Archive for the ‘relics’ Category

Cultures of Remembrance

October 14, 2008

I grew up in a “culture of remembrance.” By that, I mean that the history of the place in which I lived was far more a matter of discussion and meaning than the present or the future. That culture was the American South. Much of the remembrance we discussed was not true – just a left-over from the sentimentality of the 19th century. My childhood was spent in the 1950’s, which may have been the last decade in America (or in many places of America) before the modern period became the norm. Modernity is not a culture of remembrance but a culture of forgetfulness. My children sometimes ask, “Which war was it Granddaddy fought in: Vietnam or World War II?” (The answer is World War II). But their forgetfulness staggers me. It is not that they are poor students of history (they were all great students) but history plays a different role in their culture than it did in mine.

My wife and I have swapped stories about our Southern childhoods and the experience of playing “Civil War” or “War Between the States” in our youth. The difficulty came in the fact that the game always involved where you were born. My wife was born in Washington, D.C. (where her native South Carolinian father was working at the time) which automatically meant she would have to play on the Northern side, which, in South Carolina, was always greatly outnumbered.

The culture of remembrance, however, is frequently false. We remember wrongs and hatreds that were not done to us and may not have even been done to our ancestors. No one in my father’s family fought in the Civil War (my mother’s family did). But no one burned our houses down or any of the other things we saw in “Gone With The Wind.” Many of those things happened to others – but not to all.

I was struck some years back when we took my home-schooling son to the Chickamauga Battlefield near Chattanooga. It is one of the oldest Battlefields preserved as a national monument. Reading about the history of its founding as a park is to read the story of soldiers from both sides working to set aside the area as a place of remembrance. It’s dedication was attended by men of both armies who met, ate, walked the fields and wept together. This is the remembrance of soldiers and was part of the healing of a nation. The culture of remembrance that I inherited included no such stories – it was the culture of a false memory.

The world has many cultures of remembrance – many of them bitter and angry. Many have continuing stories of violence and oppression – both of which feed the poisoned memories.

One of the promises in St. John’s Revelation is: And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away (21:4).

There is a proper culture of remembrance – a culture which is born of the mercy and forgiveness of God. It abides and will remain when the former things are passed away. The toxic remembrance of past wrongs does not build a culture of life, but a culture that serves the dead. There are some wrongs that are so great that we cannot easily ask another to forgive. Forgiveness is always a gift, never a demand.

Orthodox Christianity practices remembrance in a number of ways. The Sacraments of the Church are always a remembrance – but always an “eschatological” remembrance in which our focus is on the transcendant truth of things tabernacling among us.

Our Churches are usually filled with icons – some are covered in frescoes from floor to ceiling. And these icons are always a remembrance – of Christ, His Mother, the Saints, the Parables, etc. But icons, when painted according to traditional norms, are never mere historical records. We do not walk into a Church of photographs of the past. Rather, the saints – everything and everyone – is painted in an artistic grammar that points towards the final truth of things – the world to come which is already coming into the world.

Thus as I visited the Holy Land and stood in the chapel of the Monastery of Mar Saba, I saw in a side transcept the skulls of the monks of the monastery who have been martyred for the faith – the largest number of which died in 618 A.D. It was a remembrance of the most vivid sort, and yet not a reminder of a wrong that had been done, but of the transcendant power of the prayers of the saints. We venerate their relics – and do not mourn their martyrdom.

I noticed during my pilgrimage that Jerusalem itself is like a monument of remembrance. The Jerusalem whose streets were walked by Christ is some 30 or 40 feet below the surface of the present city. To visit those streets and other sites, you often have to go underground. Below that layer is the city of Jebusites (and perhaps others still lower), and the city of David. And above the city through which Christ walked are yet more layers – the city of the Romans – the city of the Byzantines – the city of the Muslims – the city of the Crusaders – the city of the Turks – and today the city that holds all of those things in one place – a center of pilgrimage. For some, to be there is a pilgrimage to a lost past and the pain of wrongs not forgiven. For a Christian, it must be a place for pilgrimage to the Holy Sepulchre – which belongs not to the past but to a past transcendant – for it is not a place of the dead but a place where tears are wiped away.

For all the peoples of the world – the reality of that Sepulchre is the only way forward. Modernity would move forward, not in forgiveness but in forgetfulness, which is not the same thing at all. For tears to be wiped away, they must also be shed. For the dead to rise again, they have to die. To remember the truth is, finally, to remember the End of all things when the Truth shall be revealed. The former things – which were always distortions – will pass away. What remains will abide forever.

Jerusalem – Heaven and Hell

September 11, 2008

I am taking the day off from the pilgrimage (my wife and others are in the vicinity of Jericho today). I have stayed behind to allow my back and some swollen feet to mend – they are already better after much needed sleep – and I wanted to use some free time to offer a reflection or so on my pilgrimage to date).

There has been at least one profound moment in each day of the pilgrimage – but yesterday and the early hours of this morning (Jerusalem time) were events almost beyond description.

We began the day in Bet Sahour – the “Shepherd’s Fields” near Bethlehem. The parish is a newly-built Orthodox Church with wonderful iconography. Beside it are the archeological digs on a series of Churches going back to the early 4th century.

Later we were in Bethlehem. Despite the onslaught of vendors whenever you leave the confines of the Church, the experience was profound. We have had tremendous freedom of access to sites (the presence of Met. Kallistos has likely opened doors for us). I have been able to enter the sanctuary and venerate the altar of every Church we have visited.

The shrine of Christ’s Nativity is that strange mix of knowing where you are and how important it is and yet also being aware of crowds and the crush of pilgrims. But there were many moments of especial significance.

In the late afternoon we were at the Monastery of St. John (Moscow Patriarchate) for the Vigil for the Feast of the Beheading of St. John the Forerunner (everything is Old Calendar over here). To our great surprise and delight, after the Metropolitan entered the altar, a priest came out and invited the three OCA priests in our party to enter the altar. Nuns in the sacristry provided vestments and we shared in the Vigil, taking part particularly in the Polieley. The choir of nuns were utter ethereal in their beauty – the service in Slavonic perfection. It is very hard to describe the sense of arriving at a holy place and suddenly being extended such hospitality. It was like the welcome of the Prodigal Son.

After a light supper and brief nap, we walked across Jerusalem (after midnight), arriving at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. We were expected. Met. Kallistos concelebrated with Archbishop Aristarchos, one of the members of the Holy Synod in Jerusalem and an old acquaintance of the Metropolitan. Again, the hospitality and access granted to us was overwhelming. I was able to enter the Holy Sepulchre of Christ, as were many of our group, kneel by the priest who was performing the Proskomide (the preparation of the gifts) and give him the names of all those I wanted remembered in the Liturgy.

There is a very small chapel at the entrance to the Sepulchre with an altar. At the Little Entrance, the Bishops and clergy processed into that chapel and the Liturgy continued from inside the structure that surrounds the Holy Sepulchre itself. The clergy, both those in our group as well as priests of other pilgrim groups, were able to enter the small altar area and receive communion. The inner experience of this unimagined privilege is beyond my words.

We shared refreshments with the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre after Liturgy and were shown the room containing the holy relics – which is beyond description. Several of us found our way up to the chapel of Golgotha and were able to venerate the rock beneath the altar that marks the spot where the Cross of Christ stood. I can only describe the evening as a Pascha. For though every Liturgy everywhere is always a Pascha, it is also inescapably and palpably so to receive communion at the tomb of Christ. It will doubtless be an image that will feed my heart for a long time to come.

My wife and I, finally returning to our residence at St. George’s College at 5 a.m., reflected together on the day. It was a journey from Christmas to Pascha, Bethlehem to the Holy Sepulchre, with an utterly heavenly visit to the Monastery of St. John, which marks both the birthplace of the Holy Forerunner, as well as the site of the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth (all of which are very special in our family). It was a day that neither of us could fathom and only gave us the reminder that the past 10 years of our lives (the years we have been Orthodox) have been blessed beyond anything we every dreamed when we began this journey.

Our focus has not been on our own “experience” of the places we visit, but rather on the prayers we are carrying with us. And yet continual unexpected joys meet us with a kindness and hospitality I would never dream of demanding.

One of our party last night commented as we left the Church of the Holy Sepulchre that we had been blessed indeed. He recalled the experience of St. Mary of Egypt who had not been able to cross the threshhold of that holy place because of her sins. The hand of God held her back. It became the occasion of her conversion.

“We actually crossed the threshhold!” he commented, recognizing in that simple act the mercy of a good God towards sinners such as ourselves.

The wonder of this land is very much like the wonder of the world everywhere. The Holy is given to us constantly, even though we find ourselves surrounded in tragedy and confusion that seems insolvable. Everywhere you look the political reality of this troubled place is evident, and yet the places most Holy on this earth are here. It truly is like the human heart – where the treasuries of everything are to be found – both of evil – and of paradise itself. The struggle for everyone in this place – as the struggle for everyone, everywhere – is to enter paradise rather than to make of their life and this world a living hell. May God have mercy on us all.

The Holy Relics of Sts. Joachim and Anna

November 5, 2007


As the priest of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, I read with great interest the linked blog on the gift of their relics to an Orthodox parish in California. The articles are well done and the video is outstanding. For all who love the saints, you will enjoy these pages. Sts. Joachim and Anna, pray to God for us.