On Scandal and Corruption in the Church

Recently I met a man from Russia who I will call Ivan. Ivan is in Arizona looking for work, but he is also looking for answers to spiritual questions. Being Russian, Ivan is a member of the Orthodox Church. I met him after pre-sanctified liturgy, when he started asking me questions about the faith, presumably due to the fact that I was wearing a cassock. He brought up many topics that will likely spawn other blog posts here, but the one I want to address today is scandal and corruption amongst the clergy. The way my friend Ivan tells it, the Russian Orthodox Church is corrupt from the Patriarch down to the parish priest. He spoke of financial scandals, sexual scandals, coziness with the government, a lack of spirituality, etc. Now I have no idea how true his version of the state of Orthodoxy in Russia is, but I suspect there is some element of truth in it, even if it is greatly exaggerated. But the bigger question is, so what?

I don’t mean to condone any sinful behavior, nor to dismiss off handedly what I could see are deep concerns weighing on this man. That’s also not to say that we should not seek to correct our church leaders in love. (The Good Lord knows that the Orthodox Church in America has had its share of scandals on these shores.) But what should our expectation really be? Should scandal among our ranks and our leadership shake our faith?

First of all we should recognize and keep in mind that we are all sinners. Our Lord and Savior Himself said with regard to the adulterous woman, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” (John 8:7) Scripture, while exhorting us to be perfect as our Father in Heaven is perfect, reminds us repeatedly that there is none among us who is free from sin. “For there is not a just man upon earth, that doeth good, and sinneth not.” (Ecclesiastes 7:20)

Do we have a right to expect perfection from our hierarchs? And if we cannot expect perfection, how can any line be drawn but arbitrarily? Do not each of us have enough of our own sins to concern us? If you think you do not, I pray that the Lord grant you the grace to see your own sins and not to judge your brother!

We should be concerned with the sins of our brothers, and especially among them our priests and bishops, but we must not allow their failings to shake our faith. We do not worship the Patriarch of Moscow, nor the Patriarch of Constantinople, nor the Metropolitan of All-America and Canada, but rather the Holy Trinity, One God in three Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Our faith is not in our diocesan bishop, nor in our parish priest, but in our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ. If our faith is anywhere else it is misplaced! And that same Lord established for us and our salvation a visible Church consisting of sinful men, yet promised that the Holy Spirit would lead it into all truth and that the gates of hell would not prevail against it. So why would we be concerned with what God Himself established? Let us be concerned with our salvation. The Grace of God is not dependent on the righteousness of the priesthood. The chalice still contains the Body and Blood of Christ regardless of the sins of the bishop or priest. Besides, where else could we go? This is the Church of the Apostles and the Martyrs. This is the Church of Christ Himself. The devil may win battles here on earth, but the war was won on Calvary.

So in conclusion, we certainly should be concerned with the sins of our brothers and sisters, and chief among them our ecclesiastical leadership, because to whom much is given much will be expected. They need our prayers, and our correction, and our love. St. John Chrysostom is attributed with having said “The road to hell is paved with the skulls of erring priests, with bishops as their signposts.” We know he did say, “I do not think there are many among Bishops that will be saved, but many more that perish” in his Homily III on Acts 1:12. Keep in mind that at one point, when the Church was only a few hundred years separated from the Apostles, what was probably a majority of the bishops fell into the heresy of Arianism. Yet the Church survived and orthodoxy prevailed. At the Council of Nicaea, St. Athanasius may have said that “the floor of hell is paved with the skulls of bishops.” Rather than fleeing our own salvation because of the sins of others–which is exactly what the great deceiver and father of lies wants us to do–let us pray for and look after those in authority, that through the love of the Father and the Grace of the Holy Spirit, neither their skulls nor ours will ever touch the floor of hell.

The Fruits of Fasting: Desire

Last night I really wanted a cheeseburger. I almost gave in, and if not for a sizable inconvenience, I probably would have went out and bought one.

Desire. One of the main themes of the first preparatory Sunday in our tradition, the Sunday of Zacchaeus, is desire. Zacchaeus has a strong desire to see Jesus, but can’t because he’s short and the crowd is great. Since his desire is strong, he overcomes the obstacles between him and his goal by climbing a sycamore fig tree. On that Sunday we are taught to see the Great Fast as our sycamore tree, with the ascetic disciplines and struggles helping us to overcome our sin and separation from Christ, if we have the desire.

This is of course true, but I think the fast itself also teaches us to desire, and points out to us the misplacement of our desires in a very striking and human way: our stomachs.

Even in our vernacular, hunger is used to describe a strong desire. The Church, in her two millennia of accumulated wisdom, understands this facet of our humanity and teaches us to use it to our spiritual benefit.

Our Lord said, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). As previously mentioned, we undergo this fasting season in order to re-orient our lives on the risen Christ. That is the goal and the reason. Abstaining from food, increasing prayer, scripture, and almsgiving/good works are the exercises. Through the Grace of the Holy Spirit and our willingness to cooperate with Him, these exercises produce the “fruit” that helps us to accomplish that goal. Learning to desire Christ, or at least becoming aware of the things we seek before the Kingdom of Heaven, is one such fruit.

When I reflected on last night this morning, I realized that if only I desired Christ even as much as I desired that cheeseburger, I would be getting somewhere.

Let us, by abstaining from earthly food, “taste and see that the Lord is good.”

May the hunger in our bellies focus our attention on Christ, that we may desire Him enough to climb our own sycamore trees; and may Christ forgive us our sins and have mercy on us.

Murphy, Job, and I: Reflections on the first week of Great Lent

I don’t much like writing about myself. As Great Lent approached, I originally set out to write about the meaning and purpose of fasting, and all that we can learn from the awesome ways in which the Church prepares us for this journey in the weeks leading up to the first actual week of Lent. However, the demands of my professional life were overwhelming and I finally came to the conclusion that this was not meant to be. As so often happens with these things, it seemed God had other plans.

They say that if something is going to go wrong, it’s going to happen during Lent, especially the first week. As it happened, every day of this first week has brought more than its share of struggles–avoiding meat and cheese has been the easy part. Murphy’s Law seems to have been in full effect: nearly every difficulty and frustration I could imagine, large or small, seems to have happened; from flat tires, to someone trying to break my windshield, to being a reader and choir director with the worst case of laryngitis I’ve ever had–on a week with church services every night–and numerous things in between. As one challenge lead directly into the next, I started to feel like the long-suffering Job, covered in sores and thrown onto a dunghill.

Even so, I couldn’t help but notice that some of the problems seemed to work out in unexpected ways. This culminated in discovering through reflection the meaning of fasting and the Lenten struggle in a more personal and complete way than what I had originally planned to write. As St. Paul writes to the Romans, “all things work together for good to those who love God.”

One of the goals of fasting is to “tame the passions and cultivate the virtues.” Anyone who knows me well knows that one of my many passions is being quick to anger, anger that tends to explode in rage and then disappear as quickly as it came. And boy, did I have plenty of opportunities to fly off the handle this week.

Yet, through what can only be the grace of the Holy Spirit, I’ve actually managed to hold myself together pretty well. I certainly could have done better, but I typically would have done much worse. I’ve managed to find a small degree of peace throughout the chaos, and keeping Christ and the fast in mind has certainly helped me to avoid the temptations.

What I’ve started to discover, in a much more visceral and deep way, is how unimportant so many of our problems actually are. As the scholar and theologian Jaroslav Pelikan is quoted as saying, “If Christ is risen, nothing else matters. And if Christ is not risen — nothing else matters.”

Christ is risen from the dead! This is what we joyfully sing over and over once we arrive at our lenten destination and celebrate His Resurrection, which by trampling down Death He allows us to participate in. Remembering this, and refocusing our lives accordingly, that is the true meaning of the Great Fast, and the Christian life in general. It’s why we seek to tame our passions, why we pray more and give more alms. It’s the reason for our repentance and forgiveness.

And so, regardless of what challenges we face, we should be of good cheer! May Christ our True God allow us to continue our journey to Pascha in humility and repentance, and let us “lay aside all earthly cares, that we may receive the King of All,” both on the upcoming Feast of Feasts, and in the Kingdom to come.

This is the day the Lord has made; we will rejoice and be glad in it!