Dec 30, 2010

The Slaughter of the Innocents

This passage in Jeremiah 31:15 which is quoted in Matthew 2:18 has always been difficult for me to understand. The following explanation from Mystagogy, quoting St. Jerome and St. John Chrysostom, helped me greatly:

When the Holy Infants were killed under King Herod, we read in Sacred Scripture:
"Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremiah the Prophet, saying; In Rama was there a voice heard, weeping and great mourning; Rachel weeping for her children."
Icon of Rachel Weeping
A difficulty with this passage lies with the fact the tribe of Benjamin (that of Rachel) did not include Bethlehem. Why then did she cry for them if children of Bethlehem seem not to be her biological children? Saint Jerome explains:
"The child of Rachel was Benjamin, and Bethlehem is not a town belonging to his tribe. We must therefore seek another reason why Rachel should weep for the children of Judah, to whom Bethlehem belongeth, as for her own. The plain answer is that she is buried at Ephratha close to Bethlehem, and she is called Mother on account of the resting-place of her earthly tabernacle being there. It is possible also that she is called Mother because the tribes of Judah and Benjamin were joined together, and Herod slew not only all the children that were in Bethlehem, but also in all the coasts thereof."
Saint John Chrysostom explains:
"But what, it may be said, has Rachel to do with Bethlehem? For it says, 'Rachel weeping for her children.' And what has Rama to do with Rachel? Rachel was the mother of Benjamin, and on her death, they buried her near this place. The tomb then being near, and the portion pertaining unto Benjamin her infant (for Rama was of the tribe of Benjamin), from the head of the tribe first, and next from the place of her sepulchre, he naturally denominates her young children who were massacred. Then to show that the wound that befell her was incurable and cruel, he says, “she would not be comforted because they are not."
Thus because Rachel's tomb was on the road towards Bethlehem, and because the slaughter took place in that area, Rachel wept.
Also, for further information on the historicity of this event, click here.

Dec 23, 2010

The Incarnation

Artist Viktor Vasnetsov
To the question: “Why did the Son of God appear on earth in a human body and not in another form of creation?”, the brilliant St. Athanasius replied in this manner: “If they ask why did He not appear in some other better form of creation, for example: as the sun or the moon, or the stars or fire, or the wind but just as a man? Let them know that the Lord did not come to show Himself but to heal and teach sufferers. For, to reveal Himself only to amaze the viewers would mean to come for a show. It was necessary for the Healer and the Teacher, not only to come, but to serve for the benefit of the suffering ones and to reveal Himself as such so that this revelation would be bearable for the sufferers. Not one single creature was in error in the eyes of God, except man alone: neither the sun, nor the moon, nor the sky, nor the stars, nor water, nor wind did betray their ranks but, on the contrary, knowing their Creator and their King - The Word [The Logos] - they all remained as they were created; only human beings separated themselves from good and replaced truth with deceit, and the honor belonging to God, as well as the knowledge about Him, they transferred to devils and to men carved out of stone [idols]. What is, therefore, so unbelievable in this, that the Logos [The Word - The Son Of God] appeared as a man to save mankind?” Indeed, even as we ask the unbelievers of our day: In what form would you wish God to appear, if not as a man?

- St. Athanasius

Dec 20, 2010

Mental Clutter

"We must first begin by realizing that prayer is not foreign to us. When we were infants, before our cognitive abilities developed, we were daily in God's presence. Many of us, at the end of our lives, when old age causes those abilities to fail, will find ourselves daily in God's presence again. Prayer is nothing more and nothing less than the rediscovery of that Divine Presence in the lifetime that exists between those two moments.

"What has hindered us in prayer is the mental clutter that we have accumulated in our lives: our pride, our sins, our bad choices (and even our good ones), our constant grasping for money. All of these things have stilled the voice of prayer within us. We must now work to hear it once again." 

- Fr. Lawrence Barriger

Dec 19, 2010

The True Self Revealed

God “giveth grace unto the humble” (Ja. 4:6), which corrects and renews a man. So the man who knows himself begins to correct himself and gets progressively better. Know yourself, then, and you shall correct yourself.

Temptations and trials show what hides in the heart of a man. Temptation is similar to the medicine called an emetic. An emetic reveals what is hidden in the stomach. So temptations and trials make manifest what is inside a man. The holy word of God and other Christian books point out the corruption of our nature, but we recognize it by actual experience or deed in temptations and trials.

Thus vainglory becomes apparent through the deprivation of glory, avarice through the deprivation of riches, envy through the success of one’s neighbor, and anger through disappointment. If, then, you fall into various temptations, O Christian, this all happens by God’s permission for your great benefit, that you may thereby know what is hidden in your heart, and so knowing it you may correct yourself. Many flatter themselves and consider themselves to be good, humble, and meek, but they will discover the contrary under temptation. Do not become despondent in temptations, then, but give all the more thanks to God that He thus brings you to knowledge of yourself and wishes you to be corrected and be saved.

~St. Tikhon of Zadonsk

Dec 17, 2010

The German Army

C.S. Lewis
“No man knows how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good. A silly idea is current that good people do not know what temptation means. This is an obvious lie. Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is. After all, you find out the strength of the German army by fighting it, not by giving in. A man who gives in to temptation after five minutes simply does not know what it would have been like an hour later. That is why bad people, in one sense, know very little about badness. They have lived a sheltered life by always giving in. We never find out the strength of the evil impulse inside us until we try to fight it.”

- C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

Dec 13, 2010


Living in this fallen world, we continually experience disappointments, losses, and sufferings. I have always understood these as opportunities for trusting God - to look to God for the strength to endure and persevere through them, with the hope that I will come out on the other side spiritually stronger. There are also endless stories and accounts of individuals who don't hold to the Christian faith who have faced challenges and insurmountable odds, persevered and come out stronger individuals on the other side. So how does a Christian's suffering differ from that of a non-Christian? Fr. Michael Gillis addresses this in a recent blog (I began to pull excerpts from the post, but quickly realized that nothing could be left out!). 

In Colossians chapter one, St. Paul prays for the Colossians that they would be filled with the knowledge of God’s will and live (“walk”) in a manner worthy of and pleasing to the Lord, bearing fruit in good works and increasing in their knowledge of God. In order to do this the Colossians are to be “empowered with the strength that is according to God’s glorious might.” But then comes the surprising part.

We think we already know what it means to bear fruit in good works pleasing to God. Good works, we assume, are to do something, to accomplish something. Especially when St. Paul’s prayer uses synonyms for power three times, we assume that the good works pleasing to God have to do with the accomplishment of some great task, a feat, the overcoming of some injustice or the establishment of some righteous policy or institution. For us, bearing fruit in good works that are pleasing to God means doing something that can be seen: changing the world - or a least a piece of it, a piece outside myself.

Ah, there’s the rub.

The surprising part of this prayer is that St. Paul tells the Colossians exactly how “the strength that is according to God’s glorious power” is to empower them to bear “fruit in good works.” The power is “for all patience [endurance] and longsuffering with joy” which is manifest in “giving thanks to the Father.” The good works that are pleasing to God are born and manifest in endurance and longsuffering with joy, in giving thanks even in distressing circumstances.

Suffering is a part of life. Everyone suffers. Endurance and suffering for a long time (i.e. longsuffering) is nothing unique - it is the common human lot. What is uniquely Christian, what requires the power of God, is to endure and suffer for a long time with joy and giving thanks to the Father. Without the power of God, we suffer only as Michael Henchard does in the Mayor of Casterbridge, of whom Hardy says, “Misery taught him nothing more than the defiant endurance of it.” However, by the power of God, suffering with joy and thanksgiving can become a means of growth and transformation.

This is counter-intuitive. How can enduring evil transform it? Aren’t we called to change the world? Isn’t that what it means to do good works? Aren’t Christians called to be “salt and light” (i.e. agents of change)? The short answer is no. We are called to be changed and be transformed. We are called to transform that part of the world and its evil that dwells within ourselves. Then, as God wills, the world outside ourselves will be influenced.

The crucible of our transformation is the patient endurance of suffering with joy and thanksgiving by the power of God.

Patient suffering with joy and thanksgiving is not all the Christian life is about. This is, after all, only one of St. Paul’s prayers. However, patient suffering with joy and thanksgiving is an essential part of the Christian life. It is a part wherein we share in the sufferings of Christ, a part wherein we bear fruit in good works pleasing to God, and unfortunately it is a part we’d prefer to ignore. We feel so much more comfortable imagining that God’s glorious power in our lives exists to help us to do something rather than to endure something

Dec 11, 2010

How We Read the Scriptures

Fr. Ted Bobosh (a priest in the Orthodox Church of America) has been posting a series on his blog called  Reading the Bible: Hermeneutics & Typology. Coming from an Evangelical background, I have found his explanations very helpful. The following excerpt addresses the issue of Sola Scriptura:

The Fathers adapted the methods they had learned in their own rhetorical education for how to read texts to the reading of the Scriptures.  They understood the methodology they had learned as to be the way to unveil the meaning which the ancient authors had put into their texts.  The Scriptures, whose author they thought of as ultimately being God, were read with the same methods, intending to discover the meaning and the message God had put into the words of the text which the inspired authors of the Bible recorded.  These same methods were used for centuries by Christian theologians as the means by which to read the Scriptures.

After the Protestant Reformation however there was a distrust by Protestants of traditional methods of interpreting the Scriptures.  Many Protestants felt they could simply take the texts of Scriptures and free themselves from any established, traditional interpretation and in so doing would come to the true meaning of the text.  This was the main intention of reading “Scripture alone.”
“But the principle of sola scriptura suggests that the truth of the Christian religion is contained in Scriptures, and that the work of the theologian and exegete is to extract this truth by rightly interpreting Scripture ... The presupposition that lies behind all this … is the principle of sola scriptura, understood as meaning that Scripture is a quarry from which we can extract the truth of God’s revelation: that allied to the more recent notion that the tool to use in extracting meaning from literary texts is the method of historical criticism.  We have an alliance between the Reformation and the Enlightenment. ...  Scripture is being understood as an arsenal and not a treasury. … The heart of Christianity is the mystery of Christ, and the Scriptures are important as they unfold to us that mystery, and not in and for themselves.”  (Andrew Louth, Discerning the Mystery,  pp 99-102)
Thus the modern Fundamentalist reading of the Scriptures only “literally”  was the result of embracing a “scientific” view of Scriptures and accepting a very narrow definition of truth as having always to deal with the material or empirical universe alone.   Limiting the reading of Scripture to its “literal” sense was related to the historical criticism embraced by the Enlightenment.   It ripped the Scriptures  away from their faith context – the community which had preserved and proclaimed them – and made them a literary document that should be read alone and apart from the faith community which had composed and adopted them.  Scripture alone stripped the text of the Bible from the context of the people of God (the Church) and really came to mean that only whatever meaning each person puts into the Scriptures is what they mean.  “Scripture alone” worked well with the Enlightenment’s emphasis on the individual.  Each individual was to rid himself or herself of any tutelage by tradition and thus each individual alone gave the Bible its meaning.  Simultaneously it denied that the Scriptures have a meaning inherent in them – a revelation from God.

Dec 10, 2010

Cherubs, Seraphims and Angels

At this time of year, one sees more depictions of angels than the rest of the year. I have often wondered how and when they began to be shown as winged women or even babies with wings, since that is never mentioned in the scriptures. I found the following article to be helpful.

History of Winged Angels in Christian Art
Jun 23, 2010 Valerie Williams
History of Winged Angels in Christian Art - Leo Reynolds
Since the 4th century A.D., angels have been depicted as two-winged creatures, as babies, and as women, influenced by pagan images of winged gods.

Angel art is dominated by portrayals of angels as either cute, two-winged baby angels, called cherubs, two-winged female angels, and two-winged male angels. Gracing greeting cards and adorning the edifices of churches, these images are the ones people are most familiar with in typifying an angelic being.
Abraham and the Angels, Rembrandt

Description of Winged Angels in the Bible
The two types of winged angels described in the scriptures are cherubims and seraphims. According to the prophet Ezekiel, cherubims have four wings. The word "cherubims" derives from the Hebrew word keruwb, and refers to an angelic being with four wings (Strong's Concordance H3742). In the book of Isaiah, seraphims are described as having six wings. This word derives from the Hebrew word saraph, which also refers to an angelic being, and comes from the root word which means to burn (Strong's H8313-14). This description of what an angelic being is composed of accords with Psalms 104:4 which describes angels as flaming fire.

Depictions of Angels in Pre-Christian Art
Ancient Egyptians, and later the ancient Greeks, depicted their gods as winged creatures. Greek gods such as Hermes and Perseus were illustrated as deities with two wings. Cupid was a Roman god who was portrayed with two wings. Early Christian art did not portray angels with wings; instead, early depictions of angels in Christian art were often presented as men in human form, often dressed in robes.

As well as pagan gods, pagan goddesses were also featured as winged creatures; thus, the images of female angels abounded in pre-Christian art. Winged Victories, called Nikes, were women with wings, often holding a victor's wreath on which they inscribed a victory over an enemy. In Roman art, female angels often appeared partially clad in long, flowing robes. These images portrayed these female angels with two wings.

Constantine's Reign and its Effect on Angel Art
Portrayals of angels in Christian art began to change with the advent of Constantine's reign as emperor of Rome in the 4th century. The council of Nicea in 325. A.D. formed Christianity as the religion of the state, and it was after this that angels with wings, baby angels, and female angels, as well as halos, began to appear in Christian art. Prior to this period Christian art did not portray angels with wings so as not to give the impression of paying homage to a host of pagan deities as did the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians.

However, after the 4th century, angels with wings not only began to appear in Christian art, but also began to mimic the winged deities found in ancient Mesopotamian art. The image of a cherub as a tiny, winged baby follows the tradition of the art found in ancient Rome and Greece, and has no resemblance to the description of the cherubims described by Ezekiel in the bible.

Halos also began to appear in Christian art after the 4th century. Prior to this, halos were painted above the heads of pagan gods or emperors. The word "halo" comes from the Greek and Roman god Helios. Helios was often adorned with a sunburst or ring of light around his head, called a "gloria". The term "gloria" derives from the Roman goddess Gloria, who held the zodiac sign. Halos began appearing with regularity, adorning the heads of angels as well as the Madonna and other Catholic saints.

By the fifth century, winged angels in Christian art became commonplace. Scenes such as the Anunciation depicted on St. Mary Major's and two mosaics of St. Apollinare Nuovo and St. Vitale, are examples of Christian art embracing the ideology of winged angels.

First-century historian, Flavius Josephus, in describing Solomon's temple, says that no one can tell or even conjecture what was the shape of cherubim. The bible does not speak of baby angels, female angels, angels with two wings, or angels with halos above their heads; yet, Christian art is filled with angels depicted in this manner. (Accessed June 10, 2010) (Accessed June 10, 2010) (Accessed June 10, 2010)
Koster, C.J., "Come Out Of Her, My People", Institute for Scripture Research LTD, 5th Edition, Jan, 2004


It was said that there were three friends who were not afraid of hard work. The first one chose to reconcile those who were fighting each other, as it is said, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” The second one chose to visit the sick. The third went to live in prayer and stillness in the desert. Now in spite of all his labors, the first one could not make peace in all men’s quarrels; and in his sorrow he went to him who was serving the sick, and he found him also disheartened, for he could not fulfill that commandment either. So they went together to see him who was living in the stillness of prayer. They told him their difficulties and begged him to tell them what to do. After a short silence, he poured some water into a bowl and said to them, “Look at the water,” and it was disturbed. After a little while he said to them again, “Look how still the water is now,” and as they looked into the water, they saw their own faces reflected in it as in a mirror. Then he said to his friends, “It is the same for those who live among men; disturbances prevent them from seeing their own faults. But when a man is still, especially in the desert, then he sees his failings.”

A thank you for this quote goes to Word From the Desert

Dec 3, 2010

First Thing in the Morning

Due to the recent time change, my daily walks in the morning occur right when the sun is coming up in the East. Some mornings have been very cool and windy, and I am always amazed to find many of the birds in the neighborhood perched on the topmost branches of the trees and facing East. The scene reminds me of an audience sitting with eager anticipation, waiting for the orchestra to play the first few measures of a great masterpiece.

Perhaps the birds are just eager to feel the sun's rays and absorb the warmth. But I would think that that would be best achieved by staying burrowed in the bushes until the air warms up a few hours later. On the other hand, maybe these tiny creatures, so valued by the Creator, are merely displaying their love and devotion to him as they know their very lives depend on him every day. We also owe our very breath to our Holy God, and yet we busy ourselves from sunrise to setting sun (and even beyond that) scarcely acknowledging the fact. The birds got it right. We need to pay attention.

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? 
Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. 
And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. 
So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows. (Matthew 10:29-31)

Nov 11, 2010

Meteora Monasteries: The Great Meteoron

The Great Meteoron (a.k.a. Monastery of the Transfiguration of Christ) is the highest, largest and oldest of the six monasteries of the Meteora. Founded in the 14th century by a monk from Mount Athos, the Great Meteoron is still impressive and important today. If there is only time to visit one monastery in the Meteora, this is the one to choose.

The Great Meteoron was established around 1340 by St. Athanasios Meteorites, a scholarly monk from Mount Athos. He ascended the highest pinnacle - legend says he was carried up by an eagle - which he named Megalo Meteoro ("Great Place Suspended in the Air"). He first built a small church and modest lodgings for monks, dedicating them to the Virgin Mary. Later he added a larger church dedicated to the Transfiguration of Christ, which became the primary dedication of the monastery.

Athanasios' successor was Saint Iosaph, a Serbian king formerly known as John Uros who abandoned worldly power to become a monk here in c.1373. Over the course of his 40-year life at Great Meteoron, he rebuilt the Church of the Transfiguration (1387-88) and added monastic buildings including monks' cells, a hospital, and a cistern. The Patriarch of Constantinople granted the monastery independence in c.1415, and its leader was officially designated an abbot (hegoumenos) in c.1482.

The Great Meteoron reached its peak in the 16th century, when it received significant imperial and royal donations. The nave and narthex of the Church of the Transfiguration were rebuilt in 1544-45 and the monastic complex was expanded later in the century with a new kitchen, a tower, a home for the aged, a refectory and several chapels. The church was repaired and enlarged after an earthquake in 1544.

Platýs Líthos ("Broad Rock"), the rock on which the Great Meteoron stands, rises over 2,000 feet (615m) above sea level. The original hermitage of St. Athanasios Meteorites, a simple building carved into the rock, can be seen on the left of the staircase leading to the monastery entrance. Within the monastery, a shady courtyard provides a pleasant place to rest after the ascent.

The Church of the Transfiguration consists of the katholikon built by Saint Ioasaph in 1388 and a nave and narthex added in 1544-45. The katholikon has a Greek-cross-in-square floor plan, with a 12-sided central dome resting on a drum. The icons adorning the iconostasis date from the 14th to 16th centuries.

The adjacent kitchen is still blackened with smoke and contains the original bread oven and soup-hearth. The wine cellar, full of wooden wine barrels and other agricultural supplies, can also be visited. For many visitors, one of the most interesting stops outside the church is the sacristy, where skulls and bones of previous residents are neatly stacked on shelves.

In a previous post, I mentioned the Meteora Monasteries. I am devoting a post to each of the six monasteries that are a part of this group in Greece.

If you want a satellite view of the area, click here.

Nov 6, 2010

Baseball Cards and God's Love

As I was listening to NPR's Morning Edition this morning, one story caught my attention:

An order of nuns in Baltimore is almost a quarter of a million dollars richer this week because of an old baseball card. The brother of a nun of the School Sisters of Notre Dame died early this year, leaving an old baseball card in his safe deposit box clipped with a note: "Although damaged, the value of this baseball card should increase exponentially throughout the 21st Century!"
It was a 1909 Honus Wagner card. Mr. Wagner — a Pittsburgh Pirate and one of the first members of the Baseball Hall of Fame — was renowned for his grace and kidded for his barrel-legged physique. But what makes his 1909 T206 baseball card more valuable than gold, inch for inch, is that only about 60 are known to exist. Wayne Gretzky, the Hall of Fame hockey player, once owned a mint-condition T206 Wagner card that sold for $2.8 million, more than most diamonds. The Wagner card stored in the safe deposit box was creased, clipped and laminated, but still sold at auction this week for $262,000.
"Heavenly days!" Sister Muller of the Sisters of Notre Dame told The Baltimore Sun. "I just couldn't imagine it. I had never even heard of Honus Wagner!" The nuns say money from the sale will help support their teaching missions around the world.

"What makes something valuable?" posed NPR host Scott Simon. Basically, "The value of an item amounts to what someone is willing to pay for it."

"You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us." (Romans 5:6-8)

The Saints

St. John of Kronstadt
"What does the daily invocation of the saints signify - of different ones each day, during the whole year, and during our whole life? It signifies that God's saints - as our brethren, but perfect - live, and are near us, ever ready to help us, by the grace of God. We live together with them in the house of our Heavenly Father, only in different parts of it. We live in the earthly, they in the heavenly half; but we can converse with them, and they with us. God's saints are near to the believing heart, and are ready in a moment to help those who call upon them with faith and love." 

- St. John of Kronstadt, My Life in Christ

Nov 2, 2010

What Do You Possess?

Do I possess the house in which I live?  No, it is only on loan to me from God while I remain in that place.  Do I possess the clothes I wear?  No, they are on loan to me until I wear them out, or until I give them away to someone in greater need.  Do I possess this body that you see before you?  No, it was lent to me by God when I was born and he will take it back when I die.  Do I possess the mind that is composing the words that I speak?  No, that too was lent by God at my birth and will go when I die.

So do I possess anything?  Yes, I possess the virtues which during my life have grown and flourished within my soul.  Inasmuch as I have grown in love, I possess love.  Inasmuch as I have grown in faith, I possess faith.  Inasmuch as I have grown in gentleness, I possess gentleness.  These things are immortal; they are divine gifts which God will not take away, because he wants heaven itself to be filled with virtue.  And, of course, I possess my soul, in which these virtues have their roots.

- St. John Chrysostom, On Living Simply

A thank you to Fr. Ted for posting this quote on his blog.

Nov 1, 2010

Meteora Monasteries: Agios Stefanos

The only monastery in the Meteora visible from Kalambaka, St. Stephen's was founded around 1400 and is now a nunnery. Although less spectacular than the others, it is the easiest monastery to visit and the nuns are welcoming.

Moni Aghiou Stefanou was founded by St. Antoninus Cantacuzene, who is thought to be a son of the Serb ruler Nicephorus II of Epirus, in c.1400.

The monastery suffered much damage in the 20th century: it was bombed during World War II and desecrated during the subsequent Civil War. In the latter period, most of the frescoes were defaced by Communist rebels.

St. Stephen's was virtually abandoned until 1961, when it became a nunnery. It is currently inhabited by 28 nuns led by Abbess Agathi Antoniou.

The old katholikon, which was rebuilt in 1545 and frescoed shortly thereafter, still stands. The new katholikon of Agiou Stefanou was built in 1798 and is currently being frescoed by a modern artist. It is dedicated to the martyred St. Charalambos, whose head it contains.

The refectory (15th century) has a surviving fresco of the Virgin in the apse. The monastery contains a small museum of vestments and other religious objects and the nuns sell handmade embroideries and other trinkets.

In a previous post, I mentioned the Meteora Monasteries. I am devoting a post to each of the six monasteries that are a part of this group in Greece.

If you want a satellite view of the area, click here.

Oct 30, 2010

Meteora Monasteries: Agios Nikolaos Anapafsas

Founded in the early 14th century, Agios Nikolaos Anapaphsas is a monastery in the Meteora notable for its unique construction and splendid frescoes by the 16th-century Cretan painter Theophanes the Monk.

Hermits seem to have first occupied this rock in the early 14th century, as evidenced by remains of frescoes in the Chapel of St. Anthony. The present monastery was founded in 1510 by St. Dionysius, Metropolitan of Larisa, and Nikanoras, priest-monk and exarch of Stagoi. The name "Anapafsas" is of unknown origin; it may be the surname of an early monk or founder.

The monastery was abandoned by 1900 and fell into disrepair until it was renovated in the 1960s by the archaeological service. It was then inhabited by Father Palamas until 1982, after which the monastery closed. In 1997, priests of Kalampaka began to open the monastery to tourists every summer. Today, one monk lives at Agios Nikolaos, the abbot archimandrite Polykarpos Venetis.
What to See

Since the top of this rock is limited in size, the monastery buildings had to be extended upward instead of outward, rising three stories high. The smallkatholikon of St. Nicholas occupies the second floor. Its dome has no windows because of the floor built on top of it and it has an irregular floor plan in order to fit on the rock. A larger narthex extends to the west.

The frescoes of Agios Nikolaos are some of the most important in the Meteora, as they were painted by the celebrated leader of the Cretan school,Theophanes Strelitzas. He painted them in 1527, when he was probably a monk here. These frescoes are the first to bear the signature of the artist ("Ch.M.") and are among his earliest works of this magnitude.

Depicting such scenes as the Passion of Christ, the Virgin Mary praying, Jonah and the Whale, the Liturgy of Angels and the Last Judgement, the frescoes demonstrate the characteristics for which Theophanes of Crete became famous: delicacy of line; vividness in imagery; and bright colors.

The first floor of the monastery is occupied by the tiny Chapel of St. Anthony, which contains some early 14th-century frescoes, and a crypt where relics and manuscripts used to be stored.

The third floor contains the old refectory, decorated with frescoes and recently renovated for use as a reception hall, the ossuary (for storage of bones), and the renovated Chapel of St. John the Baptist.

In a previous post, I mentioned the Meteora Monasteries. I am devoting a post to each of the six monasteries that are a part of this group in Greece.

If you want a satellite view of the area, click here.

Oct 29, 2010

Meteora Monasteries: Agia Triada

Made famous by James Bond, Agia Triada (also Ayías Triádhos, Ayia Triadaor Aghia Triada; "Holy Trinity") is probably the most dramatically positioned monastery of the Meteora. It is perched atop a slender pinnacle and accessible only by 140 steep steps, making it one of the most peaceful monasteries as well.

Hermit monks may have lived here beginning in the 14th century, but the present monastery was built between 1458 and 1476. Until the 20th century, monks, pilgrims and supplies reached the monastery only by means of rope-ladders and baskets. But in 1925, access to the rock was eased by the addition of rock-hewn stairs. Agia Triada suffered greatly in World War II and the German occupation, during which virtually all its treasures were looted.

Few tour buses stop at Holy Trinity Monastery, so it is comparatively peaceful and some semblence of monastic life is able to continue. It is inhabited and maintained by just a few monks. The courtyard displays old farm implements and the old winch for hauling up baskets (a funicular now carries supplies to the top), as well as inspirational quotes from 1 Corinthians 13 (e.g. "Love is patient"). The monastic buildings are attractively half-timbered. The small church (1476) has an exterior of brick and tile and is augmented by a large, unattractive narthex (1684). It has two domes, reflecting two building phases. The frescoes in the church date from the 18th century and the those in the narthex from the 17th; they have been well restored. The church contains one of the few portable treasures that survived the 20th century: a Gospel bookprinted in Venice in 1539, with a silver cover. Carved into the rock off the passageway into the courtyard is a round Chapel of John the Baptist (1682), which may occupy the site of an early hermitage. Holy Trinity owns over 120 religious manuscripts copied by its monks over the centuries, but for practical reasons these are kept at Agios Stefanos Monastery.

Source of information: Sacred Destinations

In a previous post, I mentioned the Meteora Monasteries. I thought I would devote a post to each of the six monasteries that are a part of this group in Greece.

If you want a satellite view of the area, click here.

Standing and Prayer

Like sacramental actions, methods and gestures in prayer must also be meaningful, that is to say, the body must reproduce visibly what is taking place in the soul. As it is understood in the Bible, standing to pray is the bodily expression of the profound reverence of the creature before the exalted majesty of its Creator, in whose presence even the angels stand (Luke 1:19, "The angel answered, I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you."). 

For the inferior stands up to greet the superior and remains standing as long as the latter is present. Thus, for example, Abraham stands before God when the latter speaks with him, knowing full well that he is only "dust and ashes". (Genesis 18:27)

The outward posture, however, does not only give bodily expression to the interior attitude, it also has an immediate effect upon this disposition. Without the effort of standing - and of the other prayer gestures...- our prayer will never attain the proper fervor, said Joseph Busnaya, but will remain "routine, cold and shallow".

~ Fr. Gabriel Bunge, Earthen vessels, pp. 145-146.

Thanks to Vicar Williams, The Orthodox Pathway, for this quote.

Oct 28, 2010

Keep Looking Up!

The Royal Doors open and the priest appears in the sanctuary...

Why, though, doesn't he look at us, but looks instead to the sanctuary? When the priest stands in front of the altar, he is praying, and imploring, and calling upon Christ as our intercessor. And, afterwards, when the priest makes the Entry, he will again pass through our midst without so much as glancing in our direction. It is he who goes ahead of us, who ascends, who leads us on the road to heaven.

What is the significance of this behavior? Why does the priest always go in front of us without looking at us? Pay attention to this in order to understand.

Have you ever been up to the monasteries of Meteora? Have you gone, for instance, to the Monastery of the Great Meteoron? In the old days, people had to be pulled up there in a net. The gate-keepers would put them in it, close [the visitor's] eyes so they wouldn't get dizzy, and the monks would haul them up with a winch. Later on, they built a little path, extremely narrow, and wedged tightly up against the rock, which ran in the direction of the Metamorphosis mountain. So when a visitor came, how did he manage to climb up this very narrow pathway? If he looked down, over the edge of the precipice, he would surely have collapsed and been lost. But in those days a monk used to come down, and he would offer the visitor his cassock to hold and say to him: "As I climb up and look upwards, you hold on to me. We'll go up together. But don't look down. If you look down you'll fall, and you'll pull me down as well". And so the monk would take him up the narrow, little path, with the visitor's heart pounding, because he knew that below was the abyss. [The monk] took [the visitor] up, circling round and round, and when they arrived at the summit, [the monk] would say: "Ah! Here is Christ!"

This is precisely what the priest does. He takes us up the narrowest pathway. Be careful. Don't look down, lest something earthly should lead you astray. Keep your heart on high, your mind like an eagle, so that it can cut through the clouds and fly up into the heavens! Land animals can't fly, so be an eagle! Look up!

- Archimandrite Aimilianos (Vafeidis) of Simonopetra, "The Divine Liturgy: The Window of Heaven", a sermon delivered in the church of St. Nicholas, Trikala, Greece, 31 January 1971 in The Church at Prayer: The Mystical Liturgy of the Heart, ed. The Holy Convent of the Annunciation, Ormylia, Greece (Athens: Indiktos, 2005), pp. 76-77.

Oct 27, 2010

Another Name

"It isn’t Narnia, you know," sobbed Lucy. "It’s you. We shan’t meet you there. And how can we live, never meeting you?"

"But you shall meet me, dear one," said Aslan.

"Are...are you there too, Sir?" said Edmund.

"I am,” said Aslan. “But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.”

~ C.S. Lewis (The Voyage of the Dawn Treader)

Quote found on Christ is in Our Midst 10/19/10

Sep 24, 2010

Icons or Idols

One of the most difficult things for Protestants to understand about Orthodox Christians is their use of icons in their homes. Indeed, it took me quite a while and a lot of reading to understand the meaning of icons and how they can be so helpful in my spiritual walk and prayer. At first glance, icons appear to be some form of "idol" to be worshiped and prayed to. Nothing could be further from the truth. The following excerpt from Fr. Michael, an Antiochian priest in Langley, British Columbia, addresses some of the confusion that surrounds icons.

Certainly we can pray without icons on the wall, but even words and (according to St. Gregory of Nyssa and others) concepts are icons.  That is, words and even concepts are images that both point to the reality that they depict and participate in that reality.  Icons are already a normal part of our lives.  To take a simple example, you might have a picture of your wife that you keep in your wallet or that you keep on your desk at work or (if you wife is away on a trip) that you keep by your bedside.  Although the picture of your wife is just paper and ink, it is more than paper and ink.  Because it bears the image of your wife, that paper and ink participates in some way in the reality of your wife and points to the reality of your wife.  When you honour the picture (by carrying it in your wallet or putting it in a prominent place) you are not honouring paper and ink, but what the image on the paper and ink represents as an icon.
Most Protestants and sects that came out of the Protestants are iconoclastic (icon destroyers). However, excavation has shown that the earliest Christian Churches and even Jewish Synagogues before the time of Christ had pictures on the walls.  Even in the Pentateuch, God commands Moses to build images of angles and other living things for the Temple.  This is in the very context of commanding Moses not to make images for worship as idols.  I think one can safely say the second commandment, "you shall not make for yourself an image of anything in  heaven or earth," does not refer to all image making.  It refers to images made as idols.  Otherwise, why would God command Moses to make images for the Temple?
A very important distinction for Orthodox Christians is the distinction between an idol and an icon.  Many Fathers of the Church have written books on this distinction (I am thinking specifically of St. John of Damascus' Three Treaties on Divine Images [8th Century] and some of the writings of St. Gregory of Nyssa [4th century]).  Briefly, an idol is anything but God Himself that one treats as an absolute.  St. Paul says greed is idolatry because a greedy person "worships" whatever he or she peruses as an absolute, as something desirable in itself, as something for which he or she will sacrifice, or more often sacrifice others, to obtain.  It is as if the desired thing (person, relationship, position, etc.) were god, an end in itself.  An icon, on the other hand, always points beyond itself, and yet participates in some way with the reality to which it points.  
St. John of Damascus introduces a distinction into the early Christian vocabulary.  (Some background: in Greek, the word translated "to worship" just means to bow down to.  This word is used in many different contexts.  Sometimes (from the context) it is clear that this word should best be translated "to honour" in other contexts it is clear that it should be translated "to worship."  This ambiguity was not a significant problem for Christians until their confrontation with Islam and the iconoclast controversy of the 8th century. End of background.)  In the context of this spirit of iconoclasm that had come into the world, St. John makes a clear distinction between what we call veneration or honour and the worship that is due God alone.  We venerate an image of Christ because the image participates in some way with the reality; however, the veneration "passes through" the image to the reality (the prototype) it depicts.
Furthermore, icons can be Spirit bearing.  That is, the Church has taught from the beginning (and even in the Old Testament) that physical objects can be holy (sanctified) and carry Grace.  So, for example, in the N.T. handkerchiefs from St. Paul were laid on the sick and they recovered.  Or in the Old Testament, the bronze serpent made by Moses (at God's command) healed all who looked to it, and at the time of Solomon, the Glory of God fills the temple "so that the priests could not stand to minister."  Similarly, icons (or any physical object for that matter) can carry divine Grace.  This is an important concept not only because of icons (in fact, icons are a secondary consideration).  It is important for Christology: understanding who Christ is.  
If Christ is really, really both God and man (without change or alteration of either nature, human or divine) somehow the physical matter of his human body was able to bear (carry) the divine Person of the Logos.  If we take this seriously, it has implications for all created reality.  Thus we say in our daily prayer to the Holy Spirit, "Who is everywhere present and fills all things...."  Now the depths of what this means and how we experience it is a mystery that we will spend eternity exploring.  However, for the time being and considering our weakness, God has given us the Church and the Tradition handed down by wise and experienced Fathers (that is, experienced in their actual relationship with God).  Icons, written prayers, feasts, fasts, liturgies, all of these exist to help us repent and come to know God better (by participation in Grace leading to sanctification).  All that the Tradition has given us points beyond itself to the reality of God Himself; and by entering into the Tradition, we participate in that to which the Tradition points, and thus we are transformed.

Sep 19, 2010

The Ox Knows Its Owner...

In response to an account of an Anglican priest administering communion to a parishioner and his dog, Fr. Vasile Tudora (a priest in the Greek Orthodox Church) had this to say:
In the quest to prove that man comes from animals, man is actually diminished to the level of a marginally more advanced living creature and nothing else, having very little to distinguish him from his "close relatives" that still dangle from one tree branch to the other. By reducing man to his animal body, man is actually abridged to matter and any spark of spirituality is completely denied to him.  Man becomes an animal with the illusion of grandeur.
But, according to Vladimir Lossky  "Human perfection does not consist in what makes him resemble with all creation, but in what sets him apart from the created order and makes him resemble his Creator"
Man was created differently than the other forms of life. God created the world by a simple "let there be..." but for man He decided to fashion him in a distinctive manner. "Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth." (Gen 1:26).
The resemblance with God that makes man different than animals is the rational origin of his soul. "Animals act on impulse (they have urges) but in man there is also 'logic'; it is the Grace of God which comes and establishes itself 'logically' upon the soul", says Saint Maximus the Confessor.  
Animals do not possess rationality and have no free will. They possess however, through their instincts and the spirit of life planted in them, a certain basic understanding of the world, enough for them to never fail in recognizing God and serving His will.
This is why Christ did not specifically minister to animals, not because they were unworthy, or because He didn't care about them, but because the creation already knew Him and obeyed him as God. "The ox knows its owner and the donkey its master's crib; But Israel does not know." (Isaiah 1:3).  The icon of Nativity shows this clearly by depicting the animals as the first witnesses of the Incarnation.
On the other hand man, misusing his God given rationality and betraying his freedom of choice, in his disobedience, has forgotten Who the Master is and has fallen into sin.  Because of man and his sin the entire creation has been turned upside down and exists in the corrupted state we see today.

Aug 16, 2010

The Unexpected Response

Pray continually for the rest of humankind as well, that they may find God, for there is in them hope for repentance. Therefore allow them to be instructed by you, at least by your deeds.

In response to their anger, be gentle;
in response to their boasts, be humble;
in response to their slander, offer prayers;
in response to their errors, be steadfast in the faith;
in response to their cruelty, be civilized;
do not be eager to imitate them.

Let us show by our forbearance that we are their brothers and sisters, and let us be eager to be imitators of the Lord, to see who can be the more wronged, who the more cheated, who the more rejected, in order that no weed of the devil may be found among you, but that with complete purity and self-control you may abide in Christ Jesus physically and spiritually.

- St. Ignatius, Letter to the Ephesians, 10.1-3

Aug 9, 2010

Discipline and Correction

I am reading through The Apostolic Fathers by Michael W. Holmes. In the 56th chapter Clement comments on the issue of spiritual discipline and correction from the Father and then quotes a portion from Job:
Let us accept correction, which no one ought to resent, dear friends. The reproof that we give one to another is good and exceedingly useful, for it unites us with the will of God...
"...Blessed is the person whom the Lord has reproved; do not reject the correction of the Almighty. For he causes pain, and he makes well again; he has wounded, and his hands have healed. Six times will he rescue you from distress, and the seventh time evil will not touch you. In famine he will rescue you from death, and in war he will release you from the power of the sword. From the scourge of the tongue he will hide you, and you will not be afraid when evils approach. You will laugh at the unrighteous and wicked, and of the wild beasts you will not be afraid, for wild beasts will be at peace with you. Then you will know that your house will be at peace, and the tent in which you dwell will not fail. And you will know that your seed will be many, and your children will be like the grass of the fields. And you will come to the grave like ripe wheat harvested at the proper time, or like a heap on the threshing floor gathered together at the right time..."(Job 5:17-26)
You see, dear friends, what great protection there is for those who are disciplined by the Master, because he is a kind Father, he disciplines us in order that we may obtain mercy through his holy discipline.

Jul 5, 2010

Heart Check

In John Chrysostom's introduction to his series of homilies on the book of John, he exhorts his listeners, the members of his church, to listen with their souls and not just their physical ears. In our world of sound bytes and constant noise, we must take even greater measures to make sure we are listening attentively when hearing or reading God's Word. Our hearts need to be calm and free from distractions. That alone seems impossible most days, but we should be aware of the state of our heart before receiving His words. Too many times, I am the monk running down the corridors of the monastery, late for Matins!

...let us preserve deep silence, both external and mental, but especially the latter; for what advantage is it that the mouth be hushed, if the soul is disturbed and full of tossing? I look for that calm which is of the mind, of the soul, since it is the hearing of the soul which I require. Let then no desire of riches trouble us, no lust of glory, no tyranny of anger, nor the crowd of other passions besides these; for it is not possible for the ear, except it be cleansed, to perceive as it ought the sublimity of the things spoken; nor rightly to understand the awful and unutterable nature of these mysteries, and all other virtue which is in these divine oracles. If a man cannot learn well a melody on pipe or harp, unless he in every way strain his attention; how shall one, who sits as a listener to sounds mystical, be able to hear with a careless soul?
- John Chrysostom

Jul 4, 2010

Lectio Divina

I have recently been drawn back to the Rule of St. Benedict and the principles contained therein. Several years ago, Liturgical Press published a book called The Benedictine Handbook. It contains a new translation of The Rule in addition to a number of articles by Benedictine scholars and monastics.

One of topics discussed is Lectio Divina - "the prayerful meditation on the text of the Bible and of other writings that embody the faith of the Church". Here is an excerpt which I thought helpful:

Initially we need to acquire the discipline of close reading, paying attention to every word and sentence, and not allowing ourselves to pass over anything. This deliberateness is helped by reading out loud, learning to articulate or vocalize the words as a means of slowing down and avoiding distraction. Lectio is like reading poetry; the sound of the words creates interior assonances, which in turn trigger intuitive connections which lodge more effectively in the memory. In lectio the intention is affective not cognitive, it is a work of a heart that desires to make contact with God and, thereby, to reform our lives.
There are three terms found in monastic tradition that describe an appropriate attitude to lectio. Our reading must be assiduous or generous, that is to say it must involve a sustained expenditure of forethought and energy and will often demand a sacrifice of time which could have been devoted to other things. Lectio must be done in a spirit of reverence, expressed in the manner in which we treat the sacred book itself, in our posture and in the way in which we make practical provision to exclude from this space whatever is not sacred. It is reverence which makes us keep silent and receptive so that we can listen to the word that speaks to our souls and brings salvation. When we open the sacred book we also open ourselves; we let ourselves become vulnerable - willing to be pierced by God's two-edged sword. This is what St. Benedict refers to as compunction, allowing ourselves to experience the double dynamic of every genuine encounter with God: the growing awareness of our urgent need for forgiveness and healing on the one hand and, on the other, a more profound confidence in God's superabundant mercy.
- Michael Casey, OCSO, monk at Tarrawarra Abbey, Australia

Jun 15, 2010


Sin in our lives is not something we can ignore, set aside, or postpone. It doesn't become static. Unless we are actively, daily working to eradicate it, sin will take over. Fr. Michael, priest of the Holy Nativity Orthodox Church in British Columbia gives us a vivid picture of how sin can easily spread and flourish.

Sin is a little bit like Sequoia Blackberry bushes. It’s an invasive species that takes over, yet because of the sweet berries, you let it. But the berries are only there for a few weeks, and the thorny bush it there all year. At first you decide you can live with the thorns. You try to avoid and ignore the thorny parts and think longingly about the next season of sweetness. And each spring the bush grows several feet larger.

Then one day you realize that your whole life is organized around the thorn bush. You say to yourself, “I’ve got to do something about this.” But you don’t. And the bush continues to grow. And finally you get so sick of this thorn bush taking over your life that you attack the bush with sheers and shovel. You cut it back. You dig up as much of the root as you can. You bleed and sweat and win--for a moment. 

But it’s not over. Like sin, no matter how much you fight it, it still keeps coming back. Mercifully, fighting second growth is much easier than battling an established bush, if you don’t get lazy. If you dig it out as soon as you see a new shoot, it’s easy and only takes a minute. You can even grab it with a bare hand near the root and pull (but it does get your hand dirty). If you get lazy, if you say, “I’ll get it tomorrow; I don’t want to get my hand dirty right now.” Watch out! Before you know it the sweet taste of August black berries is calling your name and you are saying to yourself, well maybe a small thorn bush is not so bad...

Jun 14, 2010

Creation Blindness

I am a fan of PBS nature programs, wildlife specials, the Discovery Channel, etc. The complexity, diversity, and beauty of plants, animals and ecosystems amaze and delight me. God's hand is visible everywhere in creation. Even those insects, weeds, and animals that at first glance appear useless and destructive end up being a "vital link" in the survival or growth of something else. The incredible wisdom and creativity of our God!

And yet what seems so obvious and visible to me manages to completely escape many botanists, ornithologists, entomologists, ichthyologists and zoologists. They personify "Nature" and give her/him/it the credit for all the creativity, intricacies, balance and complexities in the world around us. The Creator of the Universe is never acknowledged.

Evidently, this is nothing "new under the sun", as Solomon made the same observation way back when. In the 13th Chapter of the Wisdom of Solomon (verses 1-9):
For all men, while ignorant of God, were useless in their condition.
So, from the good things that are seen, they were unable to know Him who exists, nor did they know the Craftsman by paying attention to His works.
But they supposed that the gods who rule the world were either fire or wind or swift air, or the circle of the stars or violent water or the luminaries of heaven.
If, while delighting in their beauty, men assumed them to be gods, let them know how much better than these things is their Lord, for the Creator of beauty created them;
And if they were amazed at their power and working, let them understand from them how much more powerful than these is He who made them.
For from the greatness and beauty of created things the Creator is seen by analogy.
Nevertheless, there is little reason for complaint against them, for perhaps they go astray while seeking God and wish to find Him.
For as they live among His works, they examine them closely and are persuaded by what they see, because the things they see are beautiful.
However, they are not to be excused; for if they were able to know so much with their ability to investigate the world, how is it possible they did not quickly find the Lord of all these things?

I couldn't have said it better!