A Priest’s Perspective

Fr Thomas Hopko right where he always belonged: in front of a blackboard, beaming at eager and hungry minds.

Fr Thomas Hopko

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Fr Thomas Hopko right where he always belonged: in front of a blackboard, beaming at eager and hungry minds.

Fr Thomas Hopko right where he always belonged: in front of a blackboard, beaming at eager and hungry minds.

One of my all time favourite people passed away yesterday. Fr Thomas Hopko was a priest of the Orthodox Church in America whose distinctions are too many to list here. What I liked most about him though, was listening to him speak and reading things he wrote. He displayed a rare gift for insight and understanding, the kind that leads to a profound wisdom. His knack for synthesising new ways to express the ancient Orthodox Christian faith and Tradition to modern life in ways not only relevant, but even inspiring, was remarkable. He combined this with an indomitable humility and sincere compassionate love for all. The motto of one of his podcast series, “Speaking the Truth in Love”, nicely captures his courageous contribution to desperately needed Church reform in many areas.

He will be sorely missed by many in the Christian community. One of them is Samuel Kaldas, who provides a much more fitting eulogy for Fr Tom than my brief words in the following guest post…

 

 

Fr. Thomas Hopko fell asleep in the Lord today. As a theologian, he had a remarkable gift for delivering important and complex ideas to a non-academic audience. Through his constant (and ridiculously high) output of podcasts, sermons, books and articles, he became a bridge between the “ivory tower,” academic world of the Seminary and the “real-world” of the Orthodox faithful. In many ways, his work as an educator achieved precisely what his father-in-law Fr. Alexander Schmemann identified as the chief task of the theologian: to supply “that essential link between the Tradition of the Church and the real life, to assure the acceptance of the faith by the faithful.”

 

This was only possible because of his great humility: he did not spend his time on original research that would only be read by professional theologians, though he certainly had the intellect, and encouraged many other brilliant students to do such research during his time as Dean of St. Vladimir’s Seminary. He did not trumpet himself as a new and exciting voice in academic theology. Instead, he was always concerned with the Church outside the Seminary. As he himself put it:

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Being Orthodox 1: Introduction

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Fr Peter Farrington of the British Orthodox Church wrote a very important article in the Glastonbury Review about the history of Protestant missions in Egypt and their influence on the Coptic Orthodox Church, one of many resources now available on this fascinating period of Coptic history. While the main gist of Fr Peter’s article describes the low view the British missionaries had of the Coptic Church of the day, (some even considered Copts to be on a par with Muslims in their ignorance of the Christian faith!) he also describes the willingness of the Coptic clergy of the time to benefit from the help of the Europeans, even to the extent of sending candidates for the priesthood to seminaries run by the Protestants to train them in theology. This shows an admirable ecumenism on the part of the Coptic decision-makers, but it also reflects one of the darker trends in Coptic Church history over the past two centuries.

The trend I am talking about is the tendency to associate Western Christianity with advanced Western civilisation, and therefore to see both as something superior to aspire to. What this means today is that due to this historical phenomenon, patchy though it has been both in time and place, the Coptic Orthodox Church has adopted some worrying aspects of Western Christianity, and forgotten that they are foreign innovations. The same thing happened in the Eastern Orthodox family, a phenomenon they call the ‘Western Captivity’, echoing the Babylonian captivity of the Hebrew people. But the Eastern Orthodox have experienced an inspiring revival of ancient, patristic and apostolic thought over the past hundred years or so, mainly through the brave work of scholars such as Vladimir Lossky and Alexander Shmemann, that has gradually purified their theology from the Western innovations and restored it to something much closer to that of the ancient Church. In the Coptic Orthodox Church, there have always been those who have delved deeply and honestly into this matter and come out with much the same results as the Eastern Orthodox revival, but until recently, they were not influential in the Church. They published their views in scholarly journals like The Coptic Church Review, Coptologia and the Glastonbury Review, the learned journal of our affiliated British Orthodox Church, or in the mammoth masterpiece, the eight volume Coptic Encyclopedia, but for the most part their work was ignored in parishes and Sunday School classrooms. I rejoice to see the winds of revival finally blowing through the corridors of the Coptic Orthodox Church, a trend I believe is being tactfully supported by HH Pope Tawadros II. (more…)

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Raucous Receptions

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We parish priests often tear our hair out (those who have any left) when we hear of parties or receptions thrown by members of the Church that don’t reflect our Christian values. One of the sins most modern Christians really despise is hypocrisy, and yet some of them don’t seem to realise that a celebration that encourages non-Christian behaviour is a form of hypocrisy. Perhaps they feel that Christ does not really think that drunkenness, immodest clothing and sexually-enticing dancing are wrong? Hmmm, I’d like to see where the Bible says that.

But it seems the problem is not just a modern one. Thank you to Fr Athanasius Iskander of Canada for sharing the following excerpt from St John Chrysostom in the fifth century.

Marriage is a bond, a bond ordained by God. Why then do you celebrate weddings in a silly and immodest manner? Have you no idea what you are doing? … What is the meaning of these drunken parties with their lewd and disgraceful behaviour? You can enjoy a banquet with your friends to celebrate your marriage; I do not forbid this, but why must you introduce all these excesses? Camels and mules behave more decently than some people at wedding receptions!

Is marriage a comedy? It is a mystery, an image of something far greater. If you have no respect for marriage, at least respect what it symbolizes: “This is a great mystery, and I take it to mean Christ and the Church.” (Eph 5:32)  It is an image of the Church, and of Christ, and will you celebrate in a profane manner? “But then who will dance?” you ask. Why does anyone need to dance? Pagan mysteries are the only ones that involve dancing. We celebrate our mysteries quietly and decently, with reverence and modesty.

How is marriage a mystery? The two have become one. This is not an empty symbol. They have not become the image of anything on earth, but of God Himself. How can you celebrate it with a noisy uproar, which dishonours and bewilders the soul?

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In weakness…

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I thank You Lord for my failures,

That humble me and bring me back down to earth,

That relieve me of the pressure of thinking I am right and others are wrong,

That reveal to me my true nature of fallenness,

That help me to realise that I can do nothing without You.

 

I thank You Lord for my weaknesses,

That give me the chance to grow and flourish,

That close the door of self-righteousness in my face,

That open the door of sincere compassion for the weakness of others,

That are the good soil in which divine love takes root and bears fruit.

 

I thank You Lord for my humiliation,

That shatters my vanity like a mirror smashed in a shower of slivers,

That jars me out of fantasy and implants me in beautiful, precious truth,

That casts me headlong into the rose garden of divine blessings,

That transforms my life and being as I never can alone.

 

I thank You Lord for my emptiness,

That sucks from me self-delusion and pride,

That demolishes the grand castles I have built on sand,

That fills my heart with profound stillness broken only by that most gentle still, small voice,

That clears the way for Your regal entrance and proclaims the beginning of Your reign.

 

For all these gifts, I thank You Lord, with all my heart.

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Afraid to be Free

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Most people take it for granted that each of us is free to choose in life. But some philosophers, such as Jean-Paul Sartre, claim that most people do not really want to be free. Choices have real consequences, and freedom brings with it responsibility. People do not want to be held responsible for the consequences of their actions. What if I make the wrong decision? What if the consequences are bad? I don’t want to be held to blame! I don’t want to feel guilty. And so people seek ways to shift the responsibility on to someone or something else, whether they know they are doing this or not.

One famous way of doing this is “the devil made me do it”. But a more subtle way of shifting responsibility is to lay it upon God, or upon His representatives on earth. Sartre points out that when a person adopts a faith, they surrender some of their freedom. They surrender the freedom to decide for themselves what is right and wrong, for by subscribing to their faith’s moral code, that decision is taken out of their hands. Of course, each person is still free to choose whether to obey their faith’s moral code or not – they are still quite free and quite responsible in that sense, but they are no longer responsible for the content of the moral code itself.

Now I do not see this as a bad thing in itself. We humans are, after all, quite fallible, and we have a disturbing tendency to try to cheat to make life comfortable for ourselves. If there is a genuinely objective right and wrong in the world (as most people would agree there is), then we are much more likely to find it when God tells us what it is than when are left to work it out for ourselves. (more…)

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More Things …

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Three interesting new resources I have come across recently, and thought I might share with you today:

In 1991 a huge project came to fruition with the publication of the eight volume Coptic Encyclopedia. Containing nearly three thousand entries by a variety of authors, both members of the Coptic community and foreign scholars in Coptology, it is perhaps the most comprehensive reference on all things Coptic ever produced. The hard cover eight volume set is not only very expensive, but has also been out of print for some years and hard to get a hold of. So it was with great pleasure that I came across this wonderful project at Claremont Graduate University in California. An excerpt from the announcement of this project: 

The Coptic Encyclopedia, published by Macmillan in 1991, is an eight-volume work. Its 2,800 entries, written by 215 scholars, took 13 years to compile. But as a paper-bound document it was only available to a limited readership and nearly impossible to amend. The digitized version, renamed the Claremont Coptic Encyclopedia, can be constantly updated and is available to anyone with an Internet connection.

Apparently, Phase 1, which began in 2010, is to digitise and make available all 2,800 articles in the original 1991 edition. You can access the articles far completed here.  Last I checked, they were somewhere in the “O” section, working alphabetically from “A”. Phase 2 will be to add multimedia accompaniments to appropriate articles, especially pictures and perhaps audio. Phase 3, and most exciting of all, is to provide continuous updating of existing articles and add new ones to reflect ongoing research and developments in the field of Coptology, and to track the unfolding history of the Coptic Church in the twenty first century. Three cheers for CGU!

How often have you turned up at Church on a feast day or during a fast and wondered why everyone was doing things differently? (more…)

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Unconditional Love.

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One of the hardest things a priest has to deal with is counselling people who are in conflict with each other. Husbands and wives arguing, brothers against sisters, children against their parents or just friends or fellow parishioners.

 How do you reconcile people who are angry with each other? People study for years to learn counselling skills, yet even then the success rate is low – just look at the number of broken marriages there are in the world around us today. Prayer can indeed do miracles, but in this area its effectiveness seems limited.

 Perhaps that’s because conflict is a free choice that we make, and God will not intervene to the point where He takes away our free will. “Free will?” I hear you exclaim, “I didn’t choose to have this conflict! It was all his fault!” Ah, there’s the rub. Few people enter into conflict intentionally. It just seems to happen all by itself. There’s nothing you can do about that is there?

 Or is there? There are some people in this world who seem to avoid these personal conflicts all their lives. They appear to live a charmed life: happy spouses and children, happy extended families, happy friends, happy neighbours, happy fellow parishioners. What’s their secret? How do they do it?

 For some of these people the secret is isolation. “Good fences make good neighbours” goes the old proverb. You keep away from me and we’ll be best of friends! Sure, that’s one solution, but is it really a viable way of life? We are social creatures and like it or not, we need, we yearn for closeness with other human beings. The peace of this lifestyle is the peace of the grave – it is only half a life.

 Others live in apparent peace but only achieve this at the cost of their health. Too shy to enter into conflict, (more…)

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Blood and Courage

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Getting Blood from a Rose

 

It was such a pleasure to watch them stressing.

 Our young Sunday School class, just turned sixteen years old, had bravely decided they wanted to celebrate this milestone by donating blood for the first time at the Red Cross Blood Bank. Sixteen of course is the minimum age for donating blood. Tasoni and I were there to join and encourage them.

 It may not sound like much to many people, but it took a lot for some of these youth to do this, and their determination to see it through tells me something very important about them: they are serious about living out the true message of the Gospel.

 Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends. John 15:13  

OK, they weren’t actually dying (though one or two seemed to come pretty close), but they were giving up their lifeblood in order to save the life of another.

What’s even nicer is that when you donate blood you have no idea who’s going to get it. It is not necessarily a ‘friend’. (more…)

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Things to Read and Hear

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 I’ve been listening to some terrific podcasts by Fr Thomas Hopko, an Eastern Orthodox scholar and parish priest. It is a series on the clergy of the Christian Church through the ages and begins in the Apostolic Age, working its way slowly through the centuries. For anyone who loves ancient Christianity, and who desires to live the Orthodox Christian faith today as closely as possible to its original form in ancient times, this set of talks is a veritable treasure chest! Keep in mind when you listen that Fr Thomas is from the Eastern Orthodox family and thus views the Council of Chalcedon from that perspective. (While the Oriental Orthodox Churches like the Coptic Church reject that Council, most other Christian Churches accept it).

 But his account of the first two centuries is engrossing and makes sense of so many things in our history that we generally hear in isolation and out of context. For example, one can gain a valuable insight into the true spirit of ancient Christian leadership when one learns that the titles for the leaders of the ancient Church were actually taken from the titles of slaves! The Episkopos (over-seer) was the household slave in charge of overseeing the affairs of the household on behalf of his master, and for the welfare and benefit of the master and his family. Episkopos is the title the early Christians adopted for their bishops. The Economos was in charge making sure the ‘economy’ of the house ran smoothly, and thus would look to the day to day details of household provisions and accounts and so on. His role was to preovide the resources that everyone else needed to live their lives happily and safely. Again, the early Christians adopted this name for those among the Elders (‘presbyteros’ ) who were entrusted with caring for the day to day affairs of the household of God, and ‘economos’ has evolved into the modern title, ‘hegomen’.

But note that both these positions were those of slaves. Applied to the Christian roles, what this meant is that the bishop and the hegomen were both ‘slaves’ of the Master of the household, God, and their role was to care for His children. As slaves, they were not to boss the children around or exert authority over them so much as to serve them and provide faithfully for all their needs. And this is of course in keeping with the command of Christ:

But Jesus called them to Himself and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant. And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” Mark 10:42-45 

It also intriguing to hear about the developments in the years after Chalcedon, a period of history in which we Copts were not involved for the most part – being more occupied with things like survival in a hostile environment of Melkites and later Muslims. Here, this account explains so much of why both the Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox Churches are what they are today. (more…)

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God of my Silence

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 “Silence your lips that your heart may speak…

Silence your heart that God may speak…”

– The Spiritual Elder

 

How I miss the silence.

 

It was pleasant sunny winter’s day in ancient Wadi Natroun, the ancient desert abode of the Christian monks of Egypt. I was a newly ordained priest halfway through my 40 day retreat before returning to my family and my home to begin parish service. I spied out the little doorway in the wall of the monastery and found it unlocked. Through some barns and fields ebbing with the sounds and smells of cows and goats, down a little path and I was out in the desert. (more…)

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