My Conversion Story

People have asked me for my “Easter conversion story” before, and since today is Holy Wednesday*, it seems like as good a time as any to talk about this.

Why? I don’t know. Maybe you’ll find it interesting. Or inspiring. Or crazy. I’m sure some “rational skeptic” will tell me it’s a “chemical phenomena akin to insanity that shouldn’t be viewed as proving anything other than the delusion-holder’s personal subjective experience,” and so on.

(Boy, wait until I tell the story about when I had an honest-to-God prophetic vision . . .)

Whatever. All I know is what I’ve experienced and you can take it or leave it. The important starting point for this particular story is that, from the ages of about fifteen to seventeen, I was an atheist.

Or thought I was. Things changed on Good Friday when I was 17.

Let’s back up a little bit though. I grew up in the Greek Orthodox Church. Both of my parents are 100% Greek with either parents or grandparents from the old country. On my mother’s side, my grandfather is a priest, and so was his father. There were more in the family, but I don’t know how far back it goes.

My experiences with the church were generally positive. I rather enjoyed seeing my pappou up there doing the service and giving communion, and we always went out to breakfast afterwards. Orthodoxy focus a lot on the mystical, the afterlife, the resurrection, and the love of Christ . . . as well as the wages of sin. This didn’t bother me, nor was it prohibitively frightening. In fact, it made sense: Disobeying your own parents and ignoring tradition and common sense lead to big trouble. Why wouldn’t ignoring your heavenly Father lead to the same?

And the fact that there was a Creator didn’t bother me at all either. Everything has to come from something, I thought. And even to this day, “Everything spontaneously came into being in perfect order for no reason and with no cause whatsoever” remains an unsatisfying leap of faith to make.

No, what first got me as I got older was the idea of the Resurrection.

I remember on my way to church with the family when I was 14. It might have been Easter; I can’t remember. What I do remember is expressing skepticism that Jesus Christ really rose from the dead. “I get all the other stuff,” I said, “but how do we know he didn’t just die?”

My family didn’t quite know how to answer. Continue reading “My Conversion Story”

Five Interesting Points from The Mystery of Death by Nikolaos P. Vassiliadis

“An explanation of what happens to you when you die” is sort of the lazy man’s answer to the question of “What is the purpose of religion?” This is true, but it is only a part of it.

The question of what happens after death has enthralled, and indeed scared the hell out, of human beings since we first became aware, unique to all other creatures, that we will, in fact, die at some point, and that this death is inevitable.

This is what author and theologian Nikolaos P. Vassilidis attempts to shed some light on in The Mystery of Death, at least from an Orthodox Christian perspective. Published in Greek in 1993 and later translated by Father Peter A. Chamberas, Vassilidis, a member of the Orthodox Brotherhood of Theologians has taken Scripture and the teachings of the Holy Fathers and compiled them in a lengthy tomb big on what Scripture and logical analysis tells us and light on speculation.

It’s heavy reading, as you can imagine.

Religion, most religions at least, deal with more than just what happens when you die. But questions surrounding the end of life are obviously incredibly important, questions such as:

  • Why do human beings know they will die?
  • Why do we die?
  • Why are we here if we’re destined to die?
  • And of course, what happens next?

Vassiliadis relies heavily on the writings of St. John Chrysostom, St. Augustine, St. Symeon, St. Gregory Palamas, St. Nikodemos, and other luminaries of the pre-Schism Church, as well as more recent Orthodox scholars like Georges Florovsky and Justin Popovic. It’s a well-researched book that offered a lot of eye-opening revelations about what death is, why we die, sin and repentance, and what comes after.

It’s tough to do a typical review of this book other than to say I highly recommend it to any Christian, Orthodox or not (although Catholics will probably have an easier time with it than most other denominations). So as with my discussion of Moses Maimonides’s The Guide for the Perplexed, I think it’d be more useful to go over a few of the more interesting points Vassiliadis makes:

Continue reading “Five Interesting Points from The Mystery of Death by Nikolaos P. Vassiliadis”

The Spirit of 1821: Greek Independence Day and the Annunciation

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Zito! 

March 25th is Greek Independence Day, commemorating the beginning of the Greek rebellion in 1821 against their Ottoman oppressors after four-hundred years of subjugation. The revolution began, according to legend, when Bishiop Germanos raised the Greek flag at the Peloponnesian monastery of Agia Lavra.

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Badass.

Whatever the inciting incident, the revolution attracted the attention and aid of many European powers, particularly Great Britain, who felt a kinship with the Greeks for their thousand-year cultural legacy of philosophy, government, and all of the other gifts of Western Civilization.

Oh yeah. The United States got in on the act too. Our fifth president and Founding Father James Monroe stated to Congress that:

“A strong hope is entertained that these people will recover their independence and assume their equal statue among the nations of the earth.”

Of course, Monroe and his famous, eponymous doctrine (largely the creation of then-Secretary of State and later sixth president John Quincy Adams) committed the United States to not getting involved in European affairs (while resisting any European incursion into the Americas), but the rhetorical support remained, and indeed bolstered the spirit of the Greeks.

It’s a beautiful circle. The Greeks were inspired by the Americans, who were partially inspired by Greek philosophy and ideals as they revolted against England and created the United States system of government (and the architecture in Washington, D.C.).

I mean, listen to the slogan of the Greek revolutionaries: Eλευθερία ή θάνατος! Freedom or death! Sounds familiar, right?

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Being both Greek and American, it’s always exhilarating to think that, in my own small way, I’m heir to two strong and vital cultural legacies.

But the interesting thing is that March 25 is also the Annunciation, the celebration of the Archangel Gabriel announcing to the Virgin Mary that she would give birth to Christ. This is no coincidence.  Continue reading “The Spirit of 1821: Greek Independence Day and the Annunciation”

Fun with Mental Illness

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One of the most-read posts I’ve written on this blog is called “The Pros and Cons of Suicide.” Every day, it tends to be my most-read article.

This makes me sad, because it means that so many people are looking up information about the pros and cons of suicide on the Internet, implying that they think there are actually pros to killing yourself.

I titled to be deliberately provocative and tongue-in-cheek, because there’s nothing good about killing yourself, or depression in general. And that post’s denouement was also a little acidic, basically stating that it’s good to keep yourself alive just to piss off the people who wish you’d kill yourself:

It’s admitting defeat. And here’s the biggest one, at least for me. While I would say that I love God more than anything, sometimes I hate the devil more than I love the Lord. I’m convinced a lot of this spiritual sickness, this acedia in the world, is the result of the devil. And killing yourself is just saying to the world, “You win. I give up.”

So don’t be a statistic.

Isn’t this horrible? I’m basically telling the Internet here that a large part of the reason I am still alive is out of spite.

But if that’s all you’ve got, then run with it.

No matter who you are, no matter your beliefs, do not let yourself be defeated by the world. If your continued existence is nothing more than a walking middle finger to a world that wants you gone, so be it.

So live for spite if you must. I do many days, but you don’t have to be miserable about it. Life is pretty simple: be good to each other, help the next generation on there one way trip through life, and try to laugh and have fun.

My overarching message, then and now, is this: Don’t ever kill yourself, there’s always a way out, and God loves you, even if you don’t believe in Him.

You can cue the corny violins all you want, but I firmly believe this and stand by that statement. And I’m speaking as someone who’s struggled with this for much of my life as, I’m sure, have millions of other Americans. Over six-million, in fact. Life expectancy is down in this country, and opioid use is up. Forty million Americans are purported to have anxiety disorders. Forty million!

There’s a huge wave of despair going on in this country, a wave that many lay at the feet of modern life, atomization, automation of formerly physical or low-skill labor, and a growing urban/rural divide, among other things.

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But there’s also this weird thing we do where we almost romanticize mental illness or other difficulties, linking things like depressionbi-polar disorderautisim, or Asperger’s with creativity. And everyone loves creativity! Who doesn’t want to be creative? And so we end up with the popular idea that medicating or otherwise treating certain mental illnesses kills creativity, even though the data suggests that the opposite is true.

Trust me: I’ve been through this. It’s terrible! There’s nothing creative whatsoever about lying in bed, refusing to wake up because you wish you were never born. The creative juices don’t get flowing when you pray to God that a tractor-trailer would just absolutely cream you on your drive back from work, or thinking, “What if I just revved my car up to 120 miles per hour and crashed into that tree over there?” Depression doesn’t make one want to be creative, or do much of anything except die.

Yes, depression and other feelings caused by depression and its friends can give good grist for the creative mill, as it is quite cathartic to get those feelings out somehow, whether it be by putting pen to paper, fingers to keys, paint to canvas, or whatever you choose to do. But it’s even more cathartic to not want to kill yourself, or wish you had never been born every second of the day. And remember that plenty of fantastic art has been made by people who aren’t struggling with one form of mental illness or another.

There is nothing fun or mystical about suicidal thoughts. I don’t care what the popular myths about Beethoven and Van Gogh or Kurt Cobain are. Talk to someone. Get help. Get your life back. Continue reading “Fun with Mental Illness”

Recapturing the Awe

Lent is here. It’s a big deal to the faithful, the biggest deal of all.

Fasting. Prayer. I don’t think I need to get into what Lent is. How about we chat about what Lent isn’t?

Lent is not suffering for suffering’s sake.The purpose of fasting for 40 days (Eastern tradition) or giving something up for 40 days (Western) isn’t to make you miserable. It’s to provide focus and clarity.

The Resurrection is the central tenet of Christianity. If it were false, if it never happened, all would be, as St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, in vain:

But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

–1 Corinthians 15:12-18

So yes, Easter, the celebration of the Resurrection, is a big deal. Millions, like St. Paul himself, have died for it. This is why the Lenten period is so important. Continue reading “Recapturing the Awe”

Peak Virtue

What does it mean to be virtuous? What does the end-game look like?

It’s a weird question, sure. But it seems to be a question not too many speak about.

Here’s what I mean: If you’re a Christian, “turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:38-40, Luke 6:28-30) has probably been said to you by people who hate Christianity–and likely other Christians!–to discourage you from fighting back against anything, ever.

But this is silly, right? That’s not what God wants, to let us be patsies and doormats and get rolled by any evildoer whoever happens to come along with ill-intent towards us.

After all, what’s more virtuous: To stand up and fight against those would world enslave or exterminate you, or keep you from proper worship of God? Or to refuse to fight until your enemy runs the world, and you and your children and grandchildren are in abject misery but at least you can say “Man, I turned the other cheek like a goddamn champ!

See what I mean?

This isn’t going to be a verse-slinging post, or a theological one. But I think this example makes a good point out of pinning down what is virtue and how does one practice virtue?

I’ve presented a little bit of an unfair binary question here, but let’s play it out for a bit. Virtue is either:

  1. Standing by your principles, even if it means you and your loved ones die; or
  2. Occasionally violating a principle or principles now in order to prevent ruin and damnation for future generations.

I think it’s pretty clear that this is a difficult choice to make, one that will make the principled feel “icky” (a technical term). But it might be the most difficult choice a man faced in his life.

What would a deontologist do? If you “always do what is right,” do you aid the wounded man you know for certain was about to rape and murder your wife because “it’s the right thing to do” (give aid to the wounded) even though that man will resume trying to rape and murder your wife, or do you let the attempted rapist/murderer die?

Which is objectively better? Which is right? Which is virtuous? Continue reading “Peak Virtue”

Physicality = Mentality = Spirituality

 

Here we are in February, and I can reflect upon two New Year’s Resolutions I decided to make in late December:

  1. Adhere to every Greek Orthodox fast day in 2018
  2. Lose some fat

No, these two things aren’t unrelated. And I have done both before. But this year, I felt that I needed a little spiritual cleansing as well as physical cleansing, which often lead to mental and emotional cleansing. It sounds esoteric, but to paraphrase  Alexander Juan Antonio Cortes (who you should follow if you’re in any way interested in fitness):

Physicality = mentality = spirituality

Everything is connected. I’ve written about the benefits of fasting before, and I stand by my assertion that “When I’m not worrying about the food I consume, I start to think about the other stuff I consume.”

I’ve also discussed my thoughts about physical fitness, and how it helps improve other aspects of my life. It’s amazing what a little self-discipline and enforced unpleasantness can do–let’s face it, lifting feels good, but there are some days when you just don’t want to go to the gym.

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Lastly, I’ve discussed how the only way to get anything done and done well is to get obsessed and stay obsessed. Ruthless focus is what you need. At least in my life, when I haven’t been obsessed with something, I just kind of meander around.

This isn’t a post to brag, although I’ve been pleased with my results. Instead, I’d like to hopefully inspire anyone reading this to

So let’s put this all together. First, we’ll go over what I’m doing, and then we’ll go over what I’ve learned. Continue reading “Physicality = Mentality = Spirituality”