Faith Talks

Because God Was Singing, 13 June 2012

"Theological reflection - that is, the understanding of the faith - arises spontaneously and inevitably in the believer, in all those who have accepted the gift of the Word of God." Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation.

"He who was caught up in the third heaven to Paradise, and who heard inexpressible and divine words which no human tongue can utter, wrote to the Galatians - as lovers of Scriptures, you surely have read and know his words - saying, 'But God forbid that I should glory in anything other than the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.'" Oikos for the Elevation of the Cross, September 14th.

"West African sculptors have always sung while they worked. And they do not stop singing until their sculptures are finished. That way the music gets inside the carvings and keeps on singing." Eduardo Galeano, Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone.
I had some wonderful conversations after Liturgy last Sunday (June 10th). First I met a large family (all of them adults and young adults) from Connecticut who were vacationing in Maine and came to Liturgy in our church. I was blown away by the intensity with which they expressed their joy in being part of our Liturgy that morning. One of them told me flat out that she experienced great peace in our church. They spent a long time looking at all our icons and talking with me and other members of our church. Rarely do I experience such outright positive energies in a church setting. Which is a pity, of course, as positive energies should be normal in every church encounter. On a Sunday when so few of our own parishioners chose to come to Liturgy, this family from Connecticut more than made up for what was lacking!

My second encounter was with a young man, a student at USM, who has grown disenchanted with the leadership and problems in the Catholic Church and is looking for a new spiritual home. He feels drawn to the Orthodox Church. I will help him make the transition, if this is indeed what he chooses to do. He also, like the family from Connecticut, was in church well before Liturgy began and I could sense the devotion and positive energy he brought to our worship that morning. Finally, during coffee hour I spent an enlightening half hour with a couple who have sporadically attended over the years, love the way we do Liturgy, and now decided to join our community as stewards.

I enjoy fellowship hour every Sunday, regardless of who I get to spend time with, but this was one of those special Sundays that "renew a willing spirit in me," if I may borrow and modify a phrase from Psalm 51.

Every year, one of the things I most look forward to is inviting you to read with me the Oikos for the feast of the Elevation of the Cross, September 14th, and on the Sunday after the Elevation of the Cross. It's the second quote at the head of this article. Why do I love reading this little verse from the Matins of that feast? Because of that short aside that is hyphenated in the middle: "as lovers of Scriptures, you surely have read and know his words." It is assumed that everyone reading those words and is present for worship is a lover of Scripture, who "surely" knows the words of St. Paul in the Letter to the Galatians. It is simply assumed!

It is assumed by the liturgy of the Orthodox Church that the members of the church are joyful hearers, knowers and doers of the words enshrined in Scripture. When I read those words every year a strange joy enters my heart. There are many things in the church that I can't relate to - I won't get specific - but when I read that Oikos, that's something I can relate to. That's when theology becomes real.

Isn't this true in all areas of life? Those things and people that you can relate to, that have meaning for you, are precisely the ones that fill you with joy. When that happens in the realm of faith and worship, that's when and where theology begins. When the joy of personal relationship is missing, theology is dry and academic, worship is boring and mechanical. The first quote that I include at the heading of this article says it clearly: "Theological reflection - that is, the understanding of the faith - arises spontaneously and inevitably in the believer, in all those who have accepted the gift of the Word of God." "Spontaneously" is just another way of saying joyfully / joyously.

Finally, the amazing quote from Eduardo Galeano sums it up with a vivid image of African sculptors at work. They sing while they carve so that the music gets inside the carvings they create, and the music keeps on singing after the carvings or sculptures are finished and go on display or on sale. A fantastic image, and how easily it should apply to our faith and worship. Should doesn't necessarily mean it does. But it should! Or, maybe it does, and we don't sense it… And as I think more about it, I'm convinced this is indeed the case. Let me explain.

God was singing when God created the world and everything in it. God was singing when the Holy Spirit filled the world with divine wisdom. It's not by accident that scientists and artists alike speak of "the music of the spheres." Any mathematician or musician will tell you that music is at the heart of beauty and order. God was singing when our Liturgy and worship tradition took shape. This doesn't mean that everything in our tradition comes straight from God, but the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and the whole is indeed from God.

Are we open to the music that is at the core of our worship? The music that the choir sings is part of that music, but is only an outward, approximate reflection of the eternal music. The eternal music is the music that God put in and which keeps on singing. It's a music beyond sound and notes. It's a mystical music that works at a deeper level than the music we hear and sing. Are we open to hearing it, to receiving it in the depths of our being? What I saw in the family from Connecticut was an openness and a joyous receptivity that I wish we could all have.

There are Sundays when I come to church with negative feelings and thoughts, and I start Liturgy in an unreceptive spirit. But something invariably happens during the Liturgy, and I re-connect with the energy that has been there all along. And I become partner with that creative energy that animates true worship. God was singing when God created everything, including our ability to see and hear beauty and to bring beauty into being.

Does this make sense? Or am I trying too hard to create meaning out of a bunch of rambling thoughts? Perhaps I'm trying too hard - but only because I want every one of our people to experience the joy and appreciation that the family from Connecticut brought and took away last Sunday when they came to worship with the few of us who also came. And please remember that we don't only take from worship; we also bring!

God always provides people to worship "in spirit and truth." Perhaps next Sunday you, the reader of this article, will bring that miraculous presence.

Fr. Constantine Sarantidis.

Monday of the Holy Spirit, 4 June 2012

Today is the Monday of the Holy Spirit, a major feast-day of the Orthodox Church, even though it's not observed by most Orthodox Christians and churches. And that's a pity, because what we need most in our lives is precisely a reminder of the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit.

On this Monday of the Holy Spirit I start this new series of reflections on our website, and I pray that the Holy Spirit will bless the effort. Right at the outset I want to express here my gratitude to Chris Dilios for the many years - since 1999 - he has devoted to maintaining and updating our website. I finally convinced him to teach me some hands-on experience so I can handle some of the website by myself.

I recently read a 1947 essay about New York by the great French philosopher, Albert Camus, and was surprised by how poetically he was able to write about New York. Here are the opening and closing sentences of his essay. The very first sentence grabs you with its unique and unexpected expression:

New York rain is a rain of exile. Abundant, viscous and dense, it pours down tirelessly between the high cubes of cement into avenues plunged suddenly into the darkness of a well. Seeking shelter in a cab that stops at a red light and starts again on a green, you suddenly feel caught in a trap, behind monotonous, fast-moving windshield wipers sweeping aside water that is constantly renewed.... I loved the mornings and the evenings of New York. I loved New York, with that powerful love that sometimes leaves you full of uncertainties and hatred: sometimes one needs exile. And then the very smell of New York rain tracks you down in the heart of the most harmonious and familiar towns, to remind you there is at least one place of deliverance in the world, where you, together with a whole people and for as long as you want, can finally lose yourself forever.
Wow, people don't write like this about New York, or about much of anything, nowadays. Language has been trivialized. And perhaps the language of faith has been trivialized most of all. I'm not as good at expressing thoughts as Camus - after all, he was one of the great writers of the 20th century! - but I promise that in everything I write here I will try not to trivialize our Orthodox, biblical faith. I will occasionally choose to be controversial, but I will only be controversial in those things that the Gospel of Jesus Christ allows me to be controversial.

Yesterday was Pentecost. The morning Liturgy was sparsely attended, but the people who came were edified by the message of this major feast-day. Today, Monday of the Holy Spirit, completes the two-day commemoration of the momentous descent of the Holy Spirit upon the first Christians in Jerusalem, vividly described in the second chapter of the Book of Acts in the New Testament.

The first two verses of the Bible, Genesis 1:1-2, picture the Holy Spirit (the ruach of God) as a wind sweeping over the primeval chaos, before God began to give form to the creation. Today also the Holy Spirit sweeps over the chaos that we humans have created: political chaos, economic chaos, environmental chaos, moral chaos, spiritual and psychological chaos, confusion in all realms of life and thought, devaluation of the arts, the loss of human individuality, privacy and freedom, and so on the list goes... The Spirit is ready to sweep away the chaos. But the chaos was and is created by us, so the Spirit will not sweep the chaos away without our cooperation.

Jesus, in the Gospel of John, calls the Spirit by the Greek word Paraklitos, which means Comforter, Counselor, Advocate... The Spirit counsels, inspires, guides and comforts us in our struggles. But the Spirit does not impose God's will on anyone, not even on the planet. Jesus spoke of "rivers of living water" overflowing from the hearts of those who believe in him, and by this he meant the Spirit, as the Gospel of John explains (7:39). The meaning is clear: God gives the Spirit, and we allow the Spirit to flow out of our hearts, in our words and actions. Do we want to be co-workers with the Spirit? That's the challenge for every individual Christian and for the church as a whole. There are too many in the Church who simply believe that the Spirit blesses everything we undertake, especially if we say the right prayers or do the proper ritual. No, there is freedom in our relationship with God. God respects our freedom, and in turn is free from all attempts to manipulate God through rituals or prayers. God reads our hearts, not our rituals!

What strikes me about Camus' essay is his unexpected use of words. And I can't help but think of the Holy Spirit in the same way he describes the rain of New York, "a rain of exile... abundant, viscous and dense." If Camus can use such evocative and heavy words to describe New York, should't we be at least as bold in speaking of the Holy Spirit? We are in exile when we don't allow the Spirit to be abundant, viscous and dense in our lives and actions!

We heard striking images to describe the Holy Spirit in yesterday's readings in the Liturgy of Pentecost. In the reading from Acts of the Apostles (2:1-11) we heard of "a violent rushing wind" and then "tongues of fire"! In the Gospel reading (John 7:37-52), Jesus described the Spirit as "rivers of living water."

In ancient times people thought that the world was made up of four elements: earth, air, fire and water. Today, of course, we know that there are over a hundred different chemical elements that make up everything, but the ancients had a simpler list of "elements." It's probably only a coincidence, but an interesting observation that three of the four elements of the ancients were used to describe the Holy Spirit in the readings in yesterday's Liturgy: air (wind), fire and water. What about earth, the fourth element? Isn't that where we come in? We are made of earth. The dynamism belongs to the Spirit - wind, fire and water are powerful forces - but like the earth we receive and cultivate the dynamism and produce fruit.

The "fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control" according to Saint Paul (Galatians 5:22-23). I pray that what you read here in the coming weeks and months will produce fruit of the sort described by Paul. Let us be fruitful earth for the Spirit who is fire, water and wind.

Fr. Constantine Sarantidis.

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