Saturday, March 31, 2012

Truth or Tradition?

A friend of mine asked me to look at an article entitled "Did God Really Forsake Jesus on the Cross" on the Truth or Tradition web site.  Here is part of my response:
(and, btw, the answer is no)

Although I wouldn't have made the case [that God did not forsake Jesus on the Cross] in exactly the same way, basically what the author presents is the traditional way to understand what Jesus meant when he uttered those words.  That is, traditionally, when you wanted to indicate a psalm, you mentioned the first line or a prominent line of the psalm (e.g. "Blessed is the man" is psalm one, etc.), so the Gospel writers were indicating the psalm Jesus was praying on the cross.  Ironically, the "tradition" that the author is trying to debunk here is not a tradition at all.  It is a recent teaching that has entered the western church.

However, I find the overall tone of the web site somewhat disturbing.  I looked around at some of the other articles.  Certainly Jesus said that we should not substitute the commands of God for the traditions of men; but St. Paul also said that the churches were to follow the tradition they were taught (1 Cor. 11:2 and 1 Thes 2:15).  While some traditions are certainly "of men" and set aside the commands of God, St. Paul tells the early churches that they are to follow the traditions they have been taught.  Unfortunately, the premise of the website seems to be that no traditions can be true or that truth cannot be embodied in traditions.  This is a faulty premise because even the Bible on which they base their arguments is the product of tradition and their exegetical method is also traditional (that is, it is something they were taught, something handed down by the previous generation).

I think foundational to accepting Christ is accepting that others, while not perfect, have gone before us; and accepting Christ means accepting that we must be taught by them (that is, accepting Christ, both Head and Body).  I am not saying that the fourth century--or any century--got everything right.  But I am saying that we in the twenty-first century are not in a very good position to evaluate their interpretation of the Revelation.  

Think about it.  Although they lived three to five hundred years after the Incarnation, they spoke the same language that the scriptures were written in and the world had not changed very much culturally and technologically in those centuries.  Fifth century Constantinople was certainly a different world from first century Palestine (although many of the theologians of the forth and fifth centuries were Antiochian and Alexandrian, cultures very similar to Palestine), but that world was not nearly as different from New Testament times as twenty-first century North America.

There had been no Muslim conquest, no Crusades, no major splits in the Church, no Renaissance, no Scholasticism, no Reformation, no Enlightenment, no scientific revolution, no Romantic Movement, no industrial revolution, no Modernism (or Fundamentalist reaction), no sexual revolution, no Postmodernism, no fracturing of the western Church into thousands of factions who use nothing but their own interpretation of the Bible (written in a language they don't speak) to justify their splitting from one another.  Really, we are in no position to judge those who went before us. 
Nevertheless, that is not to say that everyone before us got everything  right.  C.S. Lewis, I believe, said that every generation is blind to it's own heresies.  And the Orthodox Church teaches that no human being or institution is infallible.  However, it takes the whole tradition to discern (by the Grace of the Holy Spirit) the verity of any part.  Moreover, there are many merely cultural matters that may morph with time and setting--but again, discerning what is essential requires deep respect for the whole Tradition.

I wonder if those who use their late-modern logic and Dispensational or other recent Protestant assumptions to wield the Bible against those who went before them ever stop to consider this:  the same Holy Spirit who used those "pagan influenced" men of the fourth and fifth centuries to identify, collect and preserve the writings that became the Bible, could not also have helped them interpret it too?  After all, the process of identifying which writings should be included in the Bible was by no means straight-forward (See  "A High View of Scripture?: The Authority of the Bible and the Formation of the New Testament Canon" by TWU professor and Evangelical scholar, Craig D. Allert).  You get the feeling reading the articles on the Truth or Tradition web site that the authors assume that no one (at least no one that was really very smart) had ever read the Bible before them.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Angelic Light: Guest Review

I was kindly asked to review the latest CD release by Cappella Romana. 

Perhaps one of the most difficult tasks is to review a subject whose qualities are so near perfection that words lose their meaning.  How can I write “beautiful” when what I mean to indicate is the quality of Beauty herself, or “excellent” when I really mean to indicate true Excellence?  The description is too much like the essence.  On the one hand the reader will not believe me if I write plainly, but too many words will trivialize the subject.

This is the season of Lent in both the Christian East and West.  Cappella Romana’s latest release, a compilation of tracks from past albums, seems fitting for the season: it contains several tracks of Lenten hymns (“Now the Powers of Heaven”, “Let All Mortal Flesh”) as well as suggestions of the coming Paschal joy (“As Many of You as Have Been Baptized”, “O Great and Most Sacred Pascha”).  However, the album is called Angelic Light, and so the theme is universal and appropriate to all seasons.  Listeners will notice there are four contrasting versions of the Cherubic Hymn.  You can listen to one of them, Track 3, here.

For casual listeners, this album is an accessible introduction to the majesties of this sacred choral ensemble.  It is the ideal accompaniment to a peaceful time of contemplation – perhaps during the drive to church.

For connoisseurs, it is the apotheosis of church music in both Eastern and Western styles.  As an example of the height of its standards, Cappella Romana expects new recruits to be familiar with the following specializations: “Reading Byzantine or other chant notations at sight; familiarity with Greek or Slavonic; the employment of non-Western vocal timbres; understanding pre-modern Western mensural vocal timbres; the ability to apply historically and culturally appropriate forms of performance practice (tunings, ornamentation, musica ficta, etc.)” (from their website.)  All of that and they must sing well too!

Some faithful listeners will recognize the Slavonic “O Tebe Raduyetsia” (All of Creation Rejoices) or the melody of the English-language Communion Hymn (Track 6).  “Ikos Six, from the Akathistos Hymn” (the rather generic title of a Christmas hymn about “The Noble Joseph’s” doubt) is an excellent example of Eastern harmonies and ornamentation executed with Western sensibilities and polish. The final track is an exquisite Cherubic Hymn that seems to me to be suitable for a chamber choir, in contrast to much Orthodox music that is written for large, powerful ensembles.

In sum, Cappella Romana is a lighthouse on the horizon of sacred choral ensembles, and “Angelic Light” is a magnificent and timely compilation of their greatest recordings.  I have no doubt that it will delight all who hear it.
You can order or download the album here

Paul Graham Yates, Principal

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Good Samaritan

In most commentaries and homilies, the parable of the Good Samaritan is read as a morality tale.  We are encouraged not to be like the religious hypocrites, but rather be like the Good Samaritan who stopped on his way and was “a neighbor” to the one left wounded by thieves.  And this wounded neighbor, in as much as he is “the least of these” is Christ, so that in ministering to our wounded neighbor, we are ministering to Christ.  However, the hymns of the Orthodox Church, particularly leading up to Holy Week, interpret the parable quite differently.  They interpret it eschatologically: the parable reveals the nature of reality, which is hidden from most eyes (c.f. Matt. 13:13).  Consider the example below from Vespers for the fifth Friday in Lent:
Departing from Your divine commandments as from Jerusalem, and going down to the passions of Jericho, I was led astray by the false glory of the cares of this life.  I fell among the thieves of my own thoughts; they stripped me of the robe of sonship that was mine by grace, and now I lie wounded, as though without the breath of life.  The priest drew near and saw my body, but he took no heed; the levite looked at it with loathing and passed by on the other side.  But You, O Lord who ineffably has taken flesh from the Virgin, You have of Your own will poured out blood and water from Your side for my salvation, and as with oil You have anointed me.  O Christ my God, bind up my wounds with linen, and in Your compassion bring me to Your heavenly Kingdom.
Notice how the roles have been changed.  Christ is the Good Samaritan and I am the wounded traveler.  And although I am a victim of thieves, the thieves are none other than my own thoughts, thoughts that I have allowed to chase after the false glory of the cares of this life as I wandered away from the divine commandments down to the passions of Jericho.  The oil and wine by which the Good Samaritan cares for me is nothing other than the very blood and water that flowed from His side on the Cross.  And other hymns explain that the beast on which the Good Samaritan places me is His own Body and the inn to which He brings me is the Church.  
There is nothing wrong with interpreting the parable of the Good Samaritan morally.  Scripture can and must be read on many levels at the same time.  However, I suggest that if we do not first and fundamentally see ourselves as the ones wounded, wounded by the thieves within ourselves, then a merely moral interpretation of this parable can be nothing more than insipid, and possibly even harmful (i.e. “We are not like those bad religious hypocrites over there”).
To see Jesus as the Good Samaritan is only to acknowledge that He is the despised and rejected One.  But to see ourselves as the wounded traveler, I think, is a little harder.  And harder yet it is to acknowledge that the thieves of our own mind have wounded us as we have pursued the idols of our culture (“false glory”) and directed our life after the cares of this life rather than toward the Jerusalem of God’s commandments.  We have lost the robe of sonship given to us by Grace--notice, the parable is not about unbelievers finding Christ for the first time.  It is about those who have already received the robe of sonship and have soiled it, torn it, and lost it.  The parable is about us.  It is about us who had been given everything by grace and not only have lost it, but have also wounded ourselves almost to the point of death.  

And then the very One we had ignored, despised and rejected in our mindless rush to the passions of Jericho; this Samaritan comes to us and cares for us binding our wounds and pouring on us oil and wine, which is His own Life.  He places us on His beast, His Body, which is mystically both the Body that hung on the Cross and rose from the dead, and the Church, those who partake of the Body and Blood of Christ.  This beast that carries us, I like to think, is the intercession of the Saints.  I myself have no strength even to get up and walk, but the Holy Ones who are Christ’s Body intercede for me.  The prayers of the Mother of God and of all the Holy Ones carry me to the inn and to the inn keeper, who are the teachers of the Church, the bishops, the Holy Councils, and the Tradition that has brought back from the brink of spiritual death thousands and thousands before me.
Toward the end of Great Lent, many experience--each in their own way--weakness, weakness so great that it is as though you can’t finish the course set before you.  Here more than ever we need to call to mind the intercession of the Saints.  Here more than ever we need to beg our Holy Mother, the Mother of Jesus, the Mother of God--and all of the Holy Ones--to pray for us.  Here more than ever we need to be carried to the inn where the wise inn keeper will care for us as we heal and await the return of our Good Samaritan.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

When a Righteous Man Suffers

We are told at the beginning of the Book of Job, and told by God Himself, that Job is a righteous man. However, for reasons known only to God, God allows Satan to afflict him.

Job's suffering is told in the first two chapters in terms of what he loses outwardly. In chapters three through thirty-three, Job tells of his inner suffering. Job suffers inwardly because God, the God whom he has devoted himself to, is not acting in the world as Job believed he would. This inner suffering is the worse of the two. Terribly disappointed and angry with God, Job does not turn from God, but rather pursues Him.

Job pursues God in the way Job has come to understand God: as a judge and in legal terms. This understanding of God as the great Rewarder of the good and Punisher of the bad is expressed most clearly by Job's three "comforters." Job's friends speak to him with condescending moralisms about how God rewards the good and punishes the bad. Job quickly becomes frustrated with his friends because they do not seem to get that they are telling Job what he already believes: "I truly know this is so" Job says after Bildad's first speech; and "Who doesn't know such things?" he says after Zophar's first speech; and a little later, "What you know I know."

The problem for Job is that he does believe that God rewards the Good and punishes the Bad. This is a problem because, as far as it is possible for a man to be righteous, Job has been a righteous man, yet he is now suffering terribly. He's done what he was supposed to do--even God tells us that. So why, Job asks, "do You [God] not pardon my transgression and take away my iniquity?" Job acknowledges that no man is completely righteous before God, that all human righteousness is relative; yet in as far as God had revealed Himself to him, Job was righteous. Job did what he was supposed to do to be forgiven (offered sacrifices), yet his sufferings were to him evidence that he was not forgiven--at least according to how Job and his friends understood the universe.

In Job's frustration, he accuses God of injustice and challenges God to justify Himself. God remains silent. Job rails against God, but Job will not deny God. He will not "curse God and die," as his wife suggest. Job is all over the map. At one moment he is lamenting his suffering; then suddenly he is accusing or challenging God; and suddenly again he acknowledges his dependence on God to defend him. "I know that my Redeemer [Defender] lives," and "though He slay me, yet will I trust Him": such expressions of Job's confidence in God sprinkle his complaint. As I read it, Job's complaint seems to be: God, why aren't You what I thought You were? And God still remains silent.

Maybe many of us have had this same complaint: God will not stay in the box we've built for Him.

I remember how my daughter teased me when she declared to me that she could prove that one plus one does not always equal two. She was doing a math major at the university, and with glee she began to scribble before me to prove her case. When she was done, I told her what someone else told me (I wish I could say that I was bright enough to come up with this one). I said, "Yes, one plus one often equals three or seven or twelve." She looked at me quizzically. "One chicken plus one rooster will produce many chickens."

My daughter got it, although she had to remonstrate for a while that my proof wasn't fair.

One plus one equals two. That's good enough for most of us for most of life's applications, so long as we don't look too closely, so long as we don't get hung up on specifics. But our lives are about specifics, and simple formulas about who God is and what God does are bound to fail in the specifics, in the details of our lives, in the painful realities where we live.

God can be known, but God cannot be boxed. This is one of the great lessons of the Book of Job. At the end of the book, God does indeed speak to Job--as an overwhelming Presence, out of a "tornado." In a series of unanswerable questions God silences Job. Yet God does not condemn Job for a moral failure, merely that he spoke of things he did not understand, "things too wonderful for me, which I did not know," Job says. And in the end, the fruit of Job's suffering, of Job's patient though vociferous endurance, is a deeper knowledge of God: "I had heard of You with the hearing of my ears, but now my eyes see You."

Job did not run away, even when it hurt, even when he didn't understand, even when it seemed so unfair. Job argued; Job complained; Job even accused God; but Job never turned away from his Accuser, his Judge, and his Redeemer.

Friday, March 23, 2012

St. Mary of Egypt

In the Holy Orthodox Church on the fifth week of Great Lent we read the life of St. Mary of Egypt: out loud, as part of compline.
St. Mary is a repentant harlot who lived as a hermit for forty-seven years in the wilderness east of the Jordan River in the early sixth century. Near the end of her life, she is found by a certain monk from the monastery of St. John the Baptist, Fr. Zosimas, to whom she tells her story.
In the normal course of the liturgical life of the Church, the Synaxarion (book of the lives of the Saints) is read every day at Matins. For Orthodox Christians the lives of the saints function not only as lesson in holiness, morality or zeal, but most importantly as evidence. The saints are evidence that men and women can indeed be holy, we can indeed participate in the very Life of God. And in the Church, we tell these stories again and again because we fall into weakness and doubt so easily.
Saints come in all shapes and sizes, you might say. There is not just one way to become a saint. Some saints have been killed or tortured for their faith. Others have lived lives of stillness and prayer. Others have lived lives of service and love. Each woman or man must follow the path of holiness laid down before him or her. In fact, the Orthodox Church does not even have an official process by which one is recognized and canonized as a saint. Sanctity is recognized and venerated by the people and eventually officially recognized by the bishops. Often saints are local, known only by the people in the area where the saint lived. Other saints so encourage the faithful that they are well known the world over.
St. Mary of Egypt is one of the best known saints in the Orthodox Church. She is an Alexandrian woman who lived from age twelve to twenty-nine as a harlot, not out of necessity but out of desire: "I was like a fire of public debauch. And it was not for the sake of gain—here I speak the pure truth. Often when they wished to pay me, I refused the money. I acted in this way so as to make as many men as possible to try to obtain me, doing free of charge what gave me pleasure. Do not think that I was rich and that was the reason why I did not take money. I lived by begging, often by spinning flax, but I had an insatiable desire and an irrepressible passion for lying in filth. This was life to me. Every kind of abuse of nature I regarded as life."
“This was life to me.”
Through her terribly destructive lifestyle, she was looking for life. And so Life found her. St. Mary stumbles across a group of pilgrims going to Jerusalem to see the Cross of Christ, and she goes along with them. I’ll let you read the details of the beginning of her repentance yourself. Toward the end of her repentance (forty-seven years later), she is found by Fr. Zosimas, an old man who had lived since age three in the monastic life as a model of holiness. Fr. Zosimas had a thought: there is no monk who can teach me. And so God sent him into the desert beyond the Jordan to meet Mary.
Again, I will let you read the details of the encounter. But there are two things I would like to point out. I think these are central lessons we are to learn from retelling the life of this saint. First, even those who live terrible lives may indeed be seeking Life in the only ways they know how. Ours is not to judge, but rather to seek Life as best we can according to what we know--or think we know. Those who do not seek Life the way we do, these we commit to God who is Life and is able to lead to Himself all who are seeking him--even those who seek in all of the wrong places. Second, and this I think is why the story is read towards the end of Great Lent, the masters of the tried and true, traditional ways of seeking God are not necessarily the holiest children God has. Jesus tells us that she who is forgiven much loves much.
During this last week of Lent, perhaps we will grow more in our relationship with God if we focus less on what we have done for God and more on what we have been forgiven. May Holy Mary pray for us.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Mill on the Floss: The Weakness of a Single Virtue

In The Mill on the Floss, Maggie’s great virtue is her compassion, her pity.  It is a pity born out of her own sufferings.  Maggie can feel compassion (suffer with, from Latin) because she has suffered so much pain, pain due to misunderstanding and unrequited love from her family.  It is not as though her family doesn’t love her at all; it’s that her love is not returned in the way she most needs it.  Maggie’s love is a love that feels the pain of others, and she in turn needs others to feel her pain. This Maggie does not receive. Nevertheless, the pain she experiences only increases her compassion which in turn leads her to righteousness.  That is, she is led to do what is morally right, not in order to be right, but in order not to inflict pain on others: “Oh God!” she prays in desperation, “preserve me from inflicting.” She says elsewhere to Stephen, “I must not, cannot, seek my own happiness by sacrificing others.”
Maggie is a compassionate woman.  Compassion guides her, almost always, into righteousness; however, no single virtue is sufficient to keep us safe from our passions.  When Maggie reproaches Stephen for leading her into a compromised position, it is her pity for him, for the pain he is suffering at her reproach, that induces her to yield even more, allowing Stephen to take her near the point of no return.  Eliot says of Maggie’s feelings at this point, “This yielding to the idea of Stephen’s suffering was more fatal than other yielding, because it was less distinguishable from that sense of others’ claims which was the moral basis of her resistance.”  The moral basis of Maggie’s resistance to Stephen is the claim others have on her love, faithfulness and loyalty--and the suffering she will cause others if she does not stay faithful to their claim.  However, because her resistance is based solely on this sense of compassion, her unwillingness to hurt others, she is easily manipulated by Stephen, who, while not a complete cad, has by this point reduced the conflict between his will and Maggie’s to a matter of winning. Near the end of Maggie’s “inward as well as...outward contest” with Stephen, Eliot says that Stephen thought “of his new hope: he was going to triumph.”  And again toward the very end of the contest Eliot says, “Stephen thought again that he was beginning to prevail--he had never yet believed that he should not prevail.”
Stephen is intent on winning what he wants.  Consequently, he can stoop to use almost any means likely to secure his trophy.  Never, or almost never, is a human being fully demonic; similarly, never, or almost never, is a human being free from some demonic influence so long as he or she is pursuing a desire to win it.  Stephen played on Maggie’s strength, which, unguarded by other important virtues, was also her weakness.
Compassion is a great virtue, yet it is only one of the virtues.  But in Maggie's religious culture, a culture full of biting criticism of the weak and hypocritical tolerance of the sins of the strong (those with wealth and social position), compassion, wherever it can be found, is certainly a virtue to be nurtured and esteemed.  I do not fault Maggie for her compassion; rather, I observe that compassion alone is not enough.  It is not enough to protect us from the serpent of our own passionate desires and the temptations that come to us through the serpent at work in those who might want to win us (or more exactly, some aspect of us) as a prize for themselves.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Mill On The Floss: Dr. Kenn

"I never knew any one who did such things." These are Maggie's words after she hears Stephen describe the piety of Dr. Kenn, the parish priest. Stephen explains that Dr. Kenn is the only man he has ever known "who seems to me to have anything of the real apostle in him--a man who has eight-hundred a year, and is contented with deal furniture and boiled beef because he gives away two-thirds of his income." Stephen goes on to reveal that Dr. Kenn had also taken in a poor boy who had accidentally killed his mother and kept him with him at all times so the the boy would not fall into despondency.
It is in response to this description of Dr. Kenn that Maggie says, "That is beautiful.... I never knew any one who did such things."
In Maggie's words, I wonder if I hear Eliot's.
Eliot is famous for having abandoned both evangelical pietism and Anglicanism to embrace the Transcendentalism that was common among Victorian intelligentsia. One wonders whether or not she, and many intelligent people for that matter, would have remained faithful to the received tradition if they had ever actually met someone who had "anything of the real apostle in him."
Eliot's description of the religion of Maggie's parents as "semi-pagan" but with no heresy in it, betrays much, I think, of many people's experience growing up in religious homes. Very few people take their faith seriously enough to let it change them--or at least change them in any ways other than conforming them to the community's ideals of good citizenship. It is easy, oh so easy, even for very dedicated Christian people to slip into a comfortable lifestyle, having fulfilled all religious obligation as far as the society dictates, and to let petty sins and socially acceptable passions bring meaning to their dull, self-centered lives. And when this is the case, when selfish preoccupation within the limits of societal acceptability is all one has to illumine the Gospel handed down in the religious tradition, then it is no wonder that thinking people would look for light elsewhere.
"I never knew any one who did such things." In the absence of Christian example, of light shining in and through another, the rush of strong passion and the intellectual machinations of a mature mind are too much for the God of Sunday School. The God who seemed so real, the "friend we have in Jesus," when we were eight years old, is no match for the tribulation of maturity. Yet where does one turn to learn of the grown-up Jesus? Where does one turn when the lives of those around you and the words of those whom you would think should know provide nothing but confirmation that, probably, there is no grown-up Jesus. I wonder if this was Eliot's own experience. In The Mill on the Floss, it is almost the experience of Maggie.
Not only does Dr. Kenn live something of "the real apostle," he has the sensitivity to notice that Maggie is hurting at the Bazaar. He has a presence that made Maggie feel a childlike relief so that she "told him her whole history in three words": "I must go." And Dr. Kenn understood, enough.
But Maggie is not able to go, and the thing she fears and longs for and knows she must reject comes upon her.
When she is back in St. Ogg's and in a relatively safe place, the first thing she asks for is it to speak to Dr. Kenn. She wants to tell him everything. And Dr. Kenn listens and believes her and does what he can to help her.
I'm glad that Maggie had a Dr. Kenn. I don't know if Eliot ever did.
We cannot realize the Life or death we sow in the lives of those around us by what we do when no one is looking and by what we let past unguarded lips. One need not be a priest to be a Dr. Kenn. There is a Royal Priesthood to which every Christian belongs. Everyone of us sows life, and sows death. Who are the Maggies in our lives?
In one sense we are all Maggies, looking for someone to help us see the grown up Jesus, looking for someone a little farther down the road to help us over the rough patch we keep finding ourselves in. Sometimes we find someone who can help us. Sometimes we go for long periods lost and hungry and looking. Most of the time, I suspect, we have to make due with weak fathers, stumbling mothers, with guides who help us only a little. However, maybe we can only really apply a little at a time. Maybe if we follow the little light we have, God will have mercy and send us a brighter one. Or maybe we will realize that we have been the dull ones all along.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Mill on the Floss: Temptation

I have finished The Mill on the Floss. The novel ends tragically, but not in the classical sense. On one level, I was certainly pulling for Philip. I hoped Maggie could overcome temptation and find a long-term loving relationship with Philip. Like Lucy, I fancied that the difficulties could be worked out. However, real life, like Maggie’s, is usually not that easily managed.
I do not want to reveal too much of the plot for those who have not read the novel yet; however, I will say that Eliot must have in her own life experienced temptation as profoundly as any human being has. Her description of Maggie’s alternating yielding to and struggle against temptation strikes me as an almost exact description of both my own experiences with temptation and the experiences of others I know of as a priest and confessor. The Fathers of the Church teach us that one experiences demonic temptation to the degree of one’s devotion to God. Those who have devoted themselves most deeply to faithful love of God and neighbor (neighbor meaning those close to you, not the imagined neighbor of philosophy and pretended religion), those who have so devoted themselves experience the greatest demonic temptations. Those who have little care for God or neighbour, experience few temptations.
Maggie is a young woman who has wholly devoted herself to love of God, as best as she knows how. In her mid teens, she comes across Thomas A Kempis’ Imitation of Christ and completely devotes herself to the way of self-sacrificing love. But because she has no one to guide her, “making out a faith for herself without the aid of established authorities and appointed guides,” Maggie exaggerates and is willful in her self renunciation. Elliot points out that Maggie, like many who begin on the road to self renunciation, prefers the path of martyrdom, “where the palm branches grow” (i.e. glory and praise), “rather than the steep highway of tolerance, just allowance [for the weaknesses of others], and self blame, where there are no leafy honours to be gathered and worn.” Maggie in many ways experiences what many who have converted to the Orthodox faith have experienced. She discovered the fathers, or at least a father; but this father has come to her only in a book, and thus she is left to her own resources to fill in all that a book cannot provide. In some places she does well, in others, not so well.
Unfortunately, Maggie, like all who strive to follow the way of the cross without careful, close and personal spiritual guidance, has a clear image of righteousness in her mind and a firm resolve to pursue it. She asserts repeatedly that she would rather die than to “seek [her] own happiness by sacrificing others.” Unfortunately, dying is not so easy. When one is unguided in the arena of spiritual warfare, persistent thoughts and strong feelings can shake even the firmest resolve and the highest morality. And for Maggie, Stephen’s persistence and her strong yearning to be loved combine to shake her very foundations.
Eliot does an excellent job of describing the experience of slipping into a temptation and again of the revival of conscience to resist. Eliot speaks of Maggie’s “less vivid consciousness” that she experiences when yielding to temptation. There is no clear sense of deciding anything, just a yielding, as though “every influence tended to lull her into acquiescence,” a “partial sleep of thought.” Each time Maggie yields a little, some small awareness startles her back to resistance. Suddenly she sees clearly her danger. Suddenly she knows death is preferable to any betrayal of those she loves. Back and forth Maggie struggles with an unrelenting tempter, yielding a little, then forcefully resisting. Back and forth until in the end, God delivers her.
I will reflect more tomorrow.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Mill On The Floss: Maggie and Tom

I stopped reading The Mill on the Floss sometime before Christmas. I just couldn’t take it any more. George Eliot’s description of Maggie’s mistreatment by her family hit too close to home. On the one hand, I identify closely with Maggie. Like Maggie, when I was a child I wanted desperately to be loved; and “loved” to me meant mostly to be understood as well intentioned.
Like Maggie, and not only in my childhood, I have felt a strong urge to be of some use, to be helpful, and not to be a burden to others. And like Maggie I have often misread the situation, misunderstood the unspoken rules, and failed to see that the thing that I thought I could do, the thing that seemed to me to be most helpful to others, was in fact (or in interpretation) something despised or counter productive. I understand the pain of misunderstood good intentions. I understand the crushing disappointment of zealous acts of self sacrifice producing nothing but disdain, or at best pity, from those I had hoped to bless.
And if this has been the case in my relationships with elders and peers, it has most intensely been the case in my relationship with God. Since my teen years, when I first came to know God in any specific way, I have intensely striven to prove to God that I love Him. And time and time again I have found that my zealous strivings have almost always met a kind of dead end, or at least what appeared to me at the time to be a dead end. Door-to-door canvasing and street evangelism produced no noticeable fruit. Groups and meetings that I organized seemed always to fizzle out. When I tried to emulate charismatic leaders, I soon realized that I was worse at being someone else than I was at being myself. Nothing I did seemed to produce that elusive experience of God’s favor, although there were brief periods when I imagined that I had it. And those times, as it turns out in retrospect, were the worst.
Although I relate a great deal Maggie, I also relate somewhat to Maggie’s brother Tom--and this is where the on the other hand comes in. During those moments when I thought I had it right, when I was confident of God’s blessing, I am afraid that I acted a great deal like Tom. Tom is a character who always does the right thing, no matter whom he has to step on or run over to do it. And whom he steps on most often is Maggie, the one who loves him most and the one he loves the most--according to his own, possessive species of love.
This is the great danger of being right, of knowing that you have God’s blessing. When you are right, the only thing that matters is rightness. People cease to exist as human beings. People become mere buttresses of, or obstacles to, the right. He who knows for sure has little patience for those who know in part (c.f. 1Cor. 13:12), especially if they persist in their stubborn refusal to see the truth he has condescended to make so clear to them. He who is right and blessed--blessed not because he is right, for that would be a theological mistake, but by Grace, of course--is quick to cut off (so that God may judge) those who doubt and those who seem to fail. How do I know? I know because this is how I have thought and acted, at times, when I felt right and affirmed by God.
Maggie and Tom are both burdened with the same strong urge to be affirmed, to be loved. But Tom is able easily to divide his universe into right and wrong and has found his affirmation in being right, while Maggie has the added burden of an active and penetrating mind and a heart that feels deeply for others. Maggie can see the same right and wrong that Tom sees, but she can also see much more.
Over the past ten or fifteen years, I have learned to accept myself. And in accepting myself, I have come to experience God’s acceptance deeply, in a way that is more about being than doing. I hope George Eliot lets her character Maggie come eventually to the same place. However, hints in the text don’t seem to be pointing that way.
I picked up The Mill on the Floss again this morning because I had to wait at the bio-lab for my annual blood work. I’m a little more than half way through. I should probably finish it.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Kony 2012

I was sent a link to a video called Kony 2012. The video is about the leader of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), a man named Kony, who has become infamous for his kidnapping of children and turning the girls into prostitutes and the boys into soldiers. As I wrote to the person who sent me this link, certainly such things are terrible and those who do such things should be stopped. However, I also said that I was put off by the self-righteous tone of the video as it encourages young Americans to support the U.S. government as it sends military "advisors" to central Africa to help local militaries hunt down Kony.

In this post, I'd like to explain a little more exactly what I mean by self righteousness in this case.

St. Isaac the Syrian makes this rather surprising comment on certain "blameworthy" yet God-commanded actions made by holy people as recorded in the Bible. St. Isaac says,

Such also is the case [i.e. the soul is not guilty] when a person is commanded by God to do things that are blameworthy, but receives a reward instead of blame and censure, as with Hosea the prophet who was made a partner in an unlawful marriage [Hos. 1:2], and Elijah who committed murder in his zeal for God [1 Kgs. 18:40], and those who at Moses' command stabbed their kinsmen with swords [Ex. 32:27].

What is essential to see here is that although circumstances required--even from God's perspective--certain blameworthy actions (murder, unlawful marriage, and even more biblical examples can be found of theft, robbing temples, lying, and even pillage and slavery), even though sometimes God himself commanded such behaviour, such behaviour does not cease to be blameworthy. And although the soul (the person) may not be held guilty when, out of necessity to avoid a worse sin and in obedience, he or she commits a blameworthy action, the action itself must still be considered blameworthy.

In the case at hand, the blameworthy action(s) to which I refer is the use of the military to hunt down Kony. Perhaps it is necessary. Perhaps it is necessary to kill hundreds of Kony's followers, maybe thousands, in order to stop the LRA from kidnapping and creating more child soldiers and prostitutes. Perhaps it is necessary to use children who themselves are barely 18 years old (in the U.S.) and certainly younger in the Ugandan and other African militaries to hunt down children who are a few years younger still. And, we might ask, how many prostitutes will these wealthy (by African standards) foreign soldiers create while they are there, for let's not fool ourselves: no foreign soldiers throughout history have forgone certain comforts while so far from home, comforts impoverished local girls are encouraged to provide in exchange for a small fee?

But perhaps it is necessary. We live in a terribly messy world. Many Christians after the fourth century rejoiced that the emperor used his military might to suppress what they considered evil. We are not so different from them. Perhaps it is necessary, as it was necessary for the Levites in Exodus, so that a worse suffering would not ensue, to murder their brothers who were worshiping the golden calf. Perhaps it is necessary.

However, if it is necessary that military might be used to stop Kony--and it seems to me that it is necessary--then let us not rejoice in it. Let us not hold youth rallies and dance (or could it be that even that is necessary too?). But this brings me to the matter of tone, a tone that I called self righteous.

In Dostoevsky's Karamazov Brothers the old monk Zosima says that no one can righteously judge another because he himself is also guilty for the sins of the other. That is, if the one who judges had lived a less selfish and more caring life, perhaps the circumstances that led to the sin of the other would have been different. To apply this principle to the matter at hand we might say this: if every North American for the past fifty years had consumed only what he or she needed to be healthy, rode bicycles instead of drove cars, and spent all of their super abundant wealth on African community development, maybe a very different Africa would exist today. Maybe an Africa in which someone like Kony could not exist. Perhaps.

Humility is called for. North Americans have no room for self-righteousness. Years and years of our over consumption, exploitation and greed has created a context in which a kidnapping murderer like Kony can exist in central Africa. And now we must kill some more children in order to stop him. This is not something to rejoice in, but something to cry over.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Stretching Out Our Hands

In this season of repentance, let us stretch out our hands in works of mercy; and then the ascetic struggles of the fast will bring us to eternal life.  For nothing saves the soul so much as generosity to those in need, and delivers a man from death.  Let us do all this with gladness, for there is no better way, and it will bring salvation to our souls.

1st verse of the aposticha, Tuesday matins, second week of the Fast.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Agora: A Disturbing Movie

Several people in Holy Nativity have seen the movie Agora and have been disturbed by it and asked me to see the movie so that they can talk to me about it. So last night I watched it. Let me begin by saying that I cannot recommend this movie, not because of its themes, but because of the graphic violence.

Agora is set in Alexandria during the fourth and fifth centuries, a time in which a power struggle was taking place among Jews, Pagans, various Christian groups and the Roman government. The story centres around the life of Hypatia, an influential woman philosopher--who is portrayed in the film as a woman with the face and body a movie star and the moral outlook of 21st century independent woman. And of course, this is why the audience sympathizes most with her. Hypatia is so wise, so tolerant and so light skinned and beautiful. Cyril the Patriarch, on the other hand, is portrayed as a bigoted fundamentalist with the appearance of a dark-skinned Arab who uses his thug-like "monks" to terrorize any who oppose him.

Knowing this much about the movie, you can already tell where it goes. According to the film, Cyril--St. Cyril to the Church--preaches fundamentalism and uses his thugs to murder or expel from the city all who oppose him, burning the books of the great library in Alexandra and eventually having the virtuous and beautiful Hypatia murdered. No wonder Christians watching such a movie are disturbed.

It seems the most urgent question that those who have seen this movie ask me is, "Is it true?" My answer now, having seen the film, is yes and no.

Yes it is true that there was a power struggle in Alexandria in the fourth and fifth centuries among the Christians, Jews, Pagans and the Roman Government. Yes, atrocities were committed by all parties. Yes, there were many riots--some led by monks. However, it is pure conjecture that St. Cyril instigated this violence.

It is somewhat like someone making a movie fifteen hundred years from now about the Stanley Cup riot in Vancouver last Spring and portraying Mike Gillis as the secret instigator of the violence. Just because he is the general manager of the Canucks, doesn't mean that he is responsible for or even knows about everything his players or the fans do.

A lot was going on in Alexandria. The Christian movement was largely a movement among the slaves, and in a culture that was about 90% slave, there were a lot of angry new Christians with grudges and scores to settle against the wealthy, ruling, Pagan elite. And to the credit of the movie, Agora does somewhat portray this friction between the classes. If this same story were being retold by a Soviet film maker in the 1950s, much more would be made of this class warfare. However, the film was made by people with 21st century sensibilities; consequently, the tension is created by the conflict between a scowling fundamentalist (and Arab looking) male, religious leader and an urbane, tolerant, gorgeous, white, well-educated woman.

David Bentley Hart, in his book Atheist Delusions, does the world a great service by unpacking some of the currently popular Christian bashing based on contemporary interpretations of history. I strongly recommend this book to anyone who has been disturbed by watching Agora. If you don't do well reading, you can get a summary of some of his ideas on youtube.

Let me end by saying that I do not suppose that Christians have not (and are not) responsible for atrocities throughout history. Christians seldom live up to the moral teachings of their faith because human beings seldom live up to what they believe. However, it is very important to distinguish what terrible things some Christians have done and why they have done them, from the broader faith they hold. We cannot blame atheism generally for Stalin's reign of terror, nor Socialism for the actions of the National Socialists (Nazis), nor republican democracy for the aggression of the United States around the world for the past seventy years. There are lots of reasons why people do things; and more often than not, the ugly things that they do have very little to do with the noble ideals or religious teachings they espouse. People often use ideals and religion to justify their atrocities; however, you generally do not have to look too deeply to see that these ideals or religious teachings are not the cause of the atrocities. Pride, greed, revenge, anger, envy and fear, lots of fear - these are the causes.

Monday, March 05, 2012

The Forty Days

Recently I had a discussion with a devout person about the number of days in Great Lent. This person was concerned because, depending on what days you count, Great Lent in the Orthodox Church can be from forty to forty-eight days long. I explained to this person what I had learned: Great Lent is from Clean Monday to the Friday before Lazarus Saturday, which is forty days. The following eight days are not counted as Great Lent, but are a separate entity: Holy Week.

My friend was not content with my answer and began bringing up fine points that made it difficult to affirm with any certainty exactly which days count as Great Lent and exactly how many those days are.

And then it struck me. The question of number is completely the wrong question.

As I listened to my friend's litany of minor problems related to counting the days of Great Lent, I realized that Great Lent is not a number of days, like a number of rocks on a wall or a number of apples in a tree. Great Lent is as long as Moses was on the Mountain with God. It is as long as Jesus was in the wilderness fasting a praying. Great Lent is not about a number of days, it is about an experience with God. Forty is the number given to the days Moses was with God on the Mountain and Jesus was in the wilderness praying because "forty" represents fullness.

Jesus prayed in the wilderness and Moses was on the mountain with God as long as was needed. They were apart with God for as long as was needed to accomplish what God had intended for that time apart. Similarly, Great Lent is as long as is necessary. We don't need more time and less wouldn't do. If we cannot give ourselves completely to God in the forty days (however you count them), more days will not help; but it takes the full forty days to accomplish the transformation that is offered to us--this year, and each according to his or her ability. Great Lent is long enough to transform us, but not so long so as to discourage anyone.

Counting the days of Great Lent seems to miss the point. Forty days are the full time offered to us for the renewal of our repentance. It is the time Moses was on the mountain and Jesus was in the wilderness. It is enough time for our salvation.

Friday, March 02, 2012

Sunday of Orthodoxy

On the first Sunday of Lent, we celebrate the Sunday of Orthodoxy, sometimes called the Triumph of Orthodoxy. I don’t like to use the latter expression because in the North American context of Christian denominationalism it is easily misunderstood--by both Orthodox and non-Orthodox Christians. So let me begin by saying one thing that the Sunday of Orthodoxy is not, and then go on to explain a little bit about what it is.

The Sunday of Orthodoxy is not a celebration of the triumph of our denomination. In the context of denominationalism, since our Christian group is called Orthodox, it is easy to misunderstand what exactly we are celebrating. We are celebrating that orthodoxy (Truth, true teaching) is triumphant, not that a group named Orthodox (our group) is triumphant. Certainly, in as much as Orthodox Christians practice what they preach, they share in the triumph of the Truth. However, calling ourselves Orthodox and even proclaiming true words does not make us participants in the Truth any more than being decendants of Abraham and teaching the Law of Moses made most Pharisees of the first century genuine children of Abraham.

The Sunday of Orthodoxy is a celebration of the true teaching about who Jesus Christ is based on the declarations of the seventh Ecumenical Council.

A Little History

For the first almost 300 years of Christianity, only local councils (groups of bishops) were able to deal with false teachings as they came up. But with the cessation of the persecutions, a series of world-wide (ecumenical) councils were held over approximately the next 350 years. These Councils both confirmed earlier local councils and dealt with new false teachings as they emerged and clarified matters of order, discipline and morality (e.g. Who figures out the date of Easter? or Is it appropriate for a bishop to dance? or What do you do if someone who claims to be a monk has a concubine?). While some of the matters of order, discipline and morality had to do with specific problems in specific contexts, the theological teaching of these councils has become the bedrock of the Christian faith for almost all groups that call themselves Christian--regardless of the name. The basic tenents of Christianity such as knowing God as Trinity, knowing Jesus as both God and Man, and even what books would be in the Bible were determined by these Ecumenical Councils.

The seventh Ecumenical Council (787) dealt with a particular cultural phenomenon which actually had deep theological implications. The cultural phenomenon was iconoclasm; that is, the belief that images of Christ and of the saints—and particularly the veneration of these images—were not appropriate. The iconoclasts wanted to destroy icons. For over a hundred years, the Church struggled with emperors and patriarchs who wanted to destroy icons while predominantly the monastics (and some others) championed their continued veneration. Keep in mind that iconoclasm was the innovation here. Christians had been making and venerating icons from the beginning. But now certain cultural factors made iconoclasm intellectually fashionable (perhaps the influence of Islam, but scholars do not know).

A Little Theology

While iconoclasm was a cultural phenomenon, the impulse to destroy icons is not merely a matter of cultural preference, it is rooted in a profound misunderstanding of the nature of the Incarnation of Christ, the nature of worship, and role of matter in our salvation.

As the Church has tried to articulate its understanding of the Incarnation, the two extremes the Church has tried to avoid have been an overemphasis on either Christ’s humanity or his divinity. Iconoclasm comes from an overemphasis on Christ’s divinity, or rather a denial of His full humanity. True, no one can paint the image of God, for “no one has seen God at any time.” However, in as much as God became Man, the human image of God can be depicted. And in as much as one refuses to accept that images of Christ can be depicted, the Saints who defended icons argued, one refuses to accept that Christ became fully human--for every human being has an image that can be depicted.

The second error of the iconoclasts was that they did not distinguish between the worship that belongs to God alone and the veneration (the relative honoring) of holy people or holy things. Even under the Old Covenant, God was honored and worshiped by the veneration of holy things, particularly the Temple. One was to offer sacrifice only at the Temple, not “under every green tree.” Furthermore, failure to venerate the Ark of the Covenant resulted in the death of Uzzah, and refusal to venerate the priesthood of Aaron resulted in the death of Korah and his followers in the desert. God is worshiped truly when we venerate those whom God has chosen and who are full of His Grace. And God is worshiped truly when we venerate the things that God has established as means for our salvation. When we venerate icons, the Council declared, the honor is not given to the wood and paint, but to the One whose image the wood and paint depicts.

Related to this matter of veneration, the third error of the iconoclasts was that they misunderstood the role of matter in the salvation of the soul. And even the use of the word “soul” is misleading, for today we live in an iconoclast Christian culture that separates soul from body. There are no (or very few) icons on the walls of most contemporary Christian churches. This iconoclasm is connected to the belief that the soul is only the immaterial part of a human being. Today many Christians mistakenly believe that only the immaterial part of the human being is being saved, and that the body doesn’t really matter: they think the body is just an earth-suit, not a real part of me.

This de-materialization of the human being has been, in my opinion, the fiercest heresy at work in the Christian world for the past hundred years or so. It has been at work in the Church off and on throughout history under various guises: gnosticism, iconoclasm, and today as materialism. That is, as materialists, many Christians affirm a spiritual reality which cannot be directly seen or measured, but is accepted by faith; and they affirm a material reality that can be seen and measured by science. And these two realms are separate. The reasoning behind the modern Christian’s rejection of icons, therefore, goes something like this: if the Holy Spirit is saving only the immaterial part of me, then matter must not be very important and any material means by which the Church has worshiped God must therefore be a distraction and a hindrance from “true” immaterial worship.

However, the Fathers of the seventh Ecumenical Council declared that matter is indeed essential to our salvation because God also became matter in the Incarnation (without ceasing to be immaterial—it’s a mystery). A human being is both material and spiritual. Both are necessary to be fully human, which is why the Church teaches the bodily resurrection of all mankind on the Last Day. Real matter brought about our salvation: the real wood of the Cross, the real blood of a Palestinian Jew, the real tomb, and the real bodily Resurrection of the God-Man Jesus Christ vouchsafing the resurrection of all. Consequently, real matter continues to bring about our salvation, real matter can bear the Grace of the Holy Spirit, and how I relate to the material things that Christ in the Church has provided for my salvation influences to a large extent my experience of salvation.

On the Sunday of Orthodoxy, this is the teaching that we celebrate, that we hold up as true, that we declare is orthodox: matter matters, God is honoured when we venerate holy people and holy things, and the depiction of the image of Christ is not only possible, but it is necessary because of the Incarnation. This is the teaching of the seventh Ecumenical Council. This is the teaching of the Orthodox Church. May God grant that we Orthodox Christians find Grace, even in this, always to practice what we preach.

Thursday, March 01, 2012


Be at peace with your soul and heaven and earth will be at peace with you.
St. Issak the Syrian