Worship and Emotion

Posting after a very long time, and after having in the intervening time been received into the Orthodox Church, to share an excerpt from Bread & Water, Wine & Oil by Archimandrite Meletios Webber because I feel that it expresses very well something I have thought for quite a long time about typical—in particularly contemporary-style—Protestant worship.  The significance of “mind” in the passage below is that the author is describing how the mind is preoccupied with thoughts of the past or future and wants to avoid at all costs existing in the present moment.

In particular, emotion is of little importance in establishing or developing our contact with God, and yet almost everyone alive is tempted to use emotion in just that way.  Unfortunately, this makes the presence of God nothing more important than a feeling, on a level with being happy or sad.  Moreover, if our concept of worship is simply one of distraction—if our conscious contact with God is not radically different from our experience in a theater or auditorium—then the mind has won a decisive battle.  (21)

Orthodox worship does sometimes, incidentally, evoke or arouse emotions.  There is of course nothing wrong with that when it does happen.  But, unlike in past services where I so often felt like I had to whip up my emotions or else I wasn’t worshiping sincerely, it isn’t necessary; that isn’t the point.  The goal is union with Christ.


The eternal Now

http://hubblesite.org/newscenter/newsdesk/archive/releases/1992/17/image/a. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:M51_whirlpool_galaxy_black_hole.jpg#mediaviewer/File:M51_whirlpool_galaxy_black_hole.jpg

Image credits: “M51 whirlpool galaxy black hole” by Stephen Conatser

I know beyond doubt what the real center of my own life is, that time which is past and lost and yet is permanent, the enduring moment, the heart of warmth.
-The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula LeGuin

The Left Hand of Darkness is a science fiction novel in which are described two major societies of an alien planet. In the course of creating not just one but two fictional religions for her fictional societies, LeGuin throws in enough religious and pseudo-religious and mythological concepts that probably most major real-world religions can find some sort of resonance with something that is said somewhere. Nevertheless, I was surprised to find, from an author whom I very much doubt has any sympathies with Christianity, something that so resonates with a theological teaching of Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Interestingly, this particular passage has nothing whatsoever to do with the book’s fictional religions; it is, rather, the primary narrator of the book, Genly Ai, describing the way in which a recalled time from the past is to him the center of his life and eternally present to him.

I, too, have had experiences which, though “over” temporally, are so present to me when I recall them that I can say without doubt that I am still participating in those experiences in a real way and that those events have become a permanent and unchangeable part of my being. This is probably impossible to explain to anyone who has not had a similar experience, but it is completely different from the normal way in which I merely recall or think about memories of the past.

This is a large part of the reason why the Church’s teaching of Real Presence makes sense to me. Christ, as God, is “outside” time (though the word outside is itself a limited human term attempting to describe something transcendent with a spatial metaphor) and events such as his death and resurrection are not repeated for us but are made present to us as they enter into our reality. The phrase “in remembrance” means recalling a person or thing in such a way that the person or thing is made present in a real way. The crucifixion is not merely a moment in time; it is an event transcending time because to God all things are continually present in the “eternal Now.


I have some thoughts about the topic of salvation that I’ve been mulling over for a while and very much want to share, but in the meantime until I make time to write them up properly, here are some thoughts I ran across about Theophany (the baptism of Christ), which I offer to you unseasonably in June.

Baptism (Kirillo-Belozersk)

By Anonymous (own photo by shakko) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

[Attending Great Vespers,] I was grateful yet again for the beauty of the song “Gladsome Light,” both the music and the incredibly profound words, and also for way that it so clearly and firmly proclaims Trinitarian theology.   And then there was a Theophany song that we sang a couple of times that specifically said that when Jesus was baptized in the Jordan the whole Trinity was revealed, because the Father spoke from heaven, confirming that Jesus was his son, and the Holy Spirit descended in the form of a dove. And I was thinking, How may fewer problems would we have [e.g. with young people not knowing even the basics of Trinitarian theology, a problem I encountered while teaching high school] if we all so clearly explained in our songs and our worship that the Trinity can be seen in passages like these? This dovetails completely with what Father was saying just yesterday about how although the Great Commission may be the clearest Trinitarian statement in the Bible, once you know what to look for it is all over the place. Then there was the reading at the end of the service. [. . .] The main point I took away from that reading was that the question that is continually asked throughout the Theophany feast is why Jesus had to be baptized by John in order to fulfill all righteousness. The answer is that Jesus, by taking on human nature, takes us up with him as he is cleansed. So it is for the cleansing of the whole human race, the whole humanity that he has assumed, as well as the cleansing of the waters which he enters. I wonder if it would be correct to say that in the Orthodox understanding all of creation is sanctified by Jesus’ entering into it in this way [. . .]

I really like Theophany. There is a lot to love about this feast—that it is one of the feasts of the incarnation and is tied to Nativity, that it is all about Jesus’ kenosis, his self-emptying, that it is about him entering into the very depths of creation, and also that by being a few weeks after Christmas it allows one to be away from the bustle and conflicting associations of Christmas as it is celebrated in the United States.

(11 Jan. 2014)

Around the time of Theophany, I went to sleep breathing through my mouth (because of a cold) and had a dream about drinking water.  This itself is not particularly of interest (for a dream to mirror the physical state of one’s body is not uncommon), but it led to some speculative thoughts which are by no means along the lines of things I think are definitely true beyond any doubt but which were intriguing to ponder.  I also referred in the journal entry  below to the blessing of the waters, which is an Orthodox service in which the congregation will sometimes actually go out to a river or ocean (if they live near one) and bless the water.  My parish moved the date of the service up slightly because of an incoming blizzard, and I didn’t attend, but here’s a picture of a bishop lobbing a cross into the ocean, because apparently that’s what happens when you have favorable weather + a large body of water + a bishop:

Cross being thrown at Theophany

“Great throw, Your Eminence!” Photo credits: Maggas at en.wikipedia [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

With that background information out of the way, moving on to the journal entry in question:

I dreamed that someone gave me a cup of water with ice cubes in it, and despite drinking what should have been a refreshing drink, but it had absolutely no efficacy in alleviating my thirst. It was one of those “no matter how much you _____ you can’t ______” sort of dreams: no matter how much I drank, I couldn’t quench my thirst.

This made me think about this thing that keeps being repeated by Father about how in baptism and in the blessing of the waters, the water becomes not something different but what water really is, and Jesus’ statement that whoever drinks the water he gives them will never thirst again, and was thinking that this dream I had was sort of the opposite of that: the water in my dream had lost its waterness, so that it did not do what water does. And I think that despite my dream being not nearly as hellish as I imagine that hell really is, I think there is something about that concept, of something participating in nonbeing, that perhaps bears some resemblance to hell. And perhaps the Greeks were really on to something with their descriptions of people endlessly pushing stones up hills and never being able to get the reward of their labors and endlessly reaching for food and drink and never being able to taste them.

(10 Jan. 2014)

I woke up grateful that water quenches thirst–because sometimes for something to simply be what it was meant to be is a blessing.

Decision making, part 2: What it all boils down to

There are, of course, innumerable Protestant denominations, many of which have wonderful things going on in them and (as I can attest through personal experience) a lot of truly wonderful people in them.  In this post, however, I am going to focus solely on those Christian communions which regard Tradition as a source of authority.  And given that in my own journey I am looking for a church that has historical roots and is true to the tradition passed down by the apostles, I’m going to focus on the most traditional traditions.  That said, assuming that Tradition is a given, everything else can be reduced to two questions:  whether or not to accept filioque, and whether to accept or reject the idea of Papal/Petrine supremacy.

Papal/Petrine supremacy



YES Roman Catholic Anglican (or some other traditional Protestant denomination)
NO Byzantine Catholic? Orthodox

I’ve put a question mark there by Byzantine Catholic (also known as Eastern Rite Catholic) because although I know that filioque is not said in the Eastern Rite of the RCC, I think perhaps a condition of their being Catholic is that they have to say that filioque is not an error or a heresy but that it is acceptable. So they probably have to accept it in some measure even if they don’t say it themselves.

So there you have it.  As far as I can make out, pretty much everything boils down to the question of which church is authoritative, and it is possible to decide which church is authoritative based on these two questions.  Once you decide which church has authority, every other doctrine and teaching of that particular church falls into place because you have accepted the authority of that church.  At least, this is how things are for people who end up Catholic or Orthodox.  The other end of the spectrum is to start off by deciding what you believe and then pick the denomination that matches your own beliefs rather than picking which church has authority and changing your beliefs to match the teaching of the church whose authority you accept.

Mystery, decision making, the mystery of how to make a decision


Modern Hand painted Romanian icon of the Nativity, via Wikimedia Commons

Below are some thoughts from back in December.  To preface them, there is a phrase I’ve heard several times in my classes about Orthodoxy which goes something like this:  “To the Orthodox, a paradox is not a puzzle to solve but a mystery to contemplate.”  Although it is a bit of an oversimplification and has been repeated enough to become a bit of an Orthodox cliché, there is some truth to the observation that Western Christianity tends to reason things out minutely.  For example, in the West the creeds like the Apostle’s Creed and Nicene Creed are taken as a starting point for doctrine, and doctrine proceeds into more and more minute and abstruse distinctions (depending on one’s attitude, Scholasticism is the poster child or the whipping boy whenever people want to point out an example of this tendency).  As an alternate example, Catholics have analyzed the sacrament of the Eucharist to such a point that they have identified the moment which they believe is the precise moment that the bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Christ, and they ring a bell at that moment so that people know when it is.  In contrast (as I’ve mentioned before), an Orthodox writer said that the process begins as the wheat for the bread is being sown, continues as the faithful are baking the bread in their home and then as the faithful gather to worship, and culminates in Holy Communion during the Divine Liturgy; it is an ongoing, organic process, not an instant transformation that happens at one particular moment.  The Orthodox also reject (while fully believing in Real Presence) the Aristotelian explanation for Real Presence that relies on a distinction between accidents and essence.  So in their views towards the Eucharist, the Catholics tend to define and explain things very precisely, while Orthodox tend to focus more on mystery and experience, and mystery is an important aspect of the Orthodox ethos.

With that in mind, here is a journal entry from December in which I was writing about how the word mystery was cropping up in a lot of things that I was reading at the time, which then also leads into some thoughts about certainty and how to make a decision about what church to belong to (i.e. to what extent one should try to be certain in the sense of completely rationally convinced of every single teaching and doctrinal point before making a decision).

I received a Christmas card from Wheaton that says, “Come, contemplate the mystery of the incarnation”: I am so glad that it says mystery of the incarnation, because it makes me feel like I am not turning my back on or severing myself from my Wheaton heritage by pursuing Orthodoxy. It also said somewhere in the letter that the incarnation “opens up windows to eternity.”  [This phrase is strikingly similar to the Orthodox teaching about icons being “windows into heaven” by giving us a visual image to make us aware of a living reality that is really there.]

This is a letter from God telling me that Orthodoxy is his good gift to me and not something to be afraid of.  [Of course I did not mean “letter from God” literally but was speaking hyperbolically, and the connections to Orthodoxy probably have more to do with Orthodoxy having been on my mind than anything supernatural.]

I also went to CACINA [i.e. the blog Carry the Gospel With You] today, and this is what I found:

“I sometimes think that among the great sins of Christians, as evidenced by the relentless focus on doctrine and orthodox belief, is our quest for certainty on the faith journey. We want to package the truth and categorize it: to know with certainty that this is black, and this is white. We want our religion like we want our breakfast: neat, tidy, without a mess. Advent challenges this attitude–not by asking to deny Christian doctrines–but by inviting us to engage in the spiritual life, which is neither neat nor tidy. Jesus himself says there is no greater born than John the Baptist, but Matthew tells us that on one day, John seems quite sure who is in front of him, and on a later day, he entertains doubts. To engage with God is to enter into the realm of mystery and uncertainty; even the greatest ever born approached the mystery surrounded with shades of grey.”

Note the word mystery.

I think that if I try to completely work out every single uncertainty that I have about Orthodoxy, for one thing, it’s going to take forever, and for another thing, it would negate the need for faith. It is much more an act of trust if while not having worked myself into a position in which I’m already 100% in agreement with Orthodoxy, I decide to become Orthodox; saying “I’m going to become Orthodox because they believe exactly the way that I do” allows me to retain an individualistic self of control and ownership over what is right belief. If, on the other hand, there are some things that I am not certain of, but I decide to become a member of the church anyways and accept those things about which I’m uncertain because the Church is the Church, then that represents faith and submission.

So I need to distinguish between things that I really do need to work out intellectually [here I had listed some specific, weighty doctrinal points] and those which I can accept by trust in the Church. (13 Dec. 2013)

Psychologically speaking, when a person is about to make or has recently made a huge decision, like what college to attend or whom to marry, they tend to mentally look for reasons to justify their decision, and they do actually find those reasons, and everything seems to point to the rightness of that decision.  It’s a little bit similar to how if you are thinking of buying a certain car, you will start to notice that car everywhere.  I was fully aware back when I wrote this journal entry and am also very consciously aware now that I was (and am) seeing Orthodoxy everywhere because it was (and is) on my mind and seeing justifications for it everywhere because I love it, but being aware of the psychological phenomenon doesn’t at all prevent the person who wants to buy a Toyota from seeing Toyotas everywhere, and that is what has been going on in my mind for quite some time.


Paschal greetings

Resurrection (24)

By Surgun100 (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

When I was in college, I once had a classmate comment about how in Norway, they use the same word for Easter as for Passover, because Easter is the Christian Passover. And I remember thinking that was pretty neat, because for Christians, Christ is our Passover lamb. Like Norwegians (who are traditionally . . . Lutheran?), the Orthodox also refer to Easter as Pascha, Passover. But that is not the main point for today, just a side note.

One thing I haven’t previously written about but that has been a major factor in drawing me to Orthodoxy is the way that certain things in it harmonize with Japanese culture. For example, there is frequent bowing in the services: to God, to each other, and so on. Depending on the context, most of those bows are not the same in style as a Japanese bow, but the fact that they are there is deeply satisfying to a part of me that, upon moving back to the States, really hungered for that culture of reverence and respect that exists in Japan.

Another similarity is that in Orthodoxy there are also ritual greetings in certain contexts. In Japan, there are myriads of these which are used in all sorts of situations. It is expected that you say “good morning” to a person when you first see them and it can even be rude if you don’t. When you walk into a store, a store clerk will almost without fail say “welcome” to you. When leaving work, there are ritual phrases that are said (“Thank you for your hard work,” and if you are leaving while other people remain behind, “I’m sorry for leaving before you.”)

There are not as many of these in Orthodoxy, but there are some. Although it is not mandatory (at least not in the Orthodox settings that I have been in), the proper Orthodox way to greet an Orthodox priest or bishop is to ask a blessing. It’s a ritual greeting and gives that same sense of harmony and rightness that there is in Japanese culture as a result of everything having its proper place and being able to do certain actions and use certain phrases that are the right actions and phrases for the situation.

There are also special greetings that everyone uses during certain festal seasons like Nativity (Christmas) and Pascha. At Nativity, the greeting in English is “Christ is born!” and the reply is “Glorify Him!” At Pascha, it is “Christ is risen!” and “Truly He is risen!” or some variation. But one of the beauties of Orthodox Pascha is that the priest will say this Paschal greeting in as many languages as are known by anyone, and whoever knows that language will respond in it. So in celebration of the Lord’s Passover:

Christus resurrexit!

Χριστὸς ἀνέστη!

Hristos a înviat!

Христос воскрес!

Le Christ est ressuscité!


Christ is risen!

Lent: The wisdom of the Church


The literal meaning of “Lent” is “spring,” so this post is adorned with flowers, first of all because it is seasonally and topically appropriate, but also because, well, try finding an image of an Orthodox Lenten service that licensed for free reuse, and there’s the second reason.  It is just as well, though, because although a photograph of the exterior of an Orthodox church absolutely can do justice to the beauty of the exterior of an Orthodox church, a photograph of an Orthodox service can in no way do justice to the service, which is an experience in time that embraces all five senses.

During this Lenten season, which is of course my first time experiencing Lent in an Orthodox church, I’ve been repeatedly impressed by how wise the Church is in the way it has arranged things:  the timing of things, the texts that were chosen, the emphases during Lent, and so on.  I’d like to share some of these, more as a series of impressions than anything (I am certainly not attempting to give a systematic overview of Orthodox Lent; for that, a published source like the introduction to The Lenten Triodion would be a better resource).

  • It’s during the springtime.  During this time of year we are starting to recover from our winter lethargy, to feel a stirring of energy, and to do things like clean our houses (spring cleaning).  It is only natural that we should also direct this impulse towards more energetic activity, to cleansing and freshening things, to our spiritual life as well.  There ought to be a time when we make a deliberate effort towards spiritual renewal, and spring is simply the logical time to do this.  Human beings need that natural cycle and rhythm of the seasons–or at least I do–and it is something I have really missed during all the years I’ve been in churches that (though wonderful in many other ways) simply did not observe the church calendar other than by celebrating Christmas and Easter.
  • It’s not just fasting.  The Orthodox Church repeatedly emphasizes that fasting by itself, unaccompanied by prayer, is at best “a really weird diet” (as some members of my parish have put it) and at worst a “fast of demons” because the demons never eat and never pray.  Either way it is of no benefit by itself.  Rather, there are three things that go together:  fasting, prayer, and almsgiving (which should be understood not just as giving money away but also as works of love, doing things to help people).  This is another thing that I simply find to be very wise.  Leaving out any one of them results in a significant imbalance.  Leave out almsgiving and your prayer and fasting risks being self-centered and is not bearing the fruit of good works that life in Christ naturally ought to bear.  Leave out prayer and your efforts to fast and to pour your energy into others will leave you drained, perhaps even burnt-out.  Leaving out fasting and you are missing out on a powerful tool to aid you in prayer and bring your life into its true and proper order and balance.
  • Preparatory weeks.  In Orthodoxy there are four preparatory weeks leading up to Great Lent.  Each of these, and each week during Great Lent, has its own specified Scripture reading and theme, but here I am going to focus mainly on some of the themes from the preparatory period, because I was particularly impressed by how well-chosen they were.  One of the preparatory Sundays has as its gospel reading the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:10-14).  This reminds us that it is not our own human efforts, no matter how well we jump through the hoops, that makes us right before God, but a spirit of genuine repentance.  This is important so that we don’t become proud and Pharisaical because of our fasting efforts.  This tendency towards pride in external religions disciplines is, I think, always a danger for those who do practice such disciplines, so it’s good that the Church takes some time every year before Lent to reflect on this particular parable.  There’s also an epistle reading during one of these weeks (I think not the same week as the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector) in which Paul says that neither eating nor abstaining from food has any value.  This is is rather oddly placed right before the beginning of the fast, but I think it is there for the same reason as the above parable.

    The Pharisee and the Publican (Le pharisien et le publicain) by James Tissot, 1886-94, Opaque watercolor over graphite on gray wove paper, Brooklyn Museum.

    Following the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector is the Sunday of the Prodigal Son.  Although the actual reason why this text was chosen has to do with emphasizing the importance of repentance, I think it is helpful for keeping us from despair:  no matter how badly you have messed up, you can still repent.  The Sunday following that is the Sunday of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25:31-46).  And this reading is placed where it is so that no one will fall into the error of thinking that because of God’s mercy and forgiveness, the way they live their life doesn’t matter and they can go on living however they want (essentially Bonhoeffer’s “cheap grace”).  “No one is so patient and so merciful as God, but even He does not forgive those who do not repent” (Lenten Triodion 45).

  • Presanctified Liturgy.  This is a service held on weekdays of Great Lent, and the main point of it, as of any Divine Liturgy, is Holy Communion.  Lent began with my asking our parish priest (attempting to do so in a respectful way) what the reason was that I should attend these services, since as a non-Orthodox person I can’t take the Eucharist.  But after a few times, I fell in love with the service.  There are some things that I can mention in attempting to describe its beauty–like the motif of wheat and grapes on the priest’s vestments (this rich symbolism needs no explanation to anyone familiar with the bread and wine of Holy Communion, or with John 12:24); the loveliness of the songs, which with the minor key tonality had a more somber and reflective tone than usual; the prevailing quietness and the long moments of actual silence; the ability to physically bow down low before God and express with our bodies what we strive to do with the whole person, mind, emotions, soul, will, everything.  But of course none of this description comes anywhere near doing justice to the service, which is an experience beyond words.
  • Transitions and timing.  The Orthodox Church knows how to do this.  During the Sunday of the first week of Lent, there’s a certain service that is held (Forgiveness Vespers), and during this service there’s a specific moment when all the cloths in the church (cloth hangings, the cloths on the tables and on the icon stands and so on) and the clergy’s vestments are changed from light to dark and the people switch the melody of their choral response to a special Lenten melody.  It is really remarkable because it is so concretely sensory that you cannot help but know that something has changed.  It’s an extremely effective way of signaling, “Lent has begun.”  Besides that, the hymns used in the services throughout Lent are always saying things that are pertinent to the time in Lent that we’re in.  For example, at the beginning of Lent, the hymns speak words of exhortation and encouragement to stir us up for the fasting season (which is compared to a contest or an arena):  things like “Let us set out with joy upon the season of the Fast, and prepare ourselves for spiritual combat.  Let us purify our soul and cleanse our flesh” (Lenten Triodion 181).  Similarly, when we reach the halfway-point, the hymns specifically tell us that we are halfway through the fast.  This is really important; it is extremely helpful to be given these benchmarks so that we know where we are and how much we have left to go.  Otherwise it seems like we are wandering through a hazy, borderless wasteland.  Doing Lent by oneself without being part of a church community that is doing it together, and without having these simple reminders of when we are halfway through and when we have one week remaining and so on is like that.  My experience of doing Lent on my own as a Protestant (while in churches that did not observe it at all) is that it was dreary and seemingly interminable, leaving me thinking, “Lent is very long.”
  • We do it together.  As I’ve said above, fasting together with a community is very different from fasting by oneself.  In fasting that is done together with a community, there is a sense of camaraderie and mutual encouragement that is very helpful.  But more importantly, doing a fast together in obedience to the guidelines and timing laid out by the Church is important, I think, for the way that it frees us from self-centered individualism (the individualistic attitude in the US is extremely excessive) and makes the fast about obedience and community rather than about my own choices, my own decisions, my own will.  As a disclaimer, I don’t think that an attitude of personal responsibility for one’s own spiritual growth is entirely a bad thing.  But personally, I want to get away from making things about my own arbitrary decisions (I am trying to express in English the untranslatable 自分の勝手) and my own self-will, and I find that observing the fasting season together with a community, with guidelines that are given to me rather than that I decided myself, is a wonderful change and feels much more wholesome and right.

I will close with one of the texts from the Lenten Triodion, the service book for the services of Great Lent and those leading up to it.  Out of everything I’ve heard in the pre-Lenten and Lenten services I’ve been able to attend, this is by far my favorite:

Let us joyfully begin the all-hallowed season of abstinence; and let us shine with the bright radiance of the holy commandments of Christ our God, with the brightness of love and the splendour of prayer, with the purity of holiness and the strength of good courage.  So, clothed in the raiment of light, let us hasten to the Holy Resurrection on the third day, that shines upon the world with the glory of eternal life. (190)