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Archive for the ‘Orthodoxy in Different Lands’ Category

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My car’s “icon corner” with very faded rose petals from the Epitaphion

I have seriously neglected this, my little spot on the internet. It’s not that I don’t want to write; it’s that life seems to get in the way of me having the chance to reflect on life. When I was a student in Thessaloniki, and even in the early years of us living in Newfoundland, I seemed to have so much more time. Now, I’m so busy during my workday that I’m too drained to take the time to craft a blog post in the evenings. And all too often the things I’m experiencing and observing in my social work practice aren’t things I can readily share with the public. Weekends are jammed with cleaning, Sunday school prep, church services and the few minutes I get to pursue my hobbies (painting icons, reading, writing, making prayer ropes, talking to my family on the phone, etc.).

But there has been one thing standing out in my mind lately that I thought I should share: how tempting it is to let the buzz of life infiltrate our senses to the point that we begin to lose a bit of the intensity we ought to exhibit for the spiritual life. I think when you have an intense job it makes things worse. I work predominately with women who identify as victims of violence. Usually when I disclose that detail about my work people’s faces scrunch up and they suck in air. I assure you it’s not as bad as it sounds. My primary role is to assist them when they are seeking safe accommodations, ie. to provide a solution to their need for housing. Easy. Sort of. But it can be really intense, especially when there is a need for intervention due to violence or the possibility of violence in vulnerable people’s lives. So, I get swept up in it. I get overly invested. I dream about them. I wake in the night and pray for them. I think of them when I chant the Psalms at church. I ache for them. All good, Christian emotions, right? Well, yeah, maybe.

20180102_084859[1]But, these strong emotions can also create a barrier for me to focus on my own spiritual health. Am I thinking too much about my clients when I should have a clear and focused mind for prayer? Am I allowing my emotional state to become imbalanced when I am suppose to be the calm in the storm for my clients? Am I considering myself a “good” Christian because I am invested in their lives, rather than grateful to God for putting people in my life through whom I can see Christ?

There can be too much of a good thing and I think it’s really important for those of us really invested in our careers (whatever they may be) to make sure we don’t allow them to replace our “first-love” (Rev 2:4). It’s not that we shouldn’t pour ourselves into the work we do; by all means, we should labour as best we can for the glory of God. But we shouldn’t give our whole heart away to our work. We need to keep it for Christ. We need to filter our strong ties to our work through our primary love for God.

I don’t know how to do this exactly, but I’ll tell you a few tips I try to employ. Though truthfully, some days are better than others and many days instead of employing these tips I turn the radio up really loud in my car, roll down the windows, and exhale many times in an effort to calm down :).

Back to the tips: Have prayer ropes strategically placed everywhere you can: in your car, on your wrist, in your office. I recently made about a dozen (what I like to call) “finger-skinis” which are small ring-size, 12 knot prayer ropes (komboskinis) that fit on your finger. I try to always have one on my person because they are great for being discrete when in meetings or with clients.

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Sunday school “finger-skinis” the kids use before we begin our lesson.

Play recordings of prayers. My go-to? This. It’s in Slavonic so even when I play it in my office at work no one knows it’s actually just a repetition of the Jesus Prayer. #spiritualhacks

Keep icons in discrete places in your office (again, if you can). Write prayers or inspirational quotes on sticky notes. Say a prayer before you start your work day. Call upon the saint of the day. We can employ so many things to bring our mind and heart back into focus, to constantly remember, “If we live we will live for Christ and if we die we will die for Christ and inherit eternal life”. (I can’t remember which saint said this but it’s written on a sticky note in my office).

I’ve quoted this secular song before, but I feel it’s such a valid question we need to be asking ourselves. So I’ll pose it again: “Did you exchange a walk-on part in the war for a lead role in a cage?”

Where our treasure is there will our hearts be also. Our work lives can contribute to making sure our treasure, and therefore our hearts, are in the right place so long as we don’t allow our treasure to be our work/ school/ fill-in-the-blank. They are means to an end: the end is love for Christ expressed in our love for others, not the other way around.

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An incredible documentary by director Dinu Cristian: utterly inspiring and spiritually encouraging! You can watch the whole thing below.

Hat tip to the article that brought it – and the Orthodox Christian Film Festival, Byzanfest – to my attention!

You can read the whole article here: Byzanfest: The World’s First Online Orthodox Christian Short Film Festival on pravmir.com

 

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Fr. John and I were recently visiting our families in New Brunswick for a few weeks so I haven’t blogged lately. Here is a picture of my immediate family (my mum, sister-in-law, brother, father, husband, myself and my sister) at church in NB and a quotation I really love. St. Ignatius’ words help me feel less home-sick and more at peace with God’s will.

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‘Whether I desire it or not, death will come. Other situations may arise that separate me from those whom I consider my own, and they will no longer be mine. They were never mine in actual fact. There was some sort of relation between us, and I, being fooled by this relation, called and considered them my own. But if they were truly mine, they would forever remain in my possession. The creature belongs only to the Creator. He is their God and Lord. My Lord, to you I give Your own. 

-St. Ignatius Brianchaninov

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Christ is risen!

Here in Canada we have a federal holiday in honour of Queen Victoria, aptly called Victoria Day. As a result most people had the day off on Monday, May 20th.

Our weather has been so miserable lately (as is status quo for “Spring” in Newfoundland). When the sun suddenly came out on Monday Fr. John sent a quick email to the parish: “Matushka and I are going for a hike in Middle Cove. You’re welcome to join us. We’ll meet on the beach.” And it was a delight to see how many were able to make it on such short notice. But, to be fair, when the sun comes out in Newfoundland it seems everyone rushes outdoors because you don’t know when you’ll see it again.

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You can see from the photos I took it was sunny, but chilly. In fact, it full-on snowed two days later. So we’re especially grateful for our Monday-holiday impromptu hike and for our adventurous parishioners.

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Christ is risen!

We put this gold cross in the window so people would be able to easily identify which townhouse is Holy Lady of Vladimir Mission. But in the night the cross wasn’t visible so the children and I devised a plan: to put painter’s tape on the external light where the unit number is lit up. We giggled saying those unfamiliar with the Byzantine cross motif might mistake our cross for a crack in the light that we tried to tape up :).

The little note pictured above was one of two notes we attached to wine bottles and left on the doorstep of our neighbours in hopes they would appreciate a little gift and forgive our late night festivities: “Hey neighbour! Here’s a bottle of wine. Please don’t call the police when, in the middle of the night, you hear a house full of people respond to our priest with a resounding ‘Truly He is risen’!” is not what was written but certainly was the intended message :). And Glory to God! no one complained and we had an absolutely beautiful Paschal vigil.

 

 

This was the first time in six years when the faithful were able to hold candles throughout the entirety of the vigil. The choir sounded wonderful and the atmosphere was heavenly. I’m not a talented photographer and I only got to snap a few hurried photos because I had to get back to the “choir loft”. But at least these are nice keepsakes.

Afterward Fr. John blessed some Paschal baskets:

 

 

And of course the next day we had a lovely Agape’s Vespers. Although we weren’t a huge group the Gospel was read in 10 languages! Our traditional shared meal followed. And it was delicious! This is always one of my favourite times: everyone is at peace and filled with great joy at the Lord’s Resurrection.

 

 

We all enjoy spending time eating and chatting together. To make more room we placed a table at the back of the chapel so the children could eat upstairs with everyone (they usually have the habit of taking their food down to the Sunday school room).

 

 

May God make us worthy to safeguard the joy, peace and gratitude instilled in our hearts by the celebration of Christ’s holy Resurrection! It’s easy to let these bright days slip away if we don’t make a conscientious effort everyday to remind ourselves, “Jesus having risen from the grave as He foretold hath given us eternal life and great mercy!”

And I was pleased to get a more pleasant photo of Fr. John and me than the hurried one on the sixth anniversary of his priesthood :).

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Christ is risen!

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Papa Ephraim of St. Nilus’ Skete in Alaska (previously of St. Anthony’s Monastery in Arizona) wrote extensive journal entries during his two trips to India (in the Fall of 2018 and winter of 2019). His journal entries are posted in three parts: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. I really enjoyed reading them – not least because Papa Ephraim’s sweet and simple personality comes out so well in the posts that I found myself laughing out loud at some of his observations.

The experiences he describes of trying to spread Orthodox Christianity in India provoked me to reflect on mission work in general and imparting an Orthodox mindset to individuals living in an un-Orthodox culture in particular.

He writes:

In 1991 Fr. Ignatius, an Athonite hieromonk, went [to Calcutta] and had tremendous success in establishing Orthodoxy there. He managed to build several churches with the financial support he had from Greece, and he managed for several native people to be ordained to the priesthood. But after about five years of work there his visa expired, and he had to leave India. He ended up in Africa and became the bishop of Madagascar. After he left, much of his work started to disintegrate. One very sad phenomenon was that many of the converts from Hinduism to Orthodoxy went back to being Hindu after he left. Apparently, they were attracted to the Orthodox Church primarily because of the financial advantages they had in being Orthodox with Fr. Ignatius around. Now, of the thousands of people who had become Orthodox there, there are only about 70 people left who have remained faithful to the Church. But those people do not have any spiritual support, so those communities are in great spiritual need.

I think this passage illustrates an unfortunate reality that does not always get captured in stories about Orthodoxy spreading to hundreds of individuals at once: sometimes great numbers dwindle to small numbers. And while we glorify God for every individual baptized into Christ through Orthodoxy we must remind ourselves, as Bishop Augoustinos of Florina would say, we are seeking quality not quantity.

It’s an unfortunate reality (as well as a historical reality) that people fall away from Christ and His Church. This is something that should rightly be mourned but should not provoke us to despair. Every time someone falls away we should remember two things: first, that someone’s fall into mortal sin and/or apostasy does not necessarily mean the door to Christ is closed forever. People can and have returned to Christ from all sorts of states of spiritual decay. Second, that we mustn’t take our life in Christ for granted. We should struggle to become and remain humble so we will be protected from losing our faith. Only we have control over this.

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The following passage stood out to me because I know from our own experience doing mission work here in Newfoundland for six years how many talents are required in such instances and how few we seem to possess.

I am seeing more and more that being a missionary requires a unique set of talents. It is not enough to be just a devoted Christian with a good understanding of Orthodoxy, but one must also have the gift of speaking and the discernment to know what your listeners need to hear. It also requires a tremendous amount of patience and dedication, to spend years and years of sowing. And it helps if a missionary is an extrovert, who knows how to deal with all different kinds of people.

Really every possible talent can be put to good use in a mission setting because it takes one set of talents to attract new members and grow the Mission and another set to maintain the quality of a “little flock” (Luke 12:32). In each circumstance it’s important for us to give all we have to the service of the Lord through serving His flock.

Lastly, Papa Ephraim writes:

Acquiring an Orthodox mindset is something that takes years. It takes even longer when a catechumen has no access to an Orthodox spiritual father, Orthodox literature, an Orthodox parish, and living role models demonstrating what it means to be a serious Orthodox Christian. Also a catechumen needs to show some stability. This is why a person typically remains a catechumen for a year or longer before being baptized.

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Instilling an Orthodox mindset in the newly-converted is certainly a daunting task.  Throughout history the Gospel has been shared largely with illiterate peoples and so the fact that the newly-illumined in India do not have access to Orthodox literature is not unique to a newly-converted people.

I’m only focusing on one of the obstacles Papa mentions, but in my opinion, Orthodox divine services, more than Orthodox books on theology or even morality, need to be translated into the language of the newly converted.

The best way to firmly instill an Orthodox mindset in new converts as well as veteran Orthodox Christians is through participation in the divine services – and not just the Divine Liturgy. I mean if the faithful were to attend Vespers and Matins services, where the majority of our didactic hymnology is chanted, if the faithful were to listen attentively while attending said services, they would begin to grasp the important Orthodox concepts of repentance, of compunction, of mercy, of reliance on Christ to save us not only once but multiple times when we fall astray.

And here is where the conflict between Orthodox and non-Orthodox cultures is particularly highlighted. How can you explain these concepts to people who not only don’t speak your literal language but are unable to understand the spiritual language of Orthodox Christianity – of struggle and repentance? There is a spiritual language barrier between Orthodox and non-Orthodox (whether Christian or otherwise); our faith is so estranged from the world.

And so the best way to firmly establish someone in the Orthodox faith is for them to participate in Orthodox services. Not only does this provide them a tangible connection to the Tradition of Orthodox worship it narrates to them the Scriptures in an Orthodox chronology: you fall, you harken unto God, He hears you, you arise, you fall again, etc. In order to fully understand repentance one must live it and one step toward living it is to hear about it again and again through Orthodox services. This is why it is so important for the divine services to be in the language of the local people. Even in the absence of a parish, if such texts were translated the faithful could at very least learn to hold reader’s services.

But again, I’m not speaking of the Divine Liturgy which is predominately made up of standard prayers; I’m speaking of all the other services that are often barely attended but which have the power and ability to teach you the Old Testament types of Christ, the daily lives of the saints,  and the deep theology of our Church.

We should all attend as many Vespers and Matins services as possible. If our parish doesn’t hold them we should seek out liturgical books to read these services as a part of our private prayers. (I know it’s not easy to put services together but just reading the canons from the Menaion everyday would be a great start).

These are just some thoughts on missionary work that came to me on reflecting on Papa Ephraim’s experiences.

I hope and pray the efforts to catechize, baptize and build up the newly-illumined Orthodox faithful in India will continue to bear much spiritual fruit.

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CHRIST IS RISEN!

This video is from our first Pascha in Greece (2008) at the  Church of St. Anthony the Great in Thessaloniki. Fr. Theodore Zisis is the priest.

This post is set to publish at midnight Newfoundland Time (at least it’s supposed to). Our little Holy Lady of Vladimir Mission, currently occupying a townhouse as a chapel :), is the first to celebrate Christ’s resurrection on the North American continent.

In the Maritimes – where our families live – Christ’s resurrection will be celebrated one half hour later. This year my brother, Fr. Matthew Penney, is the serving priest at my family’s parish (St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church) in Saint John, New Brunswick (not to be confused with St. John’s, Newfoundland). So, that means my mum, my dad, my sister, my sister-in-law and my brother will all celebrate Pascha together for the very first time (since my father didn’t become Orthodox until 2015 and this is my brother and sister-in-laws first Pascha back in New Brunswick in years). Such a blessing! I’m with them in spirit, as Gerontissa Philareti told me, “There is no distance in the spiritual life.”

These high and holy days are filled with so much reflection for me. This is our 14th Pascha as Orthodox Christians: our first Pascha we were at St. Anthony’s Greek Orthodox Monastery in Arizona, our second was at St. Nicholas Korean Orthodox Church in Seoul, South Korea, the subsequent five were in Greece and the last seven! have been in Newfoundland. So many blessings, so many beautiful people, so many incredible hymns!

May God make us worthy to live the spiritual celebration of His holy resurrection for all eternity, together in His Kingdom!

Christ is risen and Hades is despoiled!

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