Monday, June 17, 2019

2019 Moscow Trip -- Part 5

Thursday, February 28th

As I said in the previous post, the plan for this day was to get up early enough to drive out to the Optina monastery, and attend their morning service. Unfortunately, I made the mistake the night before of plugging my phone to be recharged right next to my bed, and so when my alarm went off in the wee hours of the morning, I turned it off without getting out of bed, and so went back to sleep. When I finally did wake up, and noticed that the sun was up, I quickly got out of bed, and then say Fr. Sergei relaxing on a couch in his living room with a Cheshire cat grin. I told him he could have woke me up, but he said he figured I must have needed the extra sleep.

So I quickly got ready, and we headed out of the "Batcave" and began heading down the highway to Optina. I noticed as we went, signs pointing the way to Kaluga, the town that our parish patron, St. Jonah or Manchuria, was born in... which helped explain his later connection to the Optina monastery.

Unlike the St. Sergius Trinity Lavra, the Optina monastery was closed during the Soviet period. It was closed after the revolution, but it was allowed to reopen in 1987, and today it is a thriving monastery. It does not have a town nearby, like Sergiev Posad, and so seems much more remote. February is not the prime tourist season, but the number of pilgrims is likewise much less, though there was a good number of them. In 1993, there were three monks who were martyred by a Satanist, and so there is a chapel built over the spot where they were killed on Pascha night, as they went out to ring the bells, which you can read about in Russian (or with Google Translate) here:

It was snowing on and off throughout the day that we were there.

Our parish has been getting vestments from Optina, and the quality has been exceptional, and the prices are very reasonable. One of the first stops we made was for me to get measured by a seamstress. I wanted to get a couple of cassocks, and a good riassa to go with them. Before we left the monastery, I picked up what I had requested, and these are now my favorites -- very well done, and very cool, which means a lot in Texas.

I brought with me an icon of St. Jonah, which we donated to the monastery. Some accounts say that he was a monk at Optina. I have seen some recent articles which say that he was not, but that his spiritual father was the Elder Gabriel of Optina. In any case, he had a connection, and when he was preparing for death, he read St. Andrew of Crete's prayers for the departure of the soul, while wearing an epitrachelion and cuffs which had belonged to St. Ambrose of Optina.

In the Church of the Mother of God of Kazan, they regularly do molebens to the Optina Elders, whose relics are found in various locations around the Church. The relics at the right of the above picture are those of St. Nectarios. The relics are housed in this church at present due to ongoing restoration work at the main Church of the Entry of the Theotokos, where these relics would normally be.

The very first Icon I was given after I was made a catechumen, was an icon of the Optina Elders, and ever since, I have been drawn to these saints. You certainly feel their presence everywhere in this monastery.

We took a walk out to the area where most monastics live, further back in Skete of St. John the Forerunner, which is a quick walk from the monastery, which one can only enter by invitation (and we had no such invitation).

By the way, you can take a 3-D tour of the Monastery by clicking the link on the left menu here:


After having Lunch, and picking up a few more things at their store, we headed to the Shamordino Convent, which was founded by St. Ambrose of Optina. Like Optina, it was closed during the Soviet period. The fate of the nuns after it was closed is a particularly moving story. They were told by their spiritual father that they should not cooperate with the Soviets or do any work for them at all. The Soviets then killed their spiritual father. The nuns then said "Now no one can release us from this obedience." Despite torture, they never ceased to keep this obedience. In fact, they were made to stand outside in sub-zero temperatures over a period of 3 days, and each day, they were made to stand their with less warm clothing than the preceding day. After three days, in which they stood their without giving, and without showing any signs of harm from the cold, the Soviets decided to leave them alone. Even atheists know a miracle when they see one. You can read one account here, and listen to a sermon about this here.

The main Church is huge, but you can tell from the mostly white walls that it still has a long way to go in terms of restoration. 

Inside the Church, I noticed yet again how popular the devotion to the Royal Martyrs and the New Martyr Elizabeth was.

As the sun began to set, we headed back to the Moscow suburbs, because Fr. Sergei needed to pick up his daughters from the Metro station nearest to their home. We had dinner at a nearby shopping center, where we went to a somewhat upscale hamburger restaurant. I had a beacon cheeseburger, with Jack Daniel sauce... and it was in fact a pretty good hamburger. 

The following morning I caught my flight back to Houston. The flight from Moscow to Frankfurt was again on Lufthansa, and was once again an excellent experience. At the Frankfurt airport, I had to go through security again, and I had a large Slavonic Gospel in my briefcase, that apparently looked suspicious to the agent watching the scan. I wish I could paint a picture with words to adequately convey the look on his face, when I took "the box" as he described out, opened it, and showed him that there where no explosives in the Gospel, beyond the message printed in the text.

The flight from Frankfurt to Houston was farmed out by Lufthansa to United Airlines, and while it was not horrible, it was a huge step down. What was most irritating is that I had been lugging around several books which I had intended to read on this flight, but I was in the middle row, and when they turned out the lights 2 hours into the flight, I had no ability to turn on a light, or to open up a window to read by the sunlight -- and because we were flying from the east to the west, the entire flight was in the daylight, and would have provided very good light, had I been better situated. It never occurred to me when I booked the flight that there were any planes still in use in which this kind of thing might happen. And so instead of knocking out a couple of books on the way, I was left with very little productive to do.

At long last, I made it home, very tired, but very much edified by the trip, and all the people I had been able to get to know, and all of the holy places and relics I had been able to see and venerate. There is a lot just in Moscow I still have yet to see, not to mention the rest of Russia -- and so I hope I will have opportunity to go again.

2019 Moscow Trip -- Part 4

Thursday, June 06, 2019

How to Study Scripture from an Orthodox Perspective

What follows is not a comprehensive guide to how to the study the Bible, but it is a collection of previous articles into one post, so that they can be easily accessed.

First, a talk that covers why we should study the Scriptures, as well as some of the basics about how we should do so.

The Importance of Reading the Bible in Christian Life. This was a talk given at the Lenten Retreat of the Holy Virgin Cathedral in San Francisco, St. Mary of Egypt Sunday, 2019

On what texts and translations you should use:
An Orthodox Look at English Translations of the Bible
The Septuagint vs. the Masoretic Text
On what resources you might use to help in your studies:
A Guide to Biblical Reference Texts
Computer Based Bible Study... for Free
On how to go about studying the Bible:
Beginning to Read and Understand the Bible: First Steps
Beginning to Read and Understand the Bible, Part 2: Staying on Track
Beginning to Read and Understand the Bible, Part 3: In Context
A Simple Approach to Reading the Entire Bible -- Suggestions for how to regularly read through the Bible.
How to teach your children to read and understand the King James Version of the Bible
Articles on how we approach the interpretation of the Bible:
Allegorical Interpretations of Scripture
Orthodox Biblical Interpretation and Protestant Biblical Scholarship
What we believe about the Bible:
The Inerrancy of Scripture
Sola Scriptura: An Orthodox analysis of the Protestant view of Scripture, and an explanation of the Orthodox perspective

Sunday, June 02, 2019

2019 Moscow Trip -- Part 4

Wednesday, February 27th
The Lavra

We headed out on foot, early, to make our way to the St. Sergius Holy Trinity Lavra -- one of the most holy places in the Russian Church. I had to take my luggage with me, and so we had to swing by the St. Nicholas Church, were Fr. Paul Ermilov allowed us to stash them for the day, and then we went to the nearby Metro station to catch the subway to the train station. Unlike when I took the Metro on Sunday, it was packed, and people were scurrying hither and thither in all directions. It was a mass of humanity, all on their various ways to get to work or school, and it made me feel a little claustrophobic. I had the song, don't fence me in playing in my head.

I don't remember if I have ever ridden a proper train before, but that's what we took to get to the town of Sergiev Posad, which surrounds the famous Lavra. The train we took there was very modern and comfortable, complete with free Wi-Fi. We had got our breakfast from some food carts that came by. When we arrived at our train station in Sergiev Posad, Fr. Sergei quickly called for a cab via Yandex, and we were dropped off just outside the entrance to the Lavra.

Before we entered the Lavra, we visited their restrooms. In Moscow, all of the bathrooms I encountered were very similar to what you would expect in the US, but these restrooms had the kind of hole in the floor toilet that me made glad I was not in need of figuring out how to properly do the "Asian squat".

I had visited the Lavra back in 2007, but we only had about 2 hours there, and so it was a bit rushed, and there was a lot that I didn't get to see. Upon entering the Lavra the first stop had to be to venerate the relics of St. Sergius of Rodonezh, who along with his brother, came to the place when it was nothing but a vast forest, and established the monastery that developed into the most important monastic community in Russia.

I was only able to take one picture in the church in which St. Sergius' relics are, before I was told that was against the rules.

Icon of the Trinity near the relics of St. Sergius

One of the big differences between visiting the Lavra in 2007 and doing so in 2019 was the huge number of Chinese tourists there. There were several tour groups that even had something like regimental banners to help the people keep track of their group. The reason for this uptick in Chinese tourism is that the value of the Ruble is low right now due to the sanctions imposed by the US and EU, and so Chinese people realize that they can get a lot more for their money by vacationing in Russia.

The sign, which has a small Russian text, and a very large Chinese text, repeated 3 times near the entrance of a church, says "Keep Quiet".

One of the many Chinese tour groups.

What a missionary opportunity! I hope the Russian Church is working to make the most of it. I know the book "Every Day Saints" was just published in Chinese, and so hopefully, this is so.

Among the many saints whose relics we were able to venerate was St. Maxim the Greek.

There are more churches in the Lavra than we could visit, but the main church is the church of the Dormition.

While at the Lavra, I had a list of things I needed to get for my parish, and so we went on a bit of shopping spree. There is no better place to buy quality liturgical items at an amazing price than in Russia.

We had a very nice lunch, at one of the cafes there, and then went to see the Moscow Theological Academy. Fr. Sergei is working on a doctorate from Oxford, but in his spare time, he is working on a seminary degree from Kursk Theological Seminary, and his thesis adviser there was Fr. Pavel Lizgunov, who recently was made the vice rector (or provost) of Moscow Theological Academy. Fortunately, he was allowed to continue to be his thesis adviser, despite the transfer. So we met with Fr. Pavel, and then he arranged for a seminarian to give us a tour of the Academy, including its very substantial museum.

Myself, Fr. Sergei Baranov, and Fr. Pavel Lizgunov. The portrait is of St. Philaret of Moscow

 The Seminary Church

One of the halls of the Seminary

After the tour, we came back and had tea with Fr. Pavel, and had a very nice visit.

After this we headed back to the train station. We decided to walk it this time. The weather was nice, tough there was still plenty of snow, ice, and slush to contend with. As we trudged up a fairly steep hill, I was a bit embarrassed to see some young woman walk past us, as if it was no big deal.

When we got to the train station, Fr. Sergei pointed out an adult bookstore near the station, which goes to show that Russia is not a spiritual never-never land. The Church certainly is getting stronger, but there remain many who are indifferent to the Church, unfortunately.

The train we took back was nearly as new or as nice as the one we took in the morning, but it was comfortable enough. When we got to Moscow, we picked up my luggage, picked up Fr. Sergei's two daughters, and caught a cab for Fr. Sergei's home. We dropped them off there, and then headed further south to Fr. Sergei's country home.

While on the way we stopped to visit a fairly recently built parish, the Parish of the Life Giving Trinity, in Troitsk, which is in the newly developed suburbs of Moscow. This Church remains until midnight, and has a very active outreach to those living in the areas nearby. They have an upper and lower Church, and a large adult baptistery, which would suggest they are meeting with some success in their efforts.

Then we stopped by a supermarket to pick up some food for dinner, as well as food for our trip to Optina the next day. This supermarket had everything any American supermarket might have, and a few things they do not have have, such as equipment for a home still.

Fr. Sergei's country home was in the direction of Optina, which would put us beyond the traffic in the morning. It was designed by Fr. Sergei himself, and it was a bit like the Batman's Batcave, in terms of its automation. Since he is not there most of the time, he designed it such that he can check on it and make adjustments to heating from anywhere in the world. It was truly amazing. So after dinner, and a very pleasant evening of conversation, we settled down for the night, with the plan of getting up very early the next day, so we could catch the morning services at the Optina Monastery.

To be continued...

2019 Moscow Trip -- Part 1

2019 Moscow Trip -- Part 2

2019 Moscow Trip -- Part 3

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Review: The Unquenchable Fire: The Traditional Christian Teaching about Hell

The heresy of universalism has experienced a revival in recent years. The idea that a Holy God would hold those who reject Him accountable, and that this has everlasting consequences, does not appeal to the worldly mindset of our time. We even will soon have a new book by the "Orthodox Theologian" David Bentley Hart, in which he will no doubt repeat his expressions of disdain for the Fifth and Sixth Ecumenical Councils, proclaim Origen the greatest saint and theologian of the Church, and assure us that contrary to the clear teachings of Christ, the undying worm will die, and the unquenchable fire will be quenched. But the Truth is not subject to opinion polls, and it really doesn't matter whether we like it or not -- this is what Christians have always believed, and in fact what Christ Himself taught in the most clear and striking terms possible.

Opposing this rising tide of heresy, is the book The Unquenchable Fire: The Traditional Christian Teaching about Hell, by Fr. Lawrence Farley. Fr. Lawrence provides a thorough study of the teachings of Christ, their background in the Old Testament, the intertestamental period, as well as in the light of the rest of the New Testament, and the understanding of the early Church, and the Church Fathers. He goes into some depth on the teachings of Origen, and his subsequent condemnation by the Fifth Ecumenical Council. He explores the meaning of some of the key words and phrases that are relevant to properly understanding of Christ's teachings on this subject, and he also examines what we can learn from the hymns of the Church. He then engages the common arguments made today by those who either advocate universalism or annihilationism (the view that those who are not save simply cease to exist).

If you have struggled with these questions yourself, or want to be better equipped to answer those who either are sowing confusion in the Church, or who sincerely struggle with the questions these people have raised, this book is an excellent resource.

One might hope David Bentley Hart's bishop will read it.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

More on the Question of the Toll Houses

When it comes to those who wish to either dismiss the idea of the toll houses, or to label them as heretical, I have often been amazed, both at the evidence that they are willing to ignore, and what they seem to think proves their case.

Let me say up front that no one I have ever come across takes the toll house imagery in a literalistic fashion. The toll houses are a particular way of speaking about a reality that is spoken about by the fathers and the services in various ways. However, the various ways that they speak about it, all point to the same reality.

One of the articles from the modernist website "Public Orthodoxy" that has been referenced by several such people in recent weeks, is "Aerial Toll Houses, Provisional Judgment, and the Orthodox Faith: A Review of The Departure of the Soul According to the Teachings of the Orthodox Church," by Stephen J. Shoemaker. And this article has been cited as proof that the toll houses are not a mainstream part of the Tradition of the Church. This article was published in 2017, and it is by a bonafide patristic scholar. In fact, I just got a copy of one his books a few weeks ago, so I don't doubt that he has a high level of  familiarity with the writings of the Fathers. However, after making the case that the toll houses are not, in his opinion, found in very many of the documents of the first millennium of Church History, he wraps up his review of an 1,111 page book, with this comment:
"In the contest of angels and demons over the newly departed soul, then, the monks have admittedly identified a vibrant tradition that reaches back into the ancient church and has been witnessed by many authorities – in contrast with the aerial toll houses."
The problem with this statement is that the aerial toll houses are precisely an image of "the contest of angels and demons over the newly departed soul." So far from Dr. Shoemaker refuting the toll houses, he actually confirms them.

He goes on to assert that:
"The problem, however, is that this is not the only such tradition about the fate of the soul, and herein lies the fundamentalism that steers this volume and generates its misrepresentation of the Orthodox faith. It is a fundamentalism that insists on reading a part of the tradition, isolated from the complexity of the whole, in the most literal fashion, when perhaps more nuanced, figurative interpretations are warranted instead. For instance, how should one understand such a tradition, when read literally, in light of the well-established practice of prayer for the dead that does not mention the toll houses? The Orthodox tradition is much broader and diverse than its presention [sic] in this book. In seizing on a single strand of this tradition and investing it with absolute authority at the expense of legitimate, alternative perspectives, the book is fundamentally grounded in error, obscuring and distorting, rather than clarifying and disclosing, the full teaching of the Orthodox Church."
The problem with what he says here is that he does not demonstrate at all how the idea that there is a conflict of angels and demons over the soul of the departed contradicts anything else in the Tradition of the Church. Now if there were many Fathers that could be cited that objected to this idea, then he would have a case, but he doesn't.

We are speaking about a reality that is beyond our normal experience in this life, and so, as is the case with many spiritual and theological issues, we have to speak about them in verbal images. Verbal images point us to a reality, but they are not the reality itself. Often we have a variety of images. For example, when it comes to how Christ has saved us, we have the image of "ransom" which comes from the lips of Christ Himself (Matthew 20:28). This is an image that conveys part of the reality. It is not the only Biblical image, but it is also not an image that we are free to toss out. It is also an image, like most images, that can be pressed too far. And so, one could take it to mean that Christ is given as a ransom paid to the devil, but as we know, St. Gregory the Theologian responded to that idea with "fie upon the outrage!" (Second Oration on Easter, 22). Each image we find in Scripture tells us part of the whole, and we have to take them all together, and not press them beyond their intended purpose.

This contest between angels and demons over the soul of the departed is a reality, and it is part of what we call the particular judgment. In a recent interview, George Demacopoulos, one of the editors of "Public Orthodoxy," suggested that the toll houses denied that we would be judged by Christ (A new leader for the Greek Orthodox Church in America (The Greek Current, May 20th, 2019), at the 26:10 mark). This is of course not at all true. As Christians, we all know that there will be a general resurrection, and that some will be raised to life, and others to eternal damnation, but we will all stand before the final judgment. However, the particular (or partial) judgment, which is a universal teaching of the Church, is what happens when we die, prior to that final judgment. We will spend the time between our deaths and that final judgement somewhere. The particular judgment is what determines where we will spend that time, at least initially, before the final judgment. Many people will spend that time receiving a foretaste of torment, because they died in rebellion against God, and they will spend that time in Hades. We find a description of one such person in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus:
"And in Hades [the rich man] lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame" (Luke 16:23-24).
Now as for those who object to the idea that if you die without repentance, the demons will drag you down to Hades, and see it as "horrific"... something "contrary to the mercy of God," etc. -- when compared with this depiction by the Savior Himself of the fate of the rich man, how you get there seems to me to be a rather small matter. However bad the ride might be, it's the destination that would be the real downside to the whole deal.

And the objection to the idea that God might use demons, the devil, or evil men for that matter, to deliver judgment upon human beings, is contrary to Scripture, which is full of references to precisely that. The entire book of Habakkuk, for example, is about the Prophet Habakkuk's struggle with the idea that the people of the Kingdom of Judah, though sinful and rebellious, were punished at the hands of an even more evil nation (the Babylonians).

Both George Demacopoulos in that same interview, and Fr. Evan Armatas, on a recent episode of "Orthodoxy Live" (Ancient Faith Radio, May 19, 2019), appeal to the the funeral service, and its lack of references to toll houses, as proof that the Church does not teach such a thing. There actually is an allusion to the trials the soul endures after death in second sticheron of Monk John, which we sing towards the end of the service:
"Alas! What an agony the soul endures when from the body it is parting; how many are her tears for weeping, but there is none that will show compassion: unto the angels she turns with downcast eyes; useless are her supplications; and unto men she extends her imploring hands, but finds none to bring her rescue. Thus, my beloved brethren, let us all ponder well how brief is the span of our life; and peaceful rest for him (her) that now is gone, let us ask of Christ, and also His abundant mercy for our souls" (Funeral Text of the Greek Archdiocese of North America)
And in the stichera after the last kiss for the departed, (in the eighth sticheron) we sing:
"When the soul is about to be carried away from the body with violence by dread Angels, it forgets all kinsmen and acquaintances and is troubled concerning standing before the tribunal that is to come, that shall pass judgment upon vain things and much-toiling flesh. Then, entreating the Judge, let us all pray that the Lord will forgive him (her) the things he (she) has done" (The Office for the Burial of a Layman, vol 3, Book of Needs, (South Canaan, PA: St. Tikhon Seminary Press, 1999, p. 210). This hymn is not found in the online text of the Greek Archdiocese, which is a very much abbreviated version of the Funeral service).
Furthermore, if the souls of the departed were instantly in the eternal bliss of heaven, there would be little reason for all of the prayers in the funeral and memorial services that we do for the departed, which clearly suggest that at least most souls are in need of such prayers. 

But we have more services than just the funeral service, when we pass from this world to the next. The very first service we will likely hear, before our deaths, if a priest is available, or if we wish to pray these prayers ourselves, as many saints have done before us, is the service for the departure of the soul. There are two versions of this service in the Book of Needs: one is "The Canon of Supplication to our Lord Jesus Christ and the Most-Holy Theotokos, the Mother of the Lord, at the Parting of the Soul from the Body of any Orthodox;" and the other is "The Order at the Parting of the Soul from the Body when one has Suffered for a Long Time," which is attributed in the Book of Needs to St. Andrew of Crete.

In the first of these services, we find, for example:
"Noetic roaring lions have surrounded me, seeking to carry me away and bitterly torment me. Do thou crush their teeth and jaws, O pure One, and save me" (The Canon of Supplication to our Lord Jesus Christ and the Most-Holy Theotokos, the Mother of the Lord, at the Parting of the Soul from the Body of any Orthodox, vol 3, Book of Needs, (South Canaan, PA: St. Tikhon Seminary Press, 1999, p. 76). 
"Count me worthy to pass, unhindered by the persecutor, the prince of the air, the tyrant, him that stands guard in the dread pathways, and the false accusations of these, as I depart from earth" (Ibid., p. 77).
"Behold, terror has come to meet me, O Sovereign Lady, and I am afraid of it. Behold, a great struggle awaits me, in which be thou unto me a helper, O Hope of my salvation" (Ibid., p. 77).
"Do thou translate me, O Sovereign Lady, in the sacred and precious arms of the holy Angels, that sheltered by their wings, I not see the impious, foul and dark form of the demons" (Ibid., p. 79).
"Do thou count me worthy to escape the hordes of bodiless barbarians, and rise through the aerial depths and enter into Heaven, that I may glorify thee unto the ages of ages, O holy Theotokos" (Ibid., p. 81).
In the second of these services, we find:
"Behold a multitude of evil spirits are standing about, holding the handwriting of my sins, and they cry out exceedingly, shamelessly seeking my lowly soul" (The Order at the Parting of the Soul from the Body when one has Suffered fro a Long Time, vol 3, Book of Needs, (South Canaan, PA: St. Tikhon Seminary Press, 1999, p. 87). 
Have mercy on me, O all holy angels of the Almighty God, have mercy upon me and save me from all the evil toll-collectors [which should actually have been translated as "toll houses," telonion poneron, in the Greek text], for I have no good deeds to balance my evil deeds" (Ibid., p. 90).
These prayers are literally the final instructions given to those about to depart this life, but these are by no means the only prayers in the liturgical tradition of the Church. For example, at Cheesefare Saturday Matins, we hear the hymn:
"We ever give thee thanks and magnify thee, O pure Theotokos; we venerate and praise thy childbearing, O full of grace, and we call upon thee without ceasing: Save us, merciful Virgin, in thy love; deliver us from the fearful scrutiny which we must undergo before the demons, and in the hour of our examination suffer not thy servants to be put to shame" (The Lenten Triodion: Supplementary Texts, trans. Mother Maria and Bishop Kallistos Ware (South Canaan: St. Tikhon Seminary Press, 2007, p. 58).
At the prayer to the Theotokos at the end of Small Compline, we ask each day for her "at in the hour of my departure, to care for my wretched soul, and drive far away from it the dark countenances of evil demons" (The Great Horologion (Brookline, MA: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, p. 1997, p. 230).

At the Saturday Midnight Office, at the prayer of St. Eustratius, we pray:
"And now, O Master, let Thy hand shelter me and let Thy mercy come upon me, for my soul is troubled and in sore distress at its departure from this, my wretched and defiled body, lest the evil counsel of the adversary come upon it and hinder it because of the sins I have committed in this life, whether in ignorance or in knowledge. Be gracious unto me, O Master, and let not my soul behold the gloomy and darksome countenance of the wicked demons, but let Thy radiant and luminous Angels receive it. Give glory unto Thy holy Name, and by Thy might lead me up unto Thy divine tribunal. When I am to be judged, let not the hand of the prince of this world seize me, that he might drag me, the sinner, down unto the deep of Hades; but stand Thou by me, and be Thou unto me a Saviour and Helper" (The Great Horologion (Brookline, MA: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, p. 1997, p. 48).
Many, many more examples could be cited here.

You also find many examples of commentaries on the Scriptures by the Fathers, which allude to this same reality.

For example, in Luke 12:20, in the parable of the rich fool, most translations read, like the King James Version:
"But God said unto him, Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided?"
However, the King James margin note, correctly notes: "Gr[eek], do they require thy soul."

Young’s Literal Translation notes this fact in its translation:
"And God said to him, Unthinking one! this night thy soul they shall require from thee, and what things thou didst prepare -- to whom shall they be?"
In the commentary of Blessed Theophylact (which is pretty much the gold standard when it comes to commentaries in the Orthodox Church) he makes a point about the verb translated by the KJV in the passive voice as "shall be required", but he points out that that it is is in the active voice, future, third person, plural -- and so should be "they shall require".

Blessed Theophylact says:
"Notice also the words "they will require". Like some stern imperial officers demanding tribute, the fearsome angels will ask for your souls, and you will not want to give it because you love this life and claim the things of this life as your own. But they do not demand the soul of a righteous man, because he himself commits his soul into the hands of God and Father of spirits, and he does so with joy and gladness, not in the least bit grieved that he is handing over his soul to God. For him the body is only a light burden, easily shed. But the sinner has made his soul fleshy, something difficult to separate from the body. This is why the soul must be demanded of him, the same way that harsh tax collectors treat debtors who refuse to pay what is due. See that the Lord did not say, "I shall require thy soul of thee," but, "they shall require"" (The Explanation of the Holy Gospel According to Luke. Fr. Christopher Stade, Trans. (House Springs, MO: Chrysostom  Press, 1997), p. 148).
One of the oldest Christian texts we have is St. Justin Martyr's "Dialogue with Trypho", and in it, he says:
“And what follows of the Psalm, -- ‘But Thou, Lord, do not remove Thine assistance from me; give heed to help me. Deliver my soul from the sword, and my only-begotten from the hand of the dog; save me from the lion’s mouth, and my humility from the horns of the unicorns,’—was also information and prediction of the events which should befall Him. For I have already proved that He was the only-begotten of the Father of all things, being begotten in a peculiar manner Word and Power by Him, and having afterwards become man through the Virgin, as we have learned from the memoirs. Moreover, it is similarly foretold that He would die by crucifixion. For the passage, ‘Deliver my soul from the sword, and my only-begotten from the hand of the dog; save me from the lion’s mouth, and my humility from the horns of the unicorns,’ is indicative of the suffering by which He should die, i.e., by crucifixion. For the ‘horns of the unicorns,’ I have already explained to you, are the figure of the cross only. And the prayer that His soul should be saved from the sword, and lion’s mouth, and hand of the dog, was a prayer that no one should take possession of His soul: so that, when we arrive at the end of life, we may ask the same petition from God, who is able to turn away every shameless evil angel from taking our souls" (Dialogue with Trypho, ch. 105, ANF 1, p. 251f).
St. Basil the Great says this, in his homily on Psalm 7:
"Accordingly, being under the sentence of death, knowing that there is One Who saves and One Who delivers, 'In Thee have I put my trust,' he says, 'save me' from 'weakness' and 'deliver me' from captivity. I think that the noble athletes of God, who have wrestled considerably with the invisible enemies during the whole of their lives, after they have escaped all their persecutions and reached the end of life, are examined by the prince of the world, in order that, if they are found to have wounds from the wrestling or any stains or effects of sin, they may be detained; but, if they are found unwounded and stainless, they may be brought by Christ into their rest as being unconquered and free. Therefore he prays for his life here and for his future life. For he says: 'Save me' here 'from them that persecute me; deliver me' there in the time of the scrutiny 'lest at any time he seize upon my soul like a lion.' You may learn this from the Lord Himself who said concerning the time of His passion: 'Now the prince of this world is coming, and in me he will have nothing' [John 14:30]. He who had committed no sin said that he had nothing; but for a man it will be sufficient, if he dares to say: 'The prince of this world is coming, and in me he will have few and trivial penalties.' And there is a danger of experiencing these penalties, unless we have some one to deliver us or save us. For, the two tribulations set forth, two petitions are introduced. 'Save me from the multitude of them that persecute me, and deliver me, lest at any time I be seized as if there were no one to redeem me" [Psalm 7:2-3] (The Fathers of the Church,  vol. 46: St. Basil, Exegetical Homilies, trans. Sister Agnes Clare Way, C.D.P (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1963), p. 167f).
And many more quotes of this kind are found throughout the Fathers. It just cannot be disputed that this is so, which is why so few of those who wish to dismiss this teaching of the Church actually dare to engage the evidence.

For those who wish to see more of that evidence laid out, the text "The Departure of the Soul According to the Teaching of the Orthodox Church" does so. You can also see Evidence for the Tradition of the Toll Houses found in the Universally Received Tradition of the Church online, for a small bit of that evidence.

There is nothing Gnostic about this. To avoid being dragged down to Hades, there are no secret passwords, handshakes, or incantations that will save you. You simply need to pray for "a Christian ending," and strive, by God's grace, to prepare for such an ending. A Christian ending is one, wherein a person dies, having a clear conscience, and with faith and repentance toward God. If you die in that way, you will have nothing to worry about.

For more information, see:

David Bentley Hart and the Toll Houses

Wednesday, May 08, 2019

David Bentley Hart and the Toll Houses

There he goes again. David Bentley Hart, the "Orthodox Theologian" who thinks he knows better than the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Ecumenical Councils about what Orthodoxy is, has now decided to weigh in on the question of the toll houses. I don't really have any great desire to rehash this question yet again, and would have just ignored this article, had DBH not decided to call me out personally in it:
"Among a great many Orthodox scholars in the academic world (especially when they gather together in hushed colloquy among the shadows and feel at liberty to speak strictly entre eux) it is often taken as depressing evidence of how radically the public intellectual culture of Orthodoxy in America has degenerated in recent years—how, that is, it has declined from the urbane, scholarly, perhaps slightly Mandarin sophistication of the generation of Alexander Schmemann and John Meyendorff to the fundamentalist, doctrinaire, and yet deeply uneducated primitivism promoted principally by former Evangelicals in the John Whiteford mold—than the increasing respectability of the myth of the aerial toll houses."
He further attempts to dismiss this tradition as having been "at most a fragment of quaint folklore, found in this country only among marginal eccentrics, like Seraphim Rose."  Though later, he later concludes his essay with:
"Admittedly, some genuinely holy and venerable teachers of the Orthodox past have promoted the myth. But that is of no consequence. As Paul also says, “even if an angel out of heaven should proclaim to you good tidings that differ from what you received, let him be accursed”" (Galatians 1:8)" [emphasis added].
So apparently, the teaching was not limited to just a few "eccentrics" and uneducated fundamentalists, after all. But once again we run into some of the same problems with DBH's reasoning that we have run into before. Had he been properly catechized before he was received into the Orthodox Church, DBH would have learned to affirm "that the Holy Scriptures must be accepted and interpreted in accordance with the belief which hath been handed down by the Holy Fathers, and which the Holy Orthodox Church, our Mother, hath always held and still doth hold" (from the affirmations found in "The Office for the Reception of Converts," in  the Service book of the Holy Orthodox-Catholic Apostolic Church, tr. Isabel Florence Hapgood, fourth Edition, Syrian Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese of New York, New York, 1965, p. 458).

DBH does not demonstrate why he knows better than those "genuinely holy and venerable teachers" of the Church. He does not engage anything that they actually say on the subject. He does not even mention the countless references to the toll houses that are found in the services of the Church. He in fact does not engage a single statement or argument made by anyone on the subject. He merely dismisses them all as being advocated only by "uneducated fundamentalists," and then shares his opinions on the matter, which he apparently considers to be self-evidently true, since not a shred of evidence is actually offered.

It also doesn't seem to have occurred to DBH that by citing Galatians 1:8, as he does, he is suggesting that these "genuinely holy and venerable teachers of the Orthodox past" are anathema, having preached a false Gospel.

I readily admit that DBH's academic education is far better than my own -- my family's "white privilege" debit card having been mostly exhausted a few generations before my time -- and so as much as I would have liked to have gone on and gotten a PhD., I was doing good to pay the debt accrued for my BA in Theology, which was entirely my own responsibility. However, I did learn how to read fairly well, and I can follow a reasoned and supported argument, and can spot an argument based on little more than ad hominem and gratuitous assertions. And even if someone is uneducated, that does not disprove that what they say is true... if it did, much of the New Testament would be proven false. After all, on Pentecost, we do not sing:
"Blessed art Thou, O Christ our God, Who hast shown forth the fishermen as supremely wise, by sending them to the University of Notre Dame..."
But let's consider some of the other contemporary "uneducated fundamentalists" that DBH does not deign to even engage:

1. Fr. Thomas Hopko. DBH longs for the days of Fr. Alexander Schmemann and Fr. John Meyendorff, but Fr. Thomas Hopko was first their student, and then their successor as dean of St. Vladimir Theological Seminary. What did he have to say on the subject?
"It is a very old teaching, and you will find the teaching about toll houses in practically every Church Father. You find it in St. John Chrysostom. You find it in John of the Ladder. The first development of it was in St. Cyril of Alexandria. The teaching was, and is, as far as I understand it, that when you die, you have to let go of, and be delivered from, and purified from, whatever sins and demons are holding you" ("Toll Houses: After Death Reality or Heresy?" from The Illumined Heart Podcast, on Ancient Faith Radio, September 30, 2007).
Personally, Fr. Thomas interpreted the toll houses in a largely allegorical way, but he did not dismiss the Tradition as a gnostic heresy, as does DBH. I would argue that Fr. Thomas' view is within the bounds of acceptable opinions on the subject, but DBH's view is not.

2. Jean-Claude Larchet, is thought by many to be the foremost patristic scholar of our time. He has written numerous texts on Orthodox Theology, that are highly respected, and widely disseminated, and among those texts is the book "Life after Death according to the Orthodox Tradition." He spends quite a bit of time discussing the toll houses, and among the fathers he cites as affirming the Tradition are St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. John Chrysostom, St. Cyril of Alexandria, St. Maximus the Confessor, and St. Gregory the Dialogist. Those are hardly just a random minority collection of Church Fathers -- they are among the most important of them. Nor are they the only ones that could be mentioned here, by any stretch.
See also the French Wikipedia article on Jean-Claude Larchet for more information on his academic career.
3. Metropolitan Hierotheos (Vlachos), is not often described as being an "uneducated fundamentalist" a "primitivist" or a convert from Evangelicalism. He likewise has published countless texts on the teachings of the Fathers, is highly regarded, and he also published a book entitled "Life after death." He has an entire chapter that focuses on this question, and it begins as follows:
"Also related to the foregoing is the teaching of both Holy Scripture and the holy Fathers about the taxing of souls. At this point we shall examine the subject thoroughly, as it has a bearing on the terrible mystery of death. We find this topic in the whole biblico-patristic tradition and it corresponds to a reality which we need to look at in order to prepare ourselves for the dreadful hour of death. What follows is written not in order to arouse anxiety, but to prompt repentance, which has joy as its result. For he who has the gift of the Holy Spirit and is united with Christ avoids the terrible presence and activity of the customs demons.
According to the teaching of the Fathers of the Church, the soul at its departure from the body, as well as when it is preparing to leave, senses the presence of the demons who are called customs demons, and is possessed with fear because of having to pass through customs.
Of course we must say from the start that the customs demons have no sovereignty over the righteous, those who have united with Christ. The righteous not only will not go through "customs-houses", but they will also not be in fear of that. We shall see all this better when we compare the teaching of the Fathers. The characterisation of the soul's passage through the demons as customs is taken from the tax collectors of that time. We may look briefly at this subject in order to understand why the Fathers characterise the soul's passage through the demons as customs.
In ancient times the name of tax gatherer was given to those who purchased the public taxes from the State and then collected them from the people" [48]. The tax gatherers were divided into two classes. The first class comprised the so-called "publicans ('confiscators') or tithe collectors", who were the wealthiest class and the force of authority, and the second comprised the "tax collectors". The publicans were the general public collectors, who had bought the taxes from the State, while the tax collectors were their salaried servants, who collected the taxes from the people and gave them to the publicans" (Life after death, by Metropolitan Hierotheos (Vlachos), trans. Esther Williams, Birth of the Theotokos Monastery: Levadia, Greece, 1995, p. 62f, emphasis added. This chapter can be read in its entirety, online).
If DBH wants to argue that the this tradition is not really found throughout the Fathers and the Services of the Church, something like actual arguments, with evidence, would need to be made. No one has made  any attempt to refute these texts since they were published, and that is probably because there is no argument to be made. In fact, in addition to the above referenced texts, St. Anthony's Greek Orthodox Monastery has published a very hefty tome entitled "The Departure of the Soul According to the Teaching of the Orthodox Church," and its 1,111 pages consist largely of patristic and liturgical citations that demonstrate just the opposite.

Now is it true that some have focused too much on this issue? Probably so. However, just as I would agree that one could have an unhealthy focus on the book of Revelation, I would likewise challenge anyone who argued that the book of Revelation should be removed from the Bible as a result.

When my parishioners ask me about the toll houses, I explain what the Tradition is, but I always say that they should focus on repenting of their sins, and not having anything on their consciences when they die, and then they won't have anything to worry about.

The toll house tradition is an image that is intended to teach us something about things that are beyond our normal experience. No one believes there are literal toll booths in the heavens, but it is true that if we die without repentance, we won't be successfully passing through them (however literally or figuratively you may take them).

This is certainly not the most important tradition of the Church, but dismissing a tradition found throughout the Fathers and the Services of the Church as being a gnostic heresy reflects a mindset that is not Orthodox by any stretch or measure.

For More Information:

The Strange Theology of David Bentley Hart

The Hart Idiosyncratic Version

Evidence for the Tradition of the Toll Houses found in the Universally Received Tradition of the Church

Saturday, May 04, 2019

2019 Moscow Trip -- Part 3

A Weekday Parish Liturgy
Tuesday, February 26th

The plan that morning was for me to serve at a nearby parish, where Fr. Paul Ermilov would also be serving, and then to catch a ride with him to the second and final day of the conference.

Fr. Sergei had walked me past the Holy Trinity Church on Sunday, to make sure I knew how to get there, and I pulled it up on Yandex (the Russian version of Google Maps), and hoped to find a short cut Fr. Sergei and I had taken. The temperature was just above freezing, and it was raining, though not very heavily. The sidewalks we still icy, however, and I almost slipped, which caused me to do something to the Yandex map, and when I tried to reload it, my very spotty internet access failed to deliver. So I ended up going a slightly longer route, but one that I knew would get me there.

The Holy Trinity Church

When I entered the Church, I saw that they had a altar on the right side of the Church, and they seemed to be well into a service, but I knew I was arriving well before the time I was told to be there (the service was supposed to start at 8:00 a.m.). The rest of the Church appeared dark, and so I thought perhaps they were doing a moleben or something before the Liturgy. I poked my head into the altar, and could tell that they were well into a liturgy, and so I was obviously in the wrong place... and so I poked back out. The priest who was serving came after me, to see what I was looking for, and when I told him I was supposed to serve with Fr. Paul Ermilov, he told me it that this service would be at the St. Nicholas parish, just about a block down the road. 

I messaged Fr. Paul via Whats App to let him know of my mistake, but that I was on my way. He offered to send someone to get me, but the directions seemed straight forward enough, and so I walked over to St. Nicholas.

The Iconostasis of St. Nicholas

When I entered the altar I was a little surprised to see how many clergy would be serving. There were about eight priest serving, plus a deacon or two, and this was not a part of the conference, just a Tuesday morning Liturgy at this parish Church.

Fr. Paul pointed me to the vestments set aside for me, and then once again tried to find a kamilavka that was large enough for my head -- but once again, there were none big enough. They must not do ten-gallon kamilavkas in Russia. Fr. Vladimir Vorobyov, the dean of the University and rector of the parish, presided over the service.

There were a few things that were very striking to me. One was that the choir sang the entire Liturgy in Byzantine chant (in Slavonic). Fr. Paul assured me that that was not the norm, but that the music professor who was conducting the choir liked to change things up. Byzantine chant is easily done badly, but this choir did it amazingly well, and it was very beautiful. I was also impressed by how full the choir was, as well as how many people were there for the service. I also couldn't help but notice the loving interactions among the clergy. They seemed to not just be serving together, but to really have a strong bond with each other. It was a joy to be part of it.

The Altar of St. Nicholas

At one point, Fr. Paul showed me around the Church a bit, and opened up a cabinet that had rows and rows of chalices, diskoi, Crosses, and other Church items, and he said that this parish was one of only a handful of parishes in Moscow that were never closed by the Soviets, nor did it ever fall into the hands of the "Living Church." Consequently, as other parishes were closed, these items were brought here for safe keeping.

At the end of the Liturgy we did a short moleben to St. Seraphim (Sobolev) of Boguchar (Bulgaria), whose feast day it happened to be. He had been a bishop of the Russian Church Abroad before World War II, but after the war, since he did not attempt to evacuate ahead of the Soviet advance, he became part of the Moscow Patriarchate. He was glorified by the Church of Bulgaria in 2016.

As it turned out, St. Seraphim had a very important connection with this community.

After the Liturgy we went to the parish hall for breakfast. On the wall I noticed a picture, which I though looked a little bit like Fr. Vladimir Vorobyov, but it looked older, and so I asked who it was. It turned out to be the founder of the community that eventually founded St. Tikhon University -- Fr. Vsevolod Shpiller.

Fr. Vsevolod Shpiller

Fr. Vsevolod had been an officer in the White Army during the Russian Civil War. He was among those who evacuated to Constantinople when that war was lost, and then settled in Bulgaria, where he became a spiritual child of St. Seraphim. He was ordained a priest in 1934, and then in 1950 he was given a blessing by St. Seraphim to return to Russia, where he became the rector of St. Nicholas. He was evidently both a very charismatic man, and deeply spiritual. He gathered together a thriving community which included many intellectuals. He reposed in 1984, and so long before his worked blossomed to the extent that it has in our time, but this community would not be what it is today without him having done the difficult work he had done during the Soviet period.

Perhaps the attendance was higher than a normal weekday Liturgy because it was the feast of St. Seraphim, but it was very impressive to me that on an otherwise normal Tuesday, there were two Liturgies held within a block of each other, and staggered so that those who wanted to attend liturgy before going to work or school would be able to do so.

After the meal, we caught a cab back to St. Tikhon University for the second day of the conference.

The Sretensky Monastery

Unfortunately, I didn't have Fr. Sergei with me to provide a live translation of the talks presented. I hope that they will eventually make their way into English translations, because from what I could make of them, they all sounded very interesting. Since my ability to follow the conference was limited, Fr. Sergei had suggested taking me to the Sretensky Monastery at around 2:00 p.m., and so he came by to pick me up, and we walked in that direction.

On our way, we stopped at the Vysokopetrovsky Monastery, which would have been worthy of a visit all unto itself. I think you could stand just about anywhere in Moscow, throw a stone in any direction, and find yourself near an important Church or Monastery.

We were planning on meeting Jesse Dominick, and we had hoped with Mother Cornelia (Rees) -- but unfortunately, it did not work out to meet them both. They both make the English website possible (which is one of the best Orthodox websites in English), and over the years I have corresponded a lot with both of them. At least we got to meet with Jesse.

We had a very nice meal at a cafe run by the monastery, and then headed to their administrative building to meet with the person in charge of their extensive publications, to discuss the possibility of having some English liturgical texts printed in Russia.

I had visited this monastery in 2007, and found it to be very impressive back then, but since that time, it has expanded tremendously, both in terms of its complex, and the ministries that it provides.

One thing that was new is the Cathedral, which Jesse gave us a tour of.

It was nice to once again be able to venerate the relics of the Hieromartyr Hilarion (Troitsky).

It was also nice to see further evidence (as I also saw in many other Churches) of how popular the veneration of St. John of Shanghai is in Russia.

And evidence of the popular veneration of the New-Martyr Grand Duchess Elizabeth was also evident in almost every Church.

The new Cathedral also has a chapel with an adult baptistery. This is something that was not needed often before the Bolshevik Revolution, because most Russians were baptized as infants, but as Russia has been returning to Orthodoxy, this has become very necessary.

Fr. Sergei had to return to his secular job, but Jesse promised to walk me back to St. Tikhon University, and so I was able to hang out longer.

While there, he interviewed me for, and the text of the interview is posted here:
"The Waters have been Muddied" An Interview with Fr. John Whiteford on the Ukrainian Crisis and the Judgment of God
I made it back to the Conference in time to catch the tail-end of their panel discussion, and then had some time to visit with several of the clergy while we waited for our rides to take us home. During this time I learned that Fr. Paul Ermilov had seven children, and had another on the way, but that his family was not one of the larger families in their community. He talked about how the Russian government provides subsidies for large families to get into adequate housing. What a contrast with the anti-child attitude so often found in America.

Another Part of Fr. Vsevolod Shpiller's Vision

I once again was given a ride by Fr. Dimitri. and rode this time along with Fr. Darko. Fr. Dimitri asked us if we would like to see the school that is associated with the University, and we both said we would be happy to do so.

The vision, which traces back to Fr. Vsevolod Shpiller, is to provide an Orthodox education that goes all the way from the earliest grades, through the university level, and they now have all of those basic pieces in place, though they continue to work on expanding and perfecting that vision.

The school building was, I believe, four stories, and includes a beautiful chapel. Fr. Dimitri showed us several of the class rooms, and it all looked like it must be a wonderful school.

Finally, I arrived back at my apartment, overlooking the Ss. Martha and Mary Convent, for one final night. The plan for the next day was to visit the St. Sergius Trinity Lavra in the morning.

To be continued...

2019 Moscow Trip -- Part 1

2019 Moscow Trip -- Part 2