Monday, December 24, 2012

We Worship Thy Birth, O Christ!

Last week, in order to assist us with our spiritual prepartion for Christmas, my bishop recommended this recording of a Byzantine Nativity hymn in Arabic. The English translation, which is shown in the video, appears below.

Today is born of a virgin he who holds the whole creation in his hand. (Thrice)

He whose essence none can touch is bound in swaddling clothes as a mortal man.

God, who in the beginning fashioned the heavens, lies in a manger.

He who rained manna on his people in the wilderness is fed on milk from his mother’s breast.

The Bridegroom of the Church summons the wise men; the Son of the Virgin accepts their gifts.

We worship thy birth, O Christ! (Thrice)

Show us also thy holy Theophany.

—Royal Hours of the Nativity, sticheron at the Ninth Hour

Friday, November 9, 2012

Post-Election Lyrics

I have not yet unpacked most of my CDs post-seminary, so I have been borrowing CDs from the local library. Just today I picked up Not Too Late, by Norah Jones. In light of the events of this past week, the eighth track struck a chord with me. You can listen to a live performance of the song here.

My Dear Country

'Twas Halloween and the ghosts were out
And everywhere they'd go they shout
And though I covered my eyes I knew
They'd go away

But fear's the only thing I saw
And three days later was clear to all
That nothing is as scary as election day

But the day after is darker
And darker and darker it goes
Who knows maybe the plans will change
Who knows maybe he's not deranged

The news men know what they know but they
Know even less than what they say
And I don't know who I can trust
For the come what may

'Cuz we believed in our candidate
But even more it's the one we hate
I needed someone I could shake
On election day

But the day after is darker
And deeper and deeper we go
Who knows maybe it's all a dream,
Who knows if I'll wake up and scream

I love the things that you've given me
I cherish you my dear country
But sometimes I don't understand
The way we play

I love the things that you've given me
And most of all that I am free
To have a song that I can sing
On election day

Norah Jones
Muthajones Music-EMI Blackwood Music (BMI)
from the album Not Too Late

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Hagia Sophia: Byzantine Liturgical Architecture

I recently came across some images and videos that reconstruct the appearance of Hagia Sophia in the first millennium, when it served as the cathedral of the Archbishop of Constantinople – and therefore as the first church of the Byzantine Empire. From its dedication in 537, during the reign of Justinian, the Temple of the Holy Wisdom of God remained the world’s largest cathedral until 1520. To understand some elements of the Byzantine Rite, it is essential to be able to visualize the church whose size, shape, and features they were required to accommodate.

In this external view you will first notice the courtyard, or atrium, in front of the church. At the east end of the atrium, the same height as the atrium, is the church’s outer narthex. Beyond that, with the many westward-facing windows, is the larger inner narthex. While the outer narthex served mainly as a vestibule, the inner narthex was where many services began. In Vespers of the Byzantine Cathedral Rite, for instance, the extensive opening psalmody was recited in the inner narthex, after which the congregation passed through the many doors into the nave for the next part of the service around the ambo. The large central doors, known as the Royal Doors, were used by the imperial family. This movement from narthex to nave is the origin of the Entrance in today’s service of Great Vespers. The narthex is still used for some rites, such as the prayers of exorcism at the beginning of the baptismal service and the betrothal rite that precedes marriage.

These architectural images will provide a better idea of how the narthexes relate to the rest of the church. The first, a floor plan, shows the church as it exists today. The second, a cut-away drawing, shows it as it was in the first millennium.

In both the floorplan and the initial image, you will notice a separate building to the south of the narthexes. This is the baptistery, whose purpose is obvious from its name. In the floorplan you will also see another building at the northeast corner of the church. This is the skevophylakion – the treasury, where donations to the church were received and stored. At what we now call the Great Entrance of the Divine Liturgy, the deacons would go the the skevophylakion, select wine and loaves of bread from among the donations, and return with them to the sanctuary to present them to the bishop for use in the Eucharist.

In the cut-away drawing you will see a round structure in the center of the nave. This is the ambo, an elaborate structure similar to a pulpit. It was used not only by preachers, but also by the choir and chanters when leading antiphonal or responsorial hymnody and by readers when reading the Scriptures. Here are two images of a detailed reconstruction.

There is one small defect in these pictures: they both position the ambo backwards. The longer pathway should point towards the sanctuary, not towards the narthex.

In the background of the first ambo picture, you can see the templon, the predecessor of today’s iconostasis. (The iconostasis as we know it did not appear before the late 14th century.) The templon began as a low screen to set off the sanctuary from the nave. It often came to be elaborated with columns surmounted by an architrave. While the templon restricted physical access to the sanctuary and set it off visually, it did not obstruct worshipers’ view of the altar. Here are three pictures of a reconstruction of the templon.

Unlike some templons, the one at Hagia Sophia projected out into the nave, with the deacon’s doors on the sides (much like my parish’s iconostasis). The curtains could be opened for the Liturgy and closed at other times when the sanctuary was not being used. In the middle of the sanctuary is the altar. The large structure over the altar is the ciborium (Greek kiborion). At the rear of the sanctuary, the semi-circular steps are seating for the clergy. The bishop’s seat, sometimes called the high place, was in the center of the top row. In the following video, the camera travels around the sanctuary, giving close-ups of some of the features.

This video shows the even more ancient Constantinopolitan church of Hagia Eirene (Holy Peace). It begins with the exterior but soon moves to the interior. You will see a lot of similarities to Hagia Sophia, but also a significant difference in the shape of the templon.

Finally, for comparison here is an ancient church of Rome – St. Peter’s Basilica. Note the icons of Christ and the Theotokos on the front wall on either side of the sanctuary.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Punks vs. Putin

I spent most of my free time last month reading and writing about the Pussy Riot trial. With my background as a Soviet intelligence analyst and an Orthodox seminarian, I am probably as qualified as anyone to undertake an analysis of the incident.

Most media treatments have molded the story into a standard good-guys-vs.-bad-guys formula, which can take two possible forms:

1) Brave, hip, smart, artsy young women find a provocative way to make their protest heard against a corrupt, authoritarian regime – and the church leaders in cahoots with it – who respond by subjecting the young activists to a show trial in a kangaroo court on trumped-up charges.

2) Russian officials employ the only legal means at their disposal to respond to the offended Orthodox piety and national pride of ordinary Russians, who were shocked and outraged at the abuse of Moscow’s main cathedral by provocatively clad, obscenity-spewing, self-promoting “performance artists” dedicated to undermining traditional values and institutions in the name of individualism, secularism, feminism, sexual freedom, and “the revolution”.

These two narratives, between them, convey most of the facts of the story, along with large helpings of the sort of wishful thinking that insists on seeing the enemies of one’s enemies as good guys in white hats. But, for an American conservative who believes in things like rule of law, freedom of expression (including religious expression), and traditional values, the current situation in Russia is not producing anyone we might consider a good guy in a comprehensive sense. But I think it is clear that, in this instance, one side is more wrong than the other.

Punk Prayer: A Tale of Two Cathedrals

On February 21, members and friends of the feminist punk band Pussy Riot entered Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow at a time when the cathedral was open to visitors but no services were taking place and few people were present. The band members crossed a rail restricting access to the area in front of the iconostasis, ascended the steps to the solea, donned their trademark balaclavas, and began an a capalla performance of their punk prayer, “Virgin Mary, Put Putin Away”, with choreographed punches, kicks, and prostrations. Almost immediately, church staffers sprang into action, harassing the cameraman and converging on the four performers on the solea to disrupt the performance and escort them away. The performance lasted just 41 seconds.

The subsequent video also incorporated footage from a louder, more elaborate performance shot two days earlier at Moscow’s Elokhovsky Theophany Cathedral. The scenes in the video that show the girls playing guitars in a candlelit church come from this earlier performance.

The two cathedrals have contrasting histories. Elokhovsky Cathedral was the largest church in Moscow to survive the Soviet era, and it served as the patriarch’s cathedral during those years. Christ the Savior Cathedral, the tallest Orthodox Church in the world, was destroyed by the Soviets in 1931 and rebuilt in the 1990s. It has the peculiar status of being owned by the city of Moscow, not by the Orthodox Church.

How many members of PR participated in the two performances? Press accounts say five PR members were involved at Christ the Savior Cathedral, though only four appeared in the video and only three were arrested. The Moscow Times reported on August 26 that the band had announced via Twitter that the other two participants had successfully fled Russia after Interfax reported the previous week that the police were still looking for them. Five band members appeared in the scenes from Elokhovsky Cathedral, all of whom were dressed differently than the ones at Christ the Savior. While these appear to be five different members, they could be the same five girls in different costumes. Wikipedia reports that the band consists of approximately 12 members.

One might wonder how the cathedral staff could have reacted so quickly to the band’s intrusion. A year earlier, in response to an interviewer’s question about the cathedral’s staff, the senior priest of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior said, “A great many people have come and gone through the Cathedral. Only those who remain dedicated to the Cathedral and their work, because our work is not easy, especially for those who stand by the candle holders or work in the icon shop. People come to the Cathedral not only to pray, but to provoke others, there are disgruntled people, too. One needs to possess tact, patience, Christian love, knowledge.


Some early press descriptions stated that the performance at Christ the Savior took place “on the altar”. It appears that some reporters simply parroted what they were told without understanding what this phrase means – otherwise, one might expect that they would have translated the phrase into standard English and/or critiqued the truthfulness of the statement. While most English-speaking Christians hearing that phrase would imagine the girls dancing on top of the altar table, some Orthodox say “on the altar” where Catholics (and other Orthodox) would say “in the sanctuary”. (The latter phrase has its own problems, however, since many American Protestants have expanded the term “sanctuary” to encompass the entire church, including the nave. Therefore, Orthodox who are more familiar with Protestant than with Catholic usage of “sanctuary” tend to avoid the term.) In any case, the PR members were clearly performing on the solea, not in the altar/sanctuary. In the video one can clearly see the holy doors of the iconostasis behind them, securely closed. There was no intrusion into the sanctuary. Talk of “desecration” was even less apt than of dancing “on the altar”. I would surmise that both of these descriptions were perpetrated by opponents of PR seeking to magnify the shock of what the girls had done.

I have no doubt that the shock was sincere, at least on the part of that minority of Russians who are devout Orthodox Christians. (Many Orthodox Russians are not so devout: only 10% of those who identify themselves as Orthodox actually attend church services, and 30% do not even believe in God.) The image of Christ the Savior Cathedral is familiar to all the Orthodox of Russia – even ones who have never personally set foot in the cathedral – because it has been the venue for major events in the life of the church and the nation, such as the funeral of Patriarch Alexy II and the enthronement of Patriarch Kirill, which were broadcast nationally. To see the same site used in a profane way might have caused cognitive dissonance. But, of course, that was just what the band intended. It could not have achieved its purpose without that kind of shock.

While PR’s protest would have been shocking to any devout Russian Orthodox worshiper, one should understand that most devout Russian Orthodox worshipers are alert for opportunities to take offense against any behavior deemed “disrespectful” – a term that encompasses just about anything contrary to Russian custom as interpreted by its local, usually self-appointed, enforcers. In liturgics class I was warned that, when visiting a Russian church, if I so much as put my hands in my pockets or clasped my hands behind my back (both considered by Russians to be disrespectful stances) I could expect to be smacked without warning by a babushka.

I have also seen assertions that the girls’ mere attire was shocking and offensive. This claim should be taken with a shaker of salt. Their bright, colorful costumes might have been politically provocative, but they were not indecent. In fact, they were among the more modestly dressed 20-something women I have seen in a Russian church. Legalistic Russians are very insistent that women wear headcoverings and dresses or skirts in church (pants are considered disrespectful). It is not unusual to see young women at Russian churches in the U.S. wearing headscarves the size of a small table cloth along with tight mini-skirts, completely oblivious to the irony of their ensembles. The young ladies in the video, wearing dresses, tights, and balaclavas, were in compliance with the letter of the rule, and not much skin was showing, apart from their arms.

State and Church in Putin’s Russia

Like a black hole, President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin warps the space of the Russian galaxy, bringing everything into orbit around himself. As the only decider of consequence in today’s Russia, Putin himself has become the main issue in every arena. Everyone who has previously presented a serious threat to Putin’s siloviki regime is either dead, behind bars, or in exile. So it should come as no surprise that the Orthodox Church has opted against speaking truth to power and instead cozied up to the regime. This accommodation comes easily to a church long accustomed to the privileged yet compromised status of being the de facto Established Church of the officially atheistic Soviet Union. Among the benefits of the Orthodox Church’s ties to the Kremlin are funds for the repair of churches and privileged access to the means of communication and education. The Church has successfully used its political clout to lobby for restrictions on abortion and prohibition of pro-homosexual propaganda.

Putin, for his part, has at times been rumored to be a practicing Orthodox Christian who makes his confession and receives communion regularly. (His spiritual advisor is reportedly Archimandrite Tikhon Shevkunov, the abbot of Moscow’s Sretensky Monastery.) While the rumors are credible, they are also intermittent and inconsistent, leaving an impression that Putin’s Christian practice is likewise.

Furthermore, Putin has a reputation as a supporter of traditional values and traditional religions. Such stances are popular with the same segments of Russian society who are likely to support Putin anyway. With Putin’s support waning elsewhere, he is now relying even more on his Orthodox nationalist allies. This allows him to strike a popular pose of virtue while depicting his political opponents as advocates of decadent Western liberalism, which can be assumed to include consumer culture, gay rights, and American hegemony.

Yet Putin and his cronies govern Russia like a crime syndicate, controlling markets, collecting protection payments, and murdering or jailing anyone who gets in the way. Putin is Orthodox like Don Corleone was Catholic: He is a devout Christian when it is convenient and when it helps to promote his image of “respectability”, but he doesn’t let it interfere with “business”.

On February 8, 2012, less than a month before the presidential election, Putin met with a number of religious leaders at Danilov Monastery, the headquarters of the Russian Orthodox Church. Besides Patriarch Kirill and other Orthodox bishops, the meeting was attended by Jewish leaders, including Russia’s chief rabbi, four Islamic muftis, a Buddhist lama, an Armenian bishop, and representatives of the Roman Catholic Church and other Christian churches, who all sang Putin’s praises. Describing Putin’s previous two terms as president, Kirill said, “Through a miracle of God, with the active participation of the country’s leadership, we managed to exit this horrible, systemic crisis. I should say it openly as a patriarch who must only tell the truth, not paying attention to the political situation or propaganda, you personally played a massive role in correcting this crooked twist of our history.” Kirill went on to criticize those who had protested against Putin the previous weekend. He was joined in his praise of Putin by the chief rabbi and the muftis. The resulting picture was one of a neo-symphonia between the religious establishment and the political establishment – doubtless just as Putin intended.

Agent Mikhailov

Much has been made of Patriarch Kirill’s KGB connections, sometimes even describing him as a colleague of Putin’s from the old days. This shows a serious misunderstanding of the Orthodox Church’s relationship with the KGB. An important brief in the KGB’s portfolio was the control of religion, which it accomplished by various means, including infiltration, intimidation, manipulation of weak religious officials, and controlling the selection and promotion of religious leaders. Back in the Soviet days, 90% of the Orthodox bishops reported to KGB handlers. The other 10% did not get promoted. So it is safe to say that any archbishop, metropolitan, or patriarch – or anyone on track to ascend to those offices – was cooperating with the KGB. There can be little doubt that Kirill, who was promoted to archbishop at age 30, was reporting to someone from the KGB.

That is not, however, the same as being an officer of the KGB. The Soviet state had various ways of eliciting cooperation from those who were weak or ambitious – that is, just about everyone – and the clergy were not immune. Therefore, to depict Kirill (or his immediate predecessor, Patriarch Alexy II) as if he were an undercover officer of the KGB working full-time as a church spy is incorrect. He was an ambitious young man doing what it took to have a successful career in the Russian Church at that time.

The Church’s very election of Kirill as patriarch in 2009 has been plausibly depicted as a show of backbone. It was well known that Putin would have preferred the more malleable Metropolitan Kliment to the strong-willed Kirill, despite Kirill’s agreement with Putin on most issues of consequence. Putin prefers obedient puppets to competent colleagues. (Aside: This points to a major weakness of Putinist political economy. With Russia functioning essentially as a unified conglomerate, its ability to function is constrained by the scope of control of the chief executive, who is not one for delegation. If you’ve read Ronald Coase’s seminal article, “The Nature of the Firm,” this will be clear.)

Prank Rock

The band Pussy Riot is an offshoot of the larger protest-art collective known as Voina (“War”), whose actions have ranged from symbolic pranks and unannounced public performances to vandalism, particularly targeting the police and the courts. With anarchist tendencies, the group’s members have eschewed traditional paying jobs, preferring to live by begging and stealing. Some of Voina’s more notorious performances have involved public sex. In 2009 the group underwent a schism. The remnants of the original Voina continue to operate underground in St. Petersburg, while a new faction operates in Moscow. Pussy Riot began as a project of the Moscow faction of Voina.

Pussy Riot is the band’s actual name – two English words written in Latin characters. Even in a Russian-language context, the band’s name is always written this way. I think we can tentatively draw some inferences from this. The name is an explicit reference to the American punk-feminist Riot Grrrl movement of the 1990s, which PR claims as an inspiration. It also incorporates the band’s recurring theme of liberation from conventional sexual morality. But most Russians would not be aware of this – nor could they even understand the name without help. One Russian woman who thought she had figured out the scandalous nature of the name reported, assuming the air of an enlightened person sharing secret knowledge, “I know what it means. I looked it up. It means pus.” One can only imagine the cluelessness of the masses who did not look it up. (The name has been translated into Russian as a phrase that means “uprising of the vagina”, which is too literal and formal to capture the connotations of the name.) I think the choice of English slang for their name suggests that PR was not looking for its audience among the Russian masses, but among the English-speaking urban intelligentsia, and perhaps among foreigners, especially Americans. They might also have surmised that their band’s name would be frequently abbreviated in the English-language media and considered PR an apt alternative name for the band, given their hunger for media attention.

The band’s leaders are leftist/anarchist intellectuals drawing on a number of threads of Russian intellectual tradition. Besides various such traditions cited in the band members’ closing statements, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova compared her group to more popular Russian traditions: “We are jesters, skomorokhi, maybe even holy fools. We didn’t mean any harm.” The skomorokhi were traveling minstrels of medieval Russia with a reputation for unruliness.

The recurring themes of the band’s lyrics are opposition to Putinist authoritarianism and promotion of feminism. But the band’s larger agenda is more scary: “freedom from patriarchy, capitalism, religion, conventional morality, inequality and the entire corporate state system”, as described by Russia analyst Vadim Nikitin. This is, more or less, the agenda we conservatives fear is being imposed by stealth in the U.S. by the Obama administration. Is there any reason, then, for a conservative American Christian, to support Pussy Riot against Putin?


Nikitin asserts, “Pussy Riot and its comrades at Voina come as a full package: You can’t have the fun, pro-democracy, anti-Putin feminism without the incendiary anarchism, extreme sexual provocations, deliberate obscenity and hard-left politics. Unless you are comfortable with all that (and I strongly suspect 99 percent of Pussy Riot’s fans in the mainstream media are not), then standing behind Pussy Riot only now, when it is obviously blameless and the government clearly guilty, is pure opportunism.”

I could not disagree more. It is precisely because PR is “blameless” (more or less) and the government “clearly guilty” that any honest person who believes in the rule of law must side with PR in their current circumstances, even while opposing them in most of their other provocations and in their broader agenda. (John O’Sullivan arrived at a similar conclusion in his NRO reflection.)

While the band should perhaps have been prosecuted and fined for trespassing in the cathedrals – and in numerous previous events – neither the church nor the government showed much concern for the band’s impious acts until the resulting video went viral, embarrassing both Patriarch Kirill and President Putin. The motivation for the girls’ imprisonment and prosecution was clearly that they had finally drawn blood in their ongoing propaganda war against the regime. The formal charge of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” was transparently trumped up, not corresponding in any way to the evidence in the case. The resulting show trial was a procedural travesty. These flagrant violations of truth and justice were intended to convey the message that the regime stands above the law. The regime cannot accept a single loss of face because it fears the consequences of any cracks in its façade of absolute power.

The Russian Orthodox Church has often permitted itself to be used for political and nationalistic purposes. (The same could be said of most other national churches.) When a church lowers itself in such a way, it loses its claim to stand above criticism. It can no longer play the role of neutral arbiter, having become a tool of one faction or ideology. Kirill’s de facto endorsement of Putin opened the Church to legitimate attack.

Even without that endorsement, Christ the Savior Cathedral was in a questionable position. It is the property of the Moscow government, which operates business ventures on the premises. Moreover, the cathedral has frequently been abused by Putin as a backdrop for his political theater – the setting where he demonstrates his support for the Orthodox Church and vice versa, reinforcing the image of a monolithic holy Russian power structure – an implicit assertion of a neo-symphonia, with Putin in the role of emperor.

Pussy Riot’s performance art parodied Putin’s abuse of the cathedral and attempted to reclaim that venue from the regime. If Putin can no longer put on his political show at the cathedral without evoking images of PR’s “concert”, he will have lost his ownership of that setting, and PR will have succeeded in cleansing the temple.

I think our Lord’s harassment of the moneychangers might reasonably be characterized as an episode of performance art. And I suspect that the Sadducees might have categorized his performance as “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”. The Moscow Patriarchate is now playing the Sadducee role to Putin’s Pontius Pilate, and I as a Christian cannot stand with it in this compromised position.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Wisdom from Metropolitan John, part 3

All over the world, people are alone. Although they live in big cities, among millions of people, still they are alone, because being alone is not necessarily being alone physically. Divorced from God, we are becoming isolated from each either – and even in our own families. There are people who live in deserts, but they are together with other people, because they are in communion with God. And there are people who live in cities, yet they are alone. Loneliness is a great suffering and a real unhappiness.

Remember the paralyzed man in the Gospel? He was living in the city, where there were maybe a million people during the festival, and still he was alone. He told the Lord: “I have no one to put me into the pool.” And millions and millions of people are alone like him. Who will reach out to these people? Who will put them into the pool of salvation? And how can these people relate to each other if the light of Christ is not given to them? Without the light of Christ we cannot built a community. Living together is not the same as being together. People in prison live together but they are not a community. It is the duty of every Orthodox Christian to be close to every lonely human being.

. . . I remember an 80-year-old lady who told me she had not spoken to anyone for three months. She had nobody to talk to, and you can imagine her spiritual state, being alone and abandoned by all, in our city where Orthodox Christians are the majority. Imagine – we can be in the midst of people and still be alone. It is the duty of every Orthodox Christian to be close to every lonely human being. Only by being together and building a real community can we be true Christians – unus christianus nullus christianus.

Preparing for eternity
It is necessary to give a witness to the world because, in today’s world, we have lost the meaning of eternity. People today think only of life’s problems, which often dominate everything they do. Usually we live no more than 100 years in this world, and do almost nothing for what is most important thing. Look at what people do for their retirement. They pay for years and years, so that they can receive something for a few years. But what do we do for our eternal retirement?!? And this eternal retirement will come! And soon! We have to focus on this other, because if we lose this perspective, we lose our souls. It sounds like a paradox but as much as we see our life in the dimension of eternity, only then can we can understand and enjoy our present time. When we lose the perspective of the eternity, we do not understand and cannot enjoy the present time, because we drown in it.

Meaning in life and death
I remember reading Man’s Search for Meaning by the famous psychiatrist Viktor Frankl. During his time in a Nazi concentration camp, observing both himself and those around him, he wrote, “I saw in myself and in others that the basic need for a human being is not pleasure, as Freud thought, or power, as Adler thought, but it is the need to have a reason to live and a reason to die.” And only faith can give these two reasons. Only a life in Christ can give us a reason to live, and can give us a reason to die. If we have both these reasons, our life will be full. And if our life is full, regardless of any difficulties we face, we will have joy.

All of these quotes and those in the two preceding posts of this series come from Metropolitan John's article, “Giving a Witness of Faith to the World”, which was based on the Missions Lecture he delivered last year at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Wisdom from Metropolitan John, part 2

Speaking the Truth
We know how costly the phrase “Thus says the Lord” was in the Old Testament. People didn’t want to hear it. Kings and people liked false prophets because they said what they wanted to hear, and we are often the same. We often do not speak the truth because we are aware that people will not accept it. So we tell them what they want to hear. By doing so, we are lying to them, and so becoming false prophets. We must be aware that our duty is to be the prophets of the Most High, and this is surely a costly office. Speaking the truth is always is costly, and people do not do it for that reason. But this cost is nothing compared with the joy we receive from the Lord. Why? Because we have spoken the truth, and speaking the truth is very important. In these days of lies and half truths, people desperately need the truth, and if we do not speak it, who will? My beloved sisters and brothers, try always to speak the truth. The truth always heals, and it will heal us and others.

Freedom and Boundaries
We have to teach people about the crucial things of life: life, death, freedom and so on. Now we have freedom to worship in Albania and people are free, at least outwardly. But freedom, like anything else, can be abused. People were not used to freedom and we had to teach them that the freedom should have some boundaries – not to limit their freedom, but to help them to be free. I tried to give them some examples. In Albania, the roads are mostly in the mountains and some of those that run alongside precipices have railings or walls for protection. These are not to limit the freedom of the drivers, but to protect them. So too, the boundaries set by God’s commandments are not to limit our freedom, but to help us, to save us and to make us free. All the commandments – “Don’t do that, don’t do this” – are to help us.

The Light of the World
The world today is in a deep confusion and in spiritual darkness. “You are the light of the world”, says the Lord. Without the light of God it is very hard to build other people – and this not only for Albania but for the entire world! Sometimes in Albania, it was more obvious because the destruction was physically apparent, but many times the destruction is spiritual and we do not see it, because we do not have spiritual eyes. And it is our duty, if we really believe that we have the light of Christ, to share this light with others. The world needs this divine light. Without this light the world becomes a scary place. “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world”, says the Lord. Commenting on these words the holy Bishop of Ochrid Nikolai Velimirovic writes: “As long as he is in a man’s soul, he is the light of that man. As long as he is in the midst of a people, he is the light of that people. As long as he is in a school, he is the light of that school. As long as he is in a workshop, he is the light of the work and the workers. Anywhere, from which he withdraws his presence, a total darkness prevails: the human soul without him becomes a hell; a people without him becomes a pack of famished and ravening wolves; a school without him becomes a poison-factory of folly; a workshop without him becomes a place of grumbling and hatred. And think of hospitals and prisons without him – they become dark caverns of despair! Indeed, whoever thinks on the days of his life, of days without Christ and days without him, this man has in himself a witness to the truth of those words of the Lord’s: ‘As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.’” Now, more than ever the world needs the light of Christ. The greater the darkness, the greater is our need for light.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Wisdom from Metropolitan John, part 1

After Fr. Luke returned from his most recent visit to Albania, his next several daily meditations opened with short quotations from Metropolitan John of Korça. The first three of these quotations are reprinted below. More will follow.

Preaching with Words and Life
People are not impressed by words, because we can say anything but mean nothing. We transmit the Good News through our personal life. People are touched by this. I remember reading about a holy bishop from this region from 200 years ago. There was a Muslim agha, a Turkish lord, who was friends with this bishop, and one day the Muslim decided to become a Christian. The bishop asked him, “Why? I never preached to you about Christ.” To which the agha responded, “Yes, you didn’t preach to me with words, but you preached each day with your life, and from your life I have understood you have the Truth.”

Sanctification through Sacrifice
We have to serve to people with courage regardless of sacrifices. Sacrifices for the sake of Christ will not harm us, but they are the only way to reach him. Sacrifice is not an end, it’s a means. Like the cross, it’s not an end in itself, it’s a means. The end is the resurrection. As Archbishop Anastasios says, “The Resurrection is not an event that happened after the cross, it’s in the cross.” And the sacrifice is the means of sanctification. The meaning of the two words is the same. Sacrifice: sacra (holy) and fic, a form of facere (make). The same meaning is in the word sanctify, sanctificare: sancta (holy) and ficare, another form of facere (make). So in order to sanctify something, we should sacrifice. Sanctification does not happen after but in the sacrifice.

Sharing the Light of Christ
We have to share our faith and the light of Christ with those in darkness. If we really believe in it, we will share it. Unfortunately, the reason why we don’t try is maybe because we don’t believe, because our words are only on our lips and not rooted in our hearts. Someone who has tasted the divine light of God, and has experienced the joy that comes from this light, will find it difficult not to share it with others. I can say that if we share the light of God with the others, it is a sign that the light is in us; if we don’t share it, it is not.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Sailabrating the War of 1812 in Baltimore

This past weekend Maryland kicked off its observance of the bicentennial of the War of 1812 with the Star-Spangled Sailabration, which featured a gathering of tall ships and naval vessels from several countries. I was busy on Saturday and Sunday, so I didn't get to see the Blue Angels performances. By Monday, when I made it to Baltimore's Inner Harbor where the event was taking place, some of the ships, including the USCG Cutter Eagle, had already left. But four of the international visitors were still present, and I went aboard three of them.

When I arrived at 11 AM, the lines for the two largest ships looked long, so I started with the somewhat smaller Indonesian vessel, KRI Dewaruci.

The Dewaruci is named after a mythological figure, who appears as the ship's figurehead, and whose story is presented in terribly broken English (as with all the photos, you can click on it to see it in a larger size).

The masts were decorated with what looked like traditional art, including a trio of scary-looking masks. (And, yes, they were flying the skull and crossbones among their flags!)

The ship's compass up close.

The ship's mainmast and foremast against the cloudy sky. The sky was gray all day, with light rain about half the time.

While I was aboard the Dewaruci, the 19th-century sloop of war, USS Constellation, which is permanently docked in Baltimore, fired one of its guns at noon. Then, a few minutes later, another local tallship, the Pride of Baltimore II, answered with its own gun. Here you can still see a bit of the smoke from the latter, the black and gold ship in the foreground.

My next stop was the BAE Guayas, from Ecuador, my favorite of the three vessels.

The ship's figurehead was a condor, which also appears atop Ecuador's coat of arms.

As with many such ships, each mast of the Guayas has a name. From front to rear, they are named Popeyes, Duke, and Corsarios.

A local pirate stands guard at the gangplank. His empty left hand cries out for a cutlass or a mug of grog!

One of the vessels permanently on display at the Inner Harbor is the retired USCG Cutter Taney.

In its previous life as a naval vessel, the Taney survived the attack on Pearl Harbor. Its battle honors include shooting down a few enemy aircraft and several successful drug interdictions.

This screw-pile lighthouse, which formerly marked the entrance to the Patapsco River at Seven Foot Knoll, was moved to Baltimore 25 years ago and is now open to tourists.

Among the displays in the lighthouse is this model of the Baltimore clipper Harvey, which served as a privateer during the War of 1812 before settling into the more mundane life of a cargo carrier.

The Harvey was very similar to the Pride of Baltimore II, shown here docking by the USS Constellation.

A better view of the Constellation.

The Sailabration festivities also included several modern naval vessels.

The Urban Pirates' vessel Fearless stalks the harbor.

My final stop was the ARM Cuauhtémoc, from Mexico.

A Mexican officer in summer whites stands in front of the ship's boat answering visitors' questions.

The War of 1812 actually continued into 1815, so the local commemoration of the war will continue until 2015.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Two Heads

On iGoogle, I have an "Art of the Day" widget that shows me a different work of art whenever I sign in to view my St. Vlad's e-mail. Today it showed me Hieronymus Bosch's small painting, Two Male Heads. Googling the title of the painting brought up numerous sites that wanted to show me or sell me the painting. I learned that it is an oil painting on a wood panel and that it is currently located at the Museum Boymans van Beuningen in Rotterdam. But not one word about the painting's content.

To me, the head on the left looks like it is topped by something resembling a miter. And the one on the right reminds me of a Mongol khan. Could this be Bosch's attempt to depict the meeting of Pope Leo I with Attila the Hun?

My guess probably tells you more about where my head is these days (the fifth century) than about where Bosch's was when he painted this little work.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Great and Holy Friday

Then shall I not be put to shame,
as I give heed unto all thy commandments.

The Master of all creation is here seen lying dead,
and in a new tomb he is laid,
who hath emptied the tombs of their dead.

The way of thine ordinances make me to understand,
and I shall meditate on thy wondrous works.

As a mortal man thou diest willingly, O Saviour,
but as God thou didst raise up the dead
from their tombs and from the abyss of their sins.

(Psalm 118/119, verses 6 and 27, with the accompanying troparia from the first stasis of the Lamentations, from Orthros of Holy Saturday.)