Archive for February 5th, 2009

Dreams and Reality – Prayers by the Lake XXXI

February 5, 2009

The following poem is from St. Nikolai’s  (Velimirovich) Prayers by the Lake. The only true Reality is God and only in Him do we find ourselves to be real.


ochridYou pour out light over the darkness, Lord, and colors and shapes emerge. You bend Your face over the abyss, whose name is Nothingness, and the abyss tries to depict the beauty of Your face in shadows. All creation expresses You the way the abyss dreams of You.

My lake is also beautiful while the peaceful face of the sun remains bent over it. And all those who pass by praise the beauty of my lake. But as soon as the sun hides its face, my lake becomes dark and abysmal. And no passerby ever offers any praise for the lake except in the presence of the sun or the sun’s radiant companions.

The face of the abyss intoxicates those who do not see the sun bent over the abyss. The beauty of things begins when an onlooker bends his face over them. There is no mirror if there is no face in front of the mirror. But even a face in front of a mirror means nothing if there is no light.

In the light of Your face I pay no attention to any creature. Without You, creatures and I would not be mirrors of one another, but rather darkness, and an abyss, and an opaque chill.

Creation distorts Your beauty the way a dream distorts reality. Creation torments me just as dreams torment me. For what is creation except dreams of Your inexpressible Reality?

My neighbors say: “We have dreamed beautiful dreams.” The universe is my witness when I tell you that you are more beautiful than your dreams. The universe also dreams, and cannot dream enough about its own beauty. O my sleepy universe: as long as a dream dreams a dream, one dream is afraid of another, even if one dream seeks an interpreter and comforter in another. Who is prophesying to whom: the dream to reality or reality to the dream?

O my beautiful universe: dream of Reality and Reality will tell you everything. Admit the Reality, of which you are a dream, and you will awaken, and will no longer ramble about beauty, but will be Beauty. There is only one Reality and only one Beauty, and it is the reason for your dream.

Do not tell me, children, about the beauty of the stars. If the Lord withdrew Himself from the stars, your mouths would be struck dumb. Stand in the thick darkness by my lake and try to sing to it. Truly you will be struck dumb and remain silent until the sun dawns, until the sun pours its beauty over the lake and gives your speechless throat its voice.

Your face pours beauty over all creation. The universe swims in Your beauty as a boat swims in the sea.

And when You bend over cold ashes, the ashes are transfigured and receive a face.

Bring my heart to its senses, my Lord, so that it may not be captivated by mortal beauty but by You, my Immortal Beauty.

O my only Beauty!

Allow me to see Your Face, just more and more–of Your Face

Living in the Un-holy Land

February 5, 2009


Generally, our language reserves the word “unholy” to mean something evil or positively wicked (now there’s an oxymoron). Of course we also live in a culture where not much, or nothing at all, is considered holy. We think we live in a neutral zone – a place that is merely secular. Of course, the modern use of the word “secular” is just that – modern. It is part of our post-Enlightenment culture that believes that things are just things – and if something is “holy” it is only so because someone considers it so. Nothing is holy in and of itself – or because it has a particular relationship. Things are holy only in someone’s mind. Thus for one person a cross is holy – for another it is merely a piece of jewelry. There are plenty of Christians who agree with this cultural definition and generally hold all of their holy things lightly. Nothing more than their own good opinion renders something holy.

It is for this same reason that the dominant form of religious thought in our culture is any form that removes the spiritual life from our daily arena. Thus whether it is doctrine which is primarily intellectual in nature, or the general backdrop of a forensic (legal or moral) metaphor – God and His activity will always remain theoretical or imaginary in the context of a secular culture. A secular culture is a culture of the unholy. We live in the Un-holy Land.

None of this is to say that we are not a religious people. Every survey of American thought agrees that we are among the most religious of modern secular states. But our religion is held like all things holy: abstracted, and relative to our own private thoughts. When religious issues spill over into the public arena (as in the issue of abortion) many people want to scream, “Foul!” and argue that the issue is illegitimate precisely because it is religious in nature. Many in the Pro-Life camp will readily agree with this cultural critique and move quickly to point out that the right to life is a medical and political issue. A baby in the womb is a human person and is therefore entitled to the same rights as all others. But, of course, this is not the same thing as saying that all life is sacred, holy, and may not be wantonly and willfully destroyed. Many Pro-Life advocates do indeed believe that all life is sacred (and I see it as a genuine “wedge issue” by which Christians can be helped to see the bankruptcy of all secular thought.)

But for Orthodox, living in an unholy land is an absolute contradiction in itself. No place can be unholy. God is “everywhere present and filling all things.” An Orthodox Christian cannot secularize his world without betraying his faith. But in our culture, it is, doubtless, not an uncommon betrayal. It is a frequent unwitting betrayal on the part of converts to Orthodoxy for the simple reason that seeing the world in a manner that is utterly foreign to one’s own culture is a very slow process with a steep learning curve. For many (including American cradle Orthodox) it is easier to simply hold to Orthodox doctrine and practice the same way a Presbyterian or Baptist holds to Presbyterian and Baptist practice – which is simply an American holding on to the secularized versions of religion that populate our Republic.

It is very difficult to do something if you’ve never seen it or been taught it. The liturgies and sacraments of the Orthodox Church are in no way secularized. They completely pre-date the concept. Thus hearing them for what they are saying is important. Also listening carefully to those who have a life-experience from within some form of Orthodox culture is equally important.

One of my daughters is married to an Orthodox priest who serves in an all-Russian (or mostly) community in the U.S. Their observations are frequently interesting to me, even though I have to stop and think and pray to understand what at first might simply seem wrong. Living in a culture whose root metaphor for the spiritual life is “legal/moral,” it is easy to see some normative Orthodox practices as simple superstition.

I recall in the early years of our mission, we were moving from our original warehouse location to rented, commercial space. We set a day after liturgy, when we would pack-up Church and move. A good portion of our congregation were converts. Watching them, I would have said they were treating everything with respect. One of our members from Eastern Europe, however, was scandalized by how icons were being handled. At the time I simply thought he was being superstitious. But I have come to understand that like most things in the Church, there is a right way and a wrong way to do things – and the right way is there to teach us a true and proper respect and to understand what it means that something is holy. Holy is not at all the same thing as simply “this is very special to us.” Holy carries with it boundaries and borders that often ignore the American sense of practicality.

For instance, simply failing to properly clean the holy vessels after communion is a canonical violation which a priest or deacon is required to report to the Bishop. The result can either be a suspension (not serving for a period of time) or even being deposed from one’s ordained position. These are not obscure or antiquated canons. They are still very much in force and are an inherent part of the faith. In our cultural context, this simply sounds like legalism. But they are canons that come out of a very different culture and are not in the least legalistic. They are for our salvation. Coming to understand how this is true is part of the inner journey of the Orthodox faith – the “renewing of our minds.” And it is a long, slow journey.

I wrote several weeks back that the Scriptural description of human beings as “fearfully and wonderfully made” is a confession that other people should be approached with fear and wonder (Biblical fear). The same should be said of creation itself.

I am writing about something that I am only beginning to know – as a pilgrim who has made the journey for only a short distance. I find that conversations with older Orthodox, reading lives of the saints and listening carefully to what is being said or shown, is an important part of the journey. As we pray in Vespers: “O Lord, teach me Thy statutes!”