I know I have readers in all sorts of corners of the world. At the moment I have a young parishioner who is spending some months in New Zealand. He’ll be on the South Island during Pascha and is looking for a good parish to attend. Can any of you good readers recommend a parish friendly to a young Orthodox traveler on the South Island of New Zealand? His priest would be much obliged for any help.
Archive for the ‘General’ Category
While the world was turning and other matters of import taking place, Glory to God for All Things, crossed a half-million views today. Thanks for reading – I hope to make it worth your trouble. I simply appreciate the opportunity to think a bit and write. Blessings to all of you and a good evening. East Tennessee has had a rumor of a winter storm (which means we will likely see nothing of the sort). They tell us these things to sell bread and milk. Other Southerners will know what I mean…
There is a strange noisiness to our culture. Most of us live very busy lives in which time itself is noisy. My phones (there always seem to be two) are primed to go off at any moment and the very details that surround us carry a kind of noise about them. It is rare that the world would offer us silence.
And yet, the Fathers teach us about Hesychia (silence) in which we encounter God and see ourselves for who we are. I am a noisy person. I am likely to be bothered by the quiet when it surrounds me, and reach for a knob to fill the empty space with the sound of something. And if there is no knob, then the sound of my own brain chattering away fills the space with everything but God.
I do not think I am unique in this.
There is a fullness that is an emptiness and there is an emptiness that is a fullness. It all depends on the character of what fills us. If it is life apart from God – then its very fullness leaves us empty. If it is a life live towards God then our emptiness becomes the bowl which He can fill with Himself. I need only look at the fullness within me to know where my heart has turned.
It is the paradox of our Christian life that we find ourselves in losing ourselves – that the fullness of life is only found as we empty ourselves towards the Other around us. This, too, is found in very small actions. It is rare for most of us that the profound act of martyrdom, of the complete self-emptying that comes in giving our life for God, occurs in a single moment. Mostly it comes in thousands of small moments – the daily and momentary martyrdom in which we empty some small part of ourselves on behalf of the other around us. I make space to hear the sound of your voice instead of the sound of my mind. I make space to pay attention to your needs and not my own. I make space to simply be with you, present and not absent. And in such spaces, such moments of emptiness, we find a fullness that does not destroy us but feeds us and fills us with a Life that cannot die.
To dwell in such emptiness is to know the Fullness. To dwell in such silence is to hear the voice of God.
I noted with gratitude that Glory to God for All Things passed the milestone of 250,000 views today, all of these since beginning late last October. I am grateful for those who visit this site and pray that it is of some use to you in your day. Someone asked me today if I ever felt that the blog was like a parish. Yes and no. The cyberworld has its own sense of reality. I do have a great sense of community with many who read regularly and occasionally post notes. More than that, I feel a sense of responsibility for what I write – the same as I do for what I preach in a sermon. I know that I shall have to give an accounting for every idle world (including those on a blog).
I note that in the same time period, there have been over 3500 comments, most of which have adhered wonderfully to my admonition to be kind to one another.
The good folks at WordPress have, through their akismet program, blocked over 6,500 pieces of spam in the same period, and with the exception of about 2 days have kept this site virtually free of spam. If you could see the shameful things that constitute spam, you would be deeply grateful for this successful bit of software. I certainly am.
Again, I offer thanks to my readers and pray God’s mercy be with us all.
I could not resist using the title from the R.E.M. hit of a few years ago for this post, though it’s really not about losing one’s religion: it’s more about losing your soul.
In one of my favorite C.S. Lewis novels, That Hideous Strength, Lewis tries his hand at the description of a soul in danger of being lost. His friend, Charles Williams, had, years before, masterfully done the same in his book, Descent Into Hell. There could be many pages written and discussions had about the exact meaning of “losing one’s soul.” But I know what I mean – and I cannot define it in a few words.
In Lewis’ That Hideous Strength, his character, Mark Studdock, is pictured being tempted to lose his soul through a long string of seemingly inane choices (engineered by the infernal regions), no one of which in itself seems all that bad. He is making his way through the ranks of an institution, imagining himself becoming an “insider:” the bait that would take his very soul.
The world in which we live is, of course, no different. There are a thousand little things across the day or a week – small decisions we make on which turn very little – or so it would seem. Being Americans, we think of the “big decision” when it comes to religious matters. Thus, we easily think that “conversion” means a decision to join a Church or something similar. Of course, the definition of conversion should include such large decisions, but the process of conversion is quite the opposite: it is a composite of a thousand-thousand small decisions and actions.
Our hearts are formed and shaped in a very small crucible. The large decisions frequently come as the fruit of many much smaller. A decision to act and live with integrity, for instance, will yield many smaller results, even surprising results.
I had opportunity to preach last Sunday on the relationship between our inner life and our outer life. Integrity would be for these two aspects of our life to act in union, not only with each other, but with God as well. St. Maximus the Confessor, in theology that is not very easily penetrable, teaches of the “natural will,” a will that exists in us unfallen. It is an affirmation that although much within us is disordered, there remains, nonetheless, something that has not turned from God. For this same reason St. Augustine could write, “Our hearts are restless ’til they find their rest in Thee.” Within this understanding there can be no integrity that is not also union with God. We cannot act as an “integer” a “whole” until we can act in union with that within us which longs for God.
The host of smaller decisions that draw the soul away from God are a turning moment by moment away from this integrity. It is learning to live with an aspect of “deafness” in our lives – learning not to hear the voice of God that calls to us from the depths – a voice that leaves everything disconcerted until it is heeded.
It is interesting that the Latin roots of the word for “obedience” mean to act out of “listening” (it is related to the word audience). By the same token, the Latin word for its opposite, to act out of “deafness,” is the word absurd. The life lived without heed to the voice of God is a life lived in absurdity.
Christ tells us that “he who is faithful in small things will be made steward of larger things” (if you’ll pardon my paraphrase). The salvation of our soul – in whatever respect affected by our decisions – consists primarily in very small decisions, made moment by moment. Today I will not speak except in kindness. Such a small decision – one that would require a host of other smaller decisions (and discipline) is the sort of decision which requires efforts of integrity. It is a very small thing to say, and a string of very small things to do. But how will we ever reach the heights except we climb these lower reaches?
By the same token we are told that in “patience possess ye your souls.” Patience is almost invariably the bearing of very small insults – waiting for someone else or something else. It consists in doing almost nothing, when doing something would itself be sin.
Whatever we lose or gain today in terms of our soul – will be lost or gained largely in the smallest of matters. And yet these smallest of matters is, indeed, what matters.
I read with sadness that Fr. Al Kimel is ending his blog, Pontifications. I would not be writing here except for his gracious invitation several years ago to write occasional pieces on his blog. It was his suggestion as well that I try to do this on my own. These are only two of many kindnesses (and among the smallest) I have received from him over the years. His farewell note goes deep to the heart – and I well understand his words. May God bless him and give him many years and days of peace. I will always count it a blessing to call him my friend.
As I’ve noted, I’m on retreat with about 15 youth at a monastery. Our topic has been freedom and love – the two most important things necessary in our journey to become fully what God has created us to be. It’s not a complicated subject. “Everybody’s in favor of love,” Fr. Thomas Hopko says. What then, is so difficult about love?
Of course, love is not difficult as a topic. As discussions go, 12-15 year olds seem about as insightful as their adult parents. But, of course, there is something difficult about it or else I would not again be spending half a week on this topic with teenagers in a monastery.
Love is difficult because it comes not from the head but from the heart. If it came from the head only smart people would love – obviously not the case.
What makes it difficult is that we frequently surround it with other things. We disguise it with religion. Indeed, sometimes we may use religious things to confuse the issue and excuse our failures to love. In the name of very specific religious laws, Christ was crucified. Religion does not make us better people.
God makes us better, and although our religion is itself a necessary part of what God has commanded, He has never commanded us not to love. I recall in the early years of our OCA mission, one of our members was unexpectedly killed in a car wreck. We were meeting in a warehouse and were in no way prepared for a funeral. I was still in transition and not yet ordained as an Orthodox priest.
That evening as I sat, in grief and stunned silence, the phone rang. It was the neighboring Greek Orthodox priest. “I insist that you have the funeral here,” he said. I later found out that someone had questioned him. Silly inter-jurisdictional objections. With steadfast goodness he told them, “It’s the Christian thing to do.” Indeed. What is so hard about that?
We made our way through probably one of the most difficult emotional weeks of my life and certainly one that was difficult for our tiny mission. But what was not difficult was the clarity of a brother priest. Nothing is complicated about love unless you don’t want to love.
I continue to give thanks for someone who owed me nothing and was willing to put up with a little grief because he knew God.
Our lives are not terribly complicated. They are as hard as keeping God’s commandments. We were told from the beginning that following Christ may very well get us killed. But we take up the cross, apparently agreeing that we will die when the time comes. Love is not hard – it’s just deadly – in a way that gives us the only life worth having.
I rejoice to be telling this to children. They probably live in far more difficult settings than any adults I know.
Love God. Love your neighbor. Do the Christian thing. What’s so hard? Apparently our hearts are what’s so hard. May God soften them and create a new heart within us. I want as much for us all.
Numbers only mean so much – but Glory to God for All Things passed the 200,000 views mark this morning – all since late October. I generally write at night before going to bed – it clears my head and puts a better ending on the day. I am deeply moved that so many (and from so many places across the globe) read, and share kind comments and questions. May God bless all of you who visit and read. I thank you for your prayers. Without them I am sure I could not write.
There are many who have written on the subject of friendship over the centuries. It is an important topic and one that is worth thinking about. I began thinking about it this morning because I received an email from my friend, Fr. Al Kimel (Roman Catholic), telling me of a new Pontifications website. Al is a friend whom I first met in the late 80’s when I was doing work at Duke. Geoffrey Wainwright, the noted British scholar, who was chairman of my thesis committee, saw in my work things that he thought Fr. Al would like. Through Wainwright we arranged to meet and I enjoyed the hospitality of his home. Time has taken us in different directions, but it has not altered my friendship.
One of my definitions of friends are people who will stand by you in the tough times. They are not always your greatest philosophical sympaticos, but they are people whose integrity you admire and trust and of whose goodwill towards yourself you do not doubt.
In the late 80’s and especially the early 90’s, I began to be very actively involved in some of the larger battles within the Episcopal Church. I caught some flak and certain gained a few enemies. At such times the existence of friends becomes all the more important. My immediate family were friends as well as being family. But there were a number of others, some Episcopalian, some not; some Orthodox, some not; in one case a Reformed Jew and in another a self-professed agnostic. When their firing at you in the foxholes, you are glad for every friend.
What those disparities reveal is that friendship is something that transcends agreement – at least on some level. I need not agree with someone to remain their friend, nor do I count someone’s disagreement with me a violation of friendship.
Does this say something negative about friendship, or something that is, in fact, contrary to the Orthodox faith? I do not think so. It is obvious to me as I look through my years of Orthodoxy, that not all Orthodox Christians are my friends. Some would likely even behave in a fashion that would make me think of them as enemies. I have seen priests who should know better, speak in bitterness to other priests, violating both the commandments of Christ and the normative understanding of friendship.
Christ spoke of friendship to His disciples – treating it as a very high honor indeed. Speaking in the 15th chapter of St. John’s gospel He said:
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you (12-15).
There is an intimacy associated with the word friend. Christ sees the Apostles as his friends because He has made known to them all that He has heard from the Father. There is an element here that I think touches on several different levels: it is the issue of loyalty or something like that. A friend does not betray a friend.
I recall a painful moment, not long after I was Chrismated, when, in the course of conversation with another priest, he spoke of my being “not yet” Orthodox. I understood what he meant. He was thinking of the Orthodox mind, the phronema, as it is called in Greek. I am still acquiring that phronema, but I do not see that ending in this life. Nor do I think it should be anything other than an ongoing matter for all Orthodox Christians, whether born to Orthodox parents or not. What felt painful to me was the sense of being excluded from something for which I had just recently made huge sacrifice. With Baptism and Chrismation, or with Chrismation (depending on how one is received into the Church) one is Orthodox. There is much still to know – and yet you are Orthodox. St. Paul addressed the Church in Rome as “saints,” although he also spoke to them of the renewal of their minds (nous). What felt painful to me in that conversation was that my act of obedience, confession and submission at Chrismation, was an act of friendship to Christ. I might have been a wet-behind-the-ears friend – but still a friend. One must not speak of the gaining of a phronema and the gaining of friendship in the same way. You take a step, take up the cross, lay down your life, and there is no greater love, no matter the depth of the phronema.
But friendship, I think, goes a step further. Not all of my friends are Orthodox (as I noted above). For a variety of reasons this is not yet something that I have in common with all of my friends. It would be the height of ingratitude and simply false to think of those who have laid down their lives for you (in a sense) as anything other than friends. I also know that friendship is a very essential thing. We do not live well without them.
In Christ’s conversation with Peter, after the resurrection (this conversation does not translate into English very well) He asked Peter three questions: first, “Do you love me more than these?” His word for love in that question was agape the deepest form of love. Peter answered, “Lord, you know I love you.” But Peter used a different word in his answer, the word that means the love for a friend (phileo). Christ asked him a second time, “Do you agape me more than these?” Again Peter answer with phileo. Finally, Jesus asked, Peter do you love me (phileo)? Peter, we are told, was grieved and said, “Master, you know all things. You know that I love (phileo) you.
In His humility, and aware of His sin, Peter demurred from the word agape. He had failed the test the night Christ was arrested. But Peter was still a true friend. He had not gone in despair and hung himself. He rushed to see Jesus at every opportunity after the resurrection. Though he would claim no more than friendship, he could not have any peace without at least that.
I pray that all my friends be Orthodox. How could I not? I also pray that all the Orthodox be friends. How could I not? But I pray to God always for my friends and simply give thanks that I have any. It is a precious thing, tested by everything in our lives. But without friendship (phileo) there will be no love (agape).
I am the father of two children who still (for at least the next day or so) measure their lives in numbers that fall in the “teens.” My son turns 20 on Monday. Be that as it may, I still qualify as the father of teenagers. They certainly hear plenty from me about God, about the faith, about Church, and I give thanks that they take it seriously and are committed Christians.
They are also committed teenagers. They do not necessarily despise their culture, though they may utter some criticisms occasionally. But the music that emanates from their various electronic devices is not all “Christian” by any stretch. Our house is Christian, but it has not been stripped of all references to popular culture.
Friday night I attended a rock concert at the local college (University of Tennessee) along with my wife, my son and his fiancee, and my 16 year-old daughter and a friend. The group we had come to hear was the group “Cake.” I have no idea how well known they are, though many in the crowd of thousands seemed to be singing along with the songs, so I suppose they cannot be that obscure.
I am actually the first in my family to have heard them – back in the 90’s – and brought home a CD of theirs with the song, “How Can You Afford Your Rock and Roll Lifestyle?” I thought it was worth listening to. Towards the end of the song, you hear,”Excess ain’t rebellion/ you’re just buyin’ what their sellin'”. I thought this was insightful. Most youthful indulgence in our culture, much of it disguised as “rebellion,” is really something else altogether. Large corporations have for years dominated the music business, marketing angst, rebellion, sex, drugs, and rock and roll, with the fiction that they were only publishing or selling what the younger generation wanted.
This, of course, is not true. They not only sell to the anger of youth; they help create the market in the first place.
Thus it was that I found myself at a rock concert on Friday night. The music was good, the crowd enthusiastic. The biting insight of the lyrics remained, but something felt hollow and empty. Perhaps I should not have expectations of rock concerts, but anything that packs in youth by the thousands is worth pondering.
What I realized is that the band and its music offered a sort of “sardonic” view of life. There was acute ridicule of certain aspects of modern culture. An insider’s nod that said, “We all know better.” But, of course, it’s not true. We do not all know better. Poets for many generations have been astute observers of the public scene, frequently pointing out the hypocrisy and foibles of popular culture. There is nothing new here. However, neither is there anything suggested as an alternative.
Indeed, for a band that could write: “Excess ain’t rebellion/ you’re just buyin’ what they’re sellin’, (which for some odd reason was dropped from the lyrics of the song that once contained the phrase), it seemed strange to hear complaints from the bandstand through the evening that the University had declared the campus to be “dry” that weekend, i.e. no alchohol. This was a popular complaint with the crowd.
Christianity, rightly preached, also recognizes the futility of popular culture, though much of modern American Christianity is as insipid as the culture it critiques.
But where rock and roll offers something sardonic, the Church offers something ironic.
It does not ridicule culture in order to make itself seem wise – it ridicules what the world would call wisdom and exalts what the world would call foolishness. The Cross is the great irony of Christianity. An instrument of torture, the very symbol of Roman might, becomes through Christ, the symbol of God’s compassion and love and His victory over sin and death.
There is a form of wisdom required to be sardonic. You have to be able to see through some things and deconstruct them from some other point of view. But if the deconstruction is just for the fun of declaring that the emperor has no clothes, then it is simple rebellion as much as anything.
But the wisdom of the Cross requires the ability to die to self. To see not only the emptiness of the world and its fashions, but also the fullness of God and His coming Kingdom.
At one point the bandleader railed against the authorities of the school, with a few choice epithets, and to great applause. “What’s all this about a dry campus?” he shouted. “What do they think we are, Christians?” The crowed roared its approval. I felt out of place.
What do they think we are, Christians? Probably most of the campus would identify itself as Christian in some manner. After all, this is America. But there was no irony, no willingness that night, to embrace the foolishness of the Cross. Just another crowd with exams coming next week and ready to have some fun.
Our world today stands in as much need of irony as the world has ever needed. The rich need to hear the irony of God’s poverty. The powerful need to know the irony of God’s weakness. And I need to remember that the poets of this world are not the same thing as the prophets of the world to come.
They’re just salesmen in need of a Savior.