafael Ayau

July 9, 2012

The inspiring story of the Hogar Rafael Ayau, an Orthodox Christian orphanage in the heart of downtown Guatemala City Guatemala. The video describes the journey to provide a home for hundred of children and the need to seek new home outside of the city:

The Desert Fathers: Madmen or Pilgrims in Transformation?

January 8, 2012

A recommendation for a good read:

Secular historians sometimes misrepresent early Christian monks as fanatical madmen. An excellent analysis and refutation of this charge was recently published by Paul Federer in “Uncertain Transformation: The Role of Asceticism in Death in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers.” Federer cites Edward Gibbon (among others) for this negative view:

The rigorous ascetic regime of Christian monks has tempted many historians to conclude that monks believed salvation from death was the result of works preformed to atone to for sin and appease God’s wrath. Edward Gibbon provides one of the earliest incarnations of this view in his Decline and Fall of the Rome Empire, when states “inspired by a savage enthusiasm which represents man as a criminal and God as a tyrant [monks] embraced a life of misery as the price of eternal happiness.”

Federer goes on to show the fallacy of this perspective:

These criticisms paint Christian monks as dangerous fanatics and subtly link them with an intellectual decline in Late Antiquity. These audacious indictments rely on a misunderstanding of asceticism’s role in the monastic vocation. Gibbon, Dodds, and Fox impose a ghoulish God on the church of Late Antiquity who revels in the suffering of his servants. The Apothegmata rejects this view arguing that asceticism was the means of Christians’ transformation as opposed to an end that allowed them to escape the wrath of an angry God. In her introduction to The Sayings, Benidicta Ward provides an eloquent explanation of ascetic practices and their role in monastic life, “Monks went without sleep because they were watching for the Lord; they did not speak because they were listening to God; they fasted because they were fed by the Word of God. It was the end that mattered, the ascetic practices were only the means.” Gibbon, Dodd and Fox portray ascetic practices as a frantic scramble to endure sufficient personal suffering in exchange for a pardon from a vindictive God. Ward demonstrates that individual transformation and not divine pardon was the goal of such acts, “All ascetic effort, all personal relationships, life in all aspects was brought slowly into the central relationship with God in Christ.” Salvation was not a reward for a life spent in misery atoning for sin; it is a state of being.

The complete article can be read here.

The Fathers on the Spirit of Pride

July 6, 2011

From The Vitae Patrum:

An old man said, “Anyone freely praised by people is in not a little danger to his soul. But anyone not held in honor among people will finally be given glory.”

The same man said, “Seed will not germinate among weeds, and it is impossible for those who get praise and glory from the world to enjoy the harvest of heaven.”

The same man said, “When you are assaulted by thoughts of vainglory or pride, examine yourself whether you have obeyed all God’s commandments, loved your enemies, rejoiced in the success of your enemy and been saddened at his fall. If you constantly realize that you are an unprofitable servant and a greater sinner than all others, you will never then think highly of yourself however much good you may do, for you will remember that any boastful thought undoes all the good.”

An old man said, “Do not set yourself up against your brother, claiming that you are more reliable or abstinent than he. Be subject to the grace of God in the spirit of poverty and unfeigned charity, lest puffed up by the spirit of pride you lose all the fruit of your previous labors.”

Again he said, “Insofar as a man immerses himself in humility, so may he be exalted on high. Pride which would exalt itself to the skies is brought down to hell, and humility if it goes down to hell is lifted up to the heavens.”

Abba Macarius was once returning to his cell at daybreak carrying a bundle of palm leaves, when the devil met him carrying a sharp reaping hook. He tried to strike him down but failed.

“I suffer a great deal from you, Macarius,” he said, “for every time I want to harm you I am unable to do so. For whatever work you do I am forced to do even greater. You fast sometimes, I am never able to partake of any food; you frequently keep vigil, but I can never allow sleep to overcome me; but I declare that there is one thing in which you always come out the winner.”

“And what may that be?” inquired Macarius.

“Your humility alone it is that beats me.”

As the devil said this, the blessed Macarius lifted up his hands in prayer, and the unclean spirit vanished into thin air.

One of the fathers said, “Everything a monk labors at is worth nothing without humility. Humility goes before love just as John Baptist went before Christ, drawing all people to him. Humility draws you towards love, that is, to none but God, since God is love.”

A brother asked an old man what humility was. He replied, “It is the tree of life, growing up into the heavens.”

He also said, “Humility is the ground in which God told us to offer him sacrifice.”

An old man when asked how the soul could acquire humility replied, “Think only of your own sins.” He added, “Humility marks the perfection of a human being.”

Abba Motois said that humility consisted in never getting angry and never causing others to get angry.

He also said that humility consists in forgiving the brother who sins against you, even before he has repented.

Ora et Labora in Horto

July 4, 2011

A new short film: Scenes from the work and prayer of monks at Skite Sainte-Foy, an Orthodox monastery in the Cévennes in south-central France. Beautiful photography and chant from the choir Melodi:

Two Views of the Proskomedia

February 12, 2011

The bread and wine offered and changed into the Eucharist at the Divine Liturgy are prepared beforehand in the Proskomedia Service

Prior to the Divine Liturgy, the bread and wine used for the service are prepared in what is known as the Proskomedia (Proskomide) or the Liturgy of Preparation. Because this service takes place behind the iconostas, its rich symbolism is sometimes not appreciated by the people who attend. There are a few ways to learn more about this service.  Much is available online in articles at various sources but there are also some excellent videos on the Proskomedia service that have been produced worth watching. Thus, it is possible to see the service as it is traditionally performed at the altar of prothesis behind the iconostas as well as watch explanations of the service.

For example, here is a video recording of the service from St George Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Greenville, South Carolina:

Another way to learn more about the proskomedia is from catechetical presentations by clergy. Here Fr. John Peck of St George Greek Orthodox Church in Prescott, Arizona presents an instructional proskomedia to members of his parish explaining some of its spiritual significance:

For further reading and viewing:

Prosphora Catechetical Video by Archbishop Lazar of All Saints Monastery in Dewdney, British Columbia, Canada

A Pictorial Description of the Divine Liturgy (including the Proskomidi Service) by Archmandrite Ephrem

Text of the Proskomidi Service (pdf)

Of Prosphoras and Pre-Cut Pieces (contrasts the traditional Orthodox proskomedia service with the latinized shortcut service done in many Eastern Catholic parishes)

Lecture by Fr. Justin: St Catherine’s Monastery’s Librarian

February 8, 2011

From Lanier Theological LibraryLecture given November 6, 2010:

St. Catherine's Monastery is at the base of Mt. Sinai in Egypt

Saint Catherine’s Monastery is the world’s oldest continuously inhabited monastery, with a history extending back over 1700 years. In the mid-nineteenth century, it was at this monastery that what became known as codex Sinaiticus was discovered. It is the only known complete copy of the Greek New Testament in uncial script. Although this codex is now kept in the British Museum, St. Catherine’s library contains manuscripts famous throughout the world for their antiquity and for the range of languages that appear in the collection. Father Justin will show five manuscripts in particular that have been studied by scholars within the last year, as a way of demonstrating the continuing significance of the Sinai manuscripts for our understanding of the Scriptures and of the heritage of the Church.

Father Justin was born in Ft Worth, Texas, in 1949. He lived in Chile until the age of nine, after which his family moved to El Paso. After graduating from the University of Texas at Austin in 1971, he entered a Greek Orthodox monastery three years later. He was tonsured a monk in 1977, and ordained deacon and priest the following year. He has been a member of Saint Catherine’s Monastery since 1996, where his responsibilities have included the photography of the Sinai manuscripts with a high-resolution digital camera. Five years ago, the members of the community elected him librarian.

Fr. Justin answers questions:

Another look at St. Catherine’s Monastery can be seen here:

Metropolitan Hilarion On Christian Unity: ‘No Imminent Breakthrough’

February 8, 2011

By John Burger at the National Catholic Reporter

H/T: Journey to Orthodoxy

Pope Benedict XVI and Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev

There’s been encouraging — sometimes tantalizing — news in recent years about the growing potential for Catholic-Orthodox unification. Pope Benedict XVI is said to be viewed more favorably by the Orthodox than his predecessor. The Catholic Archbishop of Moscow exclaimed in 2009 that unity with the Orthodox could be achieved “within months.” And the North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation issued a document last October that envisions practical steps each Church can begin taking to begin the process of reunification.

But Russian Orthodox Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev is a lot more cautious about any predictions of imminent unity between East and West. Archbishop Hilarion heads the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department of External Church Relations, a position that was held by now-Patriarch Kirill before Patriarch Alexei died in 2008.

At 44, Hilarion has experienced a meteoric rise in the hierarchy of the Orthodox Church. A brilliant theologian and author, he was elected bishop at age 35, has served as bishop of Vienna and head of the Representation of the Russian Orthodox Church to the European Institutions in Brussels. He is deeply involved in ecumenical dialogues with the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion.

He’s also an accomplished composer and is in New York for the U.S. English-language premiere of his St. Matthew Passion oratorio this evening. He also delivered the annual Father Alexander Schmemann lecture at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y., on Saturday, where he spoke about the meaning of icons in the Orthodox Church.

Thanks to Father John Behr and Deborah Belonick of St. Vladimir’s, I was able to sit down with Archbishop Hilarion for a chat after the lecture. Here’s a transcript of our conversation.

How important is Christian unity to the Orthodox Church?

The notion of Christian unity is essentially linked to the last words of Jesus Christ, which he pronounced at the Last Supper and, notably, those which were addressed to his father, when he preached about the unity of his disciples. It is a tragedy that Christ’s disciples throughout the world were unable to preserve this unity and that many schisms and divisions arose in the Church, and the call to Christian unity is the ultimate goal of our exposure to inter-Christian activities and to various dialogues which we lead with the Roman Catholic Church and with other Christian traditions.

So I think for an Orthodox Christian, it is essential to participate in inter-Christian exchanges in order to bring different Christian traditions closer to mutual understanding in order to overcome centuries of prejudices with the ultimate goal of the restoration of the full Eucharistic communion between various Christian denominations.

Of course, the Orthodox and the Catholic are the closest ones. We have certain differences in dogma, certain differences in ecclesiology, but we have the same teaching on the apostolic succession of the hierarchy, on the sacraments and on the Church in general.

Therefore, though there are obstacles to unity, they are, I believe, in no way insurmountable.

What in the Orthodox view constitutes full Christian unity? What does it look like?

Full Christian unity is the Eucharistic communion. We do not need to reshape our Church administration, our local traditions. We can live with our differences within one Church, participating from one bread and one cup. We need, however, to rediscover what united us and what brought us to disunity, particularly in the 11th century.

So the basis for the restoration of the full communion would be, I believe, the faith of the Church east and west in the first millennium.

And you are quite involved in these talks personally.


Has Catholic-Orthodox unity become more of a possibility in recent years? If so, since when, or because of what?

I think certain feasible positive changes came with the beginning of the pontificate of Benedict XVI. He is a man of the Church. He is very traditional in his understanding of the dogma and of morality and he is very close to the Orthodox Church. He highly respects Orthodox traditions. He knows Orthodox theology, and as he indicated in his latest book, Orthodox concerns are very close to his heart. He speaks very highly about the Ecumenical Patriarch (Bartholomew I). He speaks very highly and also very personally about his encounters with the current Patriarch of Moscow, Kirill. And it is clear that, for him, the relationship with the Orthodox Church is one of the primary tasks on his agenda.

Do you think complete union between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches is a possibility in our lifetime? What do you think would have to happen before it could come about?

I would respond by quoting the Pope: it depends on how long we will live. But I believe that the Eucharistic unity between the Orthodox and the Catholics is not something easily achievable within a few years because even if we look at our theological dialogue, it goes very slowly, and we sometimes are unable to solve even rather insignificant problems which existed in the past for many years.
So we should not anticipate that there will be major breakthroughs in just a few years time. But we should be hopeful, and, what is most important, we should work. We should be honest towards each other. We should not hide our differences. We should discuss them openly.

But I also believe that, without aspiring that solving all theological problems that exist between the Orthodox and the Catholics we can learn how to work together, how to act together. And without being one Church administratively we can act as members of one Christian body.

This is what I call a strategic alliance between the Orthodox and the Catholic Church. This alliance is necessary in order for us to learn how to work together, because the challenges we are facing are the same. One of the challenges is how to re-Christianize a de-Christianized world. This is what Pope Benedict XVI speaks about very often. In particular he speaks about the New Evangelization of Europe. I believe that this is a huge missionary task and even such a grand Church as the Catholic Church cannot accomplish this task alone. And the closest allies for it would be the Orthodox Church. I believe we can do many things together; we can face modern changes together, even without being one Church, even without having full Eucharistic communion.

How would you describe recent dialogue on the issue of primacy? What is each side saying? Has either side shown any sign of possibly changing?

Well, Pope John Paul II called on everybody, particularly on the Orthodox to express their understanding of primacy.

In his encyclical Ut Unum Sint.

Yes. I believe we the Orthodox are ourselves not altogether clear about what we mean by primacy and how this primacy should be exercised. We have, for example, certain differences between the primacy as it is understood by the Patriarchate of Constantinople and the primacy as it is understood by the Patriarchate of Moscow.

In any case, we do not believe that there could be a bishop above all other bishops whose decisions would be binding for the entire Church. We believe that the bishop of Rome in the first Millennium was obviously first in honor but he was first among equals. He did not have direct jurisdiction, for example, over the East. Therefore, when we come to the discussion of the primacy we would argue that the universal jurisdiction of the Pope is something that didn’t exist in the first Millennium and that if we restore, for example, Eucharistic communion, we would accept his role as first among equals but not as the universal bishop

So what has some of the dialogue been like in recent months? There’s been a lot of talk about breakthroughs and being on the verge of unity.

I believe that when some people talk about breakthroughs, it was a wishful thinking rather than anything close to reality. We are still at a rather early stage of the discussions. We still discuss the role of the bishop of Rome in the first millennium, and even on this issue we see clear differences between the Orthodox and the Catholics. If we come to the discussion of the second millennium, the differences will become much more obvious. Therefore we should not pretend that we are close to solving this problem.

I think, however, that we should discuss it honestly; we should describe the differences in our positions, and we should see what would be the way out. For us, as I said, the way out would be the return to what we had in the first millennium.

Metropolitan Hilarion at a Ukrainian performance of his St. Matthew Passion

Would you tell me about your background: where you are from originally, what was your family like when you were growing up, what kind of family you come from.

It would be a long story. I wonder whether I should start telling you this story.

I was born in Moscow. I studied music for many years. Then I became a monk in a small monastery in Lithuania. I spent five years there. I did my doctorate at Oxford. And then I became a bishop and served in Austria and Hungary as a Russian Orthodox bishop. And when Metropolitan Kirill became Patriarch Kirill, I inherited his former chair as president of the Department of Foreign Relations.

This is to make a long story short.

How did you discover that you had a vocation to the priesthood?

I cannot quite tell you how I discovered it but I can tell you when I discovered it. It was approximately at the age of 15 when I realized that I really wanted to serve the Church and serve as a priest. For some preceding years, as I was studying music, the choice which I had to make for myself was whether to become a professional musician or to serve the Church. I was even thinking about combining the two by, for example, becoming the choir master.

At the end I decided that I wanted to serve the Church in the full sense, to serve at the altar, i.e., to become a priest. And this was the inner voice that was repeatedly telling me this, and this is what we call a vocation.

How do you find time to write music?

I no longer have time to write music. I didn’t even have it before, but when I was a bishop in Austria, I could somehow organize my agenda in order to have some minutes to write music, but very often I did it on a plane or in the waiting area of an airport. For example, some of the pieces from St. Matthew Passion were composed literally on a plane.

For further reading:
An article and interview with Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev:

The Orthodox Understanding of Primacy and Catholicity
A Russian Orthodox View of the Papacy
Other writings by Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev:

Website of Metropolitan Hilarion
The Mystery of Faith (an online Orthodox catechism adaptation)
Orthodox Christianity: The History and Canonical Structure (new publication)

Wisdom From the Desert Fathers

February 6, 2011

A panel from an ancient Egyptian monastery showing a monk with Christ

Some gems from the Desert Fathers:

Abba Poemen said of Abba John the Dwarf that he had prayed God to take his passions away from him so that he might become free from care. He went and told an old man this: ‘I find myself in peace, without an enemy,’ he said.The old man said to him, ‘Go, beseech God to stir up warfare so that you may regain the affliction and humility that you used to have, for it is by warfare that the soul makes progress.’ So he besought God and when warfare came, he no longer prayed that it might be taken away, but said, ‘Lord, give me strength for the fight.’

Abba Anthony said to Abba Poemen, ‘this is the great work of a man: always to take the blame for his own sins before God and to expect temptation to his last breath.’

He also said, ‘Whoever has not experienced temptation cannot enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. ‘He even added, ‘Without temptations, no one can be saved.’

Abba Pambo asked Abba Anthony, ‘What ought I to do?’ and the old man said to him ‘Do not trust in your own righteousness, do not worry about the past, but control your tongue and your stomach.’

Abba Anthony said, ‘I saw the snares that the enemy spreads out over the world and I said groaning, “What can get through from such snares?” Then I heard a voice saying to me, “Humility.”‘

He also said, ‘Some have afflicted their bodies by asceticism, but they lack discernment, and so they are far from God.’

He also said, ‘Our life and our death is with our neighbor. If we gain our brother, we have gained God, but if we scandalize our brother, we have sinned against Christ.’


Holy Image — Hallowed Ground

November 20, 2010

A look at St. Catherine’s Monastery near Mount Sinai — with interviews of some of the monks there:

“Tell me how the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ…”

October 1, 2010

The novel Pilgrimage to Dzhvari by Valeria Alfeyeva describes a conversation after Vespers in the monastery refectory between Guram, a first-time visitor of a monastery and its abbot, Father Michael:

Guram, one of the restorers, came in too. He’d stood through the service for the first time, crossed himself when everyone else did, and was now continuing a conversation he’d begun previously with the abbot.

“Tell me how the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ. I can’t understand this at all, and so receiving it…”

Darkness was pouring in through the open door and the window grating and it filled the room. Benedict, Archil, and Mitya sat at the unlit end of the table, while I sat on a couch in the corner. Guram was leaning against the doorpost. Only Father Michael was sitting beside the lamp, leaning his hands on the table, his eyes cast down. The lamp threw shadows against the hollows of his eyes. Moths fluttered against the funnel of the lamp and their shadows flickered about the ceiling in circles.

“This is a mystery, which therefore is not to be understood with the intellect,” the abbot replied, making an effort to overcome the silence. Guram waited and no one else spoke. “Remember, in Luke’s Gospel, the Virgin Mary asked the Archangel, ‘How will this be?’ How should she give birth to the Son of God? And the angel replied, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Almighty will overshadow you.’ That’s all we may say. The Holy Spirit comes down to create the flesh of Christ in Mary’s womb, and so during the liturgy he changes the bread and wine in the cup into the Body and Blood of Christ. How? This is where the secret lies.”

His voice was hushed, and hearing him speak, I felt the mystery being poured out on us that night with its mixture of darkness and light, and in us ourselves, in our ability to see, to think, to breathe, to suffer, to long for love, to long not to be burdened by any earthly possession.  (pp. 88-89)

Valeria Alfeyeva, mother of Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, wrote Pilgrimage to Dzhvari in Russian back in 1989 as an autobiographical novel to describe her own spiritual journey to the Orthodox Church.