June 19, 2011

Hear Ye, Hear Ye!

Well, the time has come for me to take a short vacation from this blog. Actually its not really a vacation, since I will not really be leaving my home or enjoying myself. I guess I should call it an isolation, though I would much rather be on a vacation. In fact, I haven't been on a vacation in almost three years, but that was merely the result of being laid off from my job in New York as the economic crisis launched and having nowhere to go but explore New York for a month until my lease ran out. Afterwards I drove down to Orlando, Florida to attend Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios as well as visited every place associated with Edgar Allen Poe along the east coast as I waited for a place to open up for me in Boston to stay at. As much as I enjoyed my exploration then, it was not really a vacation, but a depletion of every last penny in my bank account.

Though I've managed to stay afloat since then venturing along unforeseeable paths and exploring new career choices, things have fallen beyond flat once again and its time I establish myself in a new career that I have experience in from prior to my lay off. It is thus a personal urgent matter that I must attend to, and I only prolonged it because I wanted to complete the Pentecostarion period with regular posts. After all, posting here has always been the most relaxing and enjoyable period of my day for the past two years. And its probably been the best learning experience I have ever had, and this comes from a guy with a few graduate degrees.

Hopefully daily postings will resume sooner than later when things are resolved and settled in my personal life. I'm aiming for a week, but it may take longer. Changes and updates to the site will continue, and will be announced on Facebook and Twitter only until my return to regular postings.

If you are looking for new reading materials, you can always visit my bookstore to financially support the future of this ministry. For those who have made orders, though most have already been mailed out, a few are still in the process of preparation and will be mailed out by the end of the month.

Thank you for your generous prayers and support.


Over the past two years I have received a lot of encouraging email from my readers. Though I have kept this private until now, I think my average reader would be surprised to learn how many changed lives have resulted through my humble ministry. This has fueled me to want to do more, and will do in the near future, God willing. Yet along with these encouraging emails I get personal questions that I promise to answer at some point, but rarely take the time to do so. Therefore, I will now answer the last five questions I received, as I continue with my ramble. Because they can be answered in a chronological way, this is the way I will arrange them.

Question 1: How did your journey to Orthodoxy begin?

I liked the way this question was phrased, since the person who asked it knew I was born into an Orthodox Christian family. For me Orthodoxy was indeed a journey of many years which I trace to my early childhood. My story is a long and complicated one that I hope to one day write down in full, so I will only hit on a few things here that basically overviews my pre-teen years without giving too much away. Since "cradle" stories are rarely told, I'll begin from the beginning.

In fact my earliest memory comes from when I was just an infant of less than a year old when something that seemed paranormal happened to me. I was sitting in my high chair next to a table as my mother was doing something behind me in the kitchen. Over the table was a hanging light that lit the room. As I looked up suddenly I saw a man in what looked like 18th century attire with a humorous smile staring at me upside down as he walked around the light on the ceiling. I believe he even put his finger in front of his mouth and told me "shhhh" so as not to make a fuss about it. I just stared at the man on the ceiling in awe, and it was ingrained into my memory ever since. Whether it was in fact a paranormal experience I don't know, but it was certainly not the last paranormal experience I would have in my life.

In many ways I had a normal first generation Greek-American childhood, with a father who never went to church and a mother who took her children to church maybe once or twice a month. The only truly pious person in my entire family was my grandmother on my father's side, but she lived in Greece and I only saw her a few times in my early childhood. She would tell me fascinating stories of Saints like that of St. George and St. Demetrios, and of ancient Greek hero's like Hercules, and whenever she finished one I would beg her for more. Later in my teenage years she would continue to play a significant role in my Orthodox formation.

When I would go to church in those days, especially before the age of seven, I would just drift off staring into the stained-glass windows imagining other worlds and dimensions. My bedroom was the only room in my house that had an icon corner with a perpetual red electrical light bulb in front of an icon of the Virgin Mary. I would lie down in bed at night and wonder if they could see me, since they seemed to always be staring right back at me. At 5 or 6 years old I was sent to Sunday School, which really only meant no more church services, and all we did was put together puzzles of icons and draw crosses, which was fun but mindless. I only received Holy Communion once a year on Holy Thursday morning, but always when the Divine Liturgy had already been over for about an hour. The most exciting thing about that was tasting the delicious wine, then afterwards going with the family to IHOP for a breakfast to break our one or two day fast, which we would then continue again of Good Friday. On Good Friday morning my mother always made sure we drank a spoonfull of vinager to taste a little bit of the suffering of Jesus. Easter was about the food, but we went every year to the midnight service, though always only stood outside with the crowd for about 10 or 15 minutes until "Christ is risen!" was chanted, then we would immediately book it for the car to get home and begin the feast. It took many years for me to realize that something was actually happening inside the church during that time.

Probably the wisest thing my mother did for me at that time was at the age of seven she took me out of Sunday School and asked my parish priest if I could stay behind the altar area as an altar boy, even though I was technically too young in those days. As an altar boy you're forced to learn something about the services and had to pay some attention, so at least my mind didn't wander as much. And in my parish the altar area was sort of an exclusive club where the older "cool" kids hung out, and even though most of them were punks and used the altar area as a hang out, my priest bore with them patiently to make sure to keep them coming to church and not turn them off forever. In those years I would be an altar boy maybe one or two Sunday's per month (when school vacation started in the summer so did vacation from going to church until school started again in the Fall), but the other two or three Sundays my dad would take me to a local soccer field to play soccer with his friends. When I was younger I would play somewhere by myself or with another kid a father dragged along, but as I got a little older they let me play in the game which only made me anxious since some of them were semi-pro's in Greece and their kicks were as fast as lightning. They would take the game so seriously however that every time I made a mistake I would literally get physically and mentally abused by men three times my age, including my dad. By the time I was a teenager I stopped going and decided I would be better off going to church more.

My first of many existential crisis' hit me at about the age of seven when I was confronted with the reality of death. I had two older sisters who had their own friends, so often I was left alone conjuring up imaginary friends to play with. One day my mom mentioned that she had had a miscarriage with her first child, who would have been a boy. From that time on for many months all I did was think about the reality of death and my imaginary friend that I played with was the older brother that had died in the womb of my mother. I would lie down in bed every night wanting to die in order to understand the mystery. Eventually I came to the conclusion at that time that life was nothing but a dream within a dream and all that I saw was nothing but an illusion I was conjuring up in my brain as the real me floated somewhere in outer space. One night I even asked my mother about this as I sat in between my two sisters in the back of our car and my dad was driving and she sat in the passenger seat. I leaned forward and desperately asked her: "Ma, doesn't life seem like a dream? Is it a dream?" She thought my question was cute and that I was smart to ask it, but left it at that and this only left me frustrated. So I concluded that life was indeed a dream and an illusion...somehow...though not "really".

It would not be until about a decade later when I was in high school that I came across the famous line of Edgar Allen Poe somewhere in the 1,000 page biography of Fr. Seraphim Rose I was reading at the time, which said: "Is all that we see or seem but a dream within a dream?" This quote from the poem "Dream Within A Dream" forever formed a bond between me and the Master of the Macabre, let alone the fact that we were both born and suffered in Boston.

It was during these days that I first became fascinated with Bible stories. I never read them, but every morning the highlight of my day was to wake up at 7:00AM before school and watch a cartoon series called "Superbook". This was an excellent series of two modern day children traveling back in time to live out different stories of the Bible while meeting the characters of the Bible. I was absolutely fascinated and in love with this show, and years later when I first started reading the Bible, the stories were familiar to me from watching the "Superbook" series every weekday for a couple of years.

Things slowly began to change for me by the fifth grade at the age of ten. By this time in many ways I was an angry kid and somewhat of a punk. If my parents punished me, I would hate them. If anyone bothered me, I'd hate them. It came to the point that my parents decided to move us to the richer town next to the one we lived in with a better school system. It was either this, or I would be sent to boarding school. This made me even more angry. But there was one light in my life at this time, and that was my fifth grade Greek school teacher named John. I had gone to Greek school since the first grade and absolutely hated it and everything about it. In the fourth grade I even orchestrated to have my teacher fired because she was the closest thing to the devil I had ever met, so going into the fifth grade did not give me high expectations. But if my fourth grade teacher was a devil, my fifth grade teacher was a saint. He was a seminarian from Holy Cross School of Theology who came from Greece to study theology in Boston. In class, which was twice a week, one day he would fully devote to teaching Greek, the other day he fully devoted to teaching us about Christianity. With my background in being fascinated with "Superbook", I actually would always look forward to going to class on the day he would teach about Christianity; and by this time I hated school.

My teacher John was a great man, and to this day I am moved every time I think about him. First of all, he was the first teacher I had and ever did have that not only was kind, loving and possessed a gentle smile, but I never even knew his last name as he would insist that we called him by the name "Yianni" (Greek for "John"). Till this day, he may be the closest image I have in my mind of a Christ-like figure that I have ever met. At a time I felt despised and agitated by everyone, he was just so full of love that you sensed absolutely no judgment from him. And when he taught about Christianity, he did it with a gentle passion that was infectious. Nothing over the top, but certainly heartfelt. The other students hated the days he would teach about Christianity thinking them a waste of time, but I was absolutely glued to every word. I was always too shy to tell him, but I always knew he sensed my fascination because I would listen to what he said and look right at him while everyone else was falling asleep. At the end of the school year he even took us for a field trip to visit Holy Cross School of Theology where he lived and studied, which was my first visit (my second was a few years later when my father took me to see Ecumenical Patriarch Demetrios). He took us for a tour around campus, showed us his apartment, and ended the day in the chapel where he gave a final little talk. For some reason, as he was talking, he mentioned me by name in front of everyone to emphasize a point he was making about the importance of keeping our faith alive. If only he knew that less than a decade later I would be entering that same school as a student.

One particular day in Greek school I most remember that forever changed my life. And who would have thought it would happen to me in Greek school, the one thing in my life I had most hated. Here was this seminarian in his early twenties talking to a bunch of ten year olds about love and forgiveness, a topic he always tried to drive home with us. And he always did this in the context of imitating the love and forgiveness of Christ. After confessing to us how when he came to America from Greece and settled for a few years in the Dakotas he became very racist against black people, he said that as a Christian he came to realize the evils of hate and prejudice. Then he explained to us how Christ on the cross forgave his murderers and the thief crucified next to him, and if Christ could do something like that, then what prevents us from not forgiving our friends or family or anyone. With raised arms in a crucified position he repeated the words of Christ on the cross: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do". Then he explained to us the victory of Christ over death through his resurrection. These were things I never heard before. I had always assumed Jesus died on the cross and that was it. This was the first I heard of a resurrection from the dead, or at least took it to heart. Up to this time, death was very hopeless to me and made me view everything as vanity.

At that moment, like the Grinch who stole Christmas, my small heart grew three sizes. The love of Jesus melted any hate I ever had in my heart. It was a tremendous load off my back to no longer be burdened with hate and resentment. It was literally a taste of freedom.

He then had all the students sit in a circle and asked each of us one by one if there was anyone in the world we hated. Everyone thought this exercise was stupid, and everyone said one by one that of course there were people they hated. Almost everyone said they hated murderers and rapists and bullies, etc. As I listened to them, I only thought how stupid they were being for saying such a thing, even though I felt the same way not too long before. Then my turn came and John asked me if there was anyone I hated, and the only thing that could come out of my mouth was "no". It was the only logical answer to my ten year old mind.

A few months later I was put to the test. I did something bad and my mom punished me by sending me to my room. I became angry and inside myself I said "I hate her". Now this was something I had said before without remorse, but this time guilt ran throughout my being. I immediately thought of Jesus on the cross and the lesson I had learned about forgiveness. I vowed on that day that I would never hate anyone ever again for any reason whatsoever as long as I lived, nor even say the word in anger, even if I were a victim of hate. So far, at the age of 35, I have kept that promise after many trials.

The next stage in my journey didn't come for a few years, when the movie "The Seventh Seal" came out in 1988, starring Demi Moore. I had gone to the theater with my aunt and sisters to watch a movie, but my aunt didn't want to see a kid movie, so she decided to take us all to an R-rated movie she wanted to see. I was twelve years old, so of course I said yes. The movie was sort of freaky, but biblical prophecies about the end of the world were a central theme. It made me curious to the point that when I got home I stole my sisters KJV Bible which she received as a gift from someone, and began to search for the verses cited in the movie, since this was the first I heard of an end of the world and biblical prophecies. I found the verse and was blown away.

Soon thereafter I was watching TV on a Sunday morning and saw some show put out by a cult group on biblical prophecies, and they were describing how the Bible prophecied things like helicopters in the Book of Revelation. This also fascinated me and made me curious enough to search out those Bible passages.

That same year I also decided to watch the six-hour mini-series "Jesus of Nazareth" on TV, since it was a year Catholics and Orthodox celebrated Easter together and I always loved getting as much into the spirit of various holidays as I could. One of the great things about this movie, besides the fact that it depicted the best "Jesus" in film history who took the role seriously, was its unashamed use of quoting various Old Testament prophecies which foretold the coming of Jesus. I had never known or heard before this that even the coming of Jesus was foretold hundreds of years before his birth. I was blown away once again and realized that Christianity is a religion of many great and pleasant surprises. It was the first great Holy Week I had in church that year and made everything very real to me. Around this time my grandmother also visited us in America and brought me a Greek children's Bible as a gift. One day at a store I found the same book in English and begged my mom to buy it for me, since the KJV Bible was a little difficult for me. This is when I really started to take Christianity seriously, as I entered my teenage years, reading almost every day my children's Bible full of interesting illustrations.

But this is only where my journey and the trials begin.

Question 2: Who is your primary theological influence?

Besides the Prophets, Apostles and Fathers, my primary modern day theological influence is the person who most opened up to me the Prophets, Apostles and Fathers, and that person is Fr. John Romanides. Here is a brief history of how this came to be.

Interestingly I first came across Fr. John Romanides working with my father as an electrician. I was a freshman in Hellenic College at the time and my dad called me telling me he was working in the house of a Catholic old woman, and in her basement there were a bunch of old Christian books she was willing to give me. So I went to work with him and took the books, which were mainly old Catholic missals and catechisms and spiritual works published in the early 20th century. As I went through one of these books I came across a cut-out from the Boston Globe in the 1950's by a Greek Orthodox professor at Holy Cross named Fr. John Romanides on the topic of an Orthodox perspective on UFO's and alien life. Shortly thereafter I was discussing the topic with an Orthodox priest at the seminary and told him about the article, but also mentioned I was a little troubled by it because it said that man does not have an immortal soul. I was suspicious also that his picture in the article showed him as shaven and wearing a collar, which at the time made me think twice about how Orthodox this really could be. The priest explained to me that in Orthodoxy we do not believe we possess an eternal soul by nature, but by grace. Then he also said something that resonated within me: "You can't go wrong with Romanides." Struck by the concept of having an immortal soul by grace and not nature, I decided to one day look further into the writings of Fr. Romanides.

After I graduated college in 1998 I immediately got married and decided to move to North Carolina, where I would attend an Evangelical Seminary and get a Philosophy of Religion degree, being taught by some of the biggest names in the Evangelical world at the time with a specialty in apologetics. I was there for three years and fully immersed in the life of the school, but in the end not allowed to get my degree because it was required I sign a Statement of Faith which was a bit too Calvinistic for my tastes.

It was about a year into my education in North Carolina that I really got deep into studying writers like Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, and every major Western thinker and philospher into the 20th century up to Derrida. I was also taking classes on Christian doctrine that was taught from a scholastic perspective, as my teacher was big fan and follower of Aquinas, and I wondered how strange it all sounded compared to what I had read in Orthodox Patristic texts. As much as I tried to reconcile the two, I just couldn't, and I was left dazed and confused, on the border of possibly abandoning certain key Orthodox doctrines because the arguments of Aquinas just sounded clearer and better to me in some ways. We spent a lot of time talking about the nature of God, and found it strange how little I was taught about this in my classes at Hellenic College. But deep down I always knew there was something wrong, especially with the doctrine of God as Actus Purus and the concept of Divine Simplicity and the vision of the Divine Essence.

I looked everywhere in my library and on the internet for an Orthodox response to Aquinas, but could not find anything anywhere that was convincing and rational enough. Then I looked into a book by Andrew Sopko titled "Prophet of Roman Orthodoxy: The Theology of Fr. John Romanides" which had just been published and I purchased hoping to begin my studies of Fr. Romanides. When I read the first chapter which contained a summary of the debate he had with his professor Panagiotis Trembelas, I was once again blown away. All the things that troubled me about Aquinas, represented by Trembelas in the debate, was clearly answered by Fr. Romanides in such a convincing way that I could not have imagined. I had come to the point of losing hope in having my questions answered, and every one of them was answered in that first chapter. When I completed that book I truly felt that I had only just then become an Orthodox Christian. A new world opened up to me. And since then I have acquired every writing of Fr. John in both Greek and English, published and unpublished, and read them all over and over again. Without Fr. Romanides, I feel almost as if today I would not be Orthodox nor even alive.

3. Question: What inspired you to begin your weblog?

Many things inspired me. It would be difficult to list them all, so I won't. I will say that my initial inspiration was my bitter separation from my wife after nearly seven years of marriage and the eventual divorce a few years later. It was one of the darker periods of my life, and I saw more evil being put out into the world after my separation than I cared to witness. For three years I fought a battle of whether or not to return evil for evil, or return good for all the evil unwillingly heaped on me continuously during that period. I could easily write a book about all the lessons I learned in those days, and probably will. After over three years of this I felt like I had wasted a lot of time fighting this battle, and any attempt I would make to return good for evil fell on unfertile ground. In a moment of isolation I decided to start something which eventually became this blog, though at first I didn't know the direction I wanted to go with it. Essentially it still has that spirit, pretty much covering a wide range of topics, not all of which are purely of an Orthodox theological nature.

I never thought I would have any readers. I simply did it to see what it would be like and where it would lead me organically. I've had to erase some of my initial posts because a lot of them covered subjects that would probably scandalize my easily scandalized readers. My range of interests carry wide expanses and vast depths for most people in the world to handle. In fact, many of my posts right now scandalize a lot of people, but I had to draw a line somewhere. After all, this is purposefully titled "the weblog of John Sanidopoulos" and I purposefully made sure the address for my page was my name to state that everything here is an expression of my interests and do not aim to please anyone but myself.

Eventually I had to narrow it down to more important topics mainly of an Orthodox Christian nature. Till this day I'm still trying to narrow it down. I was always frustrated how truly little there was on the internet that contained a spirit of authentic Orthodoxy that I have come to learn over the years, in all its simplicity, beauty and purity. I couldn't think of one website that represented this the way I wanted to see it. I was also frustrated that there was so much on the internet by schismatic Old Calendarists and their propaganda which was taken for truth by the gullible and unread, by the vast amount of opinionated bloggers with nothing but vitriol being produced, and by the lack of a Pan-Orthodox unity and spirit on news sites. Very few if any a few years ago represented Greek traditions and the Ecumenical Patriarchate in a positive light. But I also wanted to include things in the Russian tradition, the Serbian, the Romanian, the Bulgarian, the Georgian, etc etc. I believe I have created a more positive spirit here where people don't have to feel guilty for belonging to the canonical Church, as many websites at that time by so-called "Orthodox" made you feel, and which put all critics of the Church on the defensive rather than the offensive. I havn't really even begun to tackle the heavy subjects and present the Orthodoxy that I have come to love over the years, but eventually, God willing, I'll get to it. Much work needs to be done, but first a lot of misinformation on the internet needs to be addressed.

This was basically what inpired me to begin this blog, but this is only the beginning of a long journey.

4. Question: Which of the hundreds of posts you have made would you consider the most important?

That is really difficult to answer. But since I'm getting personal, I will go with one in which I provided a quote from a section of St. Peter of Damascus contained in The Philokalia titled "We Should Not Despair Even If We Sin Many Times". Very few people have read The Philokalia these days, so even fewer were aware of this powerful chapter of St. Peter. No passage from the fathers struck a chord for me as much as this one when I first came across it. This was during college when I came to a point that I fell into the sin of despair headlong, to the point where I lost touch in many ways with reality and my humanity. It was a terrible time, even darker than that of my divorce which really hit me hard, but St. Peter helped pull me through in those days. I was pleased after I posted it the positive responses it received, and in many ways I think I started my blog just to post this passage for the whole world to read. Another one I loved from back then was titled The Afflicted Should Be Guided Slowly To Repentance. These are the two that mean the most to me personally.

5. Question: Last year you listed your top ten favorite films for the first half of the year. What are they this year?

Finally an easy question. Since people get scandalized by my interests I decided to not do it this year, but hopefully I'm helping to lead people along a greater path of maturity and non-judgmentalism to list my top ten here. As anyone that knows me knows that I am a great lover of the arts and especially cinema, here are my top ten movies of the first half of 2011 that I have seen. In reverse order they are:

10. Insidious (my favorite horror movie of the year so far, though I also liked Paranormal Activity 2)

9. The Conspirator

8. Bridesmaids

7. X-Men: First Class

6. Thor

5. Submarine

4. Win Win

3. Jane Eyre

2. Super 8

1. Midnight In Paris

Sorry, but "Tree of Life" and "Of Gods and Men", while both very good movies in many ways, were overrated in my humble opinion. "Sanctum" was probably the most underrated. Also, there are three movies I have not seen that may enter my top ten list after I see them within the next few weeks - "Rubber", "13 Assassins" and "Incendies". Probably most of these will be forgotten come Oscars time, since the next six months have a list of very interesting titles that I am really looking forward to.