Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Angelic Liturgy

This icon depicts the angels
carrying the gifts
for the Great Entrance.

            Angels fill the Divine Liturgy. The Little Entrance recalls the concelebration of angels. The Great Entrance recalls the angelic escort of the King. In the Anaphora, the triumphal hymn is introduced as angelic praise of God, to which we add our Liturgy. These symbols of angelic presence in the Liturgy reveal the reality that the Liturgy takes place also in heaven where angels ceaselessly worship God. Liturgy is not only material, but also spiritual, not only human, but also angelic. Angels remind us that to worship our spiritual God liturgically “in truth,” we must worship him “in spirit” (John 4:24).

Thursday, November 22, 2012


One human being can and has given adequate thanks (εχαριστέω)[1] to God – Jesus Christ alone. In thanksgiving for God’s creation, redemption, and deification of us, to him is “due all glory, honor, and worship”[2] from all us other humans. Yet we, of ourselves, are “unworthy servants,”[3] and so we pray for God, who alone can do so, to “make us worthy to partake… of [his] heavenly and awesome mysteries.”[4] Only when we have thus participated in the thanksgiving of Jesus and mysteriously become one with him, can we pray, “let us worthily thank the Lord”[5] and adequately thank him.

Damiane's fresco of the Mystical Supper in Ubisi monastery , Georgia - 14th century

[2] Prayers of the First Antiphon, the Entrance, the Thrice-Holy Hymn, and the First Prayer of the Faithful; see also 1 Tim 1:17
[3] Prayers of the Thrice-Holy Hymn, and the Cherubikon. 
[4] Preparation for Communion.
[5] Prayer of Thanksgiving. 

Sunday, November 18, 2012

A Working Definition of Evil

       I cannot accept that evil is an inevitable byproduct of creation, as the Alexandrians propose. I believe that free creatures make unnecessary choices for evil, which opinion I think Irenaeus would support. I agree with the Alexandrians that evil is lack – but not with their idea that creatureliness lacks something. A creature is less than its Creator, true, but this is good and not evil. Rather, it would be evil for a creature to strive vainly to be uncreated. (That may be the very sin of Satan). Evil is to strive against what is – or to strive to be what one is not. Goodness is to be what the Creator creates one to be. For the Creator, goodness is simply to be. Each creature is created good – without any evil at all. Freedom, which contains an inherent potential for evil, is itself good.
       Evil has no being. It is neither creature nor attribute of the Creator. Nonetheless, evil beings do evil things. Good creatures with freewill have the potential to strive vainly against goodness. Beings that strive against being are evil. All evil - both moral evil and all suffering and death – results from this vain striving, which is sin.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Iconography of the Devil

Roman Catholic images of Satan often depict him as a horned, muscular, bat-winged man in combat with Michael, whose feast is today  (right).

In many ancient religious traditions, horns were associated with the crescent moon and thus with fertility, night, darkness, death, and the underworld. On the devil, they signify his power, his association with death, and destructive sexuality.

            The bearded muscular figure is consonant with the view found in many religions that the principle force of evil is powerfully masculine (cf. Matt 12:29).

            Wings, which allow creatures to dwell in the air and grant them swiftness, i.e. the ability to be “everywhere in an instant,” signify the spiritual nature of both angels and fallen angels. According to Tertullian, “every spirit is winged.” In later imagery, bat wings serve to distinguish demons from angels.

Perhaps indicating a more dualist perspective, the Western image depicts Satan – though defeated – as well-matched to fight Michael. I believe Eastern iconography better represents the truth (left).
While the depiction of Satan in the icon contains some of the same elements – e.g. horns and wings – he is dramatically smaller and no match for his fellow angel Michael. Icons consistently represent demons this way – as tiny black specks, rather like flies (which evokes a name of their master: Beëlzebub). This effectively communicates the ultimate insignificance of evil. 

(I've written about some of this before). 

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Another Response to the Cursing Psalms

James R. Rogers offers a meaningful meditation on the cursing Psalms in response to one of my previous posts on the subject:

Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Role of the Church in Social Welfare

As the history of the Byzantine world makes clear, philanthropic service to society has always been an important part of the Church’s mission. Seeing Christ in the poor, members of the Church developed a philanthropic philosophy from the very beginning. In a distinct way, the Byzantine Church expressed this divine attribute, blending Greek and Christian understandings of its importance. The Byzantine Empire (which many of its citizens saw as a divinely appointed institution), as well as the Church itself, promoted and practiced philanthropy throughout its history, with varying degrees of sincerity. Both philosophical and practical examples of this abound and serve as an enduring testimony to this proper ministry of the Church throughout the ages.

Pre-Christian Greek civilization already had significantly developed notions of philanthropy expressed in numerous ways. For example, they established philanthropic institutions such as public guest-chambers, brotherhoods of hospitality, and, hospices. However, according to Demetrios Constantelos in his work Byzantine Philanthropy and Social Welfare, “their philanthropy was practiced in a limited field and was directed mostly toward the civilized Hellenes” (11).

Emporer Arcadios,
archetype of God, the Universal King
Christian ideas of universal philanthropy took the existing Hellenic understanding of this virtue and expanded it, insisting that Christians love and charitably serve the human needs of even their enemies and pagans. This latter practice greatly distressed the Emperor Julian (the pagan apostate upon whom we lovingly spit), who wrote, “It is disgraceful that… the impious Galileans support not only their own poor but ours as well” (15). Julian himself encouraged philanthropy, but Christianity, it seems, more successfully persuaded its faithful to take charitable action.

Many of the other Emperors in Constantinople gave good examples of Christian philanthropy. A common theme behind their philanthropic thought was that, as divinely appointed representatives of God on earth, they should exemplify this preeminent divine attribute. Counseling the Emperor Arcadios, Bishop Synesios of Cyrene gives an example of this type of thinking, emphasizing “that the king is the projection of the archetype, God the Universal King” and that the king must therefore make policies to benefit the people (45).

Many Byzantine clergy were also great examples of Christian philanthropy by their charitable work seeking social justice and equality. Certain of these, John Chrysostom, for example, gave generously to the poor out of their personal wealth. Chrysostom also built institutions of charity, such as hospitals and homes for the aged and infirm. Furthermore, in continuity with its early origins, the Church maintained the diaconate, which was created to serve widows and continued this work by seeing to the distribution of all kinds of welfare (Acts 6:1-4).

These few of the innumerable historical examples available partially demonstrate the Church’s consistent devotion to the service of the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, the aged, the orphans, the widows, and all the needy. Since the apostolic age, the Church has emphasized social welfare as an important aspect of its work. Since the fourth century, the Church has sought ways to cooperate with the state in providing this welfare. Seeing Christ in the least of His brethren (Mt 25:40), the Byzantine Church throughout its history served Him and should never neglect to serve Him, the only Philanthropos.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

6) Cursing Psalms - Conclusions

Grand Duke Dmitry Ioannovich (Donskoy) prays
for the sending down of victory before the Battle of Kulikovo
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Of this there should be no doubt: these allegorical interpretations were not the originally intended meanings of the curses. I do not believe, however, that these meanings should be somehow less valuable to the one praying these Psalms. God’s inspiration is not limited to author’s intent. If one does not wish to harbor against human enemies the hatred expressed in these Psalms, yet does wish to react prayerfully to bona fide injustices in need of restitution, one solution is to make this hatred, allegorically understood, one’s own.

This is not to say that there is not also value and something to be learned from what the Psalmist did intend. There are real evils in the world and in our own lives and desires. These should not be forgotten when we pray. We need to bring our whole selves and our whole situation to God, I believe, with all its difficulties. There is no value in trying to hide anything from God. While it is true that Jesus taught us to love our enemies, it is also true that he expressed outrage at injustice. Christians should also be aware of and outraged at injustice, but not hateful of the unjust.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

5) Cursing Psalms - Who are the enemies?

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The Fathers of the Church allegorized the enemies cursed in the Psalms in various ways. The following is a list of some of their interpretations.

The enemy is death.
  • “But who is such an enemy unless it is death, the enemy of life.” – Eusebius of Caesarea on the enemies in Ps 9:3
The enemy is the demonic.
  • The enemy of Ps 9:6 who rules the cities is the devil. – Augustine

  • The assailants of Ps 18:40 are demons. – Evagrius 

  • “Pray the prayer of the present psalm, not against flesh and blood but against the spirits of the air who    daily harm us.... the invisible enemies.” – Arnobius the Younger on Ps 35

  • “This has reference to the devil and his followers” – Cassiodorus on the enemies in Ps 35

  • “I think this speaks about the cross on which the devil falls unknowingly.” – Evagrius of Pontus on the enemies in Ps 35:8
The enemy is iniquity.
  • “Take up a love for justice and a hatred for iniquity…. It is possible at times to use hatred even praiseworthily.” - Basil the Great on hatred of enemies in Ps 139
The enemy is the self.
The enemy is sinful or filthy thoughts.
  • The teeth which God breaks in Ps 3:7 are “the teeth of sinners [which] are thoughts foreign to reason coming to us on account of our nature by which our enemies approach us.” – Evagrius of Pontus

  • “The ‘little ones’ of Babylon… are those troublesome sinful thoughts that arise in the soul.” – Origen on Ps 137

  • The “little ones” are “all corrupt and filthy thoughts against Christ.” – Ambrose on Ps 137
The enemy is temptation.
  • “While these temptations were still young, he caught hold of them and dashed them against Christ.” – Benedict on Ps 137

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

4) Cursing Psalms - Allegorical Reinterpretation

Roland Murphy, as demonstrated in the last post, is willing to acknowledge the importance of understandings of these Psalms other than the historical. He writes,
Recent hermeneutical theories have challenged the dominance of [the historical-critical] method, arguing that every interpreter begins with certain inevitable presuppositions…. Certainly, the historical-critical method does not exhaust the meaning of a text, which in fact acquires new meanings as it is passed from generation to generation (8). 
Murphy’s own method of coming to a new understanding of the cursing Psalms is not altogether dissimilar from the spiritualizing and allegorical interpretations found in the patristic commentaries. When the early Christians inherited these Psalms of cursing, many felt quite free to imbue them with new meanings. Arnobius the Younger (c. 460), reading the curses of Psalm 35, asks,
What are we to do with this psalm? If we curse our enemies, we disregard the gospel, in which we are ordered not to curse them but to bless them…. Pray the prayer of the present psalm, not against flesh and blood but against the spirits of the air who daily harm us, who daily commit wars….What do you pray…? That the Lord will war and fight those who are against you as you grasp the arms of his own help against invisible enemies.
 St. Marina smiting a demon with a hammer
Arnobius’ solution to the difficulty of praying these curses as a Christian is to allegorize the cursed enemies as “spirits of the air,” that is, the demons. Allegory is one answer to the question of what use can be made of the cursing Psalms by those who believe that all of the Scripture – somehow including these passages which freely express the most vile and evil inclinations of the human heart – is inspired by God and that the Psalms are particularly suitable for use in our worship of him in accordance with ancient Christian custom. This is just the approach that Arnobius and many other early fathers of the Church have taken. They understood the enemies cursed by the Psalms to be the demons that Jesus spent so much time casting out. Augustine, Evagrius, and Cassiodorus support the view of the enemies as demons.  The ancient Israelites were clearly not intending to curse demons, but some early Christians thus redirected the curses.

Other fathers identify the cursed enemy as death, injustice, or the self. Benedict (c.480–547) understands the particularly cruel curse against the Babylonian babies as an allegory concerning temptations (Ps 137:9). He writes, “While these temptations are still young, catch hold of them and dash them against Christ.” The Scriptural type of Christ as the rock already existed and so Benedict simply spiritualized the “little ones” as temptations and made sense of the curse in that way (1 Cor 10:4; 1 Pet 2:4-7).  Origen and Ambrose also support this interpretation.


Monday, August 6, 2012

3) Cursing Psalms - Scholarly Reinterpretation

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Dr. Jonathan Ben-Dov
Readers of the cursing Psalms sometimes have a tendency to try to explain them away, as I attempted in the last post by pointing out that the form of Psalm 137:9 was not exactly that of a curse, as if this could remove some of the horror from the image of smashing babies' heads. Some have attempted this kind of explanation for the longest and most devastating of the curses, found in Psalm 109. Ben-Dov describes how it is possible to read this curse into the mouth of the enemy rather than the Psalmist:
A simple reading of Psalm cix understands  vv. 6-19 to be the words of an individual, who is in despair as a result of his enemies' actions. However, this can also be contested, with  vv. 6-19 understood as a quotation of the prosecutors' words. This may be supported from the fact that the enemies are referred to in the plural at the opening of the psalm, while the curse refers to a single person (450).
I am uncertain whether we should critically favor the “simple reading” of this Psalm, but it causes me to wonder why some feel it necessary to seek out a more convoluted reading (then again, perhaps textual scholars enjoy that for its own sake). It seems to me that some just simply cannot stand for these passages to be in the Bible expressing sentiments they regard as so unbiblical.

Fr. Roland Murphy
Along these same lines, Roland Murphy provides a rather creative understanding of the enemies in these Psalms. Regarding the enemies, he writes in his book The Gift of the Psalms, “Are they really human beings? The descriptions are so extreme and exaggerated that they seem to portray superhuman hostile and evil powers…. Perhaps the reader of the psalms should understand the enemies as personifications of evil” (46). He has here departed from a strictly historical understanding. It seems to me that Murphy simply does not want the enemies to be human beings. He even asks, “Was the problem an evil spirit?” (47). I think he may be reaching for an explanation that the text itself does not support. I sympathize – I do not want the enemies to be human beings either – but, historically, that is what they are.

Fr. Jack Custer
No historical contextualizing, however well it alleviates certain misconceptions about these texts, can change the reality that they express hateful and destructive sentiments. Theirs is a pure and perfect hatred, however understandable or even justified it may be (Ps 139:22). As John Custer writes in his book The Old Testament: A Byzantine Perspective, “There is no reason to deny that the Psalmist probably meant exactly what he prayed for: the physical destruction of the real enemies of his nation” (167). This, in my opinion, is the accurate historical reading of the curses themselves.


Sunday, August 5, 2012

2) Cursing Psalms - A Historical-Critical Interpretation

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The enemies cursed by these Psalms represent extreme examples of wickedness and injustice. The text presents this reality of injustice even at times when it is not clearly apparent in certain translations. In his article, The poor's curse,” Jonathan Ben-Dov provides some helpful textual analysis of the term  עָנִי, as used in Psalm 35:10 immediately following a curse. This term is usually translated “poor” and it appears in six cursing Psalms. For example, as if to give in part the reason for the preceding brutal curses, such as, “Let their eyes be darkened,” and, “Make their loins continually to shake,” and, “Let them be blotted out of the book of the living,” Psalm 69:29 explains “I am poor” (Ps 69:23, 28-29 KJV). On face value, such an understanding of this term might make these passages appear to be a poor person cursing the rich, as if inequity of capital were so great an injustice as to justify the hope that “ruin come upon them unawares,” but there is more implied by the term than simple poverty (Ps 35:8). Ben-Dov writes,
The root ‘nh in nominal and verbal forms does not necessarily express lack of capital. עָנִי  is a passive form of the verb ‘nh when implying oppression and the עָנִי is therefore one who has suffered oppression or injustice. Lack of property naturally accompanies this situation, but is not the major aspect of it; it is the social status, not the poverty, which leads to violence and oppression (434). 
The victim crying out for God to curse his enemies is not reacting to simple inequities or minor slights, but to actual and severe injustices. Ben-Dov further points out that the word is textually similar to an Akkadian idiom which “can indicate a person, just as it can indicate a field or any other object that has been forcefully confiscated” (434). The oppression referred to can be as severe as enslavement, such as was experienced by the Jews in the Babylonian captivity. For these reasons, I think the term is better translated “afflicted,” especially when associated with a curse, as it occasionally is in the RSV (e.g. Ps 69:29).

Babylonian Siege of Jerusalem
L'Histoire du Vieux et du Nouveau Testament
by Nicolas Fontaine
Foremost among the oppressors cursed by the Psalms are the Babylonians, who consequently receive the most terrible of the curses: “Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!” (Ps 137:9). This Psalm calls the Babylonians “captors,” “tormenters,” and “devastators” for what they have done to Jerusalem and its people (Ps 137:3, 8). The brutal devastation that they inflicted upon the Israelites involved all the atrocities of war, likely including the slaughter of children and the enslavement of the people. The psalmist is not demanding a curse upon his enemies worse than that which his enemies have already visited upon the psalmist’s people. The psalmist is invoking the law of just retribution: “life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe” (Exod 21:23-25; see also Lev 24:17-22). Further, it is worth keeping in mind that this most sadistic passage is not a curse in the proper sense. It does not say “O God, dash their babies against the rock!” but, “Happy shall he be” who does so, as if to say, not that the psalmist intends to carry out infanticide, but that, if someone were to do so, they would be justified, given that the Babylonians have committed equivalent atrocities.

Historically, it seems clear to me that the psalmist composed these curses, for the most part, against actual human enemies of the people of Israel. The Israelites suffered terrible atrocities. Seeing themselves as a people in relationship with God, to call upon God to curse those they would curse was, in a sense, only natural. The human reaction to severe injustice is to cry out for retribution.


Saturday, August 4, 2012

1) Cursing Psalms - Introduction

Here is an odd picture of me giving a presentation
on the Cursing Psalms
Images of violence fill the Book of Psalms – violence perpetrated both by God and by humans sanctioned by God. In the following series of posts, I will be concerned primarily with prayer for violence against one’s enemies, which is known as a curse or imprecation. Some of these passages in the Psalms, with their extreme images (for example, breaking teeth, bathing feet in blood, burying with burning coals, and breaking the heads of babies) can be quite shocking to our sensibilities, especially if we use the Psalms as a book of prayer. For this reason, the modern Roman Church has sometimes omitted these passages from its liturgical prayer. However, as a member of the Byzantine Church, which is deeply steeped in the tradition of praying the entire Psalter, this solution does not satisfy me in the least. Therefore, I will first consider these passages tomorrow from a historical-critical point of view and attempt to discover, as far as possible, the intended meaning of the text in the historical context. In the following days, I will consider how the Church Fathers and later commentators have reinterpreted and allegorized these passages and thus incorporated them into the prayer of the Church.


Friday, July 20, 2012

For the feast of St. Elias (a.k.a. Elijah)

I painted this icon of Elias for my son
a couple of years ago at St. Andrew Rublev
Iconography School in Indianapolis.
I am quite fond of St. Elias. His icon is interesting for a number of reasons. He is usually shown with a red background rather than the usual gold, which represents the fire of the Holy Spirit who spoke through him and of the fiery chariot which took him to heaven. It is also interesting because it is the only icon I have ever seen of a person who has not experienced death. 

Today is the feast of St. Elias, my son's name day, and my sister's birthday. It is a day important to me personally for a number of reasons. 

Six years ago today, my wife was in the hospital. She was pregnant with our son and she was experiencing contractions far too early. I left her side for some time to attend the Divine Liturgy at our parish for this feast day and to pray for her and our son. 

The troparion of the day, which we sang over and over again as the priest blessed our cars, reminded me that John the Baptist had come in the spirit and the power of Elias and that, just as John was the Forerunner of the Lord, so Elias was the second forerunner of the Lord. We had been planning on naming the baby after John but we had not been able to decide on a middle name. I took this as an inspiration and we named our boy John Elias. 

My beloved, still pregnant, safely left the hospital not too long after this. Ultimately, she went into labor a month early. The delivery was as difficult as the pregnancy had been. The doctors threatened an emergency caesarean. There was a great deal of blood. My wife and I prayed the Jesus Prayer together throughout much of the ordeal. As he was being born, John Elias’ head applied pressure just exactly where it was needed to prevent a placental abruption. He was safely, miraculously born. It was the only time in my life I have wept for joy. 

At this same time, my father was sick with colon cancer. We brought John Elias home to meet him. He said to the boy, “you’re coming and I’m going, but there are similarities between us.” He died shortly after. Had John Elias been born when he was due, he’d never have met his grandfather.

These mercies I attribute, in part, to the intercession of St. Elias and I ask his continued prayers for my family and yours.

This video shows the gradual development of the icon of St. Elias.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

7) The Morality of Birth Control - Commonalities

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There are a few teachings about birth control consistently maintained by the fathers of the Church, the contemporary Catholic Church, and the contemporary Eastern Orthodox Church: 1) Procreation is a good and essential purpose of married life. 2) There are times for avoiding conception. 3) Abortion by any means is an immoral method of birth control. For the fathers of the Church, the only moral means of birth control is total abstinence. Current Catholic teaching would also permit periodic abstinence. The Orthodox are less clear, but, in addition to periodic abstinence and total abstinence, they would overwhelmingly also permit non-abortifacient contraception.

1) Those who would enter into Christian marriage must never do so with an attitude completely closed to having children nor indeed without the hope of having children. Without some desire for children in a marriage, there is arguably no reason to marry. Loving each other is enough, but marital love necessarily includes the desire for children.

2) Every month in the life of a marriage between the physically healthy and sufficiently young presents an opportunity for conceiving a child, if one has not already been conceived. The couple, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and their spiritual fathers or mothers, must prayerfully and reasonably discern whether they are called to seek the fulfillment of that opportunity each time it is given. In making this determination according to the dictates of their consciences, they must seek to live in the balance between generosity and responsibility.
One recognized method of avoiding conception for
the unmarried is to wear standard issue BCGs. 

While the married should sometimes avoid conception, the unmarried should always avoid conception. The moral teaching of the Church has always required the unmarried and the celibate to practice the most effective form of birth control - complete continence.

3) No one should ever resort to an abortion regardless of the difficulty of the situation, whether they are married or unmarried, whether they are rich or poor. If a conception has taken place, the question about whether or not it was God’s will to conceive a child has already been answered. God creates no children that he does not love and want to live. It is therefore the couple’s moral responsibility, after conception has taken place, to love and provide for the newly conceived person even as Christ has first loved them.

Friday, July 6, 2012

6) The Morality of Birth Control - Eastern Christian perspectives

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While in most issues Eastern Orthodox theologians pride themselves on their consistency with the patristic witness, current disregard of patristic teaching against most forms of birth control is at least as widespread among Orthodox as among Catholic theologians. Some, if not most, of the Orthodox do permit most forms of contraception, so long as the motives are not selfish and the marriage as a whole includes the desire for children.

Paul Evdokimov holding a cat.
Eastern Orthodox theologian Paul Evdokimov presents an argument in favor of contraception in his work on marriage, The Sacrament of Love. His support for birth control in general is based on the point that love, and not procreation alone, is the primary reason for sex. Catholic teaching would agree with him, I think, up to this point. He rightly writes, “All reduction of Eros to procreation lowers it to the animal level,” and, “Love includes procreation, but the latter neither defines it nor in any way depletes it” (178). Since there is more to sex than making babies, it is morally licit, at times, for a married couple to have sex without directly intending the conception of children. At times “the intention of limiting birth is right” (178).

In discussing the moral means of controlling birth, however, Evdokimov sees an equivalency between what Catholics call NFP and forms of contraception. Of methods similar to NFP, he writes, “The act that becomes ‘safe’ by means of a computation of days or a by a mastery of the will is in every instance not natural, unless one plays with words” (177). He refers to methods similar to NFP as “mental contraceptives” and states, “The problem is not one of methods, but of the spirit with which one employs the methods” (177-178).

Interestingly, this is in agreement with one aspect of patristic teaching. The fathers oppose having sex without intending conception, regardless of the means used to avoid it. For them, it is not about means, but intentions. If we now say that it is morally permissible to have sex without directly intending conception, why should we introduce a distinction between means that the fathers would not have recognized? Augustine directly opposed what we now call NFP because he consistently opposed sex without the direct intention of procreation. If we now permit the use of NFP, why should we not accept other means of limiting birth while still having sex? These are questions Evdokimov raises, which challenge a Catholic reader. I believe the Catholic teaching given in a previous post has good answers to these questions, but they are coming from a different premise. While the Catholic teaching has maintained a prohibition of contraception and behavioral methods of birth control that the fathers would have approved of, the Orthodox teaching has maintained a patristic understanding of the equivalency of means. The contemporary teachings of neither the Catholic Church nor the Orthodox Church represent the patristic teaching on this issue. I doubt there are many Christians of any kind who believe and live as the fathers taught on this issue. Teaching about birth control has clearly developed in the Church over time.

Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev in his study
Not all of the Eastern Orthodox accept Evdokimov’s view. There are some few Eastern Orthodox opponents of contraception. For example, Bishop (now Metropolitan) Hilarion Alfeyev of the Russian Orthodox Church, in his Statement to the World Council of Churches in Geneva, on 13 February 2008, mentioned contraception among a list of evils such as abortion and euthanasia. There are others opposed to it as well, but they seem to be in the minority.

More prevalent is the perspective expressed in the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) document, Synodal Affirmations on Marriage, Family, Sexuality, and the Sanctity of Life. It agrees with Catholic teaching, up to a point, when it states,
"The procreation of children is not in itself the sole purpose of marriage, but a marriage without the desire for children, and the prayer to God to bear and nurture them, is contrary to the 'sacrament of love'" (Orthodox Marriage Service; St. John Chrysostom, On Ephesians, Homily 20).
However, the teachings diverge when it comes to the issue of which means are morally appropriate for the responsible regulation of births. The document states, “Only those means of controlling conception within marriage are acceptable which do not harm a fetus already conceived.” On face value, this statement would appear to permit abstinence – periodic or total, behavioral methods, most forms of contraception – including some kinds of abortifacients, and sterilization. It would appear to forbid only direct abortion. However, I do not think that this is its intention. Elsewhere the document states, “Sexual love in marriage is to be chaste and pure, devoid of lewdness, lechery, violence, and self-gratification.” This may well be taken to exclude at least some behavioral methods of birth control and sterilization – which is a kind of violence to the body. However, this is an interpretation, and the document does not clearly prohibit these practices. The document’s use of the term “fetus,” which is usually understood as a person about eight weeks after conception, combined with its failure to identify conception as the beginning of human life brings into question whether or not it intends to forbid abortifacients along with other kinds of abortion. Concerning abortion, the document states,
Orthodox Christians have always viewed the willful abortion of unborn children as a heinous act of evil. The Church’s canonical tradition identifies any action intended to destroy a fetus as the crime of murder (Ancyra, Canon 21; Trullo, Canon 91; St. Basil, Canon 2).
Again, the persons protected by this statement are described as “fetuses.” If the OCA also morally opposes the willful destruction of embryos and zygotes, as I suspect it does, greater clarity on this teaching would be helpful.

The Russian Orthodox document, Bases of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church, presents a clearer total opposition to abortifacients: “Some contraceptives have an abortive effect, interrupting artificially the life of the embryo on the very first stages of his life. Therefore, the same judgments are applicable to the use of them as to abortion” (XII. 3). This seems to be a more complete expression of the Orthodox teaching on this matter.

Regarding non-abortifacient types of contraception, this Russian Orthodox document agrees with the OCA document that they are permissible and “cannot be equated with abortion in the least” (XII. 3). However, it uses stronger language in support of the essential relationship between marriage and procreation and it particularly recommends periodic abstinence as a means of birth control.

This document further emphasizes an important aspect of moral behavior in this area of life, perhaps neglected by official Catholic teaching: “Clearly, spouses should make such decisions mutually on the counsel of their spiritual father” (XII. 3). Spiritual direction has an essential role to play in the application of objective moral standards regarding birth control to the myriad subjective situations in which spouses find themselves. It is spiritually and morally unhealthy to “go it alone” on such important moral issues and it is necessary to seek personal spiritual guidance from the pastors of the Church. While the CSDC may be right that only the spouses themselves can ultimately make decisions about the proper use of birth control in their particular situation, the Eastern tradition is also right to point out the essential relationship spouses must maintain with the Church community in every aspect of their lives, even the most intimate. If our communion with the Church is not with us at all times, even in our bedrooms, then we are not truly in communion with the Church.  

While there is much information from the Eastern Orthodox and the Roman Catholic perspectives on this subject, there is none, that I have been able to find, from a specifically Eastern Catholic perspective. On an issue like this, where there is such significant disagreement between the Eastern Orthodox and the Roman Catholics, this is a problem. Many times in my experience, the Byzantine Catholic faithful do not know who to listen to on this issue. In my opinion, the pastors of the Byzantine Catholic faithful owe it to those faithful to be conversant in both viewpoints on this issue, while also needing to defend the Catholic teaching faithfully.


Thursday, July 5, 2012

5) The Morality of Birth Control - The ends

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Having discussed the morality of various means of birth control, now it is necessary to discuss which reasons for limiting births are morally legitimate. Paul VI identifies “physical, economic, psychological and social conditions,” as in need of attention by spouses who would become responsible, prudent, and generous parents. The Compendium of Social Doctrine of the Church (CSDC) clarifies, that in weighing these issues,
The judgment concerning the interval of time between births, and that regarding the number of children, belongs to the spouses alone. This is one of their inalienable rights, to be exercised before God with due consideration of their obligations towards themselves, their children already born, the family and society (234).
Spouses are not to make this decision on this issue on whims or personal preferences, but according to “objective criteria” (GS 51.3). The question of what particular quantity or frequency of births is both responsible and generous is, however, particular to circumstances and so spouses must consider this prayerfully and under the guidance of their spiritual fathers or mothers.


Wednesday, July 4, 2012

4) The Morality of Birth Control - Periodic and total abstinence

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5) Having acknowledged that the practice of periodic abstinence (NFP) to avoid conception does not square with patristic teaching, how are we to understand the Church’s current promotion and acceptance of the practice? In 1968, a Catholic commission examining married life and birth regulation awaited the publication of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical, Humanae Vitae. Speculations ran wild. Catholics of a traditional mind knew that the Pope could not contradict the teaching of the Church. Catholics of a progressive mind hoped for a sweeping reform of Catholic sexual ethics. This is what they received. So outraged were some that artificial contraception was not permitted that they failed to observe that this document does indeed represent a development of the Church’s doctrine about sex. What Paul VI approved, which we now call NFP, was specifically condemned by early Church teaching. Regarding NFP, Paul VI writes,
 Pope Paul VI in 1977
"If therefore there are well-grounded reasons for spacing births…, the Church teaches that married people may then take advantage of the natural cycles immanent in the reproductive system and engage in marital intercourse only during those times that are infertile, thus controlling birth in a way which does not in the least offend the moral principles" (HV 16).
Furthermore, his acceptance of such a method is based in part on his new emphasis on the goodness of marital sex as a means of unification and an expression of love, which was not often recognized in the early Church with its overemphasis on ascetic renunciation of pleasure for the sake of freedom from the passions. Such renunciation is laudable provided that it is freely undertaken and provided that it is not done in the spirit of condemning those who enjoy certain pleasures in this life. In recognizing the goodness of marital sex as a pleasurable expression of love, the Church has recovered the scriptural understanding of sex as having good ends other than procreation.

If the Church now acknowledges these good ends, why does she persist in forbidding artificial contraception? NFP is permissible while artificial contraception is not because NFP does nothing against the created nature of sex. Artificial contraception, regarded by its users as a form of health care, treats human fertility as one would disease, illness, or injury whereas NFP acknowledges the basic goodness of the created human physiology with all of its natural functions unimpeded. If contraception were health care, that would mean that natural human fertility would be an unhealthy state. NFP leaves intact and unaltered the healthy functioning of the human body whereas contraception attempts to interfere with natural and healthy human fertility. Periodic infertility is a healthy part of created human nature.

6) The most effective method of birth control – total continence – has never received criticism from the Church. All those in an unmarried state are morally obligated to practice total continence (CCC 2349). Furthermore, the Church has always acknowledged that some are called to perpetual continence in celibacy – which is recommended by Paul and exemplified by Jesus himself (1 Cor 7:8, 27, 38). Even within marriage, indefinite periods of continence are permissible – for prayer, as Paul writes (1 Cor 7:5). The Virgin Mary and St. Joseph, of course, were perpetually continent within marriage. Other married saints in the history of the Church have decided, after having had children, to live the rest of their lives in continence.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

3) The Morality of Birth Control - A patristic understanding

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Contrary to Eastern Orthodox theologian Paul Evdokimov, who writes in his book The Sacrament of Love, “In the age of the Church Fathers, the problem of birth control was never raised,” a study of the teachings of the early fathers of the Church quickly reveals that this controversy is nothing new and that the teachings of the Church on this issue have evolved over time (174). Sex, in the patristic view, is for making babies. For many of the fathers, this is not only its primary end, it is its sole purpose.

This utilitarian understanding of sex may have roots in the Old Testament's emphasis on procreation as well as in Stoic philosophy. At any rate, the patristic understanding more strongly echoes Stoic philosophy than it does Paul. (On this topic, see Roy Ward’s article, “Paul, How he Radically Redefined Marriage.” Bible Review 4:4 (1988) 26-31). When Paul writes, "It is better to marry than to burn," he is not talking about having children, but about having sex (1Cor 7:9). He never mentions children in this passage. Given the imminent eschatology of this letter, it is clear that Paul is not here concerned with progeny or posterity. This reveals that there is more to sex, in his view, than making babies. It keeps us who are weak from burning, whether this is from burning in sexual desire or burning in hell or both, he does not say. The point is that sex, for Paul, is a good thing in service of an end other than having children. The fathers of the Church did not maintain this New Testament understanding.

Icon of St. Justin Martyr, also called the Philosopher,
in the Katholikon of the Stavronikita Monastery.
With a clear preference for celibacy, St. Justin Martyr (c. 160) writes, “If we marry, it is only so that we may bring up children” (ANF 1.172, emphasis mine). Similarly, Lactantius (c. 304-313) writes, “Whatever is sought beyond the desire of procreation is condemned by God” (ANF 7.143). Among these fathers, then, the distinction between artificial contraception and NFP is therefore moot. While they would generally prefer that people remain virgins and therefore not have any children, these fathers oppose any form of birth control within a sexually active marriage. At face value, Justin’s claim that marriage has no purpose other than the begetting and rearing of children would even render total abstinence within marriage an unacceptable behavior (the example of Mary the ever-virgin spouse of Joseph notwithstanding).

Other fathers may not oppose total abstinence within marriage as a means of birth control, but they do oppose limiting abstinence to the periods of fertility, à la NFP, and even require abstinence during periods of infertility. For example, Athenagoras the Athenian (c. 175) forbids sexual activity during the infertile period of pregnancy. Referring to this, he writes,
After throwing the seed into the ground, the farmer awaits the harvest. He does not sow more seed on top of it. Likewise, to us the procreation of children is the limit of our indulgence in appetite” (ANF 2.146).
In reference to the same issue, St. Clement of Alexandria (c. 195) writes, “To… a spiritual man, after conception, his wife is as a sister and is treated as if of the same father” (ANF 2.503). Two activities recommended by some NFP teachers are having sex during menstruation and during pregnancy, both of which the earliest extant Church canons, the Apostolic Constitutions (compiled c. 390), specifically condemn:
When the menstrual purgations appear in the wives, their husbands should not approach them, out of regard to the children to be begotten. For the Law has forbidden it when it says: “You will not come near your wife when she is in her separation” [Lev. 18:19]. Nor, indeed, let them have relations when their wives are with child. For [in that case] they are not doing it for the begetting of children, but only for the sake of pleasure. Now a lover of God should not be a lover of pleasure (ANF 7.463).
It is interesting to note here that the two reasons for having sex acknowledged by the Apostolic Constitutions are procreation and pleasure, as opposed to contemporary Catholic theology, which generally recognizes unification and procreation as the two purposes of loving marital sex. There is no mention at all here of the expression of marital love as a purpose for sex. St. Augustine (c. 388) also understands sex in this manner. He offers a fairly accurate description of what we would now call NFP in his opposition to calculating and limiting sex to the infertile periods of a woman’s cycle, which was apparently a practice promoted by the Manichæans. He writes,
Is it not you [the Manichæans] who used to counsel us to observe as much as possible the time when a woman, after her purification, is most likely to conceive, and to abstain from cohabitation at that time…? This proves that you approve of having a wife, not for the procreation of children, but for the gratification of passion (NPNF 1.4.86).
Augustine here understands sex as done for pleasure only - “the gratification of passion” - if it is not done for procreation. This is typical of the patristics. He offers no mention of love or unification as aspects of the sexual embrace. Again, this is typical. For him, the pleasure of sex is tolerable only because of the good end of making babies. If that end is not present, sexual pleasure is reprehensible and he seems not to recognize the possibility of having sex with one’s spouse as an expression of love. The Church’s teaching about sex has evolved and, I believe, deepened.


Monday, July 2, 2012

2) The Morality of Birth Control - The means

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The means, techniques, or methods of birth control include 1) abortion and abortifacients 2) sterilization, 3) artificial contraception, which includes barrier methods such as condoms and hormonal methods such as “the pill,” 4) behavioral methods that limit sexual activity to infertile acts such as onanism, oral sex, et cetera, 5) periodic abstinence, the most effective method of which is known as natural family planning (NFP), and 6) total abstinence.

The Catholic Church has undertaken to evaluate morally each of these means of birth control. The Second Vatican Council, in its document Gaudium et Spes (GS), defends the competency of the magisterium of the Church to make this evaluation, stating: “Sons [and, presumably, daughters] of the Church may not undertake methods of birth control which are found blameworthy by the teaching authority of the Church in its unfolding of the divine law” (51.3). The teaching of the Catholic Church on the immorality of certain means is clear in forbidding all but the last two of the six methods listed above.

Drawing from a 13th-century manuscript of Pseudo-Apuleius's Herbarium
depicting a pregnant woman and another holding some pennyroyal. 
Pennyroyal was historically used as an herbal abortifacient.
1) Direct abortion is the willful taking of an innocent human life which began at conception and is an “unspeakable crime” (GS 51.3; CCC 2271). In his encyclical Humanae Vitae (HV), which, from a Catholic point of view, is a foundational document on the issue of birth control, Paul VI writes “Direct abortion... [is] to be absolutely excluded as lawful means of regulating the number of children” (14).

2) He continues, “Equally to be condemned, as the magisterium of the Church has affirmed on many occasions, is direct sterilization, whether of the man or of the woman, whether permanent or temporary” (HV 14). Sterilization, which mutilates a healthy body with the intention of disrupting its natural healthy functions, disrespects bodily integrity and consequently is against the moral law (CCC 2297).

3) Regarding artificial contraception, Paul VI unambiguously writes, “Sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive [is] intrinsically wrong” (HV 14; CCC 2370). The primary reason that these acts are immoral is their deliberate disruption of one of the two primary ends of sex in marriage. There is an “inseparable connection, established by God, which man on his own initiative may not break, between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act” (HV 12). Contraception is a deliberate denial of the procreative significance of sex. While it is true that sex is not only for making babies but also essentially for making love, it remains true that it is also essentially for making babies and that God created it for this great purpose also. For this reason, “each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life” (HV 11).

4) Recent documents of the Church have said little about behavioral methods of birth control. However, for exactly the same reasons as those presented against contraception, the consistent teaching of the Church opposes these methods as well. Their clear prohibition extends from biblical times into the twentieth century, as Pius XI demonstrated in 1930 in his encyclical Casti Connubii. Referring to patristic interpretation of the story of Onan in Genesis, he writes,
Holy Writ bears witness that the Divine Majesty regards with greatest detestation this horrible crime and at times has punished it with death. As St. Augustine notes, "Intercourse even with one's legitimate wife is unlawful and wicked where the conception of the offspring is prevented. Onan, the son of Juda, did this and the Lord killed him for it" (Casti Connubii 55; Gen 38: 8-10).
Some exegesis is necessary at this point. The story of Onan is the only direct description of birth control in scripture, and the method described is behavioral: “when he went in to his brother's wife he spilled the semen on the ground” (Gen 38:9). The story gives us both Onan’s means – coitus interruptus, sometimes also known as onanism – and his ends: “Onan knew that the offspring would not be his,” so he avoided conception, “lest he should give offspring to his brother. And what he did was displeasing in the sight of the LORD, and he slew him also” (Gen 38:9-10). Why did the Lord kill Onan in this story? Both St. Augustine and Pope Pius XI believe that Onan’s crime was his means of avoiding conception. However, Onan’s reason for doing so was also immoral – he did not want to fulfill the conditions of a levirate marriage. He selfishly did not want to sire heirs for his deceased brother. So perhaps this was his crime. I think, however, that it is most reasonable and consistent with Christian tradition to consider that both his reason and his means – “what he did” – were immoral and that the Lord punished him for both of these reasons.

In its prohibition of these four methods of birth control, the Catholic Church is completely consistent with the fathers of the Church, who are universal in their opposition to such acts. However, the fathers went further than the Church does today and would also condemn what we now call 5) NFP. For the fathers, the only moral means of birth control was 6) total abstinence. I will examine the patristic thoughts on these issues in the next post.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

1) The Morality of Birth Control - Introduction

Some ancient readers of this blog may remember my earlier writing on the morality of birth control. The next several posts will be a massive reworking of my original posts which have been deleted as my understanding of this has significantly evolved over time.

There are few issues so disputed within the Church and between Christians of all kinds as the morality of birth control. Most commonly, the dispute is about whether or not artificial contraception is a morally licit means of regulating birth, but birth control is not exactly synonymous with contraception. Birth control is the regulation of the number and/or frequency of births. This is done for numerous reasons and by numerous means, both of which need to be evaluated morally. The debate among Christians extends beyond the means of birth control to which, if any, circumstances justify its use. Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox teachings on this issue differ on significant points, which presents unique pastoral problems to Eastern Catholics. This is in addition to the many problems universal to any who would take a moral stance on this issue.


Saturday, June 2, 2012

Marriage Rites

Recently, I unexpectedly attended a wedding of two people I’d never met, which puts marriage in my mind.

There are certain repeated themes in the Byzantine rites of betrothal and crowning that may be helpful to remember when thinking about the nature of marriage.

7th century Byzantine wedding ring
depicting Christ joining the right hands 

of the bride and groom.
Inscribed: ομόνοια 
- Louvre
The betrothal includes prayers for salvation, procreation, love, unity, and faith and ends with a prayer describing the bestowed rings as biblical symbols of authority, glory, truth, and compassion. Of these themes, love is the one most remember and, if understood rightly, it is the most important. Understood rightly, it includes and does not neglect any of these other essential aspects of married life.

The crowning rite then reiterates these themes. Importantly, the joining of the right hands signifies unification. The prayer here remembers the creation of Adam and Eve, which implicitly recalls the prelapsarian united and good humanity (ἄνθρωπος), now reunified by the mystery of crowning. Emphasizing this unity, the priest asks God to yoke the couple like Adam and Eve and to crown them in one flesh. He also again prays for the blessing of offspring – an essential intention of marriage.

One meaning recalled by the crowning that follows and by a troparion sung during the dance of Isaias is the crowns of martyrdom and the self-sacrificial love martyrdom entails. This kind of love - the kind that will lay down life for the other - is the kind needed also in marriage.

From the troparion, in Tone 7:
“Holy Martyrs, who fought the good fight and were crowned, intercede with the Lord to have mercy on our souls.” 
I occasionally get out the service book from my own wedding and read it. I think rereading these services prayerfully can help a marriage. They provide good instruction on healthy and holy matrimonial life and a corrective to destructive self-centeredness.

Monday, May 21, 2012

For today's feast of Ss. Constantine and Helen, Equals to the Apostles

Perhaps so his baptism would cleanse as many sins as possible, St. Constantine the Great, ἰσαπόστολος, postponed it until he was near death. In the meantime, just for example, he ordered the poisoning of his son Crispus and the scalding suffocation of his wife Fausta (326). His sins were great. Then his glorification shows God’s great mercy. His baptism was by the Arian Bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia (337). Then his canonization demonstrates one significant thing that extra ecclesiam nulla salus does not mean. This implicit acceptance of a baptism from a heretical hand shows the mysterious workings of God’s grace.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Confession and Eucharist

The mysteries of the Church - like the Church herself - are each human and divine. They are each an act of God performed through humans upon humans. As with the rest, this is also so of confession and eucharist. Each is both of God and of man. Each is both of the God-man. If I may say so, however, there is a manner in which confession more greatly emphasizes the human and eucharist the divine.

This is so in reference to the forgiveness of our sins. Both confession and eucharist are for the forgiveness of our sin, so why do we need both? Because the Church, which is the assembly of those in Christ, is both human and divine.

God knows what you’ve done. He knows your sin. He knows also whether you approach him in penitence. If you do, He receives you in mercy and forgiveness into communion with himself in the eucharist, which we receive for the remission of our sins and for life everlasting. If you do not, perhaps you eat and drink judgment and condemnation upon yourself. The eucharist offers you the divine seal of your forgiveness in Jesus Christ by uniting you to him - by making you a part of his own body. The miracle of the eucharist - to paraphrase Taft - is not simply to make bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus, but more importantly, to make you, together with all the people of God, the members of his Church, into the body and blood of Jesus.

The human members of this body, however, do not know what you’ve done. They do not know your sin. The Church, as both a human and divine institution must offer its members both human and divine forgiveness. For humans to forgive, they must hear confessions, and so James taught us in our apostolic infancy to confess our sins to one another, not only to whisper them into the wind that only God can hear. God has become a man and he is acting through men in his Church. As a man, he waits to hear your confession spoken with your lips. Your lips, and the ears of the priest who hears what they speak, are entirely human. They are dust and to dust they shall return. It’s true. But it is also true that they are taken on by God himself in his incarnation. They are being raised up and given eternal life. They are being divinized. For the Church in her humanity to offer you human forgiveness and reintegration into her human community, she must hear your human confession. This human forgiveness is necessary for you because it is being made divine and what sins humans forgive are forgiven also by God.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Blessed are those like Christ

            In his hymn, “On the birth of our Lord,” the thirty-first of the Hymns of Virginity, St. Ephrem the Syrian, whose feast is today, employs many images to describe poetically the one who surpasses our everyday speech. He describes Christ as atoning Hyssop, Libation, and Lamb (str. 4-5). Christ is the Priest and the Sacrifice (str. 5). He is the Treasurer and the Treasure (str. 2, 7). He is Fountain, Instruction, Remembrance, Trust, Rock, Curdled Milk, and Justifying Wall (str. 7-8). He is the Gate and the Yoke (str. 9, 11). He is represented by the Eucharistic images of the Grape-Cluster of mercy and the Ear of Wheat (str. 13-14). He is the Furnace, the Mirror, and the skilled Sailor (str. 10, 12, 15). It would be easily possible to multiply images of Christ endlessly, and Ephrem has begun to try. “Christ [is]… above every name that is named” (Eph 1:20-21). No single poetic image, however profound, can ever completely contain or express the inexhaustible mystery of Christ. The use of many, therefore, benefits the attempt to grow in understanding.
Icon of St. Ephrem writing
            Each of Ephrem’s images of Christ has in common a salvific character. Characteristically, in this hymn, he presents an image of Christ at the beginning of each strophe and ends each strophe with the exclamation, “Blessed is…” the one who benefits in the way particularly emphasized by this particular image.  In other words, blessed is the one whom Christ saves or blessed is the one who becomes more like Christ. Many of these images emphasize Christ’s redemptive and atoning role. Others, three in particular, especially struck me and seem to emphasize theosis – becoming like Christ – as the means of salvation. These are the Furnace, the Mirror, and the Sailor (str. 10, 12, 15).

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