I’ve always admired the early monks and nuns of the desert literature. Not because they discovered ways of escaping the reality of paying taxes. Not only because their words were inspirational and their prayer transformative. And not primarily because they withstood the power of the empire and the test of time. But because they prevail as symbols of an alternative course of action. While their ideal is often mythologized or romanticized, even manipulated and exploited in many church circles, it nevertheless remains an image of the value of silence. Of doing less or doing nothing. Of wordlessness and inconspicuousness. Of praying instead of producing. Quite simply: of being.
In contrast, the global pandemic of the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) has exposed a great deal about priorities and weaknesses as a society—an extraordinarily complex community, a tangle of political, financial, health, educational, and religious institutions that affect every person worldwide. Each of these institutions is today desperately trying to come up with answers on how to restore life and save the world as we knew these. No one is immune, even the “asymptomatic”—even the most powerful nations, the most secure economies, and the most righteous believers.
On his recent visit to Mt. Athos in October, 2019, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew announced the imminent inclusion of five Athonite elders among the saints: Ieronymos of Simonopetra, Daniel of Katounakia, Joseph the Hesychast, Ephraim of Katounakia, and Sophrony of Essex.
There is a phrase in the Sayings of Abba Macarius with which I can identify. When asked to address a word of salvation, Macarius replied: “I have not yet become a monk myself, but I have seen monks.” While I feel singularly unsuited to write about saints, I can say that I have been privileged to meet saints who shaped my mind and ministry: Fr. Sophrony of Essex, Fr. Paisios of Athos, Fr. Porphyrios of Athens, as well as Fr. Iakovos of Euboea and Fr. Ephraim of Katounakia. My most treasured gift is a small cross containing the relics of contemporary saints: Nektarios of Pentapolis, Arsenios of Cappadocia, Silouan the Athonite, Joseph the Hesychast, and Amphilochios of Patmos.
There is no doubt that the acclamation and proclamation of a new saint is a refreshing gesture of consolation for the church, an affectionate expression of solidarity in people’s daily affliction. But can a gift—whether an act of grace by God or an act of generosity by the church—ever be manipulated or misused? Continue reading →
John Steinbeck once wrote: “There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation . . . There is a failure that topples all our success.”
In an effort to witness first-hand the financial, social and personal impact of “black diamonds”—the benefits of which we all enjoy, but the cost of which we all irreproachably disregard—I decided to meander through the unparalleled beauty of the Appalachians in West Virginia, among the oldest mountains on the planet. I wanted to see for myself the origins of the benefits I enjoyed living in my home in Maine. It is easy for Americans, especially environmentalists, to ostracize the coal miners, who, by the way, smashed every stereotypical image I had and instead displayed an unassuming charity and disarming simplicity. Nevertheless, I saw them as tragic pawns in the coal and fracking industries from which all of us reap the benefits with our cozy comforts.
There is good reason why West Virginia has been labeled “almost heaven.” Today, it is eerily close to hell. Continue Reading…
In recent centuries, the diaconate has only enjoyed a symbolical or transitional role in the church. Parish clergy are ordained to the priesthood after serving only briefly as deacons. It is as if they are expected to “move on!” or “move up!” The diaconate has been reduced to little more than a preparation or stepping-stone for the priesthood or episcopate. The latter two stages are often considered more significant for the ordained ministry, whereas the diaconate resembles a kind of sub-priesthood, rarely perceived as a lifelong or permanent office.
But this was not always the case—together with bishop and presbyters, deacons were regarded by Ignatius of Antioch toward the end of the first century as an essential part of the structure of the church, which realizes its unity—most completely and comprehensively—when the community is “with the bishop and the presbyters and the deacons who are with the bishop . . . Without these,” St. Ignatius adds, “[the community] cannot be called a church” (Letter to the Trallians).
St. John Chrysostom reminds us of how the early church perceived deacons when he remarks, “even bishops are called deacons” (Homilies on Philippians 1). Indeed, in the time of the apostles, there is no implication or indication that deacons were a condition or requirement for elevation to priesthood. This is why it is my conviction that there can be no clear understanding of the priesthood—or even of the episcopate—unless we first properly apprehend and appreciate the diaconate in and of itself. Continue Reading…