The Grammar of the Faith

childiconRecent studies have documented the fact that we begin to acquire language from our earliest moments. Even the babbling of infants plays a role. Sounds, words, facial expressions – all have a part in perhaps the most complex of all human activities. As we learn to speak, we not only learn words and sounds, but we simultaneously learn the unspoken rules that govern every language – the rules of grammar.

I recall long, tedious lessons in elementary school surrounding the rules of grammar. We diagrammed sentences, made distinctions between direct objects and indirect objects. We learned to name everything and to describe the rules by which we spoke. We labored long to learn something that we already knew. My sense of grammar increased greatly when I studied my first foreign language – Latin. There the rules were magnified with declensions, conjugations and pages of memorized and recited inflections. In all of these academic exercises, I was learning to talk about things that any five-year old knows intuitively. Grammar is how we speak – and if we have to think too much about grammar – then our speech is halting and tortured. Fortunately, human beings are wired for grammar.

This insight has also been applied to theology. For though the faith can be articulated, it has an underlying grammar that allows it to be spoken – and to be spoken correctly. And like the underlying rules of language, the grammar of theology is often unspoken. It is acquired rather than taught.

More than this, the Orthodox faith would say that Christ Himself is the “grammar” of all creation – this is one meaning of His description as the Logos of God.

All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. (Joh 1:3)

and

For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist. (Col 1:16-17)

Christ is the grammar of all creation – all of creation “speaks” Christ.

Perhaps the most famous example of this grammar is given by St. Irenaeus in his refutation of the Gnostics. Fr. Georges Florovsky gives this summary:

Denouncing the Gnostic mishandling of Scriptures, St. Irenaeus introduced a picturesque simile. A skillful artist has made a beautiful image of a king, composed of many precious jewels. Now, another man takes this mosaic image apart, re-arranges the stones in another pattern so as to produce the image of a dog or of a fox. Then he starts claiming that this was the original picture, by the first master, under the pretext that the gems (the ψηφιδες) were authentic. In fact, however, the original design had been destroyed — λυσας την υποκειμενην του ανθρωπου ιδεαν. This is precisely what the heretics do with the Scripture. They disregard and disrupt “the order and connection” of the Holy Writ and “dismember the truth” — λυοντες τα μελη της αληθειας. Words, expressions, and images —ρηματα, λεξεις παραβολαι —are genuine, indeed, but the design, the υποθεσις (hypothesis), is arbitrary and false (adv. haeres., 1. 8. 1).

In the Apostolic Teaching,  St. Irenaeus refers to this Apostolic Hypothesis and lays out in great detail and commentary pretty much the content of what today we would call the Apostles’ Creed – the Symbol of Faith used in the Church at Holy Baptism. This is elsewhere described by other writers as the regula fidei (the rule of faith).

This hypothesis is the grammar of the faith. In refuting the Gnostics, for example, the grammar would insist upon the Crucified Christ and the pattern of salvation as taught in the Scriptures. This was often completely discarded by the Gnostics. At the time of Irenaeus, the heresies refuted by the Church’s grammar were large, even easily discerned.

But as time went on, the need repeatedly arose for the grammar of the faith to be stated explicitly rather than simply inculcated within the Church’s life. The statements, affirmations and anathemas of the various Councils represent not new doctrines, but explicit statements of the implicit grammar (hypothesis) of the faith.

The Orthodox Church, however, speaks the language of Christ in all its life. The grammar of the faith is by no means confined to Conciliar proclamations. That would be the way of death and forgetfulness. In Orthodoxy, the whole of the Christian life gives expression to this eternal grammar. It is why Orthodoxy is described as a way of life and not a set of ideas.

Nothing embodies this more fully than the liturgical cycles and practices of the faith. For we pray what we believe and believe what we pray. Icons, for example, are not just theoretical portrayals of dogmatic content – believers kiss them, burn incense and bow before them, giving “honor to whom honor is due.” Believers live the 7th Council. This is true for the whole of the Orthodox faith – for nowhere is Orthodoxy an isolated idea or notion – it is always an embodied, integrated whole that is lived by the believer. And this itself is part of the grammar of the faith.

The loss of such a grammar in most forms of Christianity is more than a diminishment of the Church’s teaching life. For human existence always has a grammar.  The loss of a specifically Christian grammar represents the greatest tragedy of Reform in all its guises. The grammar of believing is generally so embedded in the faith that its presence is unnoticed. Reforms uproot and destroy the fundamental grammar of the faith in massive exercises of unintended consequences. It is for this reason that Christians today live in a Two-Storey universe – with the teachings of their faith divorced from the grammar of their lives. They live like secular atheists and wonder why believing is so difficult. Foreign languages are always like that – we struggle to remember the words and constantly say things in a broken and mistaken manner. We imagine that reciting the Creed makes us fluent in Christianity while we have no feeling for what it truly means or why it should matter.

The Christian world lives with the shards of an original Christian language. It will say “evangelism” but mean something completely unrelated to the word’s original grammar. An Orthodox Christian is asked, “Are you saved?” And they respond by wondering why on earth anyone would ask them such a question (for it is not native to the grammar of the faith).

The grammar of Christianity, Protestants might assert, had, by the time of the Reformation, been fundamentally changed within Roman Catholicism requiring a complete overhaul (Reformation) That is true only to a modest degree. For much of the old language survived. But as the Protestant movements swept away the civilization that had existed, they set in its place a radically secularized world in which the Church increasingly separated itself from the business of everyday life and took up guest residence on the upper floors of the culture. I reference Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars for anyone interested in reading case studies of Reformation era secularization.

Contemporary Christianity speaks the language of its consumerist culture and has reframed the gospel itself into a marketed concept. It does not and cannot sustain the fundamental life of the Christian faith. Its continuation represents the progressive destruction of the grammar of the gospel.

This understanding is the ground of my recent articles objecting to the alteration of the position of Scripture within many Christians circles. For as St. Irenaeus himself noted, simply using the Scriptures does not at all mean they are used rightly. The grammar of the faith is the most fundamental legacy of the Apostolic deposit and it is written into the entirety of Orthodox life and practice. Every child whose fingers are folded and shaped for the sign of the Cross is already being immersed in the grammar into which he was Baptized. We do not wait until he is an adult in order to teach him a grammar that by then would be a foreign language.

Orthodoxy in the modern world is indeed a foreign language (sometimes quite literally). I watch the faithful struggle week in and out to live and speak a grammar contrary to the majority consumerism of the surrounding world. There are subtle pressures to adapt. Those who have united themselves to holy Orthodoxy often feel like they have made themselves strangers in their own land, unable to speak easily with family and friends. The same experience was probably common in the First Century as well.

The experience of the faith as an embodied whole is almost impossible to describe to those outside. For the experience of non-Orthodox Christianity has become so accustomed to the grammar of secularism that their perceptions are deaf and blind to the Orthodox witness. “We believe the Scriptures!” is doubtlessly true. But you believe them in a manner that is contrary to the faith. Your Christ looks like a fox and not a king. Where are your saints and images? Why do you smell like that? Where is the altar? Why do you not face East when you pray? Why don’t you cross yourself when you pray? Why do you say such terrible things about the Mother of God? What did you do with Holy Week? Where are the holy monks and the nuns? Who will teach you how to pray?

For those who think such things are “adiafora,” I say: “Apparently so.”

51 comments:

  1. Amen Father! Many of the comments from your recent series of posts on the place of Scripture have been troubling to me, and in some cases outright offensive. I recall one commenter saying that in the past, the Scriptures were not in the language of the people, and because of that they were kept from God. I can only wonder what sort of puny god they believe in, who can only be found written in a book. But the part that troubled me was the fact that the implication of Sola Scriptura (or whatever derivative the person adheres to) becomes that an illiterate person cannot be a Christian. If the truth of Christianity can only be reliably found in Scripture, then those who are illiterate must be excluded from the Christian faith. I can say wholeheartedly, that, as far as I’m concerned, is utter blasphemy. My own father, despite his faults, exemplified a Christian life, despite not being able to read. Most of my ancestors in Serbia were unable to read or write (the fact that my grandfather could do both made him of high status in our village), yet they were, for the most part, faithful and pious Orthodox Christians.
    My sons have been venerating icons since long before they could talk. It comes naturally to children to show reverence. In 2009 we took a trip to Serbia, my wife, 18 month-old son, and I. While there we visited the great monastery of Studenica. Upon entering the church, my son, walked right over and kissed the sarcophagus of St. Symeon the Myrrhflowing. We did not tell him to do this, he had never seen a reliquary before, but somehow, he knew what to do.
    I thank God that our Church and our Faith is more than words in a book, even a book that is God-inspired.

  2. “The voice of him who cryeth in the wilderness; prepare ye the way of the Lord. Make straight in the desert a highway for our God!”

  3. Karen,
    It’s from the narthex in my parish. I built a children’s sized icon stand a couple of year’s back. The children (even barely walking) make a beeline to it when they come in. It’s fun to watch!

  4. Fr. Stephen,

    Good article – that I will ponder further.

    However, I am puzzled by your line in the final paragraph, “Why do you smell like that?” As it is written, it seems to imply that you believe that the non-Orthodox smell different than the Orthodox. I cannot imagine that that is the point you are making. Could you clarify your meaning please? (Perhaps I’m being dense.)

  5. Fr. Stephen,

    These word articulate so well my frustrations with my evangelical friends;
    “The experience of the faith as an embodied whole is almost impossible to describe to those outside. For the experience of non-Orthodox Christianity has become so accustomed to the grammar of secularism that their perceptions are deaf and blind to the Orthodox witness.”

    Thank you!

  6. Mary,

    I think Father is talking about the incense.

    Father,

    Beautiful article, as usual. Glory to God for this great gift of yours, Father, to articulate these eternal truths.

  7. Mary,

    I think Father is talking about the incense.

    Father,

    Beautiful article, as usual. Glory to God for this great gift of yours to articulate these eternal truths.

  8. Father,

    I do agree with you on all points and thank God for the discernment you have. But, I was most touched by the photograph of the little one in front of the icons, I kept looking at it for a long time.

    Thank You.

  9. Unfortunately, the only source we have for much of early heretics’ teaching is the orthodox refutations. We must allow the possibility that they are refuting straw men rather than actual opponents. Also, as you have pointed out before, the use of scripture is not the only test of a church.

  10. Dear Fr. Stephen,

    I regularly read your articles and am so very thankful for your words and insight. As a mother of small children, I try very hard to limit my screen time, and so unfortunately, I am unable to keep up with comments, and I miss the important dialog that often occurs there. Although I’m ignorant of the discussion that is currently taking place, it seems to me that you are being attacked, and I am praying for you and for those who are attacking you, with my unworthy prayers. I know you are mourning, and pray for your hurting heart.

    Forgive me, I am up at odd hours of the night. Tonight, my son was having a nightmare, and I couldn’t go back to sleep after comforting him. I kept thinking about your article, which I read right before I went to bed. The words of a conversation I remember reading came to mind, but I couldn’t immediately remember where I read it. Slowly, it seemed to me that it was St. Silouan. Though I knew I should be getting sleep, for my family’s sake :), I thought, OK, I’ll get up, and if I can find this conversation, I will take the time to share it. It was the first thing I opened my book to. It is a conversation Elder Sophrony remembers between St. Silouan and an Archimandrite who was zealously engaged in missionary work.

    Elder Sophrony introduces the conversation, “[St.] Silouan’s attitude towards those who differed from him was characterized by a sincere desire to see what was good in them, and not to offend them in anything they held sacred. He always remained himself; he was utterly convinced that ‘salvation lies in Christ-like humility,’ and by virtue of this humility he strove with his whole soul to interpret every man at his best. He found his way to the heart of everyone–to his capacity for loving Christ.”

    –“Tell me . . . do they believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, that He is the true God?”
    –“Yes, they do believe.”
    . . .
    –“Do they [worship] in their churches? Do they read the Gospels?”
    –“Yes, they do have churches and services, but when you compare them to ours, how cold and lifeless theirs are!”
    –“Fr. Archimandrite, people feel in their souls when they are doing the proper thing, believing in Jesus Christ, . . . so if you condemn their faith they will not listen to you. But if you were to confirm that they were doing well to believe in God, . . . that they are right to go to church, and say their prayers at home, and to read the Divine word, and so on; and then gently point out their mistakes and show them what they ought to amend, then they would listen to you, and the Lord would rejoice over them. And this way, by God’s mercy, we find salvation. . . . God is love, and therefore the preaching of His word must always proceed from love. Then both preacher and listener will profit. But if you . . . condemn, the soul of the people will not heed you, and no good will come of it.”

    —-

    And from the reading for Monday, Oct 13/Sept 30:

    Luke 27 “But I say to you who hear: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, and pray for those who spitefully use you. 29 To him who strikes you on the one cheek, offer the other also. And from him who takes away your cloak, do not withhold your tunic either. 30 Give to everyone who asks of you. And from him who takes away your goods do not ask them back.”

    Thank you for the important, tireless work that you do. May we demonstrate the truth of our theology by living it, turning the other cheek, and responding with love.

    Forgive me, a sinner, with great logs in her eyes. Lord have mercy on me.

    -Maria

  11. I should add, I struggle every day to try not to react and respond with love–to my own children–and often fail miserably. And now my mind races with pride at having offered lofty words, “May we…” Forgive me. Good always seems to mix with bad in me. Please pray that I will have patience and love today and the rest of the week, especially now I’m behind on sleep. I always fall hard when I’m tired.

  12. Theodosia –

    I assumed that Father may have been writing about incense as well. But, if so, to be grammatically consistent with the other statements, he would have been written “Why don’t you smell?” (or perhaps more tactfully, “Why is there no scent of incense when you pray?”)

    The comment I made was offered as proof-reading comment (offered by one who often needs proof-reading myself). However, I also wanted to allow for the possibility that I had misunderstood.

  13. Maria –

    I, for one, was grateful to be reminded of this beautiful account of St. St. Silouan. May have get rest and have a peaceful day with little ones.

  14. Mary Benton,
    I was referring to incense. But on days of liturgy, I smell like that. My cassocks are permeated with it – they smell like that all the time. I played with several ways of expressing this…one would have been “why does your church smell like your living room?” But, in the end, I chose this rather plain one. Because, at the end of the liturgy, all of the Orthodox smell like incense. The paragraph is full of Orthodox thoughts and questions – all of which sound quite foreign because its practice and grammar are just that foreign. Even the Church’s in the West that use incense have turned it into something to see from a distance. It’s not about smelling any more. Also, I thought the sentence “Why do you smell like that?” was more jarring – and accurate.

    I have had curious conversations with Orthodox from Europe who had never had any experience whatsoever of American Protestantism. Their descriptions of a first visit with a friend are among the most entertaining stories I’ve ever heard – like a visitor from Mars. Of course, I far more accustomed to hearing the non-Orthodox describe how strange their first visit seems to them – all of which is a confession that they have lost touch with the original grammar of the faith.

    The instinct about this is so strong among the Greeks, that there are some among them who feel that it is necessary to understand Greek in order to be Orthodox. They are, of course, wrong (and I do not want people to post their opinions on this), but I understand the instinct. They know that the grammar (though they do not know it as I have described it) must be there and they know that the grammar of modern culture is wrong. So how surprising is it that they might think to themselves, “It’s the language!” English can be made to speak Orthodox, though it’s quite difficult. We have to continually force people to redefine certain words (like “symbol” “sacrament” “Scripture” etc.). Probably 80 per cent of what I write is really about an effort to speak and describe this grammar of Orthodoxy. It is for the sake of those who would understand – both inside and out.

    BTW, “smelling” has always fascinated me. One of the chapters in my thesis at Duke was entitled, “The Odor of Corruption,” and the first line began, “The smell of rotting flesh…” It’s very Biblical, too.

  15. We have to continually force people to redefine certain words (like “symbol” “sacrament” “Scripture” etc.). Probably 80 per cent of what I write is really about an effort to speak and describe this grammar of Orthodoxy.

    I can’t tell you the times I have heard my fellow parishioners who came from a Protestant background say they have difficulty talking to their old friends because the words don’t mean the same thing anymore.

    I think this is a problem for translators of liturgical and theological works as well.

    It is encouraging to hear someone describe the problem and have hope for the solution.

    Perhaps the solution lies in gaining more of the Holy Spirit so that folks will be attracted even though they don’t know why. Your idea, Father, of making a kid sized icon stand is wonderful.

    Prayer, fasting, almsgiving, repentance/forgiveness and worship. I don’t do any of them very well. How am I to describe these deep and wonderful acts to someone else?

  16. Mary,
    I stand corrected!!! I did not understand the nuances of your question…

    Maria,

    Thank you for sharing this powerful dialogue with St Silouan. I always need this reminder. Thanks and God bless you and yours.

  17. Father Stephen…
    What you wrote resonated with me. True, our own grammar becomes innate within us. I too had to learn another grammar while living in Mexico. I recall the great struggle to gain proficiency. But after a couple of years I forgot the grammar as I would sometimes ask myself after a conversation, “Was I speaking Spanish or English?” It became part of my being. However, I still spoke with an accent. Same with the struggle to gain the Orthodox, I think it’s called, phronema. I remember my wife and I as new converts would often stumble through the liturgy while as noted above small children born into Orthodoxy would effortlessly move through it. So after many years we are finally “catching” what it means to be Orthodox having been innoculated against it for long years previous. But even now I still “speak” Orthodoxy with an accent.:)

  18. Radoje Spasojevic wrote, “If the truth of Christianity can only be reliably found in Scripture, then those who are illiterate must be excluded from the Christian faith.”

    And the converse is also true: If the truth of Christianity can only be reliably found in incense and icons, then those who live far away from these things must be excluded from the Christian faith.”

    My background is Protestant but I am deeply interested in and engaged with Orthodoxy. The stumbling block is the crux of the whole matter: salvation through Jesus Christ.

    If one’s own salvation–being born again individually in Christ–is foreign to the grammar of Orthodoxy, then I am perplexed about which larger language they are trying to speak.

  19. To elaborate a bit, I know that being born again open one’s eyes to the reality that “Christ is the grammar of all creation – all of creation ‘speaks’ Christ.”

    This is a profound truth, and one that is being explicitly revealed through recent discoveries in quantum physics (quantum entanglement, etc.).

    The issue, I suppose, is how does one open one’s eyes? “I once was lost, but now am found; was blind but now, I see,” is a personal journey, one that cannot be forced or imposed or completed in any way except through the individual’s singular experience.

  20. I had a Philosophy professor in college who was a student of Wittgenstein. He heard someone say that the existence of natural language was the best argument for the existence of God.

  21. Ann K,
    Your comment provides an example. To “be born again” is not an experience. It is what happens in Holy Baptism. God is a merciful God and saves us as generously as possible – including without icons and incense – and sometimes without the Bible as well.

    But that doesn’t mean that those so saved will “speak fluently” to continue the metaphor of grammar. To acquire the Orthodox faith will take time. Some things that you now think would inevitably change. It is a different language.

  22. I find it interesting that this is more than a “one step” issue. As a Protestant, I have had conversations with non-believers concerning God and the Church and I’ve often pointed out that we (myself and they) are discussing different topics within the same conversation although they don’t realize it. I am often met with blank stares when I point this out.

    The language of the Orthodox faith moves this issue one step further. I would say that one must (almost) constantly define terms as you speak in order to actually communicate the faith to a non-believer (or a Protestant).

    It’s also worth noting that, if not done in the right spirit and very carefully, many people become angry at the (internalized) viewpoint that one is stating they do not understand what you are saying (because they often have no knowledge of the context). Allaying that frustration and anger is a major challenge in continuing the communication.

  23. Thank you, Father. Thanks to your blog, I discovered Orthodoxy and am reading a great deal about it now. The “one-storey universe” is what set me adrift from Protestantism.

  24. “Those who have united themselves to holy Orthodoxy often feel like they have made themselves strangers in their own land, unable to speak easily with family and friends.”

    This.

    This this this!

    At times over the past year of my journey into Orthodoxy, I’ve found myself at a loss to explain my new faith to ESPECIALLY to my old friends from Evangelical churches. However, I did notice this same phenomenon in my old Protestant incarnation when speaking with secular Americans with no background in Christianity — we speak on such fundamentally different views of existence that communication of what we are actually trying to convey is so difficult.

    I am just beginning to learn the language of Orthodoxy, (and I’ll probably speak with a “Protestant accent” for the rest of my life!) and posts such as this one are so essential for converts like me to always continue to shed light on areas of our lives that are unknowingly stuck in our ‘old language.’

  25. Byron, it’s not just that the “terms” are different, it goes much deeper than that. As Fr. Stephen has stated (If I understand him correctly) it’s that it’s a totally different language. I’m not even Orthodox, although I wish to be. But there are certain people in my life who fully affirm Evangelicalism, that I cannot even discuss my desire to become Orthodox with, because I have no Earthly idea where to even begin. I know that most of what I would say to them could only be met with a blank stare. I’ll admit that I find it frustrating because I so desparately wish to explain it to them. Add on the fact that I’m not even Orthodox, so I recognize that I still don’t actually even get it myself. Reading Fr. Stephen’s blog helps, but most of the time, I still feel lost.

  26. Alan, yes I am in the same proverbial “boat” as you at this time. I only wished to point out that the inability to communicate is because we often speak a different language–but without realizing it. It is important to point that out in a manner that allows for further communication and does not become an impediment to our witness. That can be a very difficult thing to do, as you’ve described.

    While it is frustrating for us, we should realize that it can incite others to anger and turn them away. My apologies if I did a poor job of communicating that…. 🙂

  27. Thank you for one more well written and ‘to the point’ article Fr. Stephen. I agree that much of the Protestant world, are using the wrong grammar. However, a couple of questions that keeps me on my knees are: Is it possible that a stumbling Western grammar is a child of an Eastern grand- parent that stopped to care when the grand – child grew too wild? Could it be that the holistic experience of faith is so hard to describe to others (you used the word “outsiders”) because there might be some genuine care and love lacking? After all, we believe that Christ took on humanity, He became like the “other”, while remaining divine, because His great care and love for us. Particularly the care for the ones who cannot use grammar properly (I am very much one of those persons). Grace and peace to you, thank you for your labor of love.

  28. Definitely, I have to make a visit to St. Anne’s some day (God permitting)! One of the things I loved most about my first parish was their parish tradition of having the children go first for communion. Every DL, watching that line of children form in anticipation from smaller to older reminded me of Jesus’ command to His disciples, “Let the little children come to Me . . . “

  29. Father Stephen, bless!

    I join many others in praising you for this series of posts. I have one request.

    Once you are finished with this series, can you edit, rework and compile them into a booklet (perhaps to be published by Conciliar Press or its equivalent)? I think this would be a good way for Protestant enquirers to understand how to approach Orthodoxy.

  30. I would like to understand more about grammer of religion. I was brought up protestant Christian, Moravian. I have never really liked Jesus religion, find it offensive. By that I mean people wanting to know if I have accepted Jesus as my personal savior. I really like the Gospels. I find the Appostle’s Creed preposterous. Then I went to live with the Indians and discovered their belief in God is credible. They have no belief in Jesus, yet the way they believe is closer to the Bible than most Christians I know. They go into a hut to pray to God in secret. They don’t have a church; they are supposed to live every day according to God. They have no sects or denominations. They practice humility and generousity. Your article really resinated with me even tho I don’t know what it means. Could you explain more?

    Janis

  31. Janis,
    I was in seminary with two Lakota Sioux, both of whom were Episcopal priests. They were very interesting. I enjoyed hearing them speak about their understanding of the Christian faith. Neither of them were “traditionalists” as the Sioux called those practicing Native American spirituality, but there was a strong flavor there just the same.

    The heart of the Christian faith is belief that God became man, Jesus Christ, and that Jesus, in His death, descended into the depths of human darkness and brokenness and made for us a way to healing and wholeness. This is made known to us in His Resurrection from the dead.

    The teachings and actions of Christ in the gospels center in this reality.

    The grammar of the faith (in Orthodox Christianity) is a way of seeing the world and speaking about it that is permeated with the ancient Christian faith of the Middle East, its original home.

    You should visit an Orthodox Church sometime. You would see there a form of Christianity that might surprise you.

  32. Thank you, Fr. Stephen, for your writing and effort.
    To our Protestant brothers and inquirers, who are curious to know what Orthodoxy is about, I would recommend not only reading and debating in front of computers but also try a direct experience:
    open an Orthodox prayer book and read or
    take time to gaze quietly at a byzantine icon or
    smell the scent of incense and myrrh or
    better yet, better than all, attend a service in an Orthodox church to see how we love and worship the Living God and to set foot into the Kingdom.

    At the end of all words and explanation, one would ultimately have to come, see and taste on their own, for good is the Lord. No amount of talking and thinking can replace it.

    I live in Romania and, like Father Stephen says, I learned the language of faith and worship as a toddler even. I am sorry to say this and I know I shouldn,t, but dear people, walking into catholic and protestant churches is a depressing experience, there is a desert and a void that I can’t put into words. Yes they are magnificent buildings with history and art but what else is there?

    The liturgical ‘now’ and presence of the Christ, His Holy Mother, His heavenly hosts and His friends, are not there or at least I, a sinner, do not sense it.

  33. one more thing:
    I was taking a walk with my husband just the other day and I was hyped that during the weekend, about 90.000 people pilgrimaged to Iasi to venerate Saint Paraskeva (her feast was yesterday and apparently almost 200.000 people went *in person* to her relics, and many took part in Liturgies throughout the country).
    So he said, “I dont quite get this saint venerating thing, in a way it seems almost polytheistic.”
    And I replied, “It’s easy: imagine you died and went to Heaven and I’d say, please, now that you are so close to God, put on a good word for me. Wouldn’t you intercede?”

  34. Lex,
    I love the way simple, unlettered Orthodox peasant grannies sometimes instinctively know what erudite philosophers might arrive at after much searching. How they live and die, how they retain a ‘memory of death’, how they easily discern the bond between death, love and life:
    That they recognize there exists a love that leads unto eternal life. (That it is as bright as day to them that, despite love justly being the way to immortal communion with undying life, to our ‘old man’ such sacrificial love appears much like death.) That such truth persuades more than reality, and such love emphatically tramples death – eradicating all futility by some means -, yet alas, that wretched falseness of perpetual distraction most of us cultured contemporaries bask in – fleeing from God’s presence and from ‘memory of death’-, in due course brings us face to face with a meaninglessness that’s only too real. Is it not true that we often catch contemporary, “evolved” man, eager to live without ever entering into ruminations on death (while pondering on a vast range of unltimately inane topics), finally coming to die without ever truly having lived? (Though there’s certainly ‘life after death’, to us ‘moderns’ -especially those who disremember death, there’s hardly any life even before death.)

  35. I always these two Jaroslav Pelikan paragraphs fascinating; anyway, I thought of this as I read the post above:

    All of us could speak before we ever began to read or write. That is true not only of individuals but of entire nations, which, when they have acquired or developed alphabets and scripts, have done so for a tongue that had already been spoken for a long time. And with all due reverence in the presence of an ultimate and unfathomable mystery, it may even be said to be true of the Deity. “In the beginning…God said, ‘Let there be light’”; “In the beginning the [spoken] Word already was.” On this, at least, Jews and Christians are in agreement, and so are their Bibles, that there was a Word of God before there was a written Bible of any kind, that the God of the Bible is the God who speaks…Eleven times, the opening chapter of the Torah uses the verb “to say” in reference to God, in addition to the related verbs “to call” and “to bless”. But the God who speaks does not write anything in the Torah for eighty chapters, until the giving of the tablets of the Law to Moses at Mount Sinai in the second half of the Second Book. To comprehend the written Bible, moreover, it is essential to understand that most of the words which are now written down in it had been spoken first and, therefore, they had been heard long before they could ever have been read.

    Now that we have these words primarily in written form, we need to sound them out, sometimes even aloud, before we can grasp their full meaning. An unexpected example of how a presumed oral original helps to explain the written text is the statement of John the Baptist in the Gospels: “Do not imagine you can say, ‘We have Abraham for our father.’ I tell you that God can make children for Abraham out of these stones.” Interpreters of this passage were often puzzled about what connection, if any, there is between “children” and “stones” until, in the process of translating (or retranslating) this saying from Greek back into Aramaic (or Hebrew), it became evident: ben, as in the title of one of the Apocrypha, “Ben Sirach,” means “son” or “child,” with the plural banim; and eben, as in “Eben-Ezer,” means “stone,” with the plural ebanim; so what John the Baptist was saying was that God was able to make banim out of ebanim, a play on words that is lost not only in the translation from Aramaic to Greek to English, but in the transcription from oral tradition to written text.

    Pelikan, Jaroslav, Whose Bible is it?, (New York: Viking Penguin, 2005), 9-10.

  36. Dino, I’ve had the chance to think about the same thing (how we don’t think about death) recently, when I visited a little church and reliquary with relics of the martyrs who died in the prison of Aiud (a hell on earth, alongside with the Pitesti experiment), under the communist regime. I have seen a lot of “bones”. As good company we had an abbot of my age (31), who told us on the way, that during his years in the Univ of Theology, he and a good friend of his made an agreement of how, where, they should be buried and how should the tombstone be: in case either of them died first, the other one would do the funeral service. They must have been 24 years old when they made these preparations with all seriousness.
    I admire that a lot. I don’t find it at all “morbid” but I also thought that, whoa whoa whoa would some experiences and conversations we’ve had be completely spooky to someone untrained in the Orthodox faith.. though there are many stories of holy men and women who knew when their end was coming and made preparations in advance. Stories of men and women saving the bodies of martyrs and taking them to safe places. And other things.
    One of the things that puzzle me are the funerals or “parastasis” of people I don’t know, when I happen to be at the graveyard or inside the church when one is being had: I never know whether to stay (away, yet within hearing range) or leave. It is true I don’t know those people, but they are still, at a level, brothers or sisters and I imagine that, were I dead, I could probably use all the prayers I could get, even from strangers who awkwardly linger some yards away.

  37. Father,

    Once again you so cleverly illustrate what I’m experiencing in my journey to Orthodoxy. It can’t be explained; it just has to be lived. Experienced. Woven into your very life. It’s so much more than simply following along with a text.

    I’ll admit, that can be tough for an analytic like me to embrace – but that’s one of the things I can say I’m falling in love with about Orthodoxy. The mystery, the unfathomable vastness… it doesn’t make sense to me sometimes. But, then, it’s not supposed to. It’s GOD.

    Thank you once again for the grammar lesson, Father!

  38. I remember visiting a parish just after they had moved into a new building. I was distracted at the beginning of the service because something didn’t seem right. When i realized it was the lack of the scent of incense penetrating everything.

  39. ‘Lex,
    I agree to stay. More prayers are always good.

    As to knowing our time. My mother, may her memory be eternal, announced the morning of her death, that she was going to die that day. My father and brother humored her, but she persisted. Later my father asked why. She said God had told her. He asked what God had said and she replied that He had told her that He would come and take her home at about 7 that evening and that she and my father should spend time that day discussing anything they had between them. Which is what they did. At about 5 til 7, that evening, she announced, “Jim, I love you and I hate to leave you, but I have to go home.” And she sat down and was gone. She died on the 6th anniversary of her reception into the Orthodox Church (when she was 79). My father was always quite candid about his own preparations for death. He died two years later, very eager to go home as well.

  40. That’s an amazing story about your folks, Father–such a demonstration of the mercy of God! My mother’s recent cardiac arrest took her completely off her guard. If my sister hadn’t been present and quick on her feet when it happened, my mother would be gone today. Also by God’s mercy and with the help of the local EMS she “came back from the dead” (as she likes to tell people now) and is gaining strength with the help of a pacemaker at home. Even though she is 83, she seems to be in some denial about her mortality (in the hospital a few days out of a coma, she was joking with visitors she’d live to be 100, which has never in her life looked less likely than now!). I know it is a passionate sort of longing, but I keep wishing she had the fullness of Orthodoxy to help her become more ready for and peaceful in the face of her mortality. That readiness and peace is something I pray for, for both my parents. I know I am not yet ready to go home either–Orthodox prayers for more time to “offer worthy repentance” resonate forcefully with me, and I know I wouldn’t stand a chance to be prepared without the help of the Orthodox faith.

  41. Indeed Nathan, from a look at your blog it seems that one of your goals is to deter people from converting to Orthodoxy and have them consider Lutheranism instead. In fact, it looks like you have written an entire article warning against Father Stephens false teachings including color photos of him. For me, this is a place to listen and learn. If i wanted to learn about your religion, i might read through your blog, and ask questions or comment approptately, but i would not fill up your comment section with arguments and refutations. How would that be helpful to anyone?

    Thank you Father Stephen for all of your hard work. I don’t know how you have the time and energy to keep up with all of this, but i greatly appreciate it.

    Long time listener, first time caller,

    Andrew

  42. My apologies! I posted the above comment to the wrong article. It was probably unneccessary anyway. Please feel free to delete it.

  43. Many of the recent comments here makes the following realization painfully obvious to me: some perverted {mis}interpretative mechanism has been enshrined deep in our minds… [the sort of thing Elder Paisios would term a ‘malfunctioning engine’]
    This amounts to no more than an uncanny ability to misconstrue all ‘classical’ Grammar of the Faith. I recall how Father Stephen once wrote about conversation with certain ‘inquirers’: “short of a full-blown catechism, including a removal of masses of misinformation, no real progress can be made in communication”[…!]
    This ‘mechanism’ seems to be resolutely established, not just in the minds of secular agnostics -as many Orthodox Christians aren’t immune to it either-, and it’s reminiscent both of humanity’s primordial fall as well as our final apostasy. I also can’t help thinking that modern utopian progressivism (clearly ‘redolent of the culture of the antichrist’), and that spirit of pride (intimately connected to progressivism – and perhaps the only area where we are “progressing”…), that has permeated contemporary secular thought, coupled with the onslaught of continuous distraction on man’s mind, is the real fuel that runs that ‘malfunctioning engine’.

  44. Dino,

    I think it has to be remembered that most of the commentators here are western. If Fr. John Romanides thesis is correct, we have not had a real Patristic mindset since 9th century! That means we have been “progressing” for longer than we were Orthodox. I like the way you succinctly tie pride in with the spirit of modern utiopian progressivism…

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