Archive for May 28th, 2007

The Shape of Heaven

May 28, 2007


I am feeling my way forward with this post – that is to say – I have some thoughts that are probably still in formation – so bear with me. That human beings have a particular relationship with icons is, to me, part of the dogma of the Church. It is not an expressed dogma – the Seventh Ecumenical Council made its defense of icons dependent on the right understanding of the Incarnation of Christ. But we can move forward from there and acknowledge that the Incarnation of Christ is itself, in part, a revelation of what it is to be truly human. As Metropolitan Kallistos Ware says, “God became man so that man could become god, but He also became man so that man could become Man. And icons, as we understand from the Seventh Council, are possible because God truly became a man.

To extend all of this a bit further – I would want to say that like the holy icons, space itself– the place we occupy at any given time – is deeply important to us as human beings. We are not disincarnate beings who have no relation to what is around us. We are quite the opposite – we are incarnate beings who are deeply defined and enmeshed in the space we inhabit.

This space can mean any of the tangible elements of our existence: light, heat, color, space itself – and so many such things – all deeply important to us. I hope that what I’ve been writing seems completely obvious.

Of course our environment and space are important. So what’s your point?

The point is that we frequently act as though these things do not matter to us. I can speak only of the places I have been – thus, mostly America – but here, we frequently treat space as though it were not important – or as though it was only important for some use and not for its relation to us as human beings. Thus we build ugly cities or build mindlessly, with consideration only for profit or some other less human purpose.

To this day, it is relatively easy to spot a building built in the 1960’s or early 70’s. Go to anytown in your state and find the most silly looking building and you’ll probably be standing before some bright idea of those decades. It was a time where tradition played as little role as possible in the creation of space. I am not a student of architecture – but I know what makes me feel uncomfortable or out of place. Tradition has often created beautiful spaces for the simple reason that people prefer beauty to ugliness. Beauty is frequently destroyed either by ignorance, greed or just wrong ideology.

But I do not mean to rant here about American architecture. My point is to write about the importance of space. There are reasons that Tradition properly guides the construction of Orthodox Churches – the building itself is an icon. Done well, the space in which we worship is an aid to prayer. Of course, this is not the same thing as saying every Church building has to be in competition with Hagia Sophia. But serious thought and care for such spaces remains important.

You can pray anywhere. I have worshipped in a converted warehouse as an Orthodox Christian – and I would rather have been there than in a heterodox cathedral. Nevertheless, space remains important. The small spaces in our homes, the “icon corner,” (in Russian it is the “beautiful” corner), are critically important and thus worth paying attention to.

There is also the space we occupy in another sense – the place of our heart. It is deeply important for the heart to be “beautiful,” adorned with forgiveness and love. Without such beauty prayer becomes nearly impossible.

I was with a friend earlier today who has just moved into a new house (“new” in the sense that it is “new” to him). There were things to see and admire (hardwood floors, nice views out the windows, etc.). But what he commented on most, and thus what led to this posting, were some of the house’s unusual places: a space under a stair, an unexpected corner – things that gave the house character and somehow made it a space well-suited for a family and a delight to children.

At Theophany it is traditional for our homes to be blessed. But this same blessing continues as we pray and fill our spaces with the love of God. Perhaps in time our cities will become better spaces (some are already – I have my list – and, I suspect, you may have yours). With prayer, and attention to the fact that the spaces in which we dwell are places in which we incarnate the Christian faith, our spaces can be the garden of God, the space of Heaven. May God in His mercy grant us all such places to dwell.

Small Things, Great Hopes

May 28, 2007


On the surface it was not a world-shaking event. A friend of the parish loaned me a DVD last week. The DVD was a Russian DVD – with English subtitles. Again, not a world-shaking event. Thus, let me take a few minutes to explain why I felt the earth move.

The movie in question is The Island, or Ostrov, to call it by its Russian name. It has won a number of awards, including special recognition by the Patriarch of Moscow (all of which makes me think I’m the last person in the world to have seen this film).

The movie’s plot is fairly straightforward – if you understand Orthodox spirituality. It has much to say (though with few words) about forgiveness and repentance. I need say no more than that for my purposes in this post.

What is earth-moving for me, is that this is a marvelous Orthodox film produced by a nation that is finding its way back to Orthodoxy (in fits and starts). And that, to me, is earth-moving

First, this perfectly Orthodox film could not have been made in America, because the American film industry would have never understood or let be such a straight-forward script. The movie has elements of miracles (all of which are understated in typical Orthodox fashion). It is permeated by the Jesus Prayer, constant repentance, and a healthy dose of the phenomenon of a yurodivoi (holy fool). I have read tales that are not unlike this film – but I had never seen a film that was remotely like such tales.

And with that, the earth moves for me.

When I was in college in the early 1970’s, my circle of Christian friends were fairly well-read. There was much discussion about theology, culture and related issues. When Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s book, From Under the Rubble, appeared, Solzhenitsyn was revealed to be a devout Orthodox believer. He had already been revealed as an unmitigated hero (among Americans) during a time when America was ceasing to believe that there were such things as heroes (you’d have to have been there to remember). At the time, reading his work was one of the most hopeful experiences I had ever had in my life.

I recall a Roman Catholic friend bringing up the subject of the “conversion of Russia” during one evening’s bull session. It was all tied up with Our Lady of Fatima and the prophecies of that early 20th century Roman Catholic event. I was not particularly concerned then (or now) with special revelations of Roman Catholic mystics. But the idea, not of the “conversion of Russia,” but simply of an Orthodox Russia was staggering for me. I can recall thinking about the meaning of a return to center stage of one of the most profound (why be weak – the most profound) forms of Christianity ever known and what it might mean in my own lifetime. These were the musings of a 20 year old in college bull sessions.

When, in 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, I felt for the first time rumblings of the visions of those earlier years. As the years have passed and the Church has gained greater freedom – not only have I become Orthodox – but my musings that an Orthodox culture might be on the rebound are stronger than ever.

Then comes this movie. I do not have to discuss its plot. But I do have to say that it is an event of extreme importance that such a film has been made. Into the cultural conversation of the modern, or post-modern world, Orthodoxy has risen with beauty and an articulateness I could heretofore only dream about. If it is the beginning of more such movies, then the Orthodox faith is receiving very important images and references with which to carry on its conversation.

I encourage you to see the film. You’ll have to buy it, or rent it (should your local movie store ever have it). If you’re someone who lives near my parish, then you’ll hear about an evening not to far from now when we’ll have “movie night” just to watch it together.

If I am the last person to have heard about this film, then I can’t believe no one else has been writing about it.

I can only end this post with a quote from a Russian review of the film. I found the review and did the only thing I could to read it: I plugged it into Babel Fish (one of the most hilarious experiences of language known to the art of translation).

The admonition –

General sensation: film good, unambiguously stands it to look.