That Which is Bread

Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? – Isaiah

Month: November, 2010

Saint John the Merciful of Alexandria

John the Merciful, Patriarch of Alexandria (+619; Commemorated Nov. 12/25). Also known as John the Almsgiver.

He was the son of a noble family in Cyprus. He married and had several children, but when his wife and children all died at nearly the same time, he took his loss as a call to forsake worldly cares, and committed his life entirely to God. In time he was consecrated Archbishop of Alexandria, where he became known for his zeal for the Orthodox faith and his struggles against the various heresies that prevailed in Egypt at that time. Most of all, though, he was known for the amazing purity of his generosity and compassion toward all.

On the day of his elevation to the Patriarchate, he ordered a careful census of his “masters,” as he called the poor and beggars. It was found that there were 7,500 indigents in the city, and St John ordered that all of them be clothed and fed every day out of the Church’s wealth.

In his prayers he would say “We will see, Lord, which of us will win this contest: You, who constantly give me good gifts, or I, who will never stop giving them away to the poor. For I have nothing that does not come to me by Thy mercy, which upholds my life.”

His lack of judgment in giving to the poor sometimes dismayed those around him. Once a wily beggar came to John four times in four different disguises, receiving alms each time. When the holy Patriarch was told of this, he ordered that the man be given twice as much, saying “Perhaps he is Jesus my Savior, who has come on purpose to put me to the test.”

Still, the more generously he gave, the more generously God granted gifts to the Church, so that money was never lacking either for the poor or for the Church’s own real needs. One of the clergy once gave only a third of what the Patriarch instructed to a rich man who had fallen into poverty, thinking that the Church’s treasury could not afford to give so much. Saint John then revealed to him that a noblewoman who had planned to give an enormous gift to the Church had, shortly thereafter, given only a third of what she originally planned.

Once, when he was serving the Divine Liturgy at the Cathedral, the Patriarch stopped just before the consecration, instructed the deacon to repeat the litanies, and sent for one of his clergy who bore a grudge against him and would not come to church. When the man came, the Patriarch prostrated himself before him and, with tears, begged his forgiveness. When they were reconciled, he returned to the altar and proceeded with the service.

Though the Patriarch lived in a well-appointed palace befitting his rank, he owned no property and lived in a humble cell within the palace. A godly citizen, knowing his poverty, once gave him a fine blanket. The Saint immediately sold the blanket and gave the proceeds to the poor. The donor, however, found his gift for sale in a shop, bought it, and gave it again to the Patriarch. The Patriarch again sold it, and the donor again found it and gave it. The Synaxarion says, “As neither of them would give in, the bed-cover passed through their hands a good many times and was the means whereby John indirectly prevailed on the rich man to give away a great fortune to the poor.”

Despite his generosity, the Patriarch was firm with the Monophysite heretics. Though he gave them all that he could whenever they were in need, he instructed the Orthodox faithful never to worship or pray with them.

At his own request, the Patriarch returned to Cyprus where, in 619, he died at the age of 64. In his last hours, he gave thanks to God that nothing remained of the riches of which he had been given stewardship for the sake of the poor.

from God is Wonderful in His Saints.

Happy Thanksgiving 2010

Albrecht Dürer, Praying Hands

Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands.
Serve the Lord with gladness: come before his presence with singing.
Know ye that the Lord he is God:
it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves;
we are his people and the sheep of his pasture.
Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise:
be thankful unto him, and bless his name.
For the Lord is good; his mercy is everlasting;
and his truth endureth to all generations.

— Psalm 99 (100), KJV

Everyone capable of thanksgiving is capable of salvation. — Fr. Alexander Schmemann

Iconography 101, completed

Holy Unmercenary and Martyr Panteleimon, pray for us!

The icon whose progress I reported in an earlier post is done! We’re taking it to church tonight to have it blessed, after which I guess it will be a real icon.

When I look at it, all I see are the many errors that I learned about in my class, but standing back and squinting, I’d say that for a first effort I’m not too displeased.

I’ve already started preparing some boards for more icons, and am filled with anxiety at the thought of working on my own. I thank Nadica, our wonderful teacher, for bringing me this far.

A higher-resolution photo of this icon can be seen here.

silence, until…

Until your heart is at peace

through prayer

make no effort

to explain anything

to your brother.

—Abba Isaias


Mischief Night

(a tiny story)

On the bridge over the creek this morning,
what’s this?
Some vandal has tossed string everywhere:
It hangs in loops from the railings, the shrubs;
strands droop down into the water.
Doesn’t anyone care anymore?
Doesn’t anyone have reverence?

There’s something funny about this string, though. Look,

some perfect vandal has arranged
for the cold to meet the fog from the creek
to turn the spiderwebs to strings of ice;
and arranged, maybe, for us to be here
as the sun is about to light them up.
In ten minutes they’ll be gone.

Bow your head.

Strait is the gate

On the occasion of the upcoming Nativity Fast:

Enter by the narrow gate.
For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction,
and those who enter by it are many.
For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life,
and those who find it are few.

— Matthew 7:13–14 (ESV)

It would be foolish to call this my “favorite” passage in scripture, but it may be for me the most haunting: I’ve written it on the front pages of several bibles and prayer books.

Sitting with it can make a Christian ask himself:
Have I entered by the narrow gate?
Have I even found it?
Have I even sought it?

Years ago I briefly attended a seminary that, to put it kindly, had an “easy way” view of Christianity. Once I overheard two of my fellow seminarians saying that they were “uncomfortable” with this passage, since it could be “misused.” Certainly it can be misused, but even then I couldn’t help wondering what they thought its proper use might be. I wish I’d had the courage to ask them.

Not long ago I read a Christian’s reflection on the issues surrounding the spread of Islam in Europe, in which he said that we should be worried less about full mosques than about empty churches. I’d go on to say that no external enemies of the Church will ever do as much harm as the acceptance of a light and easy Christianity.

Ours is an ascetical Faith, a Faith of the daily cross. There is no other authentic Christian Faith.

Enter into His gates with thanksgiving, and into His courts with praise. Be thankful unto Him, and bless His name.