Archive for October, 2007

Let Every Heart Prepare Him Room

October 31, 2007


Well known to almost everyone is the Christmas carol that bids: “Let every heart, prepare Him room.” It is an excellent piece of theology – drawing a comparison between the coldness and lack of hospitality found in Bethlehem so long ago and the inner landscape of our own hearts. We should prepare our hearts so that there is room for God.

I had some experience with this in a different way earlier this fall when I painted my first icon (in a workshop). The painting of an icon is also the creation of a sacred space. The painting begins quite flat. Everything begins with dark colors. The face will be a single dark color – flat without expression with only a dark line or so that indicates nose, eyes and lips. It is as if there is no space there in that face.

I have noted before that icons a build up from dark to light. But what I believe I failed to comment on was that this movement from dark to light also builds space. The icon gains a depth and a height as we bring light to the subject we are painting.

To think about adding depth to my heart – preparing more room than now exists – is also an exercise in adding light. How much room do I have in my heart? Is there room for disappointment? For insult? For injury or failure? How much incompetency must I bear in my heart? How many fools must I suffer there?

With each addition of space the heart becomes more fully what it was created to become. If God is to dwell there, then the heart must become infinite. God became human that he might dwell among us – but not to leave us as we are. God became man, we say, so that man could become god. This is His purpose – to change us from glory to glory into the very image and likeness of God. Thus our hearts are to become infinite with room for disappointment, insult, injury, failure, incompetency and fools. The list, of course, could go on but a blog is but a finite thing.

The heart however…

Reading the Fathers

October 30, 2007


I mentioned in a comment to a recent post that more people talk about the Fathers of the Church than actually read them. I also noted that good translations are hard to find. I wanted to offer some thoughts on reading the Fathers as well as some suggestions on how to begin that important task.

First, you should understand that you will never read all the Fathers, or understand all that they write.

Second, the Fathers should not be read as though they were Scripture, nor should we read them as a source of “proof texting” various doctrines or understandings.

The “Fathers” is a very large category of writings. They are by no means even in their quality or their importance. They are an integral part of the Tradition and it is within the Tradition that they should be read and understood.

Third, there is no shame in reading the Fathers primarily in trusted, secondary sources. The larger context of history and culture does not come attached to the writings of the Fathers, per se. Thus, a vitally important part of their interpretation is not available to most readers. Even Patristic Scholars (those whose specialty is the writings of the Fathers) will not be equally comfortable or competent in every period of Patristic history. In Orthodoxy, that period can be said to have lasted up until at least the 14th century, and some would say that we have never left the period of the Fathers.

By good secondary sources, I would mean writings on the lives and teachings of the Fathers by very solid, respected Orthodox writers. If an Orthodox writer is himself (or herself) surrounded by controversy, then you would do well to read their works with a grain of salt, or not at all. There is more than enough good material to be read without indulging ourselves in controversial figures.

Finally (at least of these preliminary suggestions) I would suggest that the most important Patristic legacy is the liturgical wealth of the Church. Read the services and think about what they say. When something raises a question that seems important, pursue the question.

Now for some suggestions for reading:

The Apostolic Fathers(those in the first generation immediately after the Apostles) are very accessible and easy to read. Generally, their works sound much like the New Testament itself. The Letters of St. Ignatius, the Martyrdom of Polycarp, and others (you’ll generally find them published in a single volume) are all worth reading.

Who else? St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation of the Word is of singular importance. I would add to that St. Irenaeus’ On the Apostolic Preaching. Both bear witness to how the early Church thought on many significant questions.

The later in history (as in the further removed from the New Testament) the more necessary a guide becomes and the importance of good secondary works. St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press carries a number of good titles in this area.

But, as noted, without scholarly training, much of the body of Patristic writing, if read without an interpreter, will either be ill-used or simply misunderstood. It is not easy reading.

Another important thought – reading the Church Fathers is something that should be done generally for personal edification and not as a means of gaining expertise, much less authority. If they are read with one eye on God and the other on your heart, then you will have done well. But too much knowledge, unsupported by prayer and a grounded ascetical life, is not only unhealthy, it can become a positive danger to those around you. We have too many self-appointed authorities in the Church already.

One of the most singular bodies of Church writing are the Holy Canons. I cannot remember ever having suggested to anyone that they read the canons and I have yet to see any good come from such reading by any other than those who have the responsibility to apply them (which sometimes means priests, and most especially Bishops). There are again, any number of self-appointed authorities who read the canons and then set about attacking the Bishops of the Church or their local parish priest on the grounds that they are not using the canons properly. This is rarely an activity that is inspired by God. Anyone who engages in it should look very carefully at themselves and be sure they are not living in delusion. Who called you to be a judge? The few in the Church who have been called to such positions accept them (I hope) only with great fear and trembling seeing that they will bear the greatest judgment of all. I rejoice that I am not a Bishop (for many reasons) and find many things about being the Rector of a parish absolutely terrifying. An abbot of a famous Orthodox monastery whom I know, said that his greatest fear was any occasion when he had to give someone an obedience. Those who delight in such authority, should again examine themselves for delusion (or let someone else examine them).

By all means read the Fathers – or at least read those who are familiar with the Fathers and will glean from them their treasures and share them with you. Beware of those who constantly quote the Fathers on all matters and are full of opinions (which, of course, means please read this blog with a grain of salt as well). Especially beware of those who quote the Fathers frequently and are constantly critical of other Orthodox. This is rarely a gift sent to us from God.

Most of the Church Fathers are saints – they are not writing to us from some dead zone. When you read patristic writings (just as when you read the New Testament) ask the author to pray for you and help you in your understanding.

A quick listing (off the top of my head) of important Patristic material:

St. Ignatius of Antioch – important particularly for his understanding of early Church order and the sacraments.

St. Irenaeus of Lyons – his grasp of the role of Tradition in the Church is seminal. Trying to read through his Against the Heresies is impossible or will at least make your hair hurt.

St. Athanasius – his De Incarnatione Verbum is among the most important of all early Church writings. It is basic to our understanding of what salvation means.

St. Basil the Great – On the Holy Spirit is a short, but important work. Secondary writings on his work can be extremely helpful.

St. Gregory the Theologian – a friend of St. Basil’s. Many of his homilies are at least as good as St. John Chrysostom’s.

St. Gregory of Nyssa – harder to read than his brother, St. Basil. Read him with help if at all.

St. Cyril of Alexandria is worth reading, at least in secondary writings.

St. John Chrysostom – for me his sermons serve as an outstanding commentary on the New Testament. Always a good read.

I will have to add to this list in another post. I would welcome suggestions in the comments on various secondary works on the Fathers some of you may have found helpful.

I will close with the observation that Orthodox Christians should have some familiarity with some of the Fathers and a deep respect for them all. But our growth in Christ will not come largely as a result of increased reading but increased prayer, fasting, alms giving, and forgiveness of our enemies. If you would have the “mind of the Fathers,” then seek to have the “mind of Christ” as described in Philippians 2:5-11. They are the same thing.

Solidarity and Salvation

October 29, 2007


Who is God? And what is man? What is wrong with man such that he needs to be “saved?” Is there more than one way of explaining this? The issue of salvation, of how man is brought back into a proper relationship with God, has been the primary concern of Christianity since its very inception. Christ himself begins His ministry with the proclamation, “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” More to the point He said, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). Jesus proclaimed that something was happening (“at hand”) that required people to make a distinct change (repent) and to believe the good news of what God is doing (“believe the gospel”).

One of the earliest accounts of this story, given in a reflective way, is found in St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation (ca. 324 A.D.). It is amply supported in Scripture but, being removed by two hundred years, it gives us a perspective on how the early community was reading Scripture as a whole.

St. Athanasius begins by pointing to the creation of the world by God through His Word (the second person of the Trinity). He notes that everything that was made was created good, because God is the fountain and source of all goodness. He notes that man had been given a singular favor above all else – “namely, the impress of His own Image, a share in the reasonable being of the very Word Himself, so that, reflecting Him and themselves becoming reasonable and expressing the Mind of God even as He does, though in limited degree, they might continue for ever in the blessed and only true life of the saints in paradise.” (De Incarn. 1.3). He notes that God also warned us to guard the grace given to us by keeping his commandment – a “single prohibition” – not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and of evil. He warned us that “if we went astray and became vile, throwing away our birthright of beauty, then we would come under the natural law of death and live no longer in paradise, but, dying outside of it, continue in death and in corruption.” (1.3)

The saint continues his story:

Instead of remaining in the state in which God had created them, they were in process of becoming corrupted entirely, and death had them completely under its dominion. For the transgression of the commandment was making them turn back again according to their nature; and as they had at beginning come into being out of non-existence, so were they now on the way to returning, through corruption, to non-existence again. The presence and love of the Word had called them into being; inevitably, therefore, when they lost the knowledge of God, they lost existence with it; for it is God alone Who exists, evil is non-being, the negation and antithesis of good. By nature, of course, man is mortal, since he was made from nothing; but he bears also the Likeness of Him Who is, and if he preserves that Likeness through constant contemplation, then his nature is deprived of its power and he remains incorrupt. (1.4)

This then was the plight of men. God had not only made them out of nothing, but had also graciously bestowed on them His own life by the grace of the Word. Then, turning from eternal things to things corruptible, by counsel of the devil, they had become the cause of their own corruption in death; for as I said before, though they were by nature subject to corruption, the grace of their union with the Word made them capable of escaping from the natural law, provided that they retained the beauty of innocence with which they were created. (1.5)

But God was not willing to leave us held in bondage by corruption and death. Thus God the Word willingly took on himself our human nature and entered into death itself that he might destroy death.

Naturally also, through this union of the immortal Son of God with our human nature, all men were clothed with incorruption in the promise of the resurrection. For the solidarity of mankind is such that, by virtue of the Word’s indwelling in a single human body, the corruption which goes with death has lost its power over all. You know how it is when some great king enters a large city and dwells in one of its houses; because of his dwelling in that single house, the whole city is honored, and enemies and robbers cease to molest it. Even so is it with the King of all; He has come into our country and dwells in one body amidst the many, and in consequence the designs of the enemy against mankind have been foiled, and the corruption of death, which formerly held them in its power, has simply ceased to be. For the human race would have perished utterly had not the Lord and Savior of all, the Son of God, come among us to put an end to death. (1.9)

For by the sacrifice of His own body He did two things: He put an end to the law of death which barred our way; and He made a new beginning of life for us, by giving us the hope of resurrection. By man death has gained its power over men; by the Word made Man death has been destroyed and life raised up anew. That is what Paul says, that true servant of Christ: ‘For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. Just as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive,’ and so forth. Now, therefore, when we die we no longer do so as men condemned to death, but as those who are even now in process of rising we await the general resurrection of all ‘which in its own times He shall show,’ even God Who wrought it and bestowed it on us. (1.10)

I have quoted extensively from St. Athanasius to share the clarity of his vision and to illustrate his perception of the nature of our salvation. Salvation, for St. Athanasius, is a movement from death to life. And this movement is brought about through our union, our solidarity with Christ. This is the Orthodox faith.

The Fullness of the World to Come

October 28, 2007


I am fascinated by what the Holy Tradition does with the idea of “fullness” or “fulfillment.” The Church is described as the “fullness of Him that filleth all in all” (Ephesians 1:23). And it is not unusual for Orthodox Christians to express the meaning of Orthodoxy under the rubric of “fullness”: Orthodoxy is the “fullness of the Church.”

The Scriptures do much with the concept – speaking of the “fullness of time,” or the “times being fulfilled.” It says far more than something being merely large (full) – but of a completeness in which nothing is lacking, or of a completion in which that which was anticipated is now here.

I believe that the word or concept of fullness is very expressive of what we look for in the Resurrection – not a destruction of the Person nor of the replacement of a Person, but of a Person who is finally existing in his fulness. The Miltary may once have advertised “be all that you can be,” but such is only possible in Christ and in the fullness of time. A uniform will not fulfill you.

I use the example of a tree. I have not seen a tree in the fullness of what a tree should be. I know that in some sense all trees have been changed by the One Tree which is now the “invincible weapon of peace.” In that sense trees have seen their fullness in the Cross which was transformed from instrument of torture into instrument of life. Just as the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil once became the instrument of our death – so now the Tree of Life has become the instrument of our life. The Cross itself, and how we see it, is an excellent example. Before Christ the Cross could only be seen as an instrument of execution. After Christ we have to be reminded of its original use. After the Cross, all trees must be seen with at least a hint of their fullness.

There is a peculiar Appalachian folktale which posits the Dogwood tree as the substance of the Cross (Holy Tradition is much more elaborate, with a tree that was a composite of three different evergreens – a biological impossibility but irresistable to medieval writers). The Appalachian folktake goes on to say that the Dogwood is now a short, twisted tree as a curse, so that it could never again be used as a cross. But, of course, this runs so terribly contrary to what the Church understands of the Cross. Christ’s death on the “tree” was not an event to occasion new curses, but an event to lift all curses. Were the Dogwood the tree of the Cross, it would be the most honored tree in the forest. As things stand – we must instead give the honor to all trees and include the Dogwood (and the evergreens) among them.

After Christ, we must look at human beings differently as well. In Christ we have seen the fullness of the human. What it means to be “fully man” is revealed only in the God/Man.

All things will have their fullness – though very few yield up to us clear hints of what that fullness will be. We cannot know the fullness of a man until we see him in the fullness of Christ. Reading the lives of saints occasionally carries revelations of such images. That which seems to escape the ability of our language to describe is often a fullness for which language is inadequate.

The Mother of God comes to mind in particular. I am certain that what many Protestants find troubling about the place of the Theotokos in the Church is the problem of someone who has been made known to us in her fullness. She is “full of grace,” and we stagger before such a revelation. She is not mere mother, but Mother of God. We are accused of saying things about her, or offering a devotion which is inappropriate, but none of this is true if we are understood to be standing before someone who stands in her fullness.

Everything around us has a fullness – which also says that we do not yet see the Truth of the things that surround us. How carefully and joyfully we would move through the world if we knew or could see that fullness already – but this is the mind and the eyes of Christ. Such eyes could see a fisherman who seemed more talk than action and call him a “rock” while seeing in him that which would be the foundation of the Church.

The same eyes could see a Publican and yet see a saint. The same eyes saw Jerusalem and wept for that great mother of all cities that has yet to see her fullness though her name is married and synonymous with the Fulness that is to come.

And so we sing with the angels, “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Sabaoth, heaven and earth are full of Thy glory!” We do not yet see such a fullness. But as St. Paul reminded us – that which we do not see we await in hope. I hope to see us all in that fullness as well as the whole world. Glory to God.

Music from Georgia – Ethnos Fulfilled

October 25, 2007

The subject of Orthodoxy and ethnicity has come up in several recent posts. To limit Orthodoxy to a particular ethnic group is, of course, heretical. But as I have noted earlier, the fullness of Orthodox does not destroy the particularity of who we are – but fulfills it. A man does not become less himself but more truly himself than he could ever have been apart from Christ. Only in Christ are we truly fulfilled.

The same is true of a culture. To remove the fullness of Christ from a culture would be to leave it little more than costume and stage play. Too much of our American culture is precisely that – many professing the Christian faith racing to compete in new ways to present the faith as yet another stage play – Church as karaoke.

But there is a possibility for all cultures to be truly fulfilled in Christ. What this would look like in America is not immediately obvious – though I suspect that many of its more native forms (“shape note” singing in Appalachia, for example) have probably come closer to doing this than any of our modern efforts. For a culture to be fulfilled there is a substance required to start with. Virtual reality will not do.

I believe thought about this topic will have to continue for quite some time. I welcome suggestions of examples. In the meantime – it is worth looking at an ancient culture which still can exhibit elements of its fulfillment. For a second time I am sharing some of the beauty of Georgian Orthodoxy.

A Matter of Perspective

October 25, 2007


During my recent foray into iconography – I spent a week studying with a Master iconographer and a week discovering how little use my hands are in certain circumstances. But among the most fascinating aspects of the week was a lecture that focused largely on the technique of “inverse perspective” that is part of the artistic language of icons. Essentially, inverse perspective does just the opposite of traditional Renaissance art with its “vanishing point” perspective. That “vanishing point” technique enabled gifted artists to render remarkable portrayals of nature, acheiving a life-like appearance (and more). In that technique things portrayed in the painting seem to disappear into the distance – the lines of perspective closing on each other within the painting, finishing in a single “vanishing point.”

It is the inverse of this, and more, that forms the artistic grammar of the icon. The lines of perspective do not converge into a vanishing point – instead they grow ever further apart. Thus the “Window to Heaven” looks into a view which grows ever larger rather than ever smaller and further away. It makes somethings look quite peculiar at first. Buildings have a strange, almost eery shape as you see two walls clearly before you, moving ever wider, where perspective as we normally see it should show only one. It is like a young child who draws a house and instead of remembering that if you draw the view of one side you should not draw the view of the other (since it is out of view), he draws both sides, because he knows both sides and wants to paint all of the house.

There is something similar at work in the grammar of icons. This inverse perspective also eliminates shadows – shapes are not revealed by the darkness that surrounds them, but the “lights” that are added in each progressive stage of the painting – those things that are closer receiving the brightest and last of the lights.

This inverse perspective also makes faces seem quite strange. Noses appear narrow; lips small as we confront them head-on. But the forehead and hair seem enlarged as we see not only the face but both sides of the head as well. Many of these components of reverse perspective have been explained as representing a “spiritualization” of the person (small nose being less sensual; small lips meaning silence, etc.) However I was told these are incorrect descriptions of what is essentially just the effect of inverse perspective.

During one lecture we studied an icon of St. John of Kronstadt. The most fascinating moment for me came as the image of the icon (we were looking at a slide show) was projected on the top of a photograph of St. John (he was a 20th century saint). The similarity was quite obvious – you could clearly see that this icon was not an “idealization” of St. John. But the face that clearly was his took on different qualities as inverse perspective showed what the photograph could not, and St. John, if you will, grew larger where normal perspective would have expected him to be vanishing.

This grammar is also the language of fulfillment. In saying this I do not repeat the lecture but now offer my own ruminations on what I was seeing. Our world in its fallen state is ever disappearing from us, hiding from us, shielding us from knowledge and enclosing life with its shadows. Thus the face of another, instead of revealing the person often acts in the original sense of the word persona – it is a mask. We do not know what lies behind or within it. We see a world that is not fulfilled, but a world that is disappearing and masking its reality.

The work of God in this world is like the hand of the iconographer. Like the image of St. John, the face becomes revelation, an encounter with Person in the sense made known to us through the theology of the Trinity. Under the hand of God the shadows of the world are filled with light – what had been ignorance becomes known. What was once whispered is now “shouted from the rooftops.”

We ourselves, once filled with secrets and areas of darkness, come increasingly into the light. With the disappearance of the darkness of sin, the fullness that is who we are as Persons begins to be made manifest. Obviously the clearest examples of this are to be found in the saints, and yet this same sanctification is at work in all of God’s re-creation.

As painful as confession can sometimes be – it is utterly necessary to our well-being. Light must shine in the darkness if the darkness is to be transformed and we are to find the fullness of God. St. Paul’s wonderful description of the healing of creation at the Last Day, has it this way:

…the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies (Romans 8:21-23).

In the traditional Anglican Book of Common Prayer reference is made to our life after death as an “entrance into the larger life.” It is a marvelous expression, one that is itself filled with inverse perspective and revelatory of the nature of the life we are being given.

And it is also a way we may frequently recognize the work of God. Where darkness grows and shadows loom, the hand of God is often being turned aside (though He will not be refused forever). Where light is entering and shadows disappearing the resurrection has begun, if only in faint hints. St. Paul’s comparison was to a woman in labor. There is pain, (a “groaning” in his usage) but a sudden deliverance. And so it shall be. So much that seems lost in darkness and forever impenetrable will be suddenly revealed. For some a revelation that will bring a shout of “Alleluia,” for others only the frightful appearance of the light. Not that the light should be frightful – but that they had come to prefer darkness to the light.

And I think we may apply this understanding to many things. The work of the Church should not be “pinched” by the narrowness of an ethnicity – rather that which is ethnic should be revealed in a wholeness that finally fullfills what would otherwise have been lacking. For that which is particular is not contrary to God, but without God it collapses back on itself. With God, the perspective becomes inverse, and the particular becomes a liberation, a fullness – something that though particular can no longer be contained.

C.S. Lewis (borrowing from his friend Charles Williams) made this distinction between “England” and “Logres,” his name for England fullfilled (in his novel That Hideous Strength). Under the hand of God all things will be offered such a fullness, to become part of a landscape that is ever greater rather than a landscape that is ever vanishing. God grant us such a fullness, both within ourselves and in everything about us. As the children cried in Lewis’ Narnia, “Higher up! and further in!”

A Smaller World – A Larger World

October 24, 2007


I posted an addition to my blogroll today, an Orthodox Blog in Macedonia (former Yugoslav Republic), Digital Areopagus. I added this link both because it seems a good site, and to return the favor of being added as a link to his site. The internet has a way of making our world both smaller and larger.

Digital Areopagus found its way to this site through the postings of Fr. Dorin Piciorus on his Romanian site, Teologia Pentru Azi. Father Dorin has been a very good friend of Glory to God for All Things, and has offered words of kindness on his blog that go far beyond anything I deserve.

The sum of such contacts for me is both a smaller and a larger world. Orthodoxy, though characterized as an “Eastern” Church, is, in fact, a global Church (there is even an Orthodox Chapel in Antartica). Though here in the West, Orthodoxy is frequently accompanied with an ethnic adjective (Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Romanian Orthodox, etc.), in truth there is only one Orthodoxy which rightly respects the cultures in which it dwells and incarnates the gospel in those very places. The “ethnic” aspects of Orthodoxy in America are sometimes bewildering to those on the outside – but some of that is because many of us imagine America to be “American” (meaning, mostly Anglo) when in fact this land is filled with many cultures and one culture (e pluribus unum). 

I never realized how “ethnic” my own background and experience as an Anglican was until I became Orthodox. My congregation today contains Anglos (like me), Greeks, Russians, Macedonians, Romanians, Japanese, Chinese, Filipinos, British – and the Anglos aren’t really that simple – they are a mix of English, Scots, Irish, German, French and you-name-it. We have cradle Orthodox and convert and stories that make each a fascinating world in itself.

My world becomes smaller when nations that are far away are personalized through contact with particular persons – with other Blogs – in internet language. To know as I write, that my words will be read not just in America, but elsewhere across the globe, occasionally even in translation, makes my world ever so much larger when I write, and yet ever so much smaller. It makes me know that to be Orthodox does not mean to be American, or Greek, or Russian, or Romanian or Macedonian, or Serbian, but to be human. But it is also to remember that to be human always comes with a very specific, personal, even ethnic flavor.

It is like the Gospel itself. God who could not be contained has become contained in the man Christ Jesus, who may be described, even cirumscribed in icons. But He who is depicted in icons is also “He Who Is,” the One who is beyond the ability to describe or circumscribe.

So, too, the faith is beyond our ability to contain. We are contained by it. And yet we only know and experience it in its particular forms, whether in America, Greece, Russia, England, China – wherever it has become incarnate. Thus we contain the mystery and the mystery contains us.

Glory to God for All Things!

The Abolition of Man and Some Other Thoughts

October 23, 2007


I frequently find myself thinking about C.S. Lewis’ little masterpiece, The Abolition of Man, if only because it was correct when he wrote it and has been prophetic ever since. It’s odd, the copy I own is old, tattered, and rescued from a fire – much like his thesis. That thesis is almost too complex to put into this posting – at least in the time I’ve allowed myself to write today. But simply stated:

Much of our modern system of education [it was education Lewis was primarily examining – I would today broaden its scope] is broadly failing to understand what it is to be human. It is the substitution of the “measureable” for the “metaphorical,” in one sense, a modern practice that is utterly demolished in Andrew Louth’s Discerning the Mystery. In both cases the triumph of the “scientific” over every other contender, renders man, or at least much that makes us human, of little value. Thus history only has value as we can study it “scientifically,” not in any sense that might link us to that history. Thus there can be no tradition, nothing within us that extends without us, except the ability to measure or perhaps to feel – but that feeling, as Lewis noted is described as only to feel, and thus not to feel at all.

And yet, as Lewis notes, even those who write within this modern attack on Tradition (or as he chose to call it “the Tao”), themselves stand within the Tradition. There is a simple fact and a reality: there is no other place to stand. We are part of a Tradition of human living that has always existed. Whether I analyze my breathing in some scientific metaphor and measurement or speak of the breath of life, I still breathe, and I want to breathe. There is much that binds us to one another even when it is not recognized.

The Orthodox faith is a form of Christianity that embraces the Tradition – indeed it celebrates it. Marvelously, it does not have to invent it, for the Tradition abides even when Modernity seeks to reinvent the human out of existence. There are customs (important parts of Tradition even when found in ethnic flavor) such as suggesting to a woman that she “lay in” (at least liturgically) for 40 days after giving birth. Today’s insurance policies might not allow so much (I do not know). But it is a Tradition that should not be read for saying, “Don’t go out, you’re unclean.” Instead it’s a Tradition that values the birth of a child enough to protect them and allow them to bond with a mother and – even a Tradition that doesn’t completely know why it asks what it asks. But it does remember something important about being human.

I would say the same thing about parts of the Tradition that teach us to mourn. To pray on the third day of death; the ninth day of death; the fortieth day; the anniversary – and the anniversary without end. To stand around holding candles in the depth of our mourning singing, “Memory eternal!” is not simply some time-worn custom – but an act far superior to the “grief therapy” of the modern psycho-babble industry that organizes grief camps and has children writing letters to deceased loved ones and sending them (the letters) aloft by balloons. Of this latter practice (I once worked as a Hospice Chaplain and I know it well) I can at least say that it, too, flows from the same Tradition – human beings must grieve the dead. The difference is that an Orthodox Memorial service is certain that God is with us and that we pray because of the Resurrection of Christ, whereas balloons are sent aloft because they make us feel better.

Louth takes on the pseudo-sciences that try to push the humanities into the sciences themselves. Thus we have the “science” of “historical critical” studies – which – whatever good they may do – cannot do what they claim or wish. And least of all do they do teach us how to read a text.

I think of the Abolition of Man, not because I despair, but because I realize that I am daily working not for his abolition, but for his recovery. Metropolitan Kallistos Ware has noted: “God not only became man so that man could become god; He also became man so that man could become man.” Christ alone is the fully human and as we live within the Tradition that is the living presence of Christ in the Church – we slowly work to rescue man from the eddies of modernity and restore him to the Tradition that leads to Christ and to the fullness for which he was created. I do not seek to measure that effort, or judge it by its numerical success, but rather by the joy that I know every time I see that it is true and that I see that another knows it is true.

We were created for God – to give Him glory and thanksgiving. Anything less is indeed our abolition. But here we are a generation or more after Lewis wrote his little book, and we are doing (as Orthodox Christians) not what he loathed, but what he lauded. The Tradition will not go away for it is nothing less than God at work among us, saving us, and fulfilling us (not with modernity’s false fulfillment) with the fullness that is nothing less than the life of Christ. Glory to God.

“A Single Word Shall Fell Him”

October 22, 2007


I recall the line from Luther’s great hymn, “A Mighty Fortress.” When speaking of our adversary, whom I need not name, it boldly proclaims, “A single word shall fell him.” It goes on to say, “That Word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them abideth…” etc.

A single word is indeed powerful, particularly if that Word, is Jesus.

It also true, however, that as James says: “But the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:8). Thus, I personally found it unfortunate that with a single slip of the tonge J.K.Rowling chose to declare one of her major characters in her children’s books’ series, to be “Gay.” A single word will delight many who would call it an introduction of reality, while others, myself included, will simply see it as setting into the magical world of children the political games of adults. Why can children not be children?

I recall my conversion into Orthodoxy, and my 10 and 6 year-old asking many questions. I could speak of the Orthodox Church, and a little of our leaving Anglicanism. I could not mention the sexual scandals and false teachings on sexuality that were beginning to abound simply because I refused to have my first such discussions with my children over such an intimate subject disturbed by the proclivities and politics of others.

But the world of children has always had its intruders. A single word, a question asked, and a blessed naivety ends, to be replaced with this mortal battle we all face day to day. I do not mean to be harsh here – just to note the sadness of a world in which children are less and less children and more and more a market, a political chess piece on someone’s board.

May the Word of God keep us all, and the children above all.

When Things Are Not As They Seem

October 19, 2007


It is said that when some of the natives of the South Seas first saw Captain Cook’s ships approaching, they saw them as clouds. There was no category in their world for “ships,” thus the Captain and his crew came in “clouds.”

I’ve have always wondered about the connection between how we name things in the paucity of our experience and how much that naming actually shapes our ability to see. Princess Ileana of Romania, later Mother Alexandra the nun and foundress of the monastery of the Transfiguration in Ellwood City, PA, wrote of her visual experience of her guardian angel when she was a child. There is a clear indication in her writing that she was able to see something as a child that as an adult would become increasingly difficult.

My life in the Church, over the years, even outside the Orthodox Church, has made me more than a little aware that there are “more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy” (to paraphrase). I have served Churches where angels were seen (in procession disappearing into the altar in one case). I have another case where a young woman was saved in the midst of a tumbling car wreck by an appearance of the Royal New Martyrs of Russia. I can add to such stories, though they are not daily reported to me.

But they have often enough been reported to make me wonder about the nature of the world in which I live. I often think that I live in a world that seems as it does because everyone expects it so to seem. And I’ve heard enough to doubt that all is as it seems.

This, of course, is an excellent place for me to mention yet again the difference between a “one” and a “two” storey universe. In the two-storey world, you can have all the oddities you want, you just push them off to the next floor and let the world seem as empty as it does.

Of course, if you live in one-storey world, then the things undreamt of are as likely to appear as anything else. Nothing may be quite as it seems. Indeed, it may very well be the case that very little is as it seems – and this I think is indeed the case.

It is the case, for instance, that most people you meet seem to be one way, but when you get to know them there is very much more there than at first there seemed. Sometimes there is very much more good than seemed at first – sometimes very much more bad. Sometimes there is more pain and sometimes there is more willingness to inflict pain. But things are rarely as they seem at first.

The same is true simply for the world in which we live. At the pace we travel, rushing about, there is very little that we actually see – or that we see for more than a blur. The Scriptures tell us that the pure in heart are blessed for they shall see God. We are not the pure in heart – nor is our heart slow enough to even begin the process of becoming pure.

Traveling at the speed of modernity – blinded by the flicker of screens that constantly interpret our world – we must be more and more certain that whatever things may seem to us they surely are otherwise. Our hearts are far from pure and thus we see no God and in our rush to some other vision we are redefining reality into no reality at all.

The call of the Church, of the Gospel, is a call to repentance. But that call is a very slow call. Repentance, even in the case of “quick cases” like the Apostle Paul are deceptive in their speed. His repentance had long been preceded by “goads” from God. Saul had been wrestling with God long before he met a blinding light. And he continued in his slow change for years to come, even enduring “buffeting” from Satan for the sake of his salvation.

There is a slowness that belongs naturally to children – a timeless quality to their wonder – when not interrupted by new strange sights and sounds that do not actually belong to the world. There is a slowness that can see angels.

The same speed of life beckons to us all: “Be still and know that I am God.” It is a stillness that may require a lifetime for in that stillness can be found the very purity for which our hearts were created.