Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Does the Devil really exist?

I've been reading Of Water and the Spirit: A Liturgical Study of Baptism by Fr. Alexander Schmemann for Lent, which is the first book Fr. Athanasius Farag recommends on the topic of baptism.  (Schememann was also Fr. Tom's father-in-law by the way :,-) )  This book is mind blowing.  It is a very short book, only 100 pages, and yet in so few words it makes everything begin to make sense.  One section in particular has been very enlightening for me, the section in which he discusses the prayer of the renunciation of the devil in the baptismal liturgy.  It is so clear and helpful that I wanted to share some excerpts of it.

Here is one that discusses the Orthodox concept of evil/demons/Satan/dark powers:
The "modern man,” even an Orthodox, is usually quite surprised when he learns that the baptismal liturgy begins with words addressed to the Devil. The Devil indeed has no place in his religious outlook; he belongs to the panoply of medieval superstition and to a grossly primitive mentality. Many people, including priests, suggest therefore that exorcisms simply be dropped as "irrelevant” and unbecoming to our enlightened and "modern” religion. As for the non-Orthodox, they go even further: they affirm the need to "demythologize” the New Testament itself, to "liberate” it from an antiquated worldview—of which "demonology” is precisely an essential expression—which only obscures its authentic and eternal message. 
It is not our purpose to outline, even superficially, the Orthodox teaching concerning the Devil. In fact, the Church has never formulated it systematically, in the form of a clear and concise "doctrine.” What is of paramount importance for us, however, is that the Church has always had the experience of the demonic, has always, in plain words, known the Devil. If this direct knowledge has not resulted in a neat and orderly doctrine, it is because of the difficulty, if not impossibility, rationally to define the irrational. And the demonic and, more generally, evil are precisely the reality of the irrational. Some theologians and philosophers, in an attempt to explain and thus to "rationalize” the experience and the existence of evil, explained it as an absence: the absence of good. They compared it, for example, to darkness, which is nothing but the absence of light and which is dispelled when light appears. This theory was subsequently adopted by deists and humanists of all shades and still constitutes an integral part of our modern worldview. Here the remedy against all evil is always seen in "enlightenment” and "education.” For example: explain to teenagers the mechanics of sex, remove the "mystery” and the "taboos,” and they will use it rationally, i.e. well. Multiply the number of schools and man, who is naturally good, will ipso facto live and behave rationally, i.e. well.
Such however is certainly not the understanding of evil in the Bible and in the experience of the Church. Here evil is most emphatically not a mere absence. It is precisely a presence: the presence of something dark, irrational and very real, although the origin of that presence may not be clear and immediately understandable. Thus hatred is not a simple absence of love; it is the presence of a dark power which can indeed be extremely active, clever and even creative. And it is certainly not a result of ignorance. We may know and hate. The more some men knew Christ, saw His light and His goodness, the more they hated Him. This experience of evil as irrational power, as something which truly takes possession of us and directs our acts, has always been the experience of the Church and the experience also of all those who try, be it only a little, to "better” themselves, to oppose "nature” in themselves, to ascend to a more spiritual life. 
Our first affirmation then is that there exists a demonic reality: evil as a dark power, as presence and not only absence. But we may go further. For just as there can be no love outside the "lover,” i.e. a person that loves, there can be no hatred outside the "hater,” i.e. a person that hates. And if the ultimate mystery of "goodness” lies in the person, the ultimate mystery of evil must also be a personal one. Behind the dark and irrational presence of evil there must be a person or persons. There must exist a personal world of those who have chosen to hate God, to hate light, to be against. Who are these persons? When, how, and why have they chosen to be against God? To these questions the Church gives no precise answers. The deeper the reality, the less it is presentable in formulas and propositions. Thus the answer is veiled in symbols and images, which tell of an initial rebellion against God within the spiritual world created by God, among angels led into that rebellion by pride. The origin of evil is viewed here not as ignorance and imperfection but, on the contrary, as knowledge and a degree of perfection which makes the temptation of pride possible. Whoever he is, the "Devil” is among the very first and the best creatures of God. He is, so to speak, perfect enough, wise enough, powerful enough, one can almost say divine enough, to know God and not to surrender to Him—to know Him and yet to opt against Him, to desire freedom from Him.  But since this freedom is impossible in the love and light which always lead to God and to a free surrender to Him, it must of necessity be fulfilled in negation, hatred and rebellion. 
These are, of course, poor words, almost totally inadequate to the horrifying mystery they are trying to express. For we know nothing about that initial catastrophe in the spiritual world— about that hatred against God ignited by pride and that bringing into existence of a strange and evil reality not willed, not created by God. Or rather, we know about it only through our own experience of that reality, through our own experience of evil. This experience indeed is always an experience of fall: of something precious and perfect deviated from and betraying its own nature, of the utterly unnatural character of that fall which yet became an integral and “natural” part of our nature. And when we contemplate evil in ourselves and outside ourselves in the world, how incredibly cheap and superficial appear all rational explanations, all "reductions” of evil to neat and rational theories. If there is one thing we learn from spiritual experience, it is that evil is not to be "explained” but faced and fought. This is the way God dealt with evil. He did not explain it. He sent His Only-Begotten Son to be crucified by all the powers of evil so as to destroy them by His love, faith and obedience.

Here is another, discussing the relevance of the act of renunciation:

When this rite of renunciation came into existence, its meaning was self-evident to the catechumen as well as to the entire Christian community. They lived within a pagan world whose life was permeated with the pompa diaboli, i.e. the worship of idols, participation in the cult of the Emperor, adoration of matter, etc. He not only knew what he was renouncing; he was also fully aware to what a "narrow way," to what a difficult life—truly "non-conformist” and radically opposed to the "way of life” of the people around him— this renunciation obliged him. 
It is when the world became "Christian” and identified itself with Christian faith and Christian cult that the meaning of this renunciation began to be progressively lost so as to be viewed today as an archaic and anachronistic rite, as a curiosity not to be taken seriously. Christians became so accustomed to Christianity as an integral part of the world, and to the Church as simply the religious expression of their worldly "values,” that the very idea of a tension or conflict between their Christian faith and the world faded from their life. And even today, after the miserable collapse of all these so-called "Christian” worlds, empires, nations, states, so many Christians are still convinced that there is nothing basically wrong with the world and that one can very happily accept its "way of life,” all its values and "priorities,” while fulfilling at the same time one's "religious duties.” Moreover, the Church herself and Christianity itself are viewed mainly as aids for achieving a successful and peaceful worldly life, as spiritual therapy resolving all tensions, all conflicts, giving that "peace of mind” which assures success, stability, happiness.  The very idea that a Christian has to renounce something and that this "something” is not a few obviously sinful and immoral acts, but above all a certain vision of life, a "set of priorities,” a fundamental attitude towards the world; the idea that Christian life is always a "narrow path” and a fight: all this has been virtually given up and is no longer at the heart of our Christian worldview. 
The terrible truth is that the overwhelming majority of Christians simply do not see the presence and action of Satan in the world and, therefore, feel no need to renounce "his works and his service.” They do not discern the obvious idolatry that permeates the ideas and the values by which men live today and that shapes, determines and enslaves their lives much more than the overt idolatry of ancient paganism. They are blind to the fact that the "demonic” consists primarily in falsification and counterfeit, in deviating even positive values from their true meaning, in presenting black as white and vice versa, in a subtle and vicious lie and confusion. They do not understand that such seemingly positive and even Christian notions as "freedom” and "liberation,” "love,” "happiness,” "success,” "achievement,” "growth,” "self-fulfillment”— notions which truly shape modern man and modern society, their motivations and their ideologies—can in fact be deviated from their real significance and become vehicles of the "demonic.” 
And the essence of the demonic is always pride, pompa diaboli. The truth about "modern man” is that whether a law-abiding conformist or a rebellious non-conformist, he is first of all a being full of pride, shaped by pride, worshiping pride and placing pride at the very top of his values. 
To renounce Satan thus is not to reject a mythological being in whose existence one does not even believe. It is to reject an entire "worldview” made up of pride and self affirmation, of that pride which has truly taken human life from God and made it into darkness, death and hell. And one can be sure that Satan will not forget this renunciation, this rejection, this challenge. "Breathe and spit upon him!” A war is declared! A fight begins whose real issue is either eternal life or eternal damnation. For this is what Christianity is about! This is what our choice ultimately means! 

Friday, March 20, 2015

Honor Fr. Thomas Hopko with 4 Hours of Your Time

Our beloved father, Fr. Thomas Hopko, passed away two days ago, on Wednesday, March 18, 2015.   He has been such an impactful spiritual father to so many of us, despite most of us never having met him.

I grew up listening to him, since he was one of my dad's professors and a good friend of his at St. Vladimir's Seminary, and so his teachings are laced throughout my entire understanding of our Orthodox faith.  One lecture in particular was life changing for me, "Sin: Primordial, Generational, Personal."

Thank God he was extremely prolific in making podcasts on Acient Faith Radio.  I think the best way we can honor him is to make his teachings known and accessible to many more people, and for many more generations to come.  One way to do this is to transcribe his podcasts.  I've transcribed podcasts before, and his podcasts are each about an hour long, and so to transcribe one podcast would take about 4 hours of labor in total, writing/playing back/editing/etc.  If you transcribe 15 minutes at a time, you could very easily finish this project within four days.

Not only will transcribing his podcasts make them more accessible, but by the time you finish transcribing one podcast, you will practically have it memorized.  Everything he says is made of gold, and his thoughts are so clear and thoroughly explained that this is no doubt going to be an amazing spiritual exercise, especially in these last few weeks before Lent is over.

318 of his lectures/podasts on Ancient Faith Radio need transcription, from 2006 to this year.  If 318 people volunteer, this project could be done within a few weeks.

I created a spreadsheet with the title, description and link to every podcast that needs transcription.  You can pick which one you want to transcribe and sign up there.  The spreadsheet has 4 pages (you click on the tab at the bottom to switch between pages), for his series "Speaking the Truth in Love," for "Worship in Spirit and Truth," for his lectures at the Orthodox Institute conference in 2011, and for miscellaneous lectures give by him.

So, how can you get started?  Here is what you should do:

  1. Listen to one of his podcasts for your enjoyment
  2. If you like one of them, think about when you can set aside 4 hours of your time, and sign up for that podcast on the spreadsheet: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1rE7WasIVx5YHh2UgOTECrpqJI-bsknRGz_YSAxAwp0Y/edit?usp=sharing
  3. Read the transcribing guidelines: http://www.ancientfaith.com/files/uploads/AFR-TranscriptStyleGuide.pdf
  4. Start typing!
  5. Send it in to Ancient Faith Radio: webmaster@ancientfaith.com
  6. When they post it, update the spreadsheet with the link to your transcript.

PLEASE SHARE THIS AS WIDELY AS POSSIBLE!

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Lost in the world of fitness supplements?

There is nothing more confusing out there than health and fitness supplements, even if it is your basic whey protein powder or your basic multivitamin. There are so many damn companies claiming to be your most effective supplement choice, and all of them have sponsored athletes that look great and use all their products. Then there is the ingredients labels. What the hell is all this stuff? You might try to look up each ingredient individually but all you'll end up with is, uhh I guess it's okay? But who the hell knows? Are the combinations good? Are the proportions good?

I have been supplementing with protein powder almost on a daily basis for five years now, ever since I started lifting with little 5 pound dumbbells in my dorm room.  In terms of protein powders, I've used whey, egg, casein, and vegan powders. I've also used various vitamin and mineral supplements (multivitamins, calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B complexes, Vitamin E, iron, whatever else), pre-workout supplements, protein bars, fish oil, BCAA's, melatonin, and a ton of random stuff that I've gotten free at the gym or that come as free samples when you buy these supplements.

It has been a long confusing road in figuring out what is useful and what is healthy. I am still trying to educate myself as much as possible, but so far my go-to references are:




Examine.com will give you information on ingredients and general supplement analyses. It looks at scientific research studies and grades the supplement based on the robustness of the research done and the amount of supporting evidence.

If after reading up on the various ingredients and types of supplements, you decide to take one, next comes figuring out which company to buy from.

Labdoor.com will give you information on which companies are best to purchase from. It independently tests the product's label accuracy, purity, nutritional value, ingredient safety, and projected efficacy.

If you're in this health and fitness thing for the long haul, chances are you either already are or will eventually be taking some sort of supplement.  If you want to understand what you're putting in your body, you can ask your doctor, look at best seller lists, read Amazon reviews, and ask your friends, and still none of that will be enough.  You will need to continuously look at objective and reliable references, and so far Examine.com and Labdoor.com are best that I've found.  Check them out, if only to enjoy learning about the biochemistry.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Rethinking an Oppressive Social Practice

A social convention that I think needs to be modernized is looking down on farting and blessing for sneezing. We now know that you can get people sick with your sneezes, and you can control your sneezes. But farting doesn't get people sick, and you can't control them, and when you do try to hold them in you cause yourself great discomfort. When they come out, your physical relief is replaced with psychological torture, hoping people don't realize its you who farted if its silent, or several moments of embarrassment if it makes a noise and is obviously from you. You don't really get relief from sneezing, the noise is disturbing, and you could potentially cause other people several days of bed riddenness. Why do we reward such a practice with a blessing? Why don't we instead rejoice at the relief of another person?

Modern society has come very far. Oppressive practices like slavery have ended, women can now receive an education, work, and make a difference in the world. But this convention oppresses everyone and probably has the greatest practical influence on our day to day lives.

This practice is especially oppressive for women, because of the sexist concept of it being "unlady-like" (I still have no idea what that means). Women are already subject to so much day to day physical discomfort, from having to submit to a higher expectation of not farting, to wearing heels, to trying to suck your stomach in and pretend you're thinner than you actually are, or worse, wearing a corset, which is basically a torture chamber for your internal organs. All of those things probably even increase the pressure for the fart to come out and make it harder to hold it in.

Everyone would benefit from such a social revolution. Maybe we would all just be happier people. Even if I never have to fart again, I would still be more at peace with the world, knowing that I would be accepted and not ostracized simply for being human.  If someone farts, instead of being disgusted with them, I could take it as a way of them announcing to me, "It's okay, I'm human too.  You can be yourself."  And I could smile at them and take it as a gesture of love rather than offense.  Do we not already see it as a sacred rite of passage in romantic relationships?  When you have accepted each other and are finally comfortable enough to fart in one another's presence?

Maybe farting technology would have progressed long ago if we were simply honest and open about this reality.  Maybe they would have invented pills or underwear that make your farts smell good, and so every time someone farts it is a pleasant surprise.  Or maybe we would have figured out a way to turn it into reusable energy.  But instead we brush it under the rug and suffer as a community, and as a globe.  Why must we see it as a problem when it can be a solution?


This was written while trying to hold in a fart (or a few) while in the quiet room at the library.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

You Should Stop Reading My Blog

I am so utterly thankful and honored that there are people who read my blog.  There is so much content out there on the internet, and yet you choose to engage with me and entertain my thoughts.  But I cannot deny that you do have to set aside some of your time to read my posts, which may be hit or miss, while there is plenty of other content out there that is more beneficial to read.  So the least I could do for you, my beloved readers, is direct you toward other blogs that are much better than my own.

One of my favorite blogs is Fr. Stephen Freeman's blog "Glory to God for All Things."  He updates much more consistently than I do and has infinitely better thoughts to share.  So, hypothetically speaking, if you had to pick, you should stop reading my blog and read his.  It will be quite an upgrade.

Any one of his posts is a worthwhile read, but to start with, his most recent post is "Saved in Weakness."  This post is relevant as Lent is fast approaching, one in which he speaks about confession and repentance.  Another huge plus is that he uses some excerpts from one of the most amazing books of all time, The Way of the Pilgrim.

Here is the link to his blog and his post "Saved in Weakness":
http://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings/2015/01/21/saved-weakness/

I love you and I don't want you to leave me, but if you leave me for him, I will understand.

Enjoy!

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Boredom During Liturgy

I stood during Nativity liturgy, lamenting my inability to focus.  I already let most of the liturgy pass me by, in one ear and out the other.  How am I going to go the rest of the night like this?  I decide to try something.  I look at the page number we were on, and the last page number of the book.  Fifty pages of English text to go.  Hm, that's not as bad as I thought.  Then I think, okay, what is the hardest part of liturgy?  What part feels like it just drags on and on?  It's the Seven Short Litanies.  Okay, when it comes to the seven short litanies, I will count them on my hand.

The litanies come.  As each one is said, I count them off.  It flies by, and I'm startled by how short each prayer is.

I continue to try to pay attention to the flow of the liturgy, and how each prayer is different and has its purpose.  It struck me how each prayer is so powerful and succinct.  What I thought was nauseatingly long turned out to be a super short crash course in the theology of the church.

It seemed like the heavens opened that night.  After 22 years, God finally decides to answer my prayer for the first time.  Is it possible I could go to church without dreading the four hours ahead of me?  Is it possible to pay attention the whole time, yes, the whole time, rather than intermittently shifting in and out of consciousness at random points throughout the liturgy?

Before, there were only two things I would try to do to force myself to focus during the service.  One is what Abouna has always taught us about prayer.  When you're in church, you leave all your problems and worries at the door.  It's not a time to let your mind wander and worry about what you're going to do after church, or how badly you're going to fail for procrastinating so much, or why is that person staring at me, or does this boy like me, or how could that person talk to me like that do they know who I am?  It's not even a time for personal prayer, it's a time to participate in the communal prayer of the church, with His body, and around His Body.  This method is a matter of brute force.  Every time I'd catch myself not paying attention, I'd bring my mind back to the prayer and try to really believe what we were saying.  But that did not make it any easier to enjoy the prayer or prevent my mind from inevitably wandering again.

The other rule of thumb for focusing is to pay attention to the prayer and try to actually pray it.  During the litanies, if we are praying for the sick, think of the people I know who are sick, so that that "Kyri eleison" actually means something.  Doing that also helps, but nonetheless is not a sustainable focus-enhancing method.

So, what is the divine inspiration that seized me and caught me up into the third heaven, you ask?  What is this high spiritual insight that I've received, that will make every Sunday different, rather than the same monotonous words every time?  That will make you ecstatic to get out of bed, antsy for church to start, and sobbing when it ends?

A gym analogy will help me explain.

Just like going to the gym, you can't just walk in having no idea what to do and with just the vague notion of "this is what I'm supposed to do to get fit."  You can't expect to get a good workout in by wandering around bsing on a bunch of machines until you're bored and waiting for an hour to pass by so you can tell yourself you spent an hour at the gym and deserve some chocolate cake.  When I go to the gym I know exactly what exercises I'm going to do, in exactly what order, and exactly how many reps, sets, and how much rest in between.  I am able to pace my energy and focus, giving my all in each rep yet not losing sight of what is next.  I have a solid grasp on the flow of my workout, and am fully conscious of what I should be focusing on during each exercise, knowing good form, knowing proper breathing, etc.  I also am fully aware that this is a process that will incrementally make me stronger, as long as I give it my all day in and day out.  I could be doing exactly the same chest routine for months on end, but it is always different, because I am always trying to push more weight.  The same routine is constantly changing me.

Likewise with liturgy, I realized I had no idea what I was doing or saying.  Liturgy starts, my conscious brain shuts off and goes into autopilot, I mouth the responses on cue, take communion, and leave with the realization "I know I was there, but I have no idea what happened these last four hours."  I go to church with a vague notion of why I should be doing this, with no deep connection or conviction that this is exactly the prescription that I must follow to constantly become a better person.  The prayers are said in the same order every time, but I don't really know why they are in that order or how they differ from each other in any meaningful way.  But perhaps if I had the same sort of exact knowledge of the liturgy as I do of my workouts, the same words would be new for me each time.

What I did during Nativity liturgy is try to have a proper grasp on exactly what is going on in the liturgy.  I've attended thousands of liturgies during my life, have all the words memorized, but I hardly have the order memorized, and I hardly have the purpose memorized.  Of course it is going to drag on if at any point, I have no idea exactly how much has passed and how much is left to go.  Of course focusing is going to be a laborious task, if I have no idea how to pace myself.

I've never taken a course in liturgy or even read a book about it.  But just paying attention to the progression of the liturgy and seeing it's unique component parts as unique component parts, rather than a giant combination of words that come between the beginning and the end, made the liturgy so much more enjoyable and manageable.

Several years ago Fr. Athanasius gave us an outline of the liturgy.  I think if I learn the outline and get a good grasp on its order, I won't fall victim so easily to the petty concerns that clamor for my attention.  Maybe these same words will actually start to change me.

Here is a link to the pdf of the outline: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B6QWO-WCIbVEck15X3B2a0pWa2s/view?usp=sharing

Please comment with anything you find helps you focus!

Friday, January 2, 2015

Tips for New Year's Resolutions

I think it is rather naive when people set a million different resolutions for themselves for the new year, especially when they do not have a plan that will enable them to feasibly reach them.  But picking a few goals that are simple yet will provide a huge payout is certainly a worthy endeavor.  Here are two goals that I would consider to be among the most worthy and practical resolution's one could have.

Goodreads does a reading challenge every year that I just discovered: https://www.goodreads.com/challenges/3082-2015-reading-challenge and the benefits of finishing a whole book--not just reading tons of short bits of writing--cannot be underestimated.

I've signed up for the challenge, to read 36 books this year, about three books a month.  I picked this goal because I'm normally reading three books at the same time: some literary fiction, something in health and fitness, and something philosophical/theological/spiritual.  I think it is a useful challenge to pose towards oneself, even if your goal is only to finish one book this year.  If you've never been much of a reader and if reading one book is your goal, you will probably exceed that challenge and discover that you had no idea how much you were capable of reading, let alone how much you could actually come to enjoy it.

Another resource that may be useful is Jamie Eason's Livefit Trainer: http://www.bodybuilding.com/fun/jamie-eason-livefit-trainer.html  This was the program that I followed which introduced me to lifting.  And now, several years later, I might be considered a seasoned lifter.  If anyone has a resolution to get more fit this year and to make fitness a permanent part of one's lifestyle, this is a great program to follow.

If you have any other ideas on worthy resolutions and useful resources, please share in the comments!