Saturday, October 24, 2009

"Holy Scripture and the Church"

In its current issue, The Orthodox Word translates "Holy Scripture and the Church," by New Hieromartyr Hilarion, Archbishop of Verey. St Hilarion died in a Soviet gulag in 1929, but before the Revolution, he was Professor of Holy Scripture (New Testament) in the Moscow Theological Academy. Disillusionment with sola scriptura had a lot to do with my spiritual search that ended up in Orthodoxy, and I can't state the issues any better than he does here. (As an extra aid to my humility, he wrote almost a century ago, long before anyone cared about being post-modern.) It's best to read the whole article, but I'm including a few excerpts below.
. . . Furthermore, has the Church herself ever viewed her Founder [Christ] as one of the teachers of mankind? Has she ever considered His teachings as the essence of His work? No, with the utmost exertion of her theological strength, the Christian Church has defended as the greatest religious truth that Christ is the Only-begotten Son of God, One in essence with God the Father, Who became incarnate on earth. For that truth, the greatest Fathers of the Church labored to the point of blood. . . .

But was the Incarnation of the Only-begotten Son of God necessary only in order to write a book and entrust it to mankind? Was it absolutely essential for Him to be the Only-begotten Son of God just to write a book? If the Church insisted with such determination on the Divine dignity of her Founder, then obviously she did not regard writing to be the essence of His work. It was the Incarnation of the Son of God that was necessary for the salvation of mankind, and not a book. No book is able, nor could it ever have been able to save mankind. Christ is not the Teacher but precisely the Savior of mankind. . . .

Christ founded the Church. The Church existed even when there was not yet a single book of New Testament Scripture. . . . Thus, it would not be impertinent to say that it is not by Holy Scripture, as a book, that man is saved, but by the grace of the Holy Spirit, Who lives in the Church. The Church guides people to perfection. In the Church there are also other ways, other means to that effect, besides the books of Holy Scripture. . . .

It is possible to know the entire New Testament by heart, it is possible to know perfectly the entire teaching of the New Testament, and still be very, very far from salvation. For salvation it is necessary to be added to the Church, just as it is said in the Book of Acts that those who were being saved were added to the Church (cf. Acts 2:47; 5:13-14). This was when there were no Scriptures, but there was the Church, and there were those who were being saved. Why was it essential to be added to the Church? It is because special grace-bearing power is needed for salvation, and this power can only be possessed by those who participate in the life of the Church, in the life of the single and indivisible Body of Christ. The grace-filled power of the Holy Spirit acts in the Church in many different ways: in the Mysteries and rites of the Church, in common prayer and mutual love, in church services; and, as the divinely inspired Word of God, it also operates through the books of Holy Scripture. . . .

Thus, Holy Scripture is one of the manifestations of the common grace-filled life of the Church. Holy Scripture is the property of the Church, precious and priceless, but precisely the Church's property. Holy Scripture cannot be torn away from the overall life of the Church. Only the Church gives meaning to the existence of Scripture. . . .

Here St. John Chrysostom defends the necessity of studying Holy Scripture, but at the same time he says that if things were the way they should be, we would not need Holy Scripture; that with a pure life, instead of books, grace would serve the soul, and that this path of spiritual enlightenment is higher. God spoke with the patriarchs and the apostles without the assistance of Scripture. The need for Holy Scripture arose when some turned aside from true doctrine and others from purity of life. Scripture is then a second remedy. We even deserve reproach for being in need of Scripture. . . .

Perhaps the saddest thing in our times is the distortion of Christ and the Church. Christianity is seen not as the new life of saved humanity, united in the Church, but as the sum of certain theoretical and moral positions. They have begun now to talk too much and too often about Christian teachings and have begun to forget about Church life. . . .

If we have before us a teacher, then every word of his, every literary text in which his teaching is reflected in any way, must be accorded special significance. Something similar has happened with Holy Scripture. It was accorded special significance in itself and independently of the Church when the bright ideal of the Church grew dim. Holy Scripture has become the object of special attention and many-sided study since the time of the German Reformation, when the individual person was put in place of the Church and the door to rationalism was opened wide, thus deadening any authentic Church life. . . . Having lost the living Christ and authentic Church life, the Protestants began worshiping the book of the New Testament as if it were some sort of fetish. Go into a Protestant church of the extreme Protestant sects, and you will see rows of pews facing a pulpit with a Bible on it. In short, if you take the icon away from any classroom or auditorium, what you have is a Protestant church. For the Protestants it is as if the Gospel were the work of Christ the Teacher, which has to be studied in order to be a Christian. Thus, Protestantism tries to replace the entire deep river of grace-filled Church life with but a single current, taken separately and in isolation. Having rebelled against the pope (a man), the Protestants have made the Bible into a "paper pope," and the latter adulation is more bitter than the first.

. . . If the grace-filled aspect of Holy Scripture is obliterated outside the Church, then what remains? We are left with the Bible, books, a literary work, a literary memorial. In the Church Holy Scripture is not everything, but outside the Church there is no Holy Scripture, no Word of God at all; what remains of Holy Scripture is only the books. . . .

In defining the essence of Holy Scripture, we can now formulate the following proposition:

Holy Scripture is one of the aspects of the common grace-filled life of the Church, and outside the Church there cannot be any Holy Scripture in the true sense of the word. . . .

By living and being instructed within the Church, within which the Apostolic oral preaching is continued, a person is able to learn the dogmas of Christian Faith from the Ecumenical Church, and this is so not because the Church herself draws her dogmas from Scripture, but because she possesses them innately; if she, deliberating on a certain dogma, cites specific passages from the Bible, this is not done in order to deduce her dogmas, but solely for their confirmation. Therefore, whoever founds his faith upon Scripture alone, does not achieve the fullness of Faith and does not know its properties.

In complete accordance with this authoritative statement, we can reduce everything to faith in the Church. If a man believes in the Church, then for him the Holy Scripture receives its proper significance.

. . . Living within the Church means, first of all, to love, to live by love; and to live by love means to struggle against sinful self-love, from which people suffer a great deal. In particular, faith in the Church is a podvig [an ascetic feat, spiritual labor or, simply, Christian struggle] for the mind, because the Church demands its submission. To make one's reason submit to the Church is especially difficult, because this submission unfailingly affects one's whole life. With regard to the Church, the podvig of the mind is connected with the podvig of the will. Imagine for a moment that people completely submit to the Church. How many idols, how many gods and graven images must they cast down? Not only the Dnieper, but an entire sea would be needed to sink all those idols. And yet, not even one podvig of the mind comes easily to a man whose reason makes him proud. Bishop Theophan the Recluse says: "It is remarkable how Wisdom calls to herself the foolish: Whoso is foolish, let him turn aside to me (Prov. 9:4). Accordingly, the clever are barred from entering into the House of Wisdom, or the Holy Church. One must lay aside every kind of cleverness at the very entrance of this House. On the other hand, if all wisdom and knowledge are to be found within the House of Wisdom, then outside this House, outside the Holy Church, only foolishness, ignorance and blindness prevail. How wondrous is that which God has established! When you enter the Church, put aside your own mind, and you will become truly wise; cast away your self-centered activity, and you will become truly active; renounce your own self, and you will truly become master over yourself. Ah, if only the world could grasp this wisdom! But this is hidden from it. . . . "

The necessity of a Church approach to Scripture is revealed with particular clarity if we thoroughly examine the extreme lie inscribed on the banner of Protestantism, and then look at every kind of sectarianism and, generally speaking, human light-mindedness, in addition to freethinking, which is indissolubly connected to the latter. In principle Protestantism has rejected the necessity of Church standards in interpreting Scripture. I say "in principle," since in actual fact standards have been invented in the form of newly fabricated sectarian creeds. If Church standards are rejected, then man is left alone with Scripture, and in interpreting Scripture, each one is to be guided by his own so-called common sense, having put on his head beforehand the tiara of an infallible pope. . . .

Leave a man alone with Scripture, and Scripture loses any definite meaning and significance. There remains only one man, the whims and oddities of whose mind will be concealed by the authority of the Word of God. Without the Church and outside of the Church, he is inevitably in a state of hopeless wandering, even if he has in his hands the book of Holy Scripture. . . .

St. Irenaeus of Lyons calls Scripture the Tree of Paradise planted in the midst of the Church. For those expelled from Paradise, however, this tree can only be the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; and after partaking of it, they can be convinced only of the sad truth that they are naked. It is high time for all opponents of the Church to be persuaded of their shameful nakedness and ask the Church's forgiveness, just as the prodigal son asked his father's forgiveness! The absurd separation of Scripture from the Church has already produced its lethal fruit. . . .

Thus, the truth of the indissoluble bond between the Church and Holy Scripture is also affirmed in a negative way. A relationship with Scripture from outside the Church inevitably leads to absurdity and loss of Holy Scripture itself.

Without the Church, first of all, there is no undergirding whatsoever for the interpretation of Holy Scripture; it is not Scripture that teaches man, but on the contrary, man foists upon Scripture whatever content he desires.

Without the Church, secondly, every definite way to Christ and His teaching is lost, since Christ Himself never wrote anything and the Apostles can be suspected of inaccurately transmitting the teaching of Christ.

Without the Church, thirdly, the canon of Holy Books does not have any significance whatsoever, and all Protestants and sectarians faced with the question of why precisely these books are canonical can only be left with no answer or forced to restort to shameful words of craftiness, words of evil (Ps. 140:4). . . .

The truth we have sought to substantiate is not new, but it should be reiterated in the twentieth [!] century, because although it has been repeatedly verified by history, it is now quite often forgotten.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

remembrance of death

O Lord, grant me tears, and remembrance of death, and compunction.
--from St. John Chrysostom's 24 prayers for the hours of the day and night

Something else I don't remember often enough is death. Even more than the remembrance of God, it is easy to find discussion of this issue in the Fathers.

From the Ladder of Divine Ascent, in Step #6:
To be reminded of death each day is to die each day; to remember one's departure from life is to provoke tears by the hour. . . .

The remembrance of death brings labors and meditations, or rather, the sweetness of dishonor to those living in community, whereas for those living away from turbulence it produces freedom from daily worries and breeds constant prayer and guarding of the mind, virtues that are the cause and the effect of the thought of death. . . .

No one who knew in advance the hour of his death would accept baptism or join a monastery long before it, but instead would pass all his time in sin and would be baptized and do penance only on the day of his demise. Habit would make him a confirmed and quite incorrigible sinner. . . .

If your remembrance of death is clear and specific, you will cut down on your eating, and if, in your humility, you reduce the amount you eat, your passions will be correspondingly reduced. . . .

The Fathers assert that perfect love is sinless. And it seems to me that in the same way a perfect sense of death is free from fear. . . .

We may be sure that remembrance of death, like every other blessing, is a gift from God. How else can you explain the fact that often we can be dry-eyed and hard at a cemetery, yet full of compunction when we are nowhere near such a place?

The man who has died to all things remembers death, but whoever holds some ties with the world will not cease plotting against himself.
From St. Tikhon of Zadonsk's Journey to Heaven, in the section "remember death, judgment, hell and eternal life":
Remember death often, and the judgment of Christ, eternal torment, and eternal life, and inevitably the world with all its lusts and enticements will become abhorrent to you. You will not desire to become rich, to be glorified, or to make merry in this world. Your only care will be to please God, to have a blessed end, not to be put to shame in the judgment of Christ, to escape eternal torment, and to enter into the Kingdom of God. This is truly a great and powerful means by which a man may escape enticement by the vanity of this world and remain in true repentance and contrition of heart, which is absolutely necessary to every Christian. . . .
in the section "on death":
But how suddenly death overtakes him, and then all his dreams and plans perish. He who promised himself a long life quickly dies. He who wished to lay up treasures and become rich, leaves both the world and his body in the world. So our end is unknown to us. Christians! God, Who loves mankind, in caring for us has appointed for us our unknown end, that we may always be prepared for it and abide in true repentance. . . .

It is a wondrous thing that the saints weep when they look upon that hour, but sinners do not weep though they see their brothers dying every day. . . .
in the section "on perpetual repentance and the correction of life":
Death walks invisibly behind us, and the end will overtake us when we least expect it, and it will overtake us where we least expect it, and it will overtake us in a way that we least expect. Abide in perpetual repentance, then, and be prepared for departure at all times and in every place. The wise servant always watches and waits till his master calls him. You, too, should watch and wait till Christ your Lord calls you, for He calls everyone through death. Then always be in your life what you wish to be at death. Always live piously and work out your salvation with fear and trembling (cf. Philip. 2:12). Always and everywhere proceed with caution and guard yourself, lest you be deprived of eternal salvation, which Christ our Lord obtained for us with His Blood and death, and so shall we have a blessed end.
From the Arena, in Chap. 28 "on the remembrance of death":
Our mind is so darkened by the fall that unless we force ourselves to remember death we can completely forget about it. When we forget about death, then we begin to live on earth as if we were immortal, and we sacrifice all our activity to the world without concerning ourselves in the least either about the fearful transition to eternity or about our fate in eternity. Then we boldly and peremptorily override the commandments of Christ; then we commit all the vilest sins; then we abandon not only unceasing prayer but even the prayers appointed for definite times--we begin to scorn this essential and indispensable occupation as if it were an activity of little importance and little needed. Forgetful of physical death, we die a spiritual death.

On the other hand, he who often remembers death of the body rises from the dead in soul. He lives on earth like a stranger in an inn or like a prisoner in gaol, constantly expecting to be called out for trial or execution. Before his eyes the gates into eternity are always open. He continually looks in that direction with spiritual anxiety, with deep sorrow and reflection. He is constantly occupied with wondering what will justify him at Christ's terrible judgment and what his sentence will be. This sentence decides a person's fate for the whole of eternity. No earthly beauty, no earthly pleasure draws his attention or his love. He condemns no one, for he remembers that at the judgment of God such judgment will be passed on him as he passed here on his neighbours. . . .
From Monastic Wisdom: The Letters of Elder Joseph the Hesychast, in Letter #51:
Behold, another new year! Once again, wishes and hopes. But death is lurking somewhere, waiting for us, too. Some day or night will be the last one of our life. Wherefore, blessed is he who remembers his death day and night and prepares himself to meet it. For it has a habit of coming joyfully to those who wait for it, but it arrives unexpectedly, bitterly, and harshly for those who do not expect it. . . .
From Counsels from the Holy Mountain: Selected from the Letters and Homilies of Elder Ephraim, in the chapter "on Remembrance of Death, Hell, and Judgment":
22. When we remember death, we find an excellent guide that helps us discover the truth of things. Death says, "Why are you treasuring things up, why are you proud, why do you boast, O youth, O health, O science? When I come, I will render you your worth! When you are laid in the dark grave, you will know what the profit of earthly good things is!"

We are departing to the world that transcends the senses, my children. We do not stay in this world which is full of bitterness, distress, sin, and miseries. There in the unfading life, God will wipe away every tear from the eyes of the saved, and there will be no pain, grief, or sighing, but an eternal day, a life without end or death! This is the life, my children, that we should long for wholeheartedly and fervently, so that by God's grace we may acquire it and be delivered from painful hell.
Undoubtedly, these few quotes are but a drop in the bucket. (For the most part, they are already excerpted from much longer sections, and they reflect only what I happen to have in my small library.) But they suffice to show the significance of remembering death. It adjusts our perspective, so that our highest priority is to be ready. Our emphasis is on what is most important. All other cares in life are accordingly diminished.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

vigil lamp

Last year I spent some of my Christmas money on a hanging vigil lamp to replace the candle in my icon corner. I like the idea of leaving it lit all the time (or as much as possible, anyway), the labor involved with tending to it, etc. Also, from a practical standpoint, because I don't have a lot of space in my corner, it's nice to get the light part up off the shelf.

I had a hard time finding information online about how exactly to use a vigil lamp. One piece of advice I saw was that it works a lot like a regular kerosene lamp, but that wasn't much help since I hadn't used one of those either. I eventually did get enough input and try enough options myself to come up with what seems like a fairly effective way of doing things. It may be of some help to others if I write it up here online. (Though I would guess that it's always better if a parent or Godparent can show you in real life.)

  • hanging lamp - I got one of the less expensive lamps that I found online. It's pretty much your call. Since I've had only one lamp, I can't say much about different types. They all seem to work more or less the same way.
  • hook - The lamp probably won't come with its own hook to mount it. Anywhere that sells the lamps will probably also sell hooks. If you're more creative than I, you could probably also just rig something up yourself. I got a fairly short hook to conserve space. Obviously, it needs to be long enough so the lamp can hang freely and swing a bit without banging into the icons.
  • glass - Some lamps will include a glass or perhaps a choice of glasses. With others, you'll need to buy a glass separately. I was advised to make sure the glass could handle the heat of being lit all day, but I never got much sense of different types. Mine was pretty inexpensive and seems rather thin, but it appears to work fine.
  • float - There are actual cork floats that seem to be pretty popular--a cork ring with a metal cover and some kind of loop to hold the wick. I use an Old Believer "float" that consists of a hollow metal cylinder suspended in the middle of twisted wire. You bend it so the wire rests on the rim of the glass and the cylinder hangs down inside. The main difference between the two types is that the cork float rises and falls with the oil level, while the Old Believer style remains at the same height. There's also a trick to the Old Believer style that I missed initially.
  • wick - I use plain cotton wicking. You can buy it in long, three-ply strands. One ply fits just about right. There are also short, wax-covered wicks. I'm told they burn better than cotton, but I haven't tried them myself. The cotton seems to work fine, and you can cut off a long strand that will last you a couple of weeks.
  • oil - I've only used one type of oil so far. I read somewhere that you don't want extra virgin olive oil. Get the next grade down. It's supposed to burn better, and it's definitely cheaper. A five-quart jug from a warehouse club is pretty economical.
  • lighter - I use a regular disposable lighter because we happen to have a lot of them around. I assume it would work with matches or whatever your preferred method is.
  • container - You'll need somewhere to put the burnt ends that you trim off of the wick. I use a censer, but whatever is convenient for you (obviously, something that won't burn itself). Keep in mind that the ashes will tend to stick to your fingers. Sometimes you can drop them with a little light rubbing, but often I have to wipe my fingers across the edge.
  • rag - You'll get oil and ashes on your fingers, so keeping a rag handy for wiping them is useful. The oil will actually help get the ashes off if you do things in the right order.
Initial Setup

The best advice I can give about setting up the lamp is to study lamps at church. Pay attention to the height relative to the icons. With relatively small icons, you can't really avoid obscuring something; my basic rule is to minimize that as much as possible. For my eye-line and the angle from which I'm normally looking, the lamp blocks part of a larger Pentecost icon. Enough of the icon remains visible to get the general idea. Obviously, if the lamp hangs in front of an icon with a single figure, you don't want it blocking the face. Mounting the hook will probably be a simple job with a couple of included screws. Use common sense. Measure twice, cut once (so to speak).


Once the lamp is hung, the procedure is more or less the same as what you'll do routinely:
  1. Fill the glass with oil. Don't actually fill to the top! With the Old Believer float, you must make sure that the oil is up to at least the bottom of the metal cylinder; I would also make sure that it doesn't go higher than the wire support. (I don't know how much of a fire hazard there is if the flame gets too close to the surface, and I'd rather not find out.) The lamp will keep burning as the oil level descends, but it will not work if you try to light it with the oil too low. I don't understand exactly why this is--it has something to do with the flame drawing oil up the wick. I usually pull out the glass, set it on the floor (a table or shelf would be better, but I don't have one handy with enough room) and pour oil directly from the jug. If you're careful, spilling isn't much of a hazard.
  2. Prepare the wick. If it's a new piece of wick, wind it up and put it in the oil to soak for at least a few seconds. It shouldn't take long to saturate. Pull out one end and feed it up through the float. Holding the wick close to the end and twisting it between your fingers can help. The type that I use is twisted counterclockwise, so going in that direction will narrow it down to fit the end through the float. Once it comes out the top, you can grab it from there and pull it up about 1/4-1/2 inch. I would recommend twisting it a bit any time you do this, so the wick doesn't expand too much and fit too tightly. That seems to affect the strength of the flame. You'll learn through trial and error how much to have it extend out of the float. Too little, and you'll get a small flame. Too much, and it will tend to break as it burns. No big deal if that happens, but you'll end up with a small flame on whatever's left. If it's a used wick, the top will be charred from the previous use. You don't need to cut it. Just pinch it off with your fingers and discard in your container. No need to get all of the char either--a little bit on the end seems actually to help with lighting.
  3. Light the wick. The flame will slowly burn its way down to the float. If the wick was too long, it may break off above the float, but usually enough will be left for it to stay lit. If it burns all the way out, you're probably doing something wrong. This is what I had happen when I didn't add enough oil. If the flame is too small, sometimes you can pick up the float and feed through a little more wick.
There's not much to do while the lamp is burning. I haven't tried keeping it going continuously. Sometimes I'll let it burn all day without any real attention; sometimes, if everyone's leaving the house, I'll blow it out. I always blow it out before bed. Extinguishing the lamp is easy--just cup your hand behind it and blow.


I don't know exactly what's a normal amount of time between cleanings. I know some people do it weekly. If you make it part of your Sunday routine, it might be harder to forget. I just go by feel. Over time, you'll probably get oil drips and fingerprints on the glass. Also, ash will fall into the oil when you trim the wick or when it breaks. Once it starts looking a little scuzzy, I watch for a good opportunity. I find the easiest time to clean the lamp is when the wick runs out:
  • I pull out the last bit of unused wick and burn it in the censer. (Remember to treat it as you would anything holy. Burning it out is also a good idea since it's saturated with oil and flammable.) I would suggest burning it outside or in a garage or somewhere you won't mind a temporary burnt smell. Normally the oil burns, not the wick. You will smell a faint burnt odor after you blow out the lamp, but it's usually not too bad. Letting the last bit of wick burn itself out is another matter. It will smell pretty strong for a while. I burn it in the garage and try to pay enough attention that I catch it right after it goes out so I can close the lid on the censer.
  • I empty the oil through a strainer into a clean cup. If you have two glasses for your lamp, I suppose you can make this process easier by pouring through the strainer into the other glass. The strainer should filter out most of the small bits of ash that got into the oil.
  • I wash the glass and float in soapy water. The float will probably require some scrubbing. I find that my fingernail works fine to get off any stuck-on ash or residue. If there is ash caught in the wire, you might want to use an old toothbrush or a vegetable scrubber. Dry both gently.
  • I replace the oil in the glass and wash the cup and strainer. Add the float and a new piece of wick according to the instructions above, top off the oil, and put the glass back in the lamp. You're ready to go.
That's about everything I've accumulated. If anyone has corrections or other points to add, feel free. I doubt many people will run across these remarks, but if they do, I want them to be as useful as possible.