Christmas 2013 Newsletter
The Monastery of St. John of San Francisco
Nativity of Christ: Continual Astonishment
When I reflect on the reality of the Incarnation, it never fails to fill me with wonder. God emptied Himself and became a human being. This event is the climax of the history of mankind. That the Creator, the very foundation of being, “He who is,” took upon Himself creaturehood, should rightly fill us with astonishment. This, to me, is what is really significant about the Feast of the Nativity.
The Incarnation, by itself, is wonderful and bewildering, but the way it came about amazes me even more because it shows us something about who God is. If, as Christians, we believe in a personal God, we can expect to meet Him on a personal level. I would even go so far as to say that we can get to know God’s personality. We find what kind of a person God is in the little things, in the details of the story. That is where we discover how God acts. Herein lies the scandal of the Incarnation. God is not what we expected Him to be. We think we know Him, but we are proven wrong.
God became man, but in what way? As a weak, helpless infant born into a poor family from a pregnancy that many thought questionable. A king is born, and a choir of angels announces his birth. Yet the announcement came not to royalty or to the priestly ranks, but to lowly sheep herders working the night shift. This king, the son of David, was destined to make his triumphal entry into Jerusalem not with a full military escort, riding on a white horse—but on a donkey, accompanied by throngs of boisterous children. In the second book of Kings, the Jebusites taunted David’s attempts to capture the city, claiming that the lame and the blind could repel his assault. David rallied his men, charging them to strike down “the lame and the blind, those whom David hates” (II Kings 5:8). When our Savior made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, “the blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them” (Matt. 21:14).
Christ came to conquer, yet He did this in a strange and paradoxical way. He triumphs over His enemies by giving up His life, by being betrayed by the very people He came to deliver. His throne is the Cross of a shameful death. His final victory over death—the ultimate enemy of mankind—takes place in a way that is totally unseen and completely misunderstood. His cosmic victory is masked as utter defeat in the eyes of men.
Christ’s mysterious Incarnation, life, and death unfold in majestic self-abasement, in humility and love. This love seems foreign. It is not what we expected. It is not how we would have imagined that God would reveal himself to the world. When I encounter this love, I am filled with wonder at our paradoxical God. He is clearly the Almighty, yet He acts with such humility and nearness. On this Christmas day, God is, at last, revealed to humanity. We can actually see Him with our eyes. If your heart prompts you, then go and look for Him. Know that you will not find Him where you expect Him to be.
As it has been the practice at other monasteries over the centuries, at our monastery we have weekly gatherings of all the brothers (in monastic practice known as a “synaxis”) where the father superior not only gives instruction to all the brothers, but where the day to day life of the monastery is presented and discussed.
Over the past several months the monks at the Monastery of St. John have felt the need to “get back to basics,” so we have not only been reading traditional spiritual counsel aloud during the meals, but we have also been taking the opportunity at these synaxis meetings to go slowly through some of the most formative of the ancient counsels on leading the monastic life. Through this deliberate process we have been able to study and ponder in detail both individually and as a community such writings as the entire 850 “Questions and Answers” of SS. Barsanuphius and John, the “Ladder” of St. John Climacus and the “Discourses” of St. Dorotheos of Gaza.
The format is rather straightforward; several days before the synaxis the Abbot will assign a certain section for all the monks to read and hand out study questions. Then on the day of the synaxis itself he will discuss the material covered, bringing out some of the points that stood out most strongly. Then there is a short period of discussion based in part on questions the brothers had regarding the reading itself, and based in part on the study questions we were given to answer while reading that week’s material.
I have found it very beneficial to make a slow, careful examination and discussion of these “classic works” of monastic literature with my fellow monks, but it has also been an unexpected occasion to both become closer to them on a personal level and to see us grow as a community in our common understanding of traditional monastic teaching, something for which I have been very grateful!
In the middle of February, Fr. Cosmas is scheduled to head overseas for a couple of months. His first stop will be at St. Andrew’s Monastery in Moscow, where the Institute for Bible Translation (http://ibt.org.ru/ on the internet) is located. This Institute has undertaken to translate and distribute the Bible in the non-Slavic languages of Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States. During his week in Moscow he will be making a presentation on his experiences as head of the translation committee for the Orthodox Study Bible Old Testament project years ago. From Moscow he will head to the Autonomous Territorial Unit of Gagauzia in southern Moldova, where he will meet with people who are producing a version of the Gospels in the Gagauz language and also people who support that effort. Naturally this will also be an opportunity for him to get more practical experience in the use of that language so as to be more effective in his role as “exegetical editor” for this new version of scriptures. That task will involve editing and proofreading the Gagauz version against the original Greek texts. At the end of his time over there, he will have another week of “debriefing” back at the institute before flying back to the Monastery of St. John just before Pascha.
This journey is a real highlight for Fr. Cosmas in his study of the Gagauz language and acquaintance with the Gagauz people, which began two years ago simply with an effort to establish contact and ties of friendship with Orthodox monasteries in their country. The Gagauz are a Turkic people who migrated west ahead of the other Turkic clans and converted to Orthodox Christianity in late Byzantine times, apparently during the period of the Comneni dynasty. Their language remained purely an oral language until the beginning of the twentieth century when the first attempts occurred to devise a system of writing for it. A New Testament has already been produced in their language, but it was done by a Protestant, and the Orthodox priests are reluctant to use it, so the effort to produce a modernized version takes as its basis a translation done by Protopresbyter Mihail Çakir in the early twentieth century, transliterating it into modern spelling and adapting it to the contemporary language where necessary.
Please keep Fr. Cosmas in your prayers as he joins in this work. As the director of the Institute for Bible Translation said to him, “Are you ready to submit your documents to begin the visa obtaining process? You’re in for a wild ride. Kyrie eleison!”
Lately I’ve been encountering a grand and novel idea.
Well actually it isn’t so novel, nor am I encountering it for the first time; it is in fact one of the central ideas of our life as Christians, namely, that we ought to live all of life, each moment, with God, facing God as it were. But, as is true with most praiseworthy ideas, I find that I have to come back around to it in any number of different ways, again and again, so that I learn to apply it better.
Many of you have doubtless read the book by Archimandrite Zacharias Zacharou, The Hidden Man Of The Heart, as I am now doing. (I heartily recommend it.) On page 153, in answer to a question, he says the following: “We should not live our psychological states on our own, we should share them with God Himself, with our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.”
I always seem to benefit when an old idea is put in brand new terms, as was done here. Had Archimandrite Zacharias said simply, “We should not live life on our own, we should live it in God,” it might not have struck me when I read it, because it would have sounded too familiar or formulaic. He managed, however, to connect for me two things which, for some reason, usually tend to remain quite separate in my mind: God, and my current psychological state—or, how I’m actually doing at the moment.
I doubt I’m the only one who manages to exile God to Heaven much of the time. It is hard not to, when the sort of things one mostly hears in connection with God are big things, like power and omnipotence, plans of salvation, accomplishing great mysteries, eternal destinies, doctrines of faith, overcoming sin, and so forth. All those things are certainly crucial elements of our Faith; however, they often seem so far removed from where I actually live my life—down on the ground, so to speak, moment by moment, day by day, one foot in front of the other. For reasons I’m continually trying to understand, and even more so since reading the above quotation from Fr. Zacharias, I struggle to make the connection between God and the often not-quite-comfortable present moment, to see Him as being truly down-to-earth. In a word, REAL.
Why indeed do I hardly ever live my life WITH God? Most of the time, I either have forgotten about God, or sometimes am even actively ignoring Him. To His credit, He is good at calmly putting up with this sort of treatment from me, knowing that with time and patience (something else He is good at) I’ll come around.
Working out the answer to the question is a unique process for every person; we have all got our own individual sets of wrong ideas about God, mental associations, habits, patterns of thinking that take time to unravel. And certainly we know from Church teaching that somewhere deep at the root of it all, starting everything off, as it were, lies that subtle human pride, that very first erroneous assumption that we can manage on our own apart from God. The whole of our lives as Christians is dedicated to countering that crazy idea and all its ugly ramifications.
At any rate, it is good to be reminded yet again of what it is I am actually supposed to be DOING as a Christian: constantly turning and returning back to God. Hence all our disciplines, prayers, and church services. They are markers or helpers along the path of my life to say to me, “Hey! Remember God!” The various moments of life begin to lack eternal meaning or significance for me if I neglect to connect them consciously and voluntarily with Him Who is Eternal Meaning. Compelling myself to face God as I walk along (and sorting through the millions of reasons why I don’t) is extremely challenging much of the time, but it is a worthy struggle. Thanks to Fr. Zacharias for a good reminder about what that struggle consist of: bringing ALL of me to God.