Category Archives: Church Life

Benefiting the heart and soul of the parishioner.

What is the Antimins Or Antimension?

(A Greek word meaning “in place of the table”)

In the Orthodox Christian liturgical tradition, the Antimins is among the most important liturgical adornments used in the altar during the Divine Liturgy. It is a type of icon, a rectangular cloth, traditionally sewn of either linen or silk.

Beautifully embellished, it always reflects the image of Christ’s entombment, the four Evangelists and scriptural passages related to the Eucharist. A small piece of a martyr’s relic is ceremoniously and prayerfully placed into the fold of the Antimins as each one is blessed. It is an essential component without which the Holy Eucharist cannot be celebrated. This Antimins is inscribed with the text from the Holy Saturday Troparion, “The noble Joseph, taking down Thy most pure body from the tree, wrapped it in clean linen and sweet spices, and laid it in a new tomb.”

The Antimins, once properly folded, sits in the center of another slightly larger cloth called the eileton by which it is completely encased and protected. The two, which are folded in the same manner, are then placed in the center of the altar table, underneath the Gospel Book and unfolded only during the Divine Liturgy in the moments before the great entrance. After the Great entrance, the chalice and diskos are placed on the Antimins and the Gifts (bread and wine) are consecrated. The Antimins remains unfolded until all have received Holy Communion at which time the chalice and diskos are then returned to the Table of oblation (Prothesis). The priest must very carefully inspect the Antimins checking that no particles are left behind, on or underneath it or between the Antimins and the eiliton. At the end of the liturgy, the Antimins is folded into thirds, beginning horizontally from the bottom up, and then in thirds again vertically from left to right. The same follows for the eileton. When the two are unfolded for use once again, the opened Antimins reflects creases that form the sign of the cross. A flattened natural sponge (usually natural loofah), used to collect any crumbs which might fall onto the Holy Table, is kept inside the folded Antimins.

The Antimins is consecrated and signed and/or sealed by the presiding Metropolitan. Upon the arrival of the Metropolitan to any church or monastery under his omophorion, he first enters the altar and checks the Antimins to ensure that it has been properly cared for and that it is, in fact, the one he himself issued. The Antimins and the chrism are the means by which a hierarch gives his blessing for priests to celebrate the Divine Liturgy and Holy Mysteries in his absence. It is, in fact, the only means by which a priest is authorized to conduct divine services. In the rare case that a Metropolitan was to withdraw his blessing from a priest to serve the Holy Mysteries, he would confirm that decision with the gesture of removing or retracting the Antimins and chrism.

Since the Antimins is a consecrated object of the church, it should only be handled by a vested bishop or priest and no one else. One should, at the very least, be vested in his stole (epitrachelion).

The Antimins, being a substitute for the altar table, may be used to celebrate the Eucharist even on top of an altar table that has not yet been consecrated. In emergencies, when an altar table is not available, the Antimins serves an important function in enabling Divine services to take place outside of churches or chapels. In the early church, if the priest celebrated at a consecrated altar, the sacred elements were placed only on the eileton. However, the current practice is for the priest to always use the Antimins on top of the eileton even on a consecrated altar table already housing relics.

Great care should be taken not to stain or damage the Antimins in any way including never washing or dry cleaning it. The Antimins has already been cleaned and protected against spills and stains of any kind. Should the Antimins become worn, torn or damaged, please contact the Metropolitan’s office for instructions on return and replacement protocol.

No writing or inscription should be present on the Antimins with the exception of the Metropolitan’s signature and seal signifying his blessing to his clergy to serve as well as his authority in the archdiocese entrusted to his care.L0259

How Do We “Work Out” Our Salvation?

Do we cooperate in our salvation? Do our efforts make a difference?

These questions lie at the heart of a centuries-old religious debate in Christianity. Classically, the Protestant reformers said, “No,” to these questions, arguing that we are saved solely and utterly by God’s grace, His unmerited favor. The Catholic Church replied that “faith without works” is dead and that faith alone is insufficient.

This debate, with various twists and turns, has continued down through the centuries of Christian culture. At one point, there were complaints of “cheap grace,” where the exaltation of pure grace over works led to a very complacent and lazy Christianity. There were also periods of extreme reaction, with guilt-driven excesses of devotion.

Eastern Orthodoxy is a late-comer to this debate, but it is not a stranger. Contemporary Orthodox are quick to latch on to the doctrine of “synergy” and take sides against the cheap grace of Protestant Evangelicalism. Classically, Orthodox thought holds both that we are saved through the action of God (grace), but that we necessarily cooperated in that work (synergy=cooperation). For many converts, this balance has seemed attractive and a needed corrective to the feel-good theology of contemporary Christian culture. But it has a dark side.

That dark side is found in the echoes of the guilt-ridden specters of works-righteousness. How much cooperation is enough? For it is obvious that we do not pray as we should or give as we should – or do anything as we should. If our cooperation is required, are we failing? For many in our culture the answer is inevitably, “Yes.” They never do enough, anywhere at any time. Their lives are haunted with disapproval and shame, well-worn paths that rarely let them venture into joy.

But it is a mistake to embrace synergy as part of the classical Protestant/Catholic debate. It was an answer to a question asked in a very different context and in centuries that long-predated the modern conversation. Synergy is not a talking-point within the grace-versus-works debate.

Synergy is certainly an affirmation of the human role in salvation. Its most famous example is found in the ‘yes’ of the Mother of God in the Incarnation of Christ. Her acceptance and embrace of the heavenly announcement are seen as necessary components in God-becoming-man. God does not impose Himself upon human freedom. Our free response is required for the life of true Personhood that is the hallmark of salvation.

Synergy is properly seen as response rather than work. The whole life of salvation is marked by grace and is gracious in all its aspects. Consider this statement in St. Paul:

Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness…(Rom 4:4-5).

There is a kind of work that has no wages and does not belong to the world of debt described by St. Paul. And it is this sort of work that is encompassed in the term synergy. That work can be described as gracious response. It is worth noting two instances in which the work of our spiritual lives is described:

Then they said to Him, “What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?”
Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent.” (Joh 6:28-29)

and

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1Th 5:16-18)

In the first case, “work” is equated with believing. It means that the work we do is to love Christ and to keep His commandments. In the second case, the “will of God” is fulfilled in giving thanks for all things. The dynamic of saving grace in our lives is marked by becoming like God. God gives graciously and freely. We receive graciously and freely by giving thanks for all things.

In this manner, our own “work” is itself marked by a kind of grace. We cannot hear the meaning of grace in English, but in the Greek, it also carries the meaning of “gift” (it’s the same word). Gifts are never given with an expectation of return – they are gracious and free. But they are only rightly received with thanksgiving. This is true of the life of grace in the believer.

There is a highly moralized version of synergy, in which God is seen to give us grace, but we must do something in our lives to make it effective. In this model we are always judging the “results” of our “cooperation” with grace, and assuming that the lousy outcomes we see are simply our fault. This experience becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure and remorse. It is a distortion of grace-filled synergy.

I have written (and been criticized for it) about the “unmoral Christian.” My intention has been to unmask and disarm this false notion of synergy. We indeed are not saved through the “works” that Protestants tend to criticize. The “work” we do is largely a state of heart from which all subsequent grace-empowered actions flow. That state of heart is best described as “grateful thanksgiving.” The Eucharistic life is the true existence of the Christian. The giving of thanks is the first of all works and the sine qua non of the spiritual life. Everything that proceeds from the giving of thanks works to our salvation. That which does not proceed from the giving of thanks tends to work to our destruction.

There has grown up a virtual cottage industry of Orthodox commentary (particularly on the internet where all of us can self-publish). This commentary (including that by some priests) is often marked by poor theological training or understanding, by argument and debate, and by an extreme lack of experience in the actual guidance of souls towards healing and salvation. That is to say – much of it is worthless and some of it is actually damaging.

This can especially be true in discussions of synergy. The wrong treatment of such pastoral matters can produce despair and distrust in naive readers whose expectations have been raised through the reading of the lives of the saints and yet whose experience is marked by the same repeated moral failures that they have always known. Well-intentioned but ignorant writers argue that what is needed is yet more moral goading. I have been criticized for possibly lightening the moral load or suggesting that all moral effort is of no use.

One form of moral effort (the most common) is indeed of no use. It belongs to the same category as the works criticized by Protestant theology. We pray, with no understanding, laboring to complete a prayer rule that amounts to little more than “going through the motions.” We fast as though every slip were a matter of sin in need of confession. Some go so far as to carefully search through the labels on every grocery product, seeking for tale-tell signs of “milk products,” having invented for themselves a new yoke of bondage that turns Orthodox fasting into a new version of kosher. In short, there is a form of asceticism that is ill-taught and ill-practiced and produces either despairing Christians or oppressive Pharisees (sometimes in one and the same person).

The grounding of the Christian life is thanksgiving. If you cannot fast with thanksgiving, your fast will be of little use. The same extends to all Christian practices and commandments. The essential work of the Christian life is grateful thanksgiving. It is for this reason that Fr. Alexander Schmemann wrote: “Anyone capable of thanksgiving is capable of salvation.”

There are very deep forms of asceticism, but even these are rightly rooted in the giving of thanks. In the 20th century, perhaps no saint is better known for his ascetical achievements than St. Silouan of Athos. He is known to have endured some 15 years of the experience of hell in his prayers. At its depth, he heard Christ say, “Keep your mind in hell and despair not.” His interpreter and biographer, the Elder Sophrony of Essex, however, is reported to have said, “If you will give God thanks always and for all things, you will fulfill the saying, ‘Keep your mind in hell and despair not.’”

The first duty of a spiritual father is to lead a soul into the practice of giving thanks. In this manner they will acquire the Spirit of Peace and be able to sustain the Christian life. But without thanksgiving, they will only fall into despair or delusion. Thanksgiving is the foundation of the Christian life. When this is understood and in place, other things can be properly understood.

For example, it is common to read in the spiritual writings of Orthodoxy (and to hear in the services) terms such as “self-loathing.” This is quite common, for example, in the Elder Sophrony’s work. It is very easily taken in the wrong way and those without a proper foundation will likely come away with a terrible distortion.

“Self-loathing,” in the sense that it is used, is not brought about by the contemplation of our sins (a moral condemnation and disgust with the self). It is rather brought about by the contemplation of God’s love and His fullness of being. It is only as we see ourselves in the light of God Himself, that we can “achieve” the “self-loathing” that Sophrony describes. But even this is joyful, because it takes place in the gracious presence of the grace-giving God.

Thanksgiving, as gracious gift, draws us into the very life of the Trinity. For it is that Life that is described by St. John Chrysostom in his Liturgy:

The priest prays: “…but account me, Your sinful and unworthy servant, worthy to offer gifts to You. For You are the Offerer and the Offered, the Receiver and the Received, O Christ our God, and to You we ascribe glory, together with Your Father, Who is without beginning, and Your all-holy, good, and life-creating Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages.”

It is this gifting life of the Offerer and the Offered, the Receiver and the Received that we enter as we rightly give thanks always for all things. This is our work, our true synergy, without which we cannot be saved.

Frequent Communion

Eternity is an everlasting banquet (the Divine Liturgy) that takes place in the heavenly realm. Every time we participate in the Divine Liturgy we are transported into a place where there is neither time nor space, and participate in that very banquet. As we receive the Holy Mysteries (Christ’s very Body and Blood), we receive the healing medicine for that which ails us. Our brokenness in both body and soul are given the healing medicine that we so very much need.

God is everywhere present and fills all things. There is no place where He is not. Hell fire is none other than the Fire of God, burning those who are unloving and unresponsive to His invitation to commune with Him. God does not send anyone to hell, for we sentence ourselves. Eternity with God necessitates a transformation of our souls, that we be purified in order to be engulfed by God’s uncreated light. Without transformation the fire of God burns us, not because He desires we be burned, but because our fallen nature can not withstand the presence of God without having been purified.

The Eucharist is the very medicine that God designed for this transformation. Our response should be one of humble submission to this invitation to commune with the very God Who created us. Holy Communion is meant to be the very agent that changes us, making us whole. The Holy Mysteries give us life. Frequent confession and communion are the means we have for change.

The Eucharist is both mystical and symbolic and is understood to be the genuine Body and Blood of Christ, precisely because bread and wine are the mysteries and symbols of God’s true and genuine presence and His manifestation to us in Christ.

The Holy Eucharist defies analysis and explanation in purely rational and logical terms, precisely because it is a mystery. The Eucharist, as is Christ himself, is a mystery of the Kingdom of Heaven which, as Jesus has told us, is “not of this world.” The Eucharist, because it belongs to God’s Kingdom, is truly free from the earth-born “logic” of fallen humanity.

Saint John of Damascus says, “If you enquire how this happens, it is enough for you to learn that it is through the Holy Spirit … we know nothing more than this, that the word of God is true, active, and omnipotent, but in its manner of operation unsearchable”.

Before the reception of Holy Communion the following prayer is generally recited by the priest on behalf of all. It is each person’s act of personal commitment to Christ, their promise of faith in Him and the Sacred Mysteries of His Church.

“I believe, O Lord, and I confess that Thou art truly the Christ, the Son of the Living God, who camest into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the first (1 Timothy 1:15). I believe also that this is truly Thine own most pure Body, and that this is truly Thine own most precious Blood. Therefore I pray Thee: Have mercy upon me and forgive me my transgressions, committed in word and deed, whether consciously or unconsciously. And make me worthy to partake without condemnation of Thy most pure Mysteries, for the remission of sins and unto life everlasting. Of Thy Mystical Supper, O Son of God, accept me today as a communicant. For I will not speak of Thy Mystery to Thine enemies, neither like Judas will I give Thee a kiss; but like the thief will I confess Thee: ‘Remember me, O Lord, in Thy Kingdom.’ May the communion of Thy Holy Mysteries be neither to my judgment, nor to my condemnation, 0 Lord, but to the healing of soul and body.”

Love in Christ,
Abbot Tryphon

Wednesday April 22, 2015 / April 9, 2015

Cremation or Burial?

The first time I ever attended a funeral service where cremation of the body of the deceased had taken place was in Portland, Oregon, many years ago. An Episcopal priest friend had died and had requested his body be cremated. Walking into the church and seeing a small box sitting before the altar was a shock for me. Cremation was always something only non-believers practiced, Christians having always viewed cremation as something of pagan roots. I clearly remember feeling cheated out of that last goodby, unable as I was to view my friend for one last time.

In ancient times pagans always either burned the bodies of their dead, or left them for birds to consume, whereas Jews and Christians placed their dead in tombs, or in the earth, awaiting the bodily resurrection. For Christians the belief that the body was the temple of the Holy Spirit and therefore sacred, made the burning of the body unacceptable. Bodies of our dead were always to be treated with great reverence. From the earliest of times the bodies of the martyrs and saints were buried in the catacombs, their tombs used as altars for the celebration of the Eucharistic offering, catacombs often being the only safe place for believers to worship without threat of arrest.

One of my earliest memories was going to a family plot in Spokane, WA. with my maternal grandmother. She would lay flowers on the graves of her loved ones, family members who were long dead before I was even born. Even though many had been gone from this life for a few generations, to my grandmother they were still alive. She would sit on a tombstone, flowers in hand, and tell me about her sisters, her parents, and other family members. Her shared memories were made all the more real seeing the names of these loved ones chiseled in stone. The ritual of visiting graves was common back in those days, with families keeping alive the memories, while showing their love and respect for their dead relatives by tending to the graves, and leaving flowers. It was even quite common, especially in Western Europe, for friends and families to take picnics to graveyards.

There is also the role cemeteries can play in our own spiritual lives, for they are clear reminders of our own mortality. I have already picked the plot where my own remains will be placed on the grounds of our monastery. Seeing where one will eventually be laid to rest is a good way to remember one’s own eventual death, reminding ourselves of our own mortality, and to use our remaining days wisely.

The Orthodox Church forbids the cremated remains of anyone to be brought into the temple for services, or for any other reason, and funeral services over cremated remains is strictly forbidden. The practice is seen as a denial of the bodily resurrection, not because God can’t raise the dead from ashes, but because the practice does not reflect the Church’s teaching that the body of a believer housed the Holy Spirit. It is also ignoring the fact that believers receive, in their lifetime, the very Body and Blood of Christ, and the body is therefore made holy in preparation for that day when we shall be united in both body and soul, to live forever with God.

My parents converted to Orthodoxy in their mid seventies and are buried in the church yard next to Saint John the Baptist Church in Post Falls, Idaho. Having them in an Orthodox cemetery, side by side, means a lot to me, and I visit their graves whenever I am in Northern Idaho on visits to my family. Having a plot to visit continues that connection and allows me a chance to show my love for them by placing flowers on their graves as I offering prayers for their souls. It saddens me that so many people have deprived themselves of such moments, having spread their loved one’s ashes over golf courses or on beaches. The loss of family cemeteries has contributed, I am convinced, to the breakdown of the all important extended families that were at one time so important to the cohesiveness of family values.

For those who would say that cremation is more ecologically sound, I would point out that the particles dispersed in the atmosphere are by no means good for the environment. A new way of burial, known as green burial, is gaining popularity throughout the country and is far more ecologically sound than cremation. Green burials require a simple pine coffin with no metal, nails or glue, using only wooden pegs and natural materials. The body is not embalmed (in keeping with Orthodox tradition), so nothing goes into the earth that is not natural. This is one of the most inexpensive ways of internment and is in keeping with the canons of the Orthodox Church. This is the way my own body will be laid to rest.

With love in Christ,
Abbot Tryphon

Cremation

55 Maxims for Christian Living by the late Fr. Thomas Hopko

55 Maxims for Christian Living by the late Fr. Thomas Hopko

1. Be always with Christ.

2. Pray as you can, not as you want.
3. Have a keepable rule of prayer that you do by discipline.
4. Say the Lord’s Prayer several times a day.
5. Have a short prayer that you constantly repeat when your mind is not occupied with other things.
6. Make some prostrations when you pray.
7. Eat good foods in moderation.
8. Keep the Church’s fasting rules.
9. Spend some time in silence every day.
10. Do acts of mercy in secret.
11. Go to liturgical services regularly
12. Go to confession and communion regularly.
13. Do not engage intrusive thoughts and feelings. Cut them off at the start.
14. Reveal all your thoughts and feelings regularly to a trusted person.
15. Read the scriptures regularly.
16. Read good books a little at a time.
17. Cultivate communion with the saints.
18. Be an ordinary person.
19. Be polite with everyone.
20. Maintain cleanliness and order in your home.
21. Have a healthy, wholesome hobby.
22. Exercise regularly.
23. Live a day, and a part of a day, at a time.
24. Be totally honest, first of all, with yourself.
25. Be faithful in little things.
26. Do your work, and then forget it.
27. Do the most difficult and painful things first.
28. Face reality.
29. Be grateful in all things.
30. Be cheefull.
31. Be simple, hidden, quiet and small.
32. Never bring attention to yourself.
33. Listen when people talk to you.
34. Be awake and be attentive.
35. Think and talk about things no more than necessary.
36. When we speak, speak simply, clearly, firmly and directly.
37. Flee imagination, analysis, figuring things out.
38. Flee carnal, sexual things at their first appearance.
39. Don’t complain, mumble, murmur or whine.
40. Don’t compare yourself with anyone.
41. Don’t seek or expect praise or pity from anyone.
42. We don’t judge anyone for anything.
43. Don’t try to convince anyone of anything.
44. Don’t defend or justify yourself.
45. Be defined and bound by God alone.
46. Accept criticism gratefully but test it critically.
47. Give advice to others only when asked or obligated to do so.
48. Do nothing for anyone that they can and should do for themselves.
49. Have a daily schedule of activities, avoiding whim and caprice.
50. Be merciful with yourself and with others.
51. Have no expectations except to be fiercely tempted to your last breath.
52. Focus exclusively on God and light, not on sin and darkness.
53. Endure the trial of yourself and your own faults and sins peacefully, serenely, because you know that God’s mercy is greater than your wretchedness.
54. When we fall, get up immediately and start over.
55. Get help when you need it, without fear and without shame.

Grieving The Loss of a Loved One

We need to mourn. One of the most tremendously rewarding and challenging aspects of the priesthood is comforting people in their darkest moments of sorrow. Do not be mistaken and think that priests are exempt from the pain of those whom they try to comfort, or that we have magical words that somehow ease the pain or bring order to the chaos of grief. Platitudes are useless in dark days of mourning. Telling someone who has suffered the loss of a loved one that they are “in a better place,” is oddly of little comfort. In a powerful witness of human behavior, Christ “does not say, ‘Well, now he is in heaven, everything is well; he is separated from this difficult and tormented life.’ Christ does not say all those things we do in our pathetic and uncomforting attempts to console. In fact he says nothing—he weeps.”

We need to embrace the grief, and honor the bereavement process. Grief is confirmation that our loved one was a person of value, a beloved son or daughter, a cherished brother or sister, a treasured friend. Grief is how we honor a well-lived life, for the death is grief-worthy. In grieving, we do their memory justice, and follow in the example of Jesus, who wept at the grave of his friend Lazarus. Like martyrs of the ancient church, like Lazarus in the New Testament, the death of a loved one is galling for those of left behind, for we wonder how we are going to fill the space that they once occupied. The mystery of a future without our friend or relative is a daunting, as the mystery of death itself.

As a priestmonk of the Orthodox Church, I am comfortable with this mystery, as all Christians should be. Death can be a mystery precisely because the triumph over death is not a mystery. As the Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann wrote, “in essence, Christianity is not concerned with coming to terms with death, but rather with the victory over it.” In the light of everlasting life, in the name of Jesus Christ, the dreadful threat and dark mystery that is death is transformed into a happy and victorious event for the believer, and “Death is swallowed up in victory.” (1 Cor. 15:54)

So mourning is an ancient ritual, one in which Jesus participated, just as those before Him. For all of us, all people, death is a common element of humanity, the common trait that we share, and the common enemy of our loved ones. And like grief, victory over death binds people together in a larger, more powerful community, the community that is found in the Christian faith. People accuse Christians of being members of a “death cult,” obsessed with a dying savior and focused on the afterlife to the exclusion of the present; but they are wrong. Christianity does not deny life, Christianity affirms life. Christianity affirms life even in death, because for Christians, death does not remove the relationship that exists. In death, as in life, we love and honor our friend or loved one, and death cannot take them from us. Death may take them, but it has also provides us with the opportunity to live with the hope of one day joining them. And a life with hope is a good life.

So for us, death is the beginning of the true life that also awaits us beyond the grave, if indeed we have begun to live it here. Christ, “the resurrection and the life,” (John 11:25) transformed death. Christ assumed human flesh, Christ was crucified, resurrected, ascended to heaven and waits for us there, and Christ ushers us into new life both now and after our death. Therefore, even as death exposes our frailty and our grief, death does not reveal our finiteness; instead it reveals our infiniteness, our eternity. To this end, the Christian does not ponder the mystery of death in a way that is paralyzing, negative and apathetic, but in a way that is productive, positive and dynamic.

God, to whom you have entrusted your soul, is a good and perfect God. This God will do what is right with your child, what is just with your sister or brother, and what is honorable with your friend. There is no saying, no claim, no scripture that will give us peace in our loss right now or even calm our troubled souls; but we can find comfort and peace in God who is present with us, and in us and through us today as we gather in the intimacy of grief.

With love in Christ,
Abbot Tryphon

Memory Eternal:
I received word yesterday of the death of Protopresbyter Thomas Hopko, Dean Emeritus of Saint Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, Crestwood, NY, and noted Orthodox Christian priest, theologian, preacher, and speaker. I had the pleasure of meeting him on two occasions, and spoke with him by phone sometime ago. I will always remember him as a priest who cared deeply for others, and who loved God, and loved the Church. Memory eternal, O Lord, grant unto Thy servant, Protopresbyter Thomas.

Thursday March 19, 2015 / March 6, 2015Thomas-Hopko

Mourning the Loss of a Loved One