December 29, 2009

Athens and the Island of Aegina

My next stop was in Athens, the capital of Greece. The feel of this city, which is home to about half the country's population (~5 million), is an interesting mix of antiquity and post-modern urban life. It is a monstrous city! I was blessed enough to stay with my friends in a beautiful picturesque suburb village about a 30 minute metro ride outside of the city's center, near the airport--Paiania. The Metro system in Athens gave me a wonderful and efficient experience. It was amazing to me (and I hope soon to the entire world) that during the construction of this public transit system, archeological discoveries were made and they are well-preserved, please click here. This is just one example that shows the capability of the country of Greece in preserving and revering its own treasures from antiquity. I am referring to the long-awaited return of the Parthenon Marbles to Greece. My friends and I took a day trip to spend it in the city visiting the New Acropolis Museum, and the Acropolis itself. I think this part of Athens is the most beautiful, and it sparks much reflection for me, as Thessaloniki did simply because it too is a holy place. The Parthenon itself used to be an ancient temple dedicated to the mythological goddess Athena, and even a mosque, but more importantly, it was also consecrated and used as an Orthodox Church, dedicated to the Mother of God. We also had great views of Mars Hill (Areos Pagos, Άρεος Πάγως), the hill on which Saint Paul preached to the Athenians, as well as Lycabetos Hill, where there is a Chapel dedicated to Saint George. Our trip atop the Acropolis concluded with a guard of soldiers marching up to the flag pole and ceremoniously lowering the Greek flag, chanting the national anthem. It was simply awesome.
Later that week, I took a solitary adventure on my own into the city to visit the Byzantine and Christian Museum and the National Gardens (I always need a nature walk!), all within walking distance of the Parliament Building, where I did the typical touristy things of picture-taking of the guards as well as a random demonstration that blocked traffic on the major road right in front. Strikes are a favorite past time in Europe it seems. There were more holy places I had wanted to visit, but alas, I ran out of time. Perhaps on the next trip, as the Lord wills. On October 31, instead of even remembering that it was Halloween, my friends and I took a ferry boat ride to the island of Aegina, located in the Saronic Gulf, located west of Athens. We set out for a pilgrimmage to the resting place of Saint Nektarios of Aegina, Bishop of Pentapolis and wonder-worker, a beloved 20th Century saint of the Orthodox Church. It was a most beautiful island, and the monastery which he founded has possibly one of the largest churches in Europe. It was a great blessing to see the fruit of his labors, his own cell with all of his things still in it, as well as to venerate his tomb which holds his miraculous relics. This was yet another reminder to me about how important it is for all Orthodox Christians to go on pilgrimmages to places where the saints used to live. This is a way for us to get to know them even more personally in addition to learning and reading about their lives. Venerating their relics and visiting their 'stomping grounds' and their humble abodes is an even more tangible and concrete way for us to come closer to them. We need to be friends with our saints, because they have become the friends of God. Later, we experienced warm, traditional Greek hospitality at a family's home on the island. My friends were well-acquainted with a lovely priest, Father Emmanuel and his family of 10 children, and his Presvytera (his wife) made a beautiful meal for us, and we enjoyed fellowship with them. It was so refreshing to see a family in the 21st century who still lives simply and traditionally, like in the old days, a life dedicated to Christ. Father Emmanuel is a fisherman by trade and he has written books on historical figures of 19th century Greece. In fact, when we later attended Vespers with him at his Church (which was built in 1806), he told us about how that very same Church was the parish of John Capodistrias, a famous Greek hero and leader of Greece after the Revolution of 1821. I really loved how my trip has been such a great balance of going on a spiritual pilgrimmage, learning the history of my heritage, having lots of fun with good friends and meeting people overflowing with love and hospitality. On the hour boat-ride back, we played make-shift Mancala games with pistachio shells. :)

December 19, 2009

Holy Week of Saint Demetrios Part 2

The remainder of the week involved more visits to monasteries and churches, as well as nice social gatherings. We visited the monastery of Saint John the Theologian in Souroti outside of Thessaloniki. This was very special for me because we had the chance to venerate the tomb of Elder Paisios--one of our modern-day saints who reposed there in 1994. We stayed for Vespers with the sisters and it was a great blessing to be there. Below is a taste of the beautiful garden there. Many of the people I met had known him personally and their lives have been touched by his presence and they are continually blessed by his prayers.Our next stop was a neighboring monastery in the village called "Δήμος Βασιλικών" (Village of Vasilikon) at the foot of Adrianos, one of Mount Hortiatis's summits, dedicated to Saint Anastasia of Rome the Healer (celebrated December 22). Here, we encountered the end of a baptism, visited the grounds of the monastery that was founded in 888 A.D., got some blessed water from a mountain spring, saw a path that led to caves where ascetics used to dwell, and most importantly, venerated the relics of Saint Anastasia and Saint Theonas. It was amazing to be in a church that is older than the country of my birth, the U.S.A. On the feast day of Saint Demetrios, October 26, we attended a vigil service at Holy Trinity Monastery in Panorama that concluded around 2 am, and there was a relic of his there as well. I was very much struck by the abundance of saints' relics in almost every church I attended. Having the chance to venerate and remember men and women who lived and died for Christ on that very ground I walked on is something I valued during my visit and continue to keep in my heart. We don't have this kind of easy access to relics in the States, unless one visits San Francisco where Saint John Maximovich reposes or Saint Anthony's in Arizona, where various saints' relics are kept. The people in Thessaloniki are keenly aware that their city is an ancient dwelling-place of many saints, and as I have mentioned, it is obvious in the atmosphere and the life there. After spending my nameday on an outdoor adventure in the mountains near Mt. Olympus with my friends, we visited Saint Demetrios' Church that evening. It was amazing to see crowds of people waiting patiently in line to venerate the Saint on that day which commemorated his martyrdom for Christ. The line went from near the altar to the back in the narthex, and that is a LONG distance, given that this is a basilica we are speaking about! That's the Metropolitan of Thessaloniki, Anthimos, on the right in the above picture. We found him later that week at the Parade celebrating "OXI" Day next to the waterfront, and got his blessing before heading down to Athens on the midnight train.

November 23, 2009

Thessaloniki, The Holy Week of Saint Demetrios

The day after I arrived in Thessaloniki, my hosts took me on a pilgrimage of the city. We visited and venerated several churches in the city. The city has a Byzantine aroma in its atmosphere. It is not unlikely that your daily walk to your destination as a citizen there includes passing by at least one or more churches. Regardless of convictions of each individual who you see on the street, the sense of reverence is quiet, but prevalent. In addition to this inherent sense of piety, the anticipation of the feast of the city's patron, Saint Demetrios, was evident in the decor of the city streets, and the flocking of people to the churches for vespers, supplications services, and vigils each night during the week prior to the feast--the Holy Week of Demetrios, as they like to call it. The events surrounding the feast also included film showings, concerts, lectures, and art exhibits--a host of celebrations called "Ta Dimitria" (those of Demetrios). I was happy to find my name displayed practically everywhere...something you won't see in America. Among the churches we visited were: the Vlatadon Monastery in the Old, Upper City, Panagia Dexia, Panagia Chalkeon, Saint Sophia, The Church of the Encounter of Christ in the Temple, Saint Theodora of Thessaloniki, Latomou Monastery of Osios David, and of course, Saint Demetrios. From our lunch spot, I had a direct view of the church of Saint Paul (see earlier posting for picture). We also visited the Rotunda, which has a small Chapel dedicated to Saint George. What a breath of fresh air to be able to take a break from city bustle and to go into a church to say a prayer, at any time of the day, anywhere in Thessaloniki. On our walks through the city, I noticed large numbers of young people. Thessaloniki is home to three big universities, making it one big college town. It is nothing like the Charlottesvilles or Princetons of America, but student life is ever so present. Even with the influence of impersonalizing technologies (internet cafes and text messaging), the cafe's are always full of groups of young people simply talking and having coffee, all day, and all evening. This seemingly slothful way of life may be a point of criticism by some of us (i.e., me), but I now believe that it is actually quite necessary. Man is made in the image of God, and so, it follows that if we want to see God, then perhaps we should start by seeing our fellow man, by experiencing his or her presence in our midst, not through Facebook or text messages alone. In the deepest core of our being, our desire is to be with God, and so, the desire we have to be with others stems from this, since the others give us a glimpse of God as icons of Him. It is possible that the majority of the young people I saw socializing in the cafeterias may not be practicing Christians, but the whole idea of desiring personal encounters with others is ingrained in the tradition of meeting for coffee, it's part of the culture here. I think I can get used to this. :)

November 3, 2009

The Mediterranean Holy Land

On October 21, 2009, I arrived in Thessaloniki, Greece. This country is my ancestral homeland, where my parents were born and grew up. My last visit at 5 years of age still provides blurry images of my time here, but it's not the same. This trip to Greece is an abundant gift from God that I never thought would occur so soon. After my arrival, I was greeted by two friends of mine, the newly-weds. We went on a walking tour of the waterfront of the city (the Paraleia), with views of sailing ships and Mount Olympus. The amazing views of the city gave me a sense of great excitement and curiosity. I was ready to go exploring this treasure of antiquity and holiness. And a few cappuccinos and delicious seafood meals along the way never hurts...

August 29, 2009

"...of water and the Spirit..."

The mystery of Holy Baptism in the Orthodox Church is great and vital for us. To be immersed and emersed three times into and out of water in the name of the Holy Trinity literally wipes out all our sins, from the inherited fallen nature of Adam to voluntary and involuntary sins we have committed. Being submerged into the water signifies the death of the former or old person and the coming up out of the water signifies the resurrection of the new, transformed person. As Saint Paul says in the Epistle to the Romans 6:3-11, "for if we have been united with Him in a death like His, we shall certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like His." The mystery of Holy Baptism is the essential beginning step toward our union with Christ. Thereafter, for the whole course of our life on earth, we are reminded of our own Baptism each time we participate in the sacrament of Confession. I am continually amazed and so very thankful that our loving God has given us FULL and EASY access to the sacramental life by the presence of His Church in our midst--it's only up to us to choose it. Recently, I've had the very great pleasure of spending time with my goddaughter, Irene. She turned one in August, and is going to get up and start walking and running any day now! Irene's patron saint is Saint Irene of Chrysovalantou. She is one of my most favorite saints. I got to know her during a summer during my college years by reading a little Greek book about her life. I admired her purity of heart, her humility in accepting God's will, her bravery against the demons, and especially, her steadfastness in prayer. In a vision before her falling-asleep, she was sent three beautiful and fragrant apples from Paradise with an angel by Saint John the Evangelist. Saint Irene has been involved in my life in small miraculous ways. For example, after reading the book, I finally realized it was actually the woman saint in a silver-plated icon with a an unclear inscription in our house that depicted this very scene. Being the neglectful person that I am, I did not pick up the little book on St. Irene for about 10 years of its residence in my collection of half-read, unread, and forgotten books that has moved with me between apartments throughout school. Last year, when it came time to set up my Ph.D. thesis defense date, it worked out to do it on July 28, which happened to be the Feast Day of Saint Irene Chrysovalantou! I thank her for being with me that day during my defense presentation after celebrating a Liturgy in her honor. At home later that summer, I was preparing to move and in the midst of organizing my books and papers, I found the little Greek book about St. Irene again, as well as two other translations in English! I decided that I was going to re-read her life. Within that same week, my good friend Maria called to ask me to be godmother to her daughter, who was to be named Irene! She and her husband chose St. Irene of Chrysovalantou because they both secretly admired her life just as I had, respectively, and unknowingly. They had been asking her in prayer about a godparent, and decided it was to be me, the neglectful one. I was amazed at the providence of these events and I thank God for giving me the opportunity to help a new little soul come into His Kingdom one day! Irene's Baptism was held on January 17, 2009. Please keep her in your prayers and please pray that I fulfill the role of godparent to aid her in her salvation. The text from the Orthodox Christian Baptism service can be found here.

August 13, 2009

Focus on His FACE

In honor of the Feast Day of the Transfiguration, I decided to slightly modify my blog posting approach. I realize that I have not had the full experiences of a loving relationship in marriage, child-bearing, or the serious temptations of sexual sin to be a real authority on the topics I've presented already. Please forgive me for much of my presumption in these previous posts, but I do hope that at the very least, I've passed on something that can benefit others. But from now on, I hope to transfigure this blog into more of an experiential journal where I share real concrete experiences that have allowed even a small drop of God's grace to touch my life.
This past weekend, I had the very great blessing to visit Holy Protection Greek Orthodox Monastery, located in White Haven, Pennsylvania, in the Poconos Mountains. The beauty of the physical place is indisputable. There were deep pink flowers everywhere and lush forest surrounding the buildings topped with red rooftop tiles in the Mediterranean style. The main long building houses the nuns' quarters, in addition to the main kitchen, a Chapel to Saint Nektarios, the main Church of the Apostles, a bookstore, as well as a hospitality area to welcome guests. The rooms in which we stayed were in a separate guest house (ξενόνα) which literally was a welcoming and comforting home (the kitchen was my favorite room).
The first gift we received was that of beautiful weather on Saturday, and even the rain on Sunday had its charm. I was joined by four of my friends from New Jersey and Virginia. As always on such trips, the concept of being connected with others from around the world through the Body of Christ truly was apparent in meeting new people who happened to be friends or godparents to someone we know...
Someone may ask, "why did you visit a monastery? do y'all want to become nuns or something?" My answer would be, "no, it's because we want to be better Christians." In a community such as Holy Protection, there are 18 nuns working out their salvation as a group, as a spiritual family. They operate on a schedule which includes common and individual prayer, plenty of work, and the offering of hospitality to guests. The life of these women centers around love, humility and obedience to Christ and His Church, virtues for which all Christians strive to attain. These are the means by which one empties oneself to allow room for Christ to fill him or her.
We had the blessing to hear Father Mark Andrews, the priest who serves there, speak in his homily on Sunday's Gospel (Matthew 14:22-34) about Christ walking on water. He said that the miracle was not that He or even Peter walked on water, but the fact that He did not yet calm the storm. When Peter walked out onto the water from the boat, he was distracted by the wind of the continuing storm and began to sink. Father said that we should not focus or analyze the stormy situations of our lives, because it can lead us to a debate with the evil one. However, what we should do is to focus on the face of Christ alone. To not be 'of little faith' but to trust that He will eventually calm these tempests, these times of trial. This homily helped me personally because in just this past year, I've experienced some pretty severe thunderstorms in my introduction to the so-called 'real world'---being further away from my family, painfully losing a relationship, a job ending prematurely, and engaging in the tiring battle with the temptation to despair. Thanks be to God, although quite imperfectly on my part, and mostly due to His part, I've somehow managed to see His face, to feel His hand, and to sense His presence during this year of storms. The calm is gradually coming closer.
We also were blessed with some girl-hang-out-time with the wonderful Abbess Olympiada. I think that God knew that we all needed her in our own ways at that particular time. She gave us encouragement and emphasized that the tools of obedience, humility, simplicity, and discernment (which is the crown of virtues) are what we need to focus on the face of Christ. Of course, we did not just hear the words that weekend, but we got a small chance to catch a glimpse of how the nuns there live and breathe these things daily in their lives in the most concrete ways.
Although the monastery visits are necessary to help us in our spiritual life, we also see people in the world, especially in my own parish, who strive to live like these nuns, to focus on Christ. God allowed me in the midst of my own difficulties this year to get to know families who practice obedience to God and to each other with love and warmth, and who also teach their children to discern what is for the benefit of their souls. Again, all this being done in the midst of trials and tribulations, but with hope and focus on Christ that He will calm the storm eventually.
I am quite thankful to not only learn the theory of focusing on Christ, but also to actively place my sins and challenges at His feet, to surrender to Him to take care of it. Visiting the monastery gave me the opportunity to see concrete and real examples of people who struggle daily to do so. Let us "take heart and have no fear" for He is here with us and will calm the storm.

July 27, 2009

The Doctor Is In: Saint Panteleimon

Please see this link to a most beautiful and inspiring miracle story of the birth of a healthy baby boy, despite doctors' questions about the mother's infertility. Saint Panteleimon, pray for us!

July 13, 2009

"Know that the Lord is God! It is He who made us, and NOT WE ourselves..." (Psalm 99:3)

But we want to make more 'selves', literally, with reproductive cloning.
I recently came across a gaudy and unscientifically sound website of a man named Panayiotis Zavos--an American scientist of Greek Cypriot heritage, whose namesake, ironically, is the Panayia (the all-holy Mother of God). He claims to clone human beings in order to 'help' infertile couples have children because he believes it is their 'constitutional right' (see this link). And by 'help', I mean, charging them $40,000 or more for a procedure that involves pain, side effects, and no clear result of the creation of real human being. In a previous posting, I provided a summary of the normal biological process of fertilization and emphasized how a new person develops and has his or her own, new, and unique complete genome. Above all, this new and unique person bears the image of God, and therefore, is holy. As such, the human gametes or reproductive cells themselves are also holy because they have the potential of creating life within them. If you notice the ads on the left column of Dr. Zavos' website (i.e. "FertMart", "Z-bay", and "Home Gender Selection"), the human gametes are shown not as the seeds that give rise to a new life bearing the Divine Image, but rather, as manufactured products to be sold for the lucrative ambitions of so-called scientists. There is danger in messing with holy things. To summarize reproductive cloning, recall Dolly the sheep. This animal was created by Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer (SCNT). It involves taking a female sheep's egg, removing its nucleus (all of its genetic material), and inserting a nucleus from a somatic (body) cell, specifically, from sheep breast tissue. Eventually, with chemical and electrical signals, out of 277 cell and nucleus fusions, only 29 early embryos developed and placed into the wombs of surrogate mothers. After all of this commotion, only one pregnancy succeeded, hence, we got Dolly, who lived for about 6 years. Our friend, Dr. Zavos, claims to use such tactics with human beings, and by the way, performing these procedures secretly outside of the U.S. In one of his published works (link is here), he proudly claims to have created a cloned embryo at the 4-cell stage. In the end, this embryo did not result in pregnancy. To summarize this paper, a married couple who could not conceive because the man's sperm levels were too low, were in want of a child. The man's skin cells were biopsied and grown in a dish (they are referred to as 'fibroblasts'). The woman underwent ovarian stimulation with hormones, which prompted the release of 3 eggs (note that this occurs outside of the normal menstrual cycle), and they were then collected by a highly invasive and quite painful process for the woman--see this link for the gory details. The nucleus of each egg was removed, and a fibroblast nucleus was inserted into each. One of these three reconstructed eggs proceeded to the 4-cell stage of early embryonic development, as judged by the authors, within 60 hours. This 4-cell embryo was then transferred to the woman's womb--by so-called "standard embryo transfer methods", of which there was no citation in this paper for a concrete and detailed procedure approved by the scientific community. She was treated with injections of progesterone for two weeks, checked for signs of pregnancy, and found none in the end. He blamed it on the problem that this embryo was 12 hours behind in developmental schedule, which was due to a delay from the somatic cell nucleus trying to adapt in the new egg cell environment. My response: duh. The cytoplasm of the egg supplies important materials and nutrients that are in place to help support the growing embryo as it travels to the womb to be implanted during normal conception, suggesting that these materials are specifically designed for reproductive, not somatic, subcellular targets. Further, in order for proper embryonic development to occur after fertilization, a sperm cell nucleus is essential in making the contribution of a mitotic spindle, a type of machinery that is necessary for proper cell division to take place. As you can see, even at the reproductive molecular level, there must be contributions from gametes of both mother and father for the proper development of a new person. If one element (sperm or egg) is missing, it is highly likely that the result will not be a normal human embryo. To view the deeper meaning, the mother and father must each give of themselves (down to their gametes) to each other in sacrificial love, in order to see the fruit of that love in the newly-formed person, their child. But if one loves his or her self more, then why not try to clone himself rather than sacrifice himself or herself for the other? The word 'clone' is derived from the Greek word "κλωνάρι", which means 'branch', as from a tree or bush. If you were to remove a branch from a fig tree, for example, and transplant it to another location of rich and fertile soil in the right climate, you'll get a fig tree that is IDENTICAL to the original tree. The reproductive process described above is quite similar: the goal of this process was to make a person who was the same exact genetic copy of his father, because as you recall, there was NO genetic contribution by the mother, since they removed the nucleus from her egg. This takes away the unique and holy attribute of normal human conception as described before, as well as the concept of a new person being the fruit of marital love. Some would argue that in this study each person did give of themselves, such as skin cells and egg cells--but this occurred in an artificial and highly manipulative fashion, with no end result, except, as one would gather, a lot of heart-ache and disappointment at the failure of a pregnancy to take place. Even after this, Dr. Zavos' conclusion still insists: "Even though no pregnancy was established, human reproduction via SCNT may be possible and applicable in the future for patients with severe male or female infertility that have no other alternative options for procreating their own offspring." He audaciously and stubbornly insists to continue doing this process when he has proved that it is NOT working. Usually, such insistent behavior is characteristic of the works of the evil one... It is understandable that barren married couples have fervent desire for a child, and we cannot generalize about the reasons for each couple's desire. But let us note examples of couples in the Scriptures who had this same desire, but also, had great faith and love for God, as exemplified by their holy lives: Saints Joachim and Anna, the parents of the Virgin Mary, the Theotokos; Saints Zacchariah and Elizabeth, the parents of St. John the Baptist; and also Hannah, the mother of Samuel the Prophet. They all fervently desired to have a child, and their desire was not a self-centered one, as evidenced in their promises to dedicate their child to the Lord. Their desire to have a child stemmed from their desire to please God, to give glory to Him, and not to themselves. It seems that the modern issues of infertility and reproductive cloning, and even abortion, may come from a different view of childbearing--one of self-centered desire rather than one of self-sacrifice. Perhaps this is a cultural view of today that seems to receive much encouragement from the decisions of our leaders. For holy examples, we need not look to the lives of holy people in the Scriptures alone, but also to some holy people who live among us today. As I will keep their names private, I will mention one example of miraculous birth. A family who is very dear to me was blessed with the gift of triplets: a boy and two identical girls. The probability of having a triplet birth without the assistance of fertility drugs is about 1:6000 to 8000 births. My friends who had the triplets already had two children, and simply desired to have another child. With the guidance of their spiritual father, they simply prayed with fervor and with love. They received their blessing, and to this day, they glorify God in the holy way in which they live and raise their children, by dedicating themselves to Him. I do not wish to hurt the feelings of people who deeply desire to have a child and for some unknown reason, cannot. Although one could find positive contributions by modern medical technologies, unfortunately, we see that they can be misused and can lead to actions that are far from glorifying our Lord. May God give us the enlightenment and motivation to live a life of self-sacrifice and to have a greater awareness of the sanctity of human life.

June 26, 2009

Clarification for Last Post

Yes, we can....change, that is.
And by 'change', I mean μετάνοια (metanoia), Greek for 'repentance'. The real meaning of the word metanoia is to change one's mind (meta-change, -noia=from 'nous' or mind). Changing our mind doesn't only mean a theoretical transformation alone, but the practical execution of that inner change of mind into a new, changed behavior. More specifically, metanoia is a change in thinking and behaving that brings a person out of sin and closer to God.
Since the last post, I noticed many comments on this blog as well as on Facebook, most of them negative and reactionary. I'd like to first respectfully ask all to please re-read the post carefully. You will see no condemnation or casting out of any persons, whether they be of the "LGBT" community or not. In fact, and I will repeat, as Orthodox Christians, we are called to LOVE ALL PEOPLE, simply because we are all made in the image of God. And, as mentioned at the end of the last post, to love others means to tell them the truth about what is beneficial for their salvation. By not recognizing sin and covering it up by accusations of discrimination or by unproven scientific theories, we are being dishonest, hindering repentance, and therefore, preventing people from coming into communion with God.
The will of God for us is our salvation, or our communion with Him. The way in which the will of God is revealed to us is through His Church, which also provides the ways and means of achieving this ultimate re-union with God. No, I am not a theologian, however, I am an Orthodox Christian, and I am simply witnessing to the Truth. My authority is Christ, and so, if one disagrees with the content presented here, please contact Him directly.
Homosexuality is a sin like other sins that all people struggle with and fall to, it bears no more weight than other sins such as heterosexual fornication or adultury, or even murder, or theft, or lying. The main point here is that we must be able to identify sin, to directly see it as such in our own lives, and to begin a repentant process of moving back toward God, away from sin. If we neglect to identify sin in the first place because our modern society and leaders are telling us to, then we will remain in it, thinking we are 'a-ok'. But God has precisely told us (see Romans 1:26-32 and I Corinthians 6:9-11) and continues to tell us exactly what sin is, and He has provided for us the Church to help us fight it and be victorious over it. It is only up to us to choose.
I hope this clarified the earlier post. We must never judge or condemn or cast out any fellow human being regardless of their sins, whether they be homosexual sins or those of deplorable scientific reasoning, but it is vital that we be honest in our recognition of what sin is and to help others in their struggles with it. The icon above shows the Transfiguration of Our Lord. Please see this link to a much more in-depth and spiritually enlightening article on this subject.

June 6, 2009

Hate the Sinful Lifestyle, Not the Sinner

This week, I received an email from President Barack Obama.
Yes, it's true! But not because I am friends with him, but because I work full time for a government contractor for the National Institutes of Health, and thus, emails from the White House go to all government-related email addresses. The subject line-- "A Message from The President: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Pride Month, 2009" My response was not a positive one. As a disclaimer up front, I do not hate people who are homosexual. I care very much about them and love them because they, like all people, are living images of God. I also have compassion for them because the type of lifestyle they live harms both their physical and spiritual health. And furthermore, the type of research I do involves looking for the cure for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. This illness is highly prevalent among homosexual men (53% of all new cases). The President's message spoke about the historical roots of the "LGBT rights movement" and how he officially proclaimed June 2009 as the month where Americans are called to "turn back discrimination and prejudice everywhere it exists." Basically, he is telling us to accept sin, and to allow people to continue doing it toward their detriment, so as to not discriminate against them.... Biologically speaking, it has not been scientifically proven that people who live a homosexual lifestyle have a gene or any set of genes that make them 'born that way'. There is also the 'maternal immune hypothesis' which suggests that the mother makes antibodies against a portion of the Y chromosome and that those antibodies affect the areas of sexual preference in the developing child's brain, and that the more older brothers a boy has increases his chances of becoming a homosexual (Blanchard, R. Hormones and Behavior 40, 105–114; 2001). The study referenced above is one of the least scientific studies I've ever encountered. The immense lack of evidence is balanced by the over-abundance of 'hand-waving'. It is a good example of the introduction of bias to a discipline that by nature has been defined as 'objective' and based on the observation of data. I will not spend time here to enumerate examples from this paper about how it exemplifies bad science. Because we have no proof to tell us that homosexuality is genetically determined, as if it were a trait like the color of one's skin, we cannot assume that it is something a person is born with, but rather, it is a choice of lifestyle, and this choice is guided by human weakness succumbing to passion, or to take it further, possibly to the wiles of the evil one. Please note that, contrary to popular belief, as Orthodox Christians, we are not to condemn any PERSON. In fact, we are called to love everyone, because each person is made in the image of God. We are called to suffer with everyone and to have compassion on them, because we all are sinners. But what is sin? Sin (αμαρτία, Gr.) literally means to miss the mark, and the mark is simply doing the will of God, and so, we all sin because we fail to do what God wants us to do. We are called to recognize sin, and similarly, sinful ways of living, and to hate it, but not the people who execute it. And, after calling it out, we must stop it and change our way of thinking and doing (μετανοία, repentance). In order to destroy sin, it must be clearly defined as such. Otherwise, we will not know it is sin, and will remain in it. This is where it is harmful to the health of our souls, and many times, harmful the health of our bodies. It makes it even worse when our society and our leaders refuse to be truthful about sin, to cover it up by saying that it is an unchangeable trait that must be accepted, and to censor the reality of sin's consequences by exhortations to stop so-called discrimination against the people doing it. And so, upon seeing the email from the President, I asked, 'are you saying that we should stop discriminating against SIN?' I'm sorry, Sir, but I respectfully decline to adhere to your order. Hating sin is quite different from discriminating against people because they have inherited (and not chosen) traits that make them unique, such as their skin color, their ethnic origins, class status, intelligence, or gender. In the case of homosexuality, it is not an inherited trait (at least no scientist has proven such), but a lifestyle that is sinful. It is sinful because it is contrary to God's will. God's will for human sexuality is for a man and a woman to become united in one flesh, in a most loving and sacred way in the context of the mystery of marriage, with the openness to co-create sacred life with God. Taking human sexuality out of this context disfigures it and sullies the image of God in the persons who participate. As our President desires, let us not discriminate against people in the 'LGBT community', but rather, let us pray for them and offer them our unconditional love. Loving them, though, means to be truthful with them, not allowing them to make lifestyle choices which are detrimental to their spiritual and physical well-being, all under the guise of so-called tolerance and official declarations against prejudice.

May 24, 2009

"The beginning of existence is one and the same for body and soul." ~Saint Gregory of Nyssa

Today was the first day of the summer session of teaching Anatomy and Physiology! My part time teaching experiences over the past academic year have shown me the career path on which I belong. Any one know of a college professor position opening up in about a year? :) The last lecture I gave for this past spring semester was on Human Development, probably my most favorite topic in biology. I had the opportunity to share my enthusiasm with my students by explaining this complex and, actually, quite holy topic. Not surprisingly, the few faces of positive amazement were balanced by the few students who uncharacteristically walked out before the lecture ended.... In earlier posts, I wrote much about marriage and how it is a path toward holiness. Included in the marriage sacrament of our Church are prayers for the granting of children to the newly-married couple. My friend and I counted the exact number of prayers during a wedding service last summer, and to be exact, in it there are 15 prayers for the couple to be granted children! Here, I'd like to write about some basic biology about how a new person comes into being. It appears that many of us are not acutely aware of the beautifully precise biology involved at the initiation of and during our own development in our mother's womb. Perhaps this may aid us in seeing the sanctity of human life more concretely and to witness to the truth within our present society that is seemingly blind to the image of God that the developing child bears at conception and throughout his or her development. In Saint John Chrysostom's homily, "On Christian Marriage", he speaks about St. Paul's Epistle to the Ephesians 5:28-33: "...the one flesh is, father, and mother, and the child from the substance of the two co-mingled. For indeed by the co-mingling of their seeds is the child produced, so that the three are one flesh." Biologically speaking, we can assign to the word "seed" here as either egg or sperm, or more specifically, the nucleus (this is the cellular structure that houses DNA) of either of these gametes. According to medical classification, conception begins after fertilization, when the DNA from the sperm combines (or co-mingles) with the DNA of the egg. The reason for this is that the result of this combination of maternal and paternal genetic material (each is composed of 23 chromosomes) is a brand new, and let me emphasize, UNIQUE and COMPLETE human genome (now containing the complete chromosome count of 46). At this point, there is no egg or sperm present, but a zygote (Gr. ζυγοτός, something yoked). The zygote is living and functional and will go on to become an embryo (Gr. έμβριο, to become fuller) and eventually a fetus (Lat., offspring). All of these words represent different developmental stages of human development. DNA is the genetic material which encodes all the characteristics of a person. As soon as the new zygote is formed, the next step is to replicate the new genome and to begin cell division. The picture above shows a newly-formed zygote with the two pro-nuclei from the gametes (egg or sperm) of each parent fusing. Please note that this occurs within the first day after fertilization has occurred through the physical union of two persons. Yes, it happens fast. Quoting the textbook I use for my course, Human Anatomy and Physiology (Marieb and Hoehn, 7th ed. 2007): "By providing the information for protein synthesis, DNA determines what type of organism you will be--frog, human, oak tree--and directs your growth and development." I love to laugh at some of these science textbook one-liners that ironically state the truth and reduce human dignity to the equivalent of amphibians and trees. This quote represents the scientific community's knowledge that DNA is responsible for determining human development, indicating that DNA is of great significance. Another couple of quotes are also particularly truthful regarding the cell theory: "...the cell is the smallest living unit." "..when you define cell properties, you are in fact defining the properties of life." These quotes indicate that individual cells are living entities. They contain DNA which directs their development and function. When we concentrate on the cells within a developing embryo, we see that those particular cells are no exception to the same cell theory. What makes the embryonic cells even more unique is that they each contain a completely NEW genome. Thus, we have in the embryo cells which are the smallest living units and they contain novel and unique genetic information which directs their development into a new human person. These observations point us to the direction that even scientists believe that life begins at conception--since at conception, a new genome is created and replicated as new embryonic cells divide and multiply to eventually form all the rudimentary structures of the human body by the 8th week after fertilization. In the next few posts, I hope to share more of my thoughts that intertwine biology and Christian faith in the context of human development. This will include topics on bioethics, particularly reproductive cloning and abortion. Your feedback is greatly welcome!