Why Orthodox?

The Incarnation

The reason I remain Orthodox is the same as the reason I became Orthodox. I remain confronted with the Incarnation. Confronted with what to do with the historical person of Jesus Christ.

I begin with this person Jesus. There hasn’t been any serious historical debate over his existence for some time. Those who simultaneously deny his importance and try to disprove his existence have been silenced by the weight of evidence. After all, his enemies, both Roman and Jewish, wrote of him vociferously. And the Greeks, so often discounted with the ad hominem that they were, after all, his converts, wrote of him, friend and foe. That there was a man named Jesus who lived when and where and more-or-less how he is supposed to have, and died when and where and how he is supposed to have, is not under substantive dispute.

It is also quite clear that he said certain things. Of course, the Holy Scriptures are so often discounted as ‘tainted’, while some really amazing tripe is taken for academically acceptable, but I am unable to discount something because of who wrote it, or why. Sometimes in the footnotes, even of fools or fanatics, we find things we are unable to discount. But what is more, we find agreement and little disagreement in the writings of his enemies about Jesus’ central claims.

It was clear, also, that his claims were fairly well understood by those who opposed him. When they stoned him, he asked why. They said because he had made himself out to be God. And that was precisely the point. They had hit upon the central assertion of his life. That God had become a man.

It’s become somewhat common to hear the Anglican C.S. Lewis’ logic in the mouths of fundamentalists who would otherwise deny the ecclesiological and mysteriological conclusions to which he comes. So I risk offending the reader with what, in some circles, has come to seem not only trite, but a mark of a certain sect of which I am no part. Again, I feel free to draw from sources that are widely subject to ad hominem. After all, I am not an Anglican. Lewis makes the following observations:

Jesus claimed to be God become man. Either:

  1. he was lying (i.e. He knew he was not God, and yet claimed to be.)
  2. he was mad (i.e. He did not know he was not God, and yet claimed to be.)
  3. he was telling the truth (i.e. He knew he was God as he had claimed to be.)

It is interesting that these are exactly the three reactions that his contemporaries had. They were not confused over his claims. They understood that he had claimed to be God. But the records from all sources are clear: Some said he was mad – a “fool”. Some said he was lying. Finally, there were those who believed. The surprising thing was which people thought what; it wasn’t what one might expect. Those one would think would defend him, ridiculed him or shook their heads. Those one might think would mock him, knelt.

There was one other assertion, which is very interesting. Some accused him of having a demon. Demonism, of course, would approximate madness, and the two would still be confused for nearly two millenia afterward. Demonism, too, would be an explanation for lying, since Beelzebub, their chief, was the “Father of Lies”. But the assertion is interesting for another reason — the claim that Jesus was evil. And the claim makes absolute sense if he was lying, whether out of his own ego or under a demon’s influence.

To truly grasp the nature of this accusation against Jesus, one must think about the implications of his central claim. For this confession, that God had become a man, twenty centuries of martyrs have surrendered to torture and have given their lives. A massacre dwarfing the genocide practiced on behalf of any ideology of any world dictator from Stalin to Hitler. An after all, Jesus warned that he was taking up his cross, was going to die, and bade anyone to come and follow him. In short, if Jesus was lying, he was more evil than a Hitler, more monstrous than a Stalin. In fact, if he was lying, he makes the chief among demons look more like a moderate thug. I am willing to consider the possibility that Jesus was the most evil man in human history, but I ask that those who must assert this when they suggest that he was lying, help me to understand how this most evil man in history could invent and bestow upon us the most beautiful and loving moral and ethical worldview ever conceived. The foundation of mercy in law. The institution of chartiy (after all, it was Jesus’ followers, taking his words literally, that built the world’s first hospitals, orphanages, and homes for unwed mothers). It was the words of Jesus that led Martin Luther King to proclaim “I have a dream.” I think, for the educated reader, enough examples will come to mind that I need not belabour the point.

This still leaves me with the possibility of Jesus’ madness. I think dubious psychohistory would finally cut off its own head, if it were to make Jesus out to be insane. Anyone who has ever read the Sermon on the Mount or the Beatitudes (“Blessed are the poor.” “Blessed are the peacemakers.”) would have a hard time showing anything but the most benevolent sanity. If the Jesus of those precious words is mad, then so am I, and so would I want to be. And so are half the poets we have inspiring us in university, and so are half the literary genius’, and so are all who conceive of an make peace. I would be willing to accept the possibility of Jesus’ insanity, but only in accepting that he is no more insane than a Ghandi, a Martin Luther King, or a Mother Theresa, and that insanity, if that is what it is called, is desireable, and sanity of the opposite kind the true evil.

The problem most of us have is that we’re prejudiced against the final option. Logic tells us that we must consider it on its own merits, equally with the other possibilities, but we flinch from that. I suppose at some point I decided not to flinch. So often one is considered to have surrendered his logical faculties to religion. I don’t plan on surrendering anything. It is, in fact, the willingness to be true to my logical faculties, and the choice to be free from anti-intellectualism, whether of the religious or of the ideological and academic kind, that made me willing to examine each possibility with logical equity. I don’t accept an ad hominem prohibition on one question where I allow another question.

In considering Jesus’ claim to be God, I looked for implications of that. Not so I could rule out the question if I didn’t like the implications. I looked because if he was telling the truth, then things would be different than if he were lying. I wasn’t looking for “proof”; I was looking for prima facie evidence. If I do indeed have a light in my hand, the room should not be entirely dark.

Naturally, I didn’t ignore the other common claim that one hears religionists make. That some 600 prophesies were fulfilled by Jesus’ Incarnation (his becoming man). From the time and place of his birth, to the things that would be said and done to him by his enemies, I did, in fact, see things that would be impossible to fulfill intentionally. But I wanted more. I had to satisfy the theoretical part of my mind.

What I thought about was this: If there is “God”, then “God” would have no relevance to me at all. For “God” to be “God”, to be what we are attempting to say when we say “God”, he would have to be beyond all categories of human thought, beyond knowing, beyond even the knowledge of his existence. In short, he would have no bearing on anything that I could know or care about. It would be as if he didn’t exist. But if this were true, and “God” were at least our creator, and wished to have any relevance to us, or even for us to be really aware of creation, he would have to have some connection to us. We would have to have some connection to him. But this would be impossible, if for no other reason than that we are temporal, finite, limited, bounded, ephemeral, and when we say “God”, we mean something that cannot be contained by those categories, cannot exist in them, cannot touch us.

In short, for “God” to have any relevance whatsoever, he would have to do the impossible to reach us. He would have to become man. And that is exactly what Jesus was claiming had happened. In short, in order to believe in “God”, in order to have any basis to speak of “God”, one must believe in the Incarnation, in God becoming man. Short of that, there is no “God” of any relevance, and all that we say about “God” is make believe. It’s the Incarnation or atheism. I wonder if some threw stones at Jesus and others knelt because they grasped this crossroads of religious experience.

What’s more, the Faith he founded, Orthodox Christianity, beginning with twelve Apostles, is the only collective of people to ever claim that God had become a man. Every other religion in the world had, was, or is rejecting such a notion. The Jews and the Romans rejected it. The Gnostics, enemies of the Orthodox, denied it, by either denying that Jesus was not fully God or that he was not fully human. In short, they severed the connection. What the Orthodox were claiming is that joining God and man as one person, uniting the two natures in one person, made it possible for man to be united to God in Jesus. Those who would eat his body and drink his blood would share in the union, would be able to achieve theosis. In St. Athanasius’ phrase, “God became man, that man might become God.”

And I knew that the various confessions of Christianity all make this assertion today. But they each make it differently. For the Protestant, the humanity is undermined. Notice that they refuse, with Nestorius the Gnostic, to call Mary Theotokos (“Mother of God”), breaking the unity by claiming she is mother only of his humanity. For the Roman Catholic, the deity is undermined, if much more subtly, since they first define “God” as impersonal essence, in which Jesus becomes essentially an attribute of impersonal ‘godness’. Only the Orthodox were saying what Jesus was saying, with all the attendant implications. But there’s something else: If Jesus was right, then the Orthodox were the church that Jesus actually founded. There were no Protestants, no merely Roman catholics. There was one Church, sharing one confession of Faith, and there would be for 1000 years from Jesus’ fundamental claim to be Incarnate God.

I suppose that wasn’t enough. The Orthodox argue that we’ve misunderstood objectivity. For most of us, objectivity means to stand outside of something and look at it from without. But the Orthodox were saying that there are some things, to stand outside of which, are to fail to comprehend. That the only means of comprehension is conversion – to know from within – to know in a way that doesn’t divide intellect from experience, theology from mysticism. The Orthodox were denying every single logical assertion I could make about God, apart from Jesus Christ. Every positive proposition. The only way to know, they were saying, was to eat of his body and drink of his blood, and afterward I would know. The only way to speak of “God” is through the knowledge that results from the Incarnation. In short, they were saying it was the Incarnation or functional atheism in the form of mere religious philosophy apart from, and now even denying, historical events. Aquinas, of course, the seminal thinker in what had become a Western “Christianity” would take the Roman Catholic/Protestant road of ‘speaking of God as if there had been no Jesus Christ’. The purely theoretical – the ahistorical. A “God” containable in rational categories, rather than God knowable and relevant in that he had become a rational soul and body, Jesus Christ.

For the Orthodox, to know meant to convert. To convert meant to know. It was a paradox. But if Jesus was right, it was the only way. If he was God, and if union with him was the way to God, then there could be no other way. Jesus even said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.” If God were beyond all human categories of thought, could not be contained in created concepts, could not even be so much as spoken of – so that all that may be said of God were as equally false as it may be true, such were his inaccesibility (as I say, that’s what we mean when we say “God”), and if Jesus were telling the truth, then the Orthodox were absolutely right. The Incarnation was the impossible made possible.

I suppose I have shared that fear of getting ‘sucked into’ something that C.S. Lewis describes. I suppose my eyes glazed over. But eventually, I allowed myself to ride a storm into a harbor. I cannot prove what I say. I can say that I know that Jesus was telling the truth. But I cannot prove it. What I can do, is explain why I found it to be the only reasonable possibility, and why, unless I were to kill my own reason, and cease to exist (cease to be the one thing that makes me who I am) I had to consider the possibilities.

I do not leave, and I do not fall entirely away, and I do not forget, for one reason. Standing in the middle of the tempestuous sea that is my human experience, is God become a human, the Incarnation. And all of my experience since tasting that first drop of blood and the first bit of flesh confirm it. The beginnings of theosis confirm it.

It is an event. A historical, tangible, physical, material event that holds me. An actual person that can be touched, seen, handled, depicted. Something that cannot be circumvented. A pillar in the middle of our minds. Not a mere proposition that one can ignore. Not an ideology. Not a theory. A man came and said he was God, and everyone heard it, and since then we are forced either to answer certain questions, or hide our eyes, cover our ears, and gnash our teeth at our own minds, cutting them off from tangible reality. Become casualties of cognitive dissonance.

The Incarnation is the central point of human history. All looks forward to or back to that one event. And things are different since then. Matter is divinized. Icons, for example. And finally, in the rejoining of man to God, the rejoining of all creation to man, the reconciliation of all things is possible. Again, I suppose if that is madness, then I want to be mad.

So, is Our Lord the most monstrous mass murderer ever to walk the earth? Is He insane, He who painted us in His life and words history’s most moving portrait of peace, charity, mercy? Or is he telling the truth? I answered these questions. I couldn’t live with mental suicide. And ultimately, that’s what atheism had become. Confronted with the historical Jesus, it was no longer a feasible option, and neither was anything else.

It’s the Question that drives us, Neo. (The Matrix)


For now, the goal is to learn as much as possible the fullness of Orthodoxy, to fix your thoughts on the Incarnation and the heart’s desire for theosis, to liberate the mind as much as possible from heresies and false ideas, and to eventually receive the Holy Mysteries. This is the first part of the ultimate goal of continual theosis or deification/divinization. In this, we seek the death of the passions, the gift of tears, the resurrection of the person, and growing union with Christ Our God. Discuss anything that concerns, worries, distresses, or burdens you overmuch, with your catechetical instructor, and later with your Father Confessor.  — Catechetical Letter 4/16/05  [The first piece of “advice” I ever gave]

The Divine Liturgy & Other Services

Keep the calendar as much as you can, participating in the times and seasons even when you cannot participate in the services, but participate in the services whenever possible. Remember, the laity is a part of the priesthood as well, and the Divine Liturgy is a type of the liturgy in Heaven, the temple a part of the Heavenly Temple. Staying away from the services is a form of independence and a denial of the Church, and so a denial of the Incarnation. You must actually plan specific times to participate, or else it will always be lumped with what are happenstance, accident, and mere convenience.  — Catechetical Letter 4/16/05


Ours is a mind of repentance and mourning illuminated by joy. The fathers teach us to say “All will be saved, and I alone will be condemned.” When asked who crucified Christ, the proper response is “I did.” When one of the fathers was asked who the sheep are and who are the goats, he replied “I am one of the goats, but as for the sheep, God alone knows who they are.” Our Lord has said to us, “When you have done all that is commanded you, say ‘We are useless servants; we have only done what was our duty.” In the Gregorian Rite, the communicants say with the Roman officer, “Lord, I am not worthy that Thou shouldst come under my roof, but speak the word only, and my soul shall be healed.”

And yet, it is healing. We also say “O death, where is thy sting? O Hades, where is thy victory? Christ is risen, and you are annihilated. Christ is risen, and the demons have fallen.” Fr. Silouan of Athos says, “Keep your mind in Hell and despair not.” This is a difficult balance, and is an area of discernment. Remember your sins, and be humble and aware of your helplessness without Our Lord, but do not despair (which is a passion), and let nothing rob you of His Glorious Resurrection, which the enemy is always trying to do.

— Catechetical Letter 4/16/05


It is not possible to read every book that others or one’s own intellect may suggest, however holy or important they are. At the same time, it is a good idea to always keep a book going. While some prescribe reading the lives of the saints, and others the desert fathers (always with the blessing and conversation of one’s Father Confessor), and still others history, the fathers, or the work of the latest scholar or thinker (which are sometimes erroneously called theologians), it is good to consult one’s Father Confessor on such things, and to find one’s own way. Advice can be helpful; just as one would ask instructions for reaching Rome. Others have been on the path, even if all roads eventually lead there.

In university, my Professor advised me to read what interests me, and the moment it doesn’t interest me to put it down. Subject, of course, to one’s catechetical instructor, and one’s Father Confessor, I would suggest in your case, reading the Fathers – not the Desert Fathers, for now, but that these be read with help from those who know the difference between a Father, an early Christian writer, and a heretic, which often appear in the same volumes, collection, and editions.

You definitely want the Apostolic Fathers, with the aforementioned provisos. The SVS Press editions of later Fathers are compact (notably, the works of St. John of Damascus and St. Theodore the Studite, on the Holy icons, and St. Athanasius “On the Incarnation”). Bettenson’s twin Volumes, “The Early Christian Fathers” and “The Later Christian Fathers”, with the same provisos, are excellent topical arrangements of texts. I would also recommend some appropriate history, such as certain works by Fr. Meyendorff (“Christ in Eastern Christian Thought”), Fr. Schmemman (“The Historical Road of Eastern Orthodoxy”), some works on iconography, such as those of Kalokyris and Fr. Ouspensky, and some works that it may be safely said belong in any Orthodox library, such as Vladimir Lossky’s “The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church” and works by Fr. Florovsky (not Florensky). I would also recommend the works of Joseph Farrell, such as “Free Choice in St. Maximus the Confessor”, “The Mystagogy of the Holy Spirit”. The work by his academic mentor Bishop Kallistos Ware (as Fr. Timothy Ware) – “The Orthodox Church” is a handy introduction, though problematic in some areas.

In short, be reading something, and read as gradually or voraciously as you feel is right, consulting your catechetical instructor and later Father Confessor, and read always with prayer, realizing that reading is a form of prayer, but do not drown in books at the expense of the rest of your Faith.

 — Catechetical Letter 4/16/05

The Pious Customs

Do not be weighed down with too much pressure, either self-imposed or presumably imposed by others, to learn and keep all pious customs as though they were commandments. But gradually add every pious custom to your own customs. It is not necessary to stock your icon corner with every implement, nor keep all the hours as a monastic would. It is likely not possible without damaging much that is necessary for life, for your salvation. At the same time, do not cling too much to the beauty of sparse offerings, since Orthodoxy is the fullness of the fullness of piety. Again, gradually seek the fullness of piety. It is a path of discernment that we must not ignore things merely because they interfere with our enjoyment, or require of us some rigor, but we must not presume to be gladiators just yet. When we are lazy, we should remember the old women, the Archbishop of venerable age, and those on crutches and with canes, who stand in long services without flinching, like warriors in an arena. When we are weighed down, we should remember St. Seraphim’s simple icon of the Theotokos, and the Jesus Prayer, and ask of ourselves just a little more – only a little, not a lot. If anyone corrects you in simple piety, try to learn and to follow, if the custom is truly pious and if it is not too burdensome. Discuss all things with your Father Confessor.  — Catechetical Letter 4/16/05

Prayer at mealtimes

It is better not to eat, than to eat and not pray. It is customary to pray Our Lord’s Prayer, without adding the priest’s part: “For Thine is the Kingdom…” or to pray another pious prayer that confesses the Incarnation and that reminds of us what we are doing…

The eyes of all hope in Thee, O Lord, and Thou givest them their food in due season. Thou openest Thy generous hand and fillest every living thing with good will.

If you also pray after meals, pray such a prayer as this:

We thank Thee, O Christ our God, that Thou has sated us with the good  things of Thine earth: do not deprive us also of Thy heavenly Kingdom.

The fathers tell us not to eat until full, but stop while still a little hungry. Besides, the stomach does not tell the brain it is full, until about 20 minutes after it has had enough. Be willing to leave a little on the plate; it is not waste, rather waste is the energy lost on too much preoccupation with food.

Pray always “In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

Pray the Jesus prayer at all times when the slightest need or inclination is felt, and at some times simply as a way of living, or as a discipline. Do not try to regulate your breathing or engage in any other ascetic exercise without consulting your Father Confessor.

 — Catechetical Letter 4/16/05

The icon corner

Treat the icon corner always with reverence and as an occasion to pray, if only briefly. It is the chapel of the home. When passing it, stop to face it not too hastily, and cross yourself. Use the lighting of the lamp to draw yourself into prayer. Do not hesitate to look directly at the icons when praying, as your rule of prayer is memorized; they are for the eyes. Venerate them as you would any image of the Saints and Our Lord. At the same time, do not be delicate by avoiding the icon corner and prayer, out of a presumed humility when you sin. That form of gluttony is a passion and the tool of the enemy. Keep your prayer rule short enough to be manageable in morning, evening, and at special times, so that you are not frustrated, and add to it only gradually in conversation with your Father Confessor. If others are around, do not pray with the heterodox, nor pray with an audience. For the non-Orthodox who are not heterodox, offer them to pray along with you or ask for privacy. — Catechetical Letter 4/16/05

Why We Pray – Fr. Alexander Turner, SSB

The Christian use of prayer seems inconsistent to the non-Christian. He may understand such a practice by primitive peoples, bedeviled by fears and superstitions, living under the shadow of name-forces. Entreaty would be needed to cope with a deity both amoral and capricious and appropriately susceptible to persuasion. But the Christian God is supposed to be different both in personality and morals. First of all, he knows everything so it is unnecessary to tell him of human need. And of course he knows how good he is, so flattery would be superfluous. Secondly, if he is good, as Christians claim, we should get everything from him without begging. The logic is convincing and many have followed it to various conclusions which agree only in condemning as untenable the Christian combination of an all-wise, all-loving God with a primitive concept of man’s relation to him.

The Apocalypse

The Final JudgmentIt is my thinking that the US represents the global political system of the apocalypse, with its tendrils or heads as Israel, Turkey, the UK, and the states of Western Europe, and having a body of lesser heads, including its client states. I also think that a globally united Christianity will be made of Orthodox Churches, Rome, and Protestant groups, and that this new entity will be an apostasy, and will seek then, having united ‘all Christians’, to unite all Faiths in some fashion, in a kind of temple of all Faith, though we can scarcely conceive of such a practical possibility now. I think, finally, that a new global economic system will be proposed and followed, as the savior of the global market. I think these things will combine into a kind of new babel, as a unified effort of man. I think these things are preceded by terrible natural disasters, which I think in the classic pattern of judgment includes climate change as a result of man’s sinful behavior, and a campaign of perpetual warfare. I think they will be succeeded by the apocalypse. …

On Being Misunderstood

In spite of all [Tsarina Alexandra’s] efforts, she never succeeded in being merely amiable and acquiring the art which consists of flitting gracefully but superficially over all manner of subjects. The fact is that the Tsarina was nothing if not sincere. Every word from her lips was the true expression of her real feelings, Finding herself misunderstood, she quickly drew back into her shell. Her natural pride was wounded. She appeared less and less at the ceremonies and receptions she regarded as an intolerable nuisance. She adopted a habit of distant reserve which was taken for haughtiness and contempt. But those who came in contact with her in moments of distress knew what a sensitive spirit, what a longing for affection, was concealed behind that apparent coldness. She had accepted her new religion with entire sincerity, and found it a great source of comfort in hours of trouble and anguish; but above all, it was the affection of her family which nourished her love, and she was never really happy except when she was with them. 

– Pierre Gilliard Thirteen Years at the Russian Court

Celtic Prayers

Catechumens: I’ve spoken to you occasionally concerning the need for prayer at all times and in all activities, whether preparing supper or traveling or preparing for any work. This tradition is visible in the many prayers for such occasions in the prayer books for laymen, in the Russian Book of Needs, and in the various priestly blessings for everything from traveling to blessing a house. As an example, I have referred to the pieties of the Celts, Orthodox before the centurions came to convert or martyr them by the sword. Whether from pious customs of the Russians, the Serbs, the Greeks, or those of any pious people, we stand to learn much that can transform the inner man by transforming his outward veneration.

A Brief Summary of the Economy

Catechumens: I was asked, recently, to summarize what is meant by the Economy. It is not possible for me to give it even a full outline, here or anywhere else, and certainly not to explore all its implications here. But I will attempt to speak of it with as much brevity as truth and substance may permit. I will try to do it some modicum of justice. 

God is unknowable. Man can neither reach Him nor speak of Him. His divine Essence cannot be compared to any essence, has no analogy, and cannot be contained in created human concepts. Man can know God only in a dim way by revelation – the revealing of God’s uncreated Energies by the divine Persons. The unfolding of the divine economy, God’s activity toward his creation, has culminated in a total and all-encompassing event, a personal event, a Person, to make possible true knowledge through true communion. We speak of Christ, who is God incarnate. God has become man, so that man might genuinely know God in the only way possible, in that man and God become one, while remaining at the once utterly distinct. Christ, the God-man, one person who is two natures, God and man, makes possible union with God, having accomplished and become the union of the two natures for all. He summed up in His own person all of man and all of God, all of nature and the divine, all creation and the Creator, deifying all things. Now, in Christ, union of man and God is possible for each individual person, and so knowledge of the unknowable God – never knowledge of God’s essence, but personal knowledge and full knowledge, available only in communion with Him. Through theosis (deification) in Christ, man and indeed all creation is restored to God the Creator. This requires for each person, participation at that personal level, a synergy of God and man. The fullness of union is not possible without the will of each person. If the inviolate will of each person were overcome, the image of God in him would be destroyed. But now, the union of each person’s will with God’s will, the union of his flesh with that of the Incarnate God, makes possible the fullness of union of each person, while preserving both God and man — not the swallowing up of an individual in God, but perfect union and distinction. In this way, man may know God without being destroyed, may be consumed without being lost or indistinct. So salvation – this theosis – was accomplished first by the initial work of God toward man, and is accomplished now by the joint work of man and God in uniting individual persons to Christ. It is not ‘personal salvation’, such that God is a god in general, subject to whatever fancies the individual mind may invent, nor is it a ‘salvation in general’, such that individual activity is irrelevant. It is salvation through union and distinction, the beyond-transcendent God and mortal man made immortal by grace. — Catechetical Letter 1/25/2005

The Ascetic Character of Holy Scripture

Catechumens: As you have heard me say to you, now and then, Orthodox ‘spirituality’ is not of a theoretical type, but is in the entire tradition of the Fathers rooted in practice, whether in the silent prayers of the Hesychasts or in the charitable labours of St. Basil. And the source and character of our piety in practice is ascetic. The hours we pray are monastic hours. The Jesus Prayer, simplest, seemingly, of all prayers, learned at the very beginning and by young children, is a monastic prayer with a deep ascetic practice behind it, though we are instructed not to add to it any ascetic feats without the clear direction of a spiritual director. One looks at the Orthodox keeping of time, celebrating the seasons by following the path of Our Lord’s life, venerating daily the various heroes who have gone before on that journey, and alternately feasting or fasting, and the ascetic character of our whole worship is unmistakable. When we receive Holy Confession, we confess the same kinds of passions struggled against by monks. When we receive Holy Communion, we strive, as they do, to see God. There is no disparity between their lives and ours; we are all seeking the same thing, celibate or married, monastic or in the world. In fact, the monks are the light of laymen, as angels are the light of monks.

Likewise, we have discussed, as we would expect, the ascetic character of Holy Scripture. Israel fasted in preparation for God’s activity, put on sackcloth and ashes in repentance, and even engaged in abstinence in preparation for jihad. These were not merely legal pieties, though the law too was given to help man overcome the passions. In the same way, an instruction to fast was first given to Adam in the perfection of Eden, that he might not acquire the passions, and the breaking of that fast slew the world. Christ is our prime example, born of a virgin, Himself a virgin, fasting in the wilderness, feasting with his disciples, keeping the holy days and long watches or hours, and purifications by which He purified our nature and all creation. The Apostles, likewise, followed in this way, and the Fathers after them, and we do as well, following after our Bishop, a celibate and prototype of ascetics. The Holy Scriptures read like a manual for ascetic training, teaching us to fast from the passions, war with death in our flesh, restrain the body’s appetites, and acquire the spirit of humility. The writings of the desert Fathers retain an unmistakable continuity with those of the Holy Apostles, whether instructing us on preferring others in love, or on overcoming temptation, or on seeing God and theosis. In the Scriptures, it is the same Christ in all, whether in our diversity of vocations we live in the world or the desert. He remains the ultimate example of ascetic piety. I tell you these things now, in the hope that the enemy will never be able to lure you from the path, and likewise if I stumble and am lost, you may remind and strengthen me, and we will continue on together. — Catechetical Letter 1/25/2005

Unworthy to Teach

Catechumens: My flaws as a catechist occur to me frequently. I wonder if I communicate clearly that I am flawed and know it, and pray only that all I say to you, whether in speaking or writing, is taken less with regard to my unworthy example, and more after the example of the One I am describing. It is Him I am also striving to reach, with your help, and if I say anything about Him, it is because I have met Him and know Him in however small a way, and desire that you would know Him too, and would likewise teach me how we may be examples to each other.

I call you ‘my catechumens’ out of affection and devotion, to keep myself in mind of my responsibility with fear, but there is only one Catechist, one Father, one Teacher, one Evangel. I dare, with dread of judgment, to teach you and speak to you of the glories of Christ, the richness of the fullness of the Church and pieties of the Saints: partly because I cannot contain myself – His mercies endure forever; partly because I see your hunger and your need – He is True Food; partly because, my beloved godchildren, I desire your fullness in the fullness of Christ – He Who fills the hearts of men as Heavens. I offer words because you are my true friends, for whom I will risk so much, and my godchildren, whose very breath I hold precious and so give you what I have to give. And in the end, I offer you my life, in the form of this vocation, that your prayers to Christ may stand for me at the Judgment as I have stood for you in prayers at your induction as catechumens, praying for you still. You are my hope of mercy and the reward of Heaven, if you save me by your prayers.

For my part, I have taught you nothing of use to your salvation if it is not to follow the example of our holy fathers, those who are with Christ in glory. If I have not led you to the example of humility and dispassion in Our Champion Leader, the all-blameless all-holy Ark of Our Salvation. If I have not directed your attention to the altar of the One Holy Church, where Christ is, the uncontainable God. And to the heavens where the angels gaze upon us and the Saints surround us with cheers, swift to aid, strong in prayer, fierce in battle, and ever directing our attentions to Christ the Life of all flesh. If I have not laid before you the infallible councils of the only Church, the concert witness of the venerable Fathers, the example of the mighty athletes in the desert. If I have not introduced you to Christ, ever humble for us, who desires you for his own, as precious ones, as friends, as little children. I have nothing in myself to teach, nor any original words of any great importance. I can only, as a flawed worker in the fields of my Master’s pasture lead you to the flawless Shepherd. He is our Life and prime example. Do take my hand, likewise, and lead me to Him, and don’t forget me when I falter.

Glory to God for His handmaiden, A***, my wife and your godmother in the Lord, who teaches me how to give thanks to the God who lives, and instructs me with all humility in childlike faith, governing my passions by the example of gentleness. Glory to God for my godson, A*** the catechumen of Christ, who restores my soul through sincerity and faith and fidelity, strengthens me through perseverance and teaches me humility. Glory for P***, goddaughter and child of my heart, catechumen of Christ and beloved daughter to lighten me with her brightness in Him, who teaches me to struggle for humility at great cost, instructs me in hope and lovingkindness, teaching her teacher well. Glory for the servant of God, M***, who informs my heart how love keeps the truth inviolate. Glory for J*** who first taught and led me and so has given me gifts for my beloved. Glory to God for M***, and by his prayers save D***, the unworthy. Remember in your prayers the child Charles with an affliction of the eyes since birth, and me if you should think of me.

– Catechetical Letter 1/18/2005

Scroll to Top