Patriarch Celebrates Historic Liturgy in Ancient Monastery

Patriarch Batholomew

Patriarch Batholomew

Orthodox Christians held the first Divine Liturgy in almost 90 years at an ancient monastery on the side of a Turkish mountain Sunday, after the government allowed worship there in a gesture toward religious minorities.

At least 1,500 pilgrims, including from Greece and Russia, traveled to the Byzantine-era monastery of Sumela for the service led by Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians.

The Islamic-oriented government, which is aiming to expand freedoms as part of its bid to join the European Union, has said worship can take place at the monastery once a year. Services were previously banned.

The symbolic event was also likely to boost reconciliation efforts between Turkey and Greece, two NATO allies that came to the brink of war three times between 1974 and 1996 over the ethnically divided island of Cyprus and territorial rights in the Aegean Sea.

Sumela, a spectacular structure cut into the side of a mountain, was abandoned around the time of Turkey’s foundation in 1923. The last Liturgy was held a year earlier amid conflict between Turks and Greeks. The remote site near the Black Sea has become a big tourist draw in the last few decades.

The patriarch, who is based in Istanbul, wore a white robe with golden lace, and carried a staff. Priests sang hymns and spread incense amid faded frescoes. Visitors who could not fit into the crowded monastery watched on a giant television screen several hundred meters below the building.

“It is a very exciting moment for us Greeks because it’s the first time we get to have such a Mass,” said 24-year-old Ketevan Nadareishvili. “We can pray on the land of my great-great-grandfathers.”

The patriarch said he hoped the desire to pray would not be misinterpreted.

“The culture of living together is a heritage our civilization left for us. Let’s make that heritage live on, and let us teach all, so that we do not suffer anymore, and families do not perish,” Bartholomew said in Turkish after the service. “The Sumela monastery has lived like a legend for decades among us, patiently waiting for this day to come.”

Despite the sense of celebration, the story of Orthodox Christians and religious expression in general in Turkey is a troubled one. Turkey’s government says it will increase freedoms, but critics believe change is too slow in a country with a staunchly secular system introduced by the national founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

Most of Turkey’s 72 million people are Muslim, but even many of those feel that their rights are curtailed by law. Female employees of the state are not allowed to wear Muslim headscarves at work, and in 2008, the Constitutional Court struck down a government-backed amendment lifting a ban on the wearing of headscarves in universities.

The Greek Orthodox community in Turkey has dwindled to about 2,000 (interestingly, the Russian Orthodox have grown to over 20,000). One of their key demands is the reopening of the Halki Theological School, a Greek Orthodox seminary on Heybeliada Island near Istanbul.

The school was closed to new students in 1971 after a law put religious and military training under state control. It shut its doors in 1985, when the last five students graduated. Western leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama, want Turkey to allow it to reopen. On a visit to Greece in May, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he was optimistic it would reopen.

Turkey has traditionally viewed the Istanbul-based patriarchate as a threat to state unity partly because of its ties with Greece, though relations between the two countries are improving. The patriarchate dates from the Byzantine Empire, which collapsed when Muslim Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople — now Istanbul — in 1453.

In a gesture to Armenian Christians, Turkey will also allow a Sept. 19 service at a newly restored Armenian church in eastern Turkey. Many international experts have judged the mass killing of Armenians around the time of World War I as a genocide. Turkey disputes the assessment.

For Videos of this historic event, go here.

Safely Home to Heaven

Christ Pantocrator

The following letter from an Orthodox nun to a troubled layman is a warm, sane and usable remedy for anyone troubled with doubts about the mercy and compassion of God.

Dear P.,

Christ is Risen!

I was glad you called this weekend and let me know how you are doing. It sounds like you have a pretty good case of Calvinist-Jansenist indigestion [1]: uncomfortable and debilitating, but not inevitably fatal. A lot of western converts to Orthodoxy—Americans, Germans, etc., suffer from this to one degree or another, especially early on in spiritual life. Our gerondissa at St. Paul’s calls it the Medieval Sickness, a combination of moralistic nitpicking, pride, secretiveness,lack of faith in God, and lack of belief in the compassion of God. It makes one pretty joyless, prone to ill-considered and short-lived bursts of ascetic effort (often as not alternating with equally ill-considered and short-lived bursts of carnal distractions of one sort or another), often melancholy, often judgmental. If you know much about the early history of New England colonization, you can see that the Puritans represent the acme of this spiritual type. [Read more…]

The Vocation of the Christian Warrior

St. George

by Fr. Gregory Jensen

Troparion of St George

As the deliverer of captives and defender of the poor, healer of the infirm and champion of kings, victorious great martyr George intercede with Christ our God for our souls salvation.

Our last conversation focused on the macro-level of the Church’s moral witness on matters of war and peace. In this second post I want to focus on the what is for me more interesting, observation micro-level and pastoral observation made by the fathers of the Sacred Bishops’ Council of the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate in their encyclical , “The Basis of the Social Concept.” Specifically, I am interested in the positive view the fathers hold for military service for Christians in general and of the Christian warrior in particular.

[Read more…]

Digital Natives Embrace Ancient Church

Twenty-somethings captivated by Orthodoxy

Tim Flinders will graduate from Grand Valley State University next month. Raised Lutheran, he also explored fundamentalist Baptism, Roman Catholicism and even Messianic Judaism before converting to Orthodox Christianity this year.

“Orthodoxy has completely transformed me already,” he said. “I feel like the first time in my life I’m growing spiritually.”

Flinders, 22, like many other young people converting to Eastern Orthodoxy, was looking for authenticity and historical accuracy in his Christian faith.

“I had so many different questions that needed to be answered,”

said Flinders, who added he wrestled with the many divisions of the Christian church over the years.

He was chrismated Holy Saturday at St. George Orthodox Church in Grand Rapids. Chrismation is akin to confirmation.

Recently he attended the second annual Encountering Orthodoxy Conference at Hope College.

The Rev. Deacon Nicholas Belcher, dean of students at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Boston, gave the opening keynote address, using the themes of holy week to introduce Orthodoxy to the more than 50 who attended.

Eastern Orthodox Easter, Pascha in Greek, fell on the same day as Western Easter this year.

Belcher described the nailing of Jesus to the cross as

“one of the most cruel things human beings have ever thought of to do to other human beings.”

Eastern Orthodox Christians, he explained, experience the crucifixion and resurrection in the now during liturgy.

“There is no sense that we are just talking about something that happened a long time ago. It is today,” he said.

Dustin Miller, a Hope senior, attended the conference for extra credit in his history of Christianity class, but said,

“I’ve always been curious about Orthodoxy.”

He, too, said he was looking for the apostolic, historical roots of the Christian church. Miller considers himself non-denominational and said he didn’t know the Hope campus had Orthodox students.

“I’ve been trying to figure it out, trying to find what best fits me,” Miller said.

The Orthodox Christian Fellowship campus club, which sponsored this month’s conference, meets Thursday nights for Small Compline (a short Psalm and evening prayer service). Then the handful of Orthodox students, one seminary student and Fr. Steven VanBronkhorst discuss topics such as biblical foundations for Orthodox worship.

He would like to see more inquirers at the OCF meetings and more students at the second annual Encountering Orthodoxy Conference.

VanBronkhorst was a Reformed Church of America minister for almost two decades before coming to the Orthodox church 14 years ago. Still, VanBronkhorst said, he sees many more today looking for the historical church than when he was doing his own searching.

“I always felt that ideally there should be just one church,” he said. “The Orthodox church is by far the most historically faithful body. … Who is going to deny that the greater part of the evangelical world has the faith? They have faith. What they don’t have is the worship.”

Tyler Dykstra of Holland was chrismated this month.

He grew up Christian Reformed, but says he “wanted more.”

“Over time I started to realize there was so much history I had not known about even though I had gone to Christian schools all my life,” Dykstra, 24, said.


Ten Steps to a Better Prayer Life

Author: Anonymous

  1. Designate A Prayer Space: Whether it is in the corner of your desk or a little stand in your room, it is important to have a place where you can put your Bible, Icons, etc. Dedicate the use of that space for God alone.
  2. Acquire A Time: Incorporate prayer in your routine and set time aside to center your thoughts to God.
  3. Acquire A Library: Start with a Bible, then get a small Orthodox Prayer Book, after that start collecting books. Here are some suggestions: ‘Living the Liturgy’ (Fr. Stanley Harakas), ‘The Way of a Pilgrim’ (Monk of the Eastern Church), ‘For the Life of the World’ (Fr. Alexander Schmemann), ‘Beginning to Pray’ (Metropolitan Anthony Bloom), ‘Bread for Life’ (Fr. Theodore Stylianopoulos), ‘The Orthodox Way’ (Bishop Kallistos Ware), ‘Way of the Aesetic (Tito Collander).
  4. Assemble An Altar: In your prayer center gather icons (Christ, Theotokos, Guardian Angel and patron saint), service books, incense, votive light, a cross, a prayer rope, etc. Incorporate your five senses in prayer.
  5. Pray: Speak from your heart. Learn prayers of the Church. Try the Jesus Prayer or the Lord’s Prayer. Also incorporate your own prayers and thoughts.
  6. Acquire A Spiritual Guide: This is a very important step. One should build a relationship with either a member of the clergy, monk or nun, who will become your spiritual guide. He/she will help guide and pace you to a balanced prayer life. The Sacrament of Confession can be arranged through your priest.
  7. Fasting and Almsgiving: Fasting adds a dimension to your prayer life. Your fasting practice should be regulated to avoid physical and spiritual harm. As for alms, give where you see a need and trust that the Lord will provide.
  8. Build On What You Already Have: If you already have a routine, build on it. If, for example, you pray before you go to sleep, it will be easier to read a chapter from the Bible before your bedtime prayers, than to set up some time during the day to read.
  9. Sanctify All That You Do. You may have set aside a time and space for a prayer routine, but that doesn’t mean you should separate your life into sacred and secular. Privately thank God for what you have at all times, and make Him aware of your every concern. Dedicate everything you do to Him.
  10. Remember the power of the Life-giving Cross, The sign of the Cross is a reminder of Christ in our lives. Blessing oneself with the cross by holding the first two fingers of the right hand and thumb together represents the Holy Trinity. The last two fingers held to the palm represent the two natures of Christ – God and man. Orthodox Christians cross themselves from the head to the breast and from shoulder to shoulder, right to left. This unique and all embracing symbol shows that the cross is the inspiration, power and indeed the very content of our lives.