Archive for the ‘General’ Category

Carolina in my Mind

April 17, 2007


Some readers might appreciate the fact that I was born in South Carolina. For some other readers, I think especially of our Europeans and others across the internet globe, South Carolina means little. It is “Deep South” in the U.S., with its own distinctives. Perhaps one of its striking characteristics is that it has a strong sense of place. I know many Americans who do not have a sense of place – but they are not usually natives of South Carolina.

I have been absent from the state since 1988, but I always return with a sense of home. My hometown no longer houses my parents. They have moved away for medical reasons. I have cousins and extended family there, but my parents’ absence clearly affects my sense of place. I suppose (and I am in no hurry to find out) that when we lay them to rest beneath the sod of my home county (next to my fathers’ parents and near many others whom I know) that the sense of place will become fairly fixed. 

Several years back I was invited to celebrate the liturgy in the Church where my parents (who are now Orthodox) attended. It is located in a small community that I have known all my life. Many of my ancestors lived in or near that very place. The nearby city is growing and will eventually swallow up the Church and the community where it stands. But today, it seems an odd place (rural) for an Orthodox Church in the South.

But the overwhelming sense that I had as I stood at the altar of this small Church was that I was made of dirt from very nearby. I thought, as a priest, of so many things that had brought me to that altar, things for which I should give thanks and offer the sacrifice of praise. It was a powerful liturgy.

The Scriptures are utterly marked by the sense of place. The Patriarchs literally transformed the land that God gave them as they prayed and worked, lived and died. It seems that every significant event caused a name to be assigned to a place.

We rarely give names to places for anything other than commercial reasons. Our subdivisions compete to see who can sound more English County than the next. Thus we may live in “Foxcroft” (regardless of the absence of foxes), or “Manor View,” though there be no manor nor view. And on it goes. We have virtual names, all too often, given to suggest something that is not there. Thus names do not name a place – they obscure it.

As you leave South Carolina and move further West (you can tell that I’m from South Carolina because I think of living in Tennessee as being out West), there seem to be more Native American names that survive. Thus Tennessee, where I now live, is named for a river (the Tennessee) that, I believe, is an Indian name for two brothers (the Holston and the French Broad come together to form the Tennessee). It makes sense.  But there is plenty that does not make sense – such as a continent named for a mapmaker who had nothing to do with America.

But we can only live in particular places at particular times. With so much in our life that seeks to pull us away from the particular and to live in virtual space – a great part of our spiritual struggle is the effort we must make to be somewhere in sometime.

Tonight, as I write, I am in Aiken, South Carolina, home to my wife’s family and my son’s fiancee. It is also home to nearly 35 years of memories as I have traveled here, first to convince a young woman to marry me, and later to visit her family. It is a lovely place, one that I will continue to visit if only to remember who I am and where parts of my family are from.

Tomorrow I’ll go home to Tennessee, for although I was not born there, I live there. And it is there that I must learn to be somewhere, sometime and always in the presence of God. Where do you go to go home?

Which Way Does Time Work?

April 7, 2007


I have a 19 year-old son, who would probably rather watch episodes of almost any science fiction show than eat pizza (almost). He particularly loves shows about time travel. In a town like Oak Ridge, it’s possible to have serious discussions with serious people about things that I thought only young boys took seriously (we have some particle physicists in the parish (Russians) and, as I say, Oak Ridge is a town that takes its science very seriously).

I am not a scientist – I opted out for the arts a long time ago. But some questions cross boundaries, at least in home. My son likes time travel. And I wonder about time – mostly about which way does it work?

What I mean by that – is that we always presume that time works from back to front, from past to future. This is very handy and means that we can always look for causation in the past. If it exists now, then something in the past had to make it so. This is the essence of the historical worldview.

I have already shared a piece, based on St. Maximus, that places the “cause of everything” at the incarnation (which is not at all the same thing as saying that the cause is a linear, historical time-line. Maximus upsets the apple cart of our modern world-view.

As Christians, we ought to side with Maximus more easily and naturally than we do. We believe that the end of history is already a settled matter – thus it can’t be that it’s a linear, time-line thing. There are Protestant theologians, now so married to the modern world view, that they want to historicize God and leave him “open” to the future. I don’t know enough about Protestant theology to discuss that idea (particularly since this involves some fringe of Evangelicalism and my knowledge is mostly on the level of gossip). What I do know is that the End (and the Beginning) are quite the same thing for Christians. Christ is the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End.

That is an extraordinary statement when you think about it (if it’s possible to actually “think” about it). We are being drawn towards the very thing that is also the cause of our very being. It is though the end to which we were are being drawn is itself our own beginning.

I only offer such thoughts because there is such an abundance of other stuff out there. This week I listened to people talk about Adam and Eve and Dinosaurs cohabiting an earth that is less than 10,000 years old. While this may be “the faith” for some people, it is even less than interesting to me. It is linear in the extreme and lacks any grasp of the mystery presented to us in Scripture.

This is Christianity that will ultimately die: either because it will not be able to meet the final challenge of the culture in which it lives, or because the culture it produces will lack the imagination to survive.

Not that I am sanguine about the triumph of the Orthodox faith in its fullness and creative wonder. I am not at all certain of its triumph in this lifetime of mine, or even in the age of this world. Indeed, Scripture would seem to say this is not going to happen. But I have no doubt of its triumph finally, because it is true, however odd or hard it may be for some to understand.

Tonight I stand at the very end of history, and thus my own beginning. From here you can see eternity as it breaks forth into this earthly realm and swallows up every created thing. Pascha is come and all things will be gathered together into one. The end into the beginning – time into eternity – created into uncreated – all things into Christ Jesus.

An Orthodox Witness on NPR – Be Kind to Children

February 2, 2007


I have no idea what you may personally think about spanking children. I was vehemently opposed to it when I was a child, but no one asked my opinion. All of my children are now too large to spank. Indeed, my son is larger than I am and could certainly take me out if the need arose. I am very polite to him. The story I’ve linked to here is from a National Public Radio program – and is by an Orthodox woman. I liked it.

It reminded me of an incident with my son when he was about three. I can’t remember what he’d done, but he was in trouble – with me. I raised my voice and frowned, I could feel a “whipping” coming on. Suddenly, he rushed forward, grabbed me around the legs and buried his face in my lap. Sobbing, he cried, “Forgive me!”

I thought at the time that I had never asked for such forgiveness from my heavenly Father, at least not with such force or intensity.

I forgave him.

Listen to the NPR story. It’s worth a few minutes.

An Orthodox Woman Discusses Spanking

Worship and the Knowledge of God

October 23, 2006


We prove God’s existence by worshiping Him and not by advancing so-called proofs. We have here the liturgical and iconographic argument for the existence of God. We arrive at a solid belief in the existence of God through a leap over what seems true, over the Pascalian certitude. According to an ancient monastic saying, “Give your blood and receive the Spirit.”

Paul Evdokimov

Evdokimov’s insight follows quite literally the pattern of the Church’s liturgy itself. Catechumens in the early Church were not, interestingly, given great lessons in theology prior to Baptism. Indeed, the Symbol of Faith (Creed) was not given to those being Baptized until the service of Baptism itself. In the Divine Liturgy (Eucharist), the Creed is not recited until afterthe dismissal of the catechumens. Such knowledge was reserved for those who had been illumined in Holy Baptism.

In the service of Baptism itself, after catechumens have been exorcised, and have renounced the Devil, they are then brought into the Church. There, facing the East, they are told, “Worship God!” Making a prostration, this first profound act of worship precedes the Creed – indeed it is an act that makes the Creed intelligible.

We know God in an act of giving ourselves to Him. He has, of course, given Himself first – but our response cannot be to consider the gift, to reason the gift. We embrace the gift – we bow before Him.

Christ said, “If you continue in my words, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:31-32). The second part of this statement is usually quoted free-standing, without its context. The context of knowledge given by Christ is continuance in His words. As we give ourselves to Him, whether in worship or in the “least of these my brethren,” we know Him.

The proof of God’s existence liturgical and iconographic is thus a dynamic relationship with the God who gives Himself to us. This alone makes possible the Truth which sets us free.

Putting the Finger on Modern Paganism

October 20, 2006


I spent a fortnight in England this summer. Staying in an excellent Orthodox monastery (St. John the Baptist in Essex) and touring the country for another week. The greatest part of the week, I believe, will prove to be the fact that I was roommate for 14 days with my 19 year-old son, James. He’s good company and very down-to-earth in his assessments of things. Solid man – the type you’d want in a foxhole with you. The most fun moment probably came at Stonehenge. We enjoyed the monument, even when it was attacked by a giant finger! It’s an incredible piece of prehistoric work, whatever it was used for. Shortly after we arrived (in the week following summer solstice, mind you), busloads of badly dressed pilgrims showed up for druid stuff. I say, “badly dressed,” not because it was poorly sewn and what-not, but because everyone seemed to think that something period-based was necessary. Now, mind you, I was standing there in standard issue Russian Orthodox cassock, so I can’t complain about looking a bit different. But things suddenly looked like historical reenactment events – only, organized by highschoolers. They drifted away to a neighboring field and carried on whatever religious rites they have contrived.

The great tragedy is that they are drawn to this mysterious place for something (they know not what) and nothing has challenged them beyond the ordinary other than this silly dress up druidism. Not the Church – nothing else. Something has got to be better than a do-it-yourself religion (no one knows more than a paragraph or two about genuine druid thought). Here I ached for the children of Britain (and America). Their experience is emptied by our vacuous culture. They’re willing to buy literally just anything. And the greatest story ever told has become somehow so tame that it cannot capture their imagination. How sad. How deeply sad for us all.

The deepest longings of Paganism, strangely enough, are fulfilled in the fullness of the Christian faith. Everything man wants and desires (truly) is to be found in this fullness. I did not preach at Stonehenge, though I wanted to. St. Paul is  braver than me and would not have avoided such an opportunity. God help us and make us more like St. Paul.

Glory to God for All Things

October 19, 2006

Glory to God for all things. For things growing and things that are passing away. For a good walk on a summer day and the quiet of a country lane. Glory to God for all things both revealed and not revealed for He is good and Lord of all.

Seeds from Different Worlds

October 19, 2006


God took seeds from different worlds and sowed them on this earth, and His garden grew, and everything came up that could come up, but all growing things live and are alive only through the feeling of their contact with other mysterious worlds. If that feeling grows weak or is destroyed in you, what has grown up in you will die. Then you will become indifferent to life and even grow to hate it. That’s what I think.
The Elder Zossima in The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

This small quote from the “Teachings of the Elder Zossima,” is perhaps among the stranger sounding to our 21st century ears. “Contact with other mysterious worlds” sounds like extraterrestrial stuff which would put Dostoevsky in the boat with Jules Verne. But as it is, he is not referring to any such thing, but rather, in an odd turn of phrase, to the fact that everything that exists does so because of its reference to God. The seed of each living thing is its relationship to God – only here Dostoevsky has put that statement into terms that make us stop and think and perhaps see something we’ve not seen before.
Especially helpful is his statement that we only live and are alive by feeling our contact with that “other mysterious world.” Again, it is possible to misread the novelist. Our language has so devalued the meaning of feeling that we risk hearing this as another trite emphasis on emotion and the like. Instead, it is a profound reminder that we can grow cold and hard and sadly unaware of the true nature of our life.
More frightening still is his warning that letting our hearts grow cold we can become indifferent to life and even to hate it. This, in Orthodox terms, is a picture of hell.
In Christ’s parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, He speaks of a “great gulf that is fixed” between the Rich Man in Hades and Lazarus in Abraham’s bosom. I have read any number of metaphysical speculations on the meaning of the “great gulf.” Most venture some sort of impossible barrier between heaven and hell. The great gulf does seem to be a great barrier, but I have come to think that the barrier is nothing other than the hardness and emptiness of the rich man’s heart.
Every day the rich man passed Lazarus at his gate, and in doing so passed the entrance to paradise. Becoming cold and indifferent the gulf of empty hate is fixed. In another place Dostoevsky’s Elder Zossima says, “Hell is the suffering of being unable to love.”
Doctrine is the fruit of a Divine seed (to use Dostoevsky’s imagery). To think about it is necessary, but we must do so with great caution. If we approach doctrine as something inert, a mere idea, then we risk the loss of feeling (truly knowing in an experiential manner) its connection with that other “mysterious world.” In such a way it is possible to do “theology” in hell.
Orthodox life is most properly to be found as the living expression of what Dostoevsky referred to in his “mysterious worlds.” Fr. Georges Florovsky once called doctrine a “verbal icon of Christ.” As such, even the verbal icon (like all icons) has value only because it refers to its prototype. Or, in Biblical terms, “I believed and therefore have I spoken” (2 Corinthians 4:13).
The garden of God is a wondrous place. That’s what I think.