Archive for June, 2010

Donald Sheehan – Memory Eternal

June 6, 2010

Longtime Dartmouth professor and Orthodox Christian, Donald Sheehan, fell asleep in the Lord on May 26 this year at his home in Charleston, S.C. I learned of his death just this past week. Probably one of the most moving stories involving Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov was written by Dr. Sheehan. I first posted it back in 2007. The link is still up and the story is very much worth taking the time to read. If you pray for the departed, please remember the newly departed servant of God, Donald. Give thanks to God for someone who seems to have been a very remarkable individual.

Grant rest eternal in blessed repose, O Lord, to Thy servant, the Subdeacon Donald, who has fallen asleep, and make his memory to be eternal!

A Secular Eucharist

June 4, 2010

Thinking about God and communion with God are not the same thing.

The modern world is a difficult place for those who believe in God. The reigning culture has relentlessly moved God out of the day-to-day world and relegated Him to various “religious spheres” of existence. And so it is that we live in what I describe as a “two-storey” universe. We dwell in a world defined by nature and its laws, a world of cause and effect, a world in which the presence of God in almost any form presents problems.

Perhaps the one place relatively safe from such exile is the realm of human thought. Modern believers cling to a God whose existence is a matter of intellectual or emotional acceptance – but to bring God into the public realm risks the ire of political opposition, charges of superstition, or simple discomfort.

Without belaboring the history of secularism – at a certain point modern culture began to confuse “thought” with “spiritual,” while anything physical was deemed “of the world” or, in some cases, “empty ritual.” Of course anyone who spends any time with their thoughts quickly discovers that thoughts are very fleeting things. Our minds wander. Our thoughts frequently torment us. Concentration is sporadic, at best.

And so it is that modern man is not a spiritual being – he can barely think about God without blinking.

Of course the modern confusion of thought with spirit is simply nonsense – a theological error born of an over-reaction to Catholic theology during the Reformation and post-Reformation.

We think, but we are not thoughts.

The gospels are decidedly physical in their presentation of God. It is the Word who has become flesh that causes wonder in the writing of St. John. “We handled Him,” he says in his first epistle. The Cross is a story told with virtually no theory: it is blood and nails and a pierced side.

It strikes me as strange, therefore, that modern Christianity has often sought to make of the sacraments, those physical materials and actions given us by Christ, a matter of thought – within much of contemporary Christianity the truth of the sacraments is not to found in their action and substance but in the minds of those who participate. Baptism is a choice; the Eucharist, a remembrance. As such, they become sacraments of the secular world. God is believed in, but not present. Water becomes mere symbol, grape juice and crackers serving first as reminders of wine and bread and secondarily as a remembrance of the absent Lord. “This is not my body…this is not my blood.”

I had an opportunity several years ago to lecture at an evangelical college. In the course of the lecture I quoted from the sixth chapter of St. John’s gospel, without question the most complete commentary on the meaning of the Eucharist to be found in the Scriptures. “Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you have no life in you,” Christ says.

After the lecture I was accosted by a freshman who with great passion argued with me. He was certain that the passages had a “spiritual” meaning. Christ could not possibly mean that we should eat His flesh and drink His blood. Sometimes literalism makes for a very inconvenient truth.

We live in a very material world – which is entirely a matter of design. We are not thoughts trapped within bodies. Nor should we imagine the Christian faith as an idea divorced from the material world. It is, perhaps, the most material religion possible. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

That same Word gave us bread and wine with the words, “This is my body. This is my blood…” The remembrance of which is not an act of recollection, but an act in which Christ makes Himself truly present.

Christianity is losing the battle of ideas – if only because Christianity is not an idea. The faith once and for all delivered to the saints is a way of life – a true communion in the life of God. It is God who makes Himself present to us in our world and not just in our heads. It is true that if we allow ourselves to have true communion with Him, He will heal our thoughts as well – given time.

Communion with the secular world is a communion of emptiness. Its ideas are false and its promises are not true. At the end of the secular world lies only death – from which no idea will save us.

But we are not without hope. The God who so loved us as to become flesh and dwell among us is the same God who so loves us that our own flesh can become His abode.

Whosoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood, abides in me and I in him.

The Presence in Absence

June 2, 2010

This short post is among the first to appear on this blog – dating back to October of ’06. In the light of conversations about hiddenness – it seemed here timely to bring this back to our attention. I  have written on the topic of the absence of God (or our sense of it) since the beginning of my work. And even though conversations with contemporary non-believers can be tedious – they are very much worth having – if for no other reason than most Christians have a great deal of non-belief in their hearts. I also believe it is the particular calling of contemporary Orthodox (in this I follow St. Silouan of Mt. Athos) is to empty ourselves and enter the abyss of the spiritual hell our world has created for itself and there preach and pray – for it is there that the contemporary Adam has confined himself – and it is there that we must also find Christ. The emptiness of the secularized world – the first floor of a two-storey universe – is a man-made hell, the place in which we have exiled ourselves from God. We will not find God by looking elsewhere for it is here that He is present and filling all things. It is the mystery of our faith. I have reposted this original article without change.

There is a strange aspect to the presence of God in the world around us. That aspect is His apparent absence. I read with fascination (because I am no philosopher, much less a scientist) the discussions surrounding “intelligent design” and the like. I gather that everybody agrees that the universe is just marvelous and wonderfully put together (I can’t think of a better universe). But then begins the parting of ways as one sees God everywhere and another sees Him nowhere. Reason surely need not deny Him, though reason does not seem forced to acknowledge Him. I have spent most of my life around these arguments – one place or another. I can stand in either place and see both presence and absence.

But as the years have gone by, I have come to see something I never saw before – the Presence within the absence. I don’t mean to sound too mystical here – only that I see in the hiddenness of God a revelation of His love. The Creator of us all draws us towards Himself and knowledge of Him, with hints and intimations, with seen and yet unseen signs.

The strange deniability that He leaves us is the space in which love is born. Love cannot be forced, cannot be demanded. It must come as gift, born of a willingness to give. To give God trust that what I see is indeed evidence of the wisdom in which He made all things is also a space – one which God fills with Himself and the echo, the Yes, that the universe shouts back to us.

It is where I grow weary of the arguments – not because they need not be made – but because it becomes hard to hear the silence in the noise of our own voices – a silence that invites us to hear the sound of the voice of God that rumbles all around us.

There’s more to say – but not now.

The Apostles’ Fast

June 2, 2010

The Orthodox year has a rhythm, much like the tide coming in and going out – only this rhythm is an undulation between seasons of fasting and seasons (or a few days) of feasting. Every week, with few exceptions, is marked by the Wednesday and Friday fast, and every celebration of the Divine Liturgy is prepared for by eating nothing after midnight until we have received the Holy Sacrament.

It is a rhythm. Our modern world has lost most of its natural rhythm. The sun rises and sets but causes little fanfare in a world powered and lit by other sources. In America, virtually everything is always in season, even though the chemicals used to preserve this wonderful cornucopia are probably slowly poisoning our bodies.

The Scriptures speaks of the rhythms of the world – “the sun to rule by day… the moon and stars to rule by night…”

The rhythm of the Church does not seek to make us slaves of the calendar nor does it treat certain foods as sinful. It simply calls us to a more human way of living. It’s not properly human to eat anything you want, anytime you want. Even Adam and Eve in the Garden initially knew what it was to abstain from the fruit of a certain tree.

Orthodox do not starve when they fast – we simply abstain from certain foods and generally eat less.

At the same time we are taught to pray more, attend services more frequently, and to increase our generosity to others (alms).

But it is a rhythm – fasts are followed by feasts. The fast of the Apostles begins on the second Monday after Pentecost and concludes on the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul on June 29. Most of Christendom will know nothing of any of this – that Eastern Christians will have begun a Lenten period while the world begins to think of vacations.

The contemporary God is much the same as the contemporary diet – we want as much of Him as we want – anytime, anywhere. There is no rhythm to our desire, only the rise and fall of passions. There is no legalism in the Orthodox fast. I do not think God punishes those who fail to fast. I believe that they simply continue to become less and less human. We will not accept the limits and boundaries of our existence and thus find desires to be incessant and unruly. It makes us bestial.

For those who have begun the fast – may God give you grace! For those who know nothing of the fast – may God give you grace and preserve from a world that would devour you. May God give us all the mercies of His kindness and help us remember the work of His blessed apostles!

At the Last Battle

June 1, 2010

The Scriptures end with the description of a battle that is truly “apocalyptic” in its scale: all the forces of evil arrayed against all the forces of good. It is grand theater, having caught the imagination of countless generations (and even Hollywood). I do not know quite what to make of the description. That it describes a reality, I do not doubt. What that reality will look like to its bystanders (if any there be) is another question entirely. Things that seem hidden now will surely be made manifest – but will that manifestation have to await the completion of things? My own suspicion is that the answer is ‘yes’ –  we’ll see it all quite clearly when it is all quite clear.

There is another vision – something that also has a hidden aspect.

In The Brothers Karamazov, one of the most devastating diatribes ever launched against the Christian faith comes from the lips of Ivan Karamazov in the chapters “Rebellion,” and “The Grand Inquisitor.” His argument is largely based on the so-called “problem of evil.” He does not dismiss the existence of God – instead he dismisses God Himself – preferring to have no part of a justice that would ever allow for the torment of a single child. The answer to that diatribe in the pages of Dostoevsky’s great novel is not a counter argument, but the person of the Elder Zossima, a monastic who lives in the Tradition of the Holy Elders of the Orthodox faith. He is a character in the mold of such elders as St. Silouan, St. Seraphim of Sarov, the Elder Sophrony, and a host of others. Their lives, frequently hidden from the larger view of the world, are the continuing manifestation of the Kingdom of God in our midst – fellows of the sufferings of Christ – who freely and voluntarily bear with Christ the weight of all humanity. It is this secret bearing that forms the very foundation of the world – a foundation without which the world would long ago have perished into nothing. It is the emptiness of Christ, also shared in its depths by His saints, that is the vessel of the fullness of God, the source of all life and being. We can search for nothing greater.

“Their lives frequently hidden from the larger view” … is the point which seems worth pondering here. Why should those who are having the greatest impact on the world  not be the one’s who seem most hidden? Christ Himself came to us in a way that, though manifest, was all but hidden from the view of the world of that time. Galilee. Really.

Met. Kallistos Ware relates this story:

In one of his letters, St. Barsanuphios of Gaza (sixth century) says in passing that, at the present time, there are three person whose prayers protect this wicked and sinful generation from the wrath of God, and because of these three persons and their prayers, the world continues in being. And then he mentions their names. John, he says is one them; Elias is the second; and the third is a person in the province of Jerusalem. Now the third person, presumably, designates himself, living in Gaza. But the first two, John and Elias, are otherwise totally unknown to us. So here we have the word of a saint, gifted with insight, that the people who were preserving the world from destruction in his day were three persons, two of whom are entirely unknown to history and the third of whom was a hermit in the desert.

The things which seem important are often of little true consequence. Does it matter that the President of the United States had a beer with two men? Does it matter that a hollywood figure dies tragically and suddenly? Does almost anything most people treat as important matter at all?

Who sustains the universe and why does it exist?

The difficulty with political schemes and grand plans is that even at their greatest moment – they have done very little. It may be that everything they have done carries less weight than the prayers of a hermit in the desert.

And so we are called to pray – to stand quietly before that “still point of nothingness” that “disposes all things” (in the words of Thomas Merton).

Such things seem quite hidden – unless the definition of “manifest” means “what God sees.” Perhaps prayer is not about my “prayer life.” Perhaps prayer holds the entire universe in existence.

The last battle may be fought quietly in a human heart that stands sentinel before God and says, “Lord, have mercy.”