Thursday, December 30, 2010

The baptizing Christ

Notes on chapter three of Orthodox Spirituality: An Outline of the Orthodox Ascetical and Mystical Tradition, "The Baptizing Christ".

  1. Jesus and the Water of Life. "Water has become the sign of salvation" (Isa 55:1; John 3:5; John 7:37-18; Matt 28:19). "Eastern Fathers, chiefly St Ignatius of Antioch, teach that the contact of our Lord's body with the water of the Jordan is the principle of the sanctifying action of water in the holy mystery of Baptism." The feast of the Baptism of Jesus (Epiphany or Theophany) has a special emphasis in the Orthodox Church. It is more important than Christmas, "which she regards as a comparatively private event". On that day they bless water for the faithful to drink. Water is associated with the mysteries of light and illumination, so that Epiphany is also called the Feast of Lights. Light is such an important aspect of Orthodox theology that "it could rightly be said that Orthodox mysticism is a 'Light-mysticism.'"
  2. Baptismal grace. "Baptismal grace is the 'first grace', i.e., the grace that communicates to man life in Christ." It continues throughout life. It can be lost and recovered. The Holy Spirit is given in baptism, though this must be distinguished from the Pentecostal grace of chrism, which will be discussed later. "Our Lord invisibly grants [baptismal] grace to souls of good will who, consciously or even unconsciously, are longing for the Water of Life. This has been called 'baptism of desire'." There is also a "baptism of blood" for unbaptized martyrs. The "baptism of fire" (Luke 3:16-17) is thought by some of the Fathers to be the "ultimate purification of souls and the final destruction of sin." Three fundamental elements in the Orthodox rite of Baptism:
    • Liberation from the yoke of Satan, or Christ forgiving and healing
    • The creation of the new man, or Christ conforming to Himself, the patter and archetype
    • Incorporation into Christ
    In each of these there is an ascetical (human effort) and mystical (divine gift) aspect.
  3. The forgiving and healing Christ. Repentance, baptism, and absolution are inseparable. First, the soul must be freed from the power of Satan, which is done in the rite of exorcism within the baptismal rite. This exorcism can be renewed throughout life. Types of Penance:
    • Inner penance, "being pricked in the heart"
    • Public penance, prescribed for idolatry, murder, and adultery, but seldom used now
    • Private penance (confession and absolution)
    Penance is a "new baptism". The priest hearing a confession is not a judge but a witness, and the absolution is imperative, not declarative. "Whatever form Penance may take it must always be a breaking of the heart at the feet of Christ." Tears may even be a form of baptism. Some Fathers even believe that sins committed after water baptism may not be forgiven without the baptism of tears. [Comments: This is far too close to justification by works for me. Granted, the tears are probably seen as granted by God, but they don't always come.] Monastic profession contains a penitential element and is considered a second baptism. The rite of second marriage is also penitential. [Comments: The details of the rite as related by Gillet are unduly harsh.] "The mystery of Unction, in the Orthodox Church, is a joint mystery of bodily healing and of remission of sins" (James 5:14-15).
  4. The re-creating Christ. "Baptismal grace takes away original sin, and penitential grace, the extension of Baptism, blots out actual sin. But the baptizing Christ performs yet another work. He restores the primitive order abolished by sin, and creates a new man." Jesus as the New Adam returns us to the "state of integrity" possessed by the first Adam. This is the true "state of nature". This re-creation is expressed with the "oil of catechumens" applied before baptism as a preparation for it. It differs from Chrismation, which comes later and communicates Pentecostal grace. The restoration of the state of nature, or better yet the nature of Jesus, is the grounds for asceticism. "According to Origen, asceticism is to make the nous [the rational mind, or heart] dominant over the whole man: the entire soul must become nous." Asceticism is "the good fight" against the main sins of gastrimargia (gluttony), porneia (impurity), phylargyria (covetousness), kenodoxia (vainglory), lupe (melancholy or acedia), katalalia (slander), orge and oxycholia (irascibility), pikria (bitterness). This are reducible to "the three fundamental lusts - the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, pride of life [1 John 2:16] ... which are but various aspects of one egoism: the self-assertion of the separated." There are four main ascetical methods for the defeat of these sins:
    • The custody of the heart, i.e., "strict and permanent control of the imagination"
    • Continence. Sexual activity is good, provided it is "directed toward the multiplication of the children of God and controlled by the Logos". As a result of human weakness, however, this is rarely the reality. Therefore, the Orthodox Church considers "the way of continence as in practice a safer means to perfection ... [and proclaims] the superiority of virginity and celibacy over marriage", though she does, like Jesus, bless marriages. [Comments: I'm far too Protestant to accept this.]
    • Fasting and alms-giving. The Orthodox Church has strict rules for fasting, but, in order to heed Isaiah's warning in Isa 58:6-7, it does not separate fasting from alms-giving.
    "The whole asceticism of the Orthodox Church may be said to be expressed in the prayer of St Ephrem which is recited in all the Lenten services: 'O Lord and Master of my life, grant me not a spirit of slothfulness, of discouragement, of lust of power, of vain babbling. But vouchsafe unto Thy servant the spirit of continence, of meekness, of patience and of love. Yea, Lord and King, grant that I may perceive my own transgressions and judge not my brother.'"
  5. Our incorporation into Christ. "Christian life is more than Christocentrism: it is Christification." We are in Christ, made members of his mystical body. Mystical in this case means "secret" or "invisible", not symbolic. "Chrysostom insists: the baptized Christian is not only born of God, but has put on Christ; and this not only morally, through charity, but in reality. The Incarnation (ensarkosis) has rendered our incorporation into Christ and our divinization (theosis) possible." As St Gregory Nazianzen said, "What has not been assumed has not been healed."
  6. The spring of the soul. The Christian life is not "the full summer of spiritual life. It is the transition from the winter of sin to the spring of the redeemed existence. It is the morning dawn, not the splendour of noon. ... These times of Baptism, of Penance, of conversion, of healing and forgiveness, are the blessed times of the first meeting, or of a new meeting, with the Lord Jesus."

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The essentials of Orthodox spirituality

Notes on chapter two of Orthodox Spirituality: An Outline of the Orthodox Ascetical and Mystical Tradition. The essentials of Orthodox spirituality:

  1. Aim and means of Christian life. "The aim of man's life is union (henosis) with God and deification (theosis)." Deification is a sharing in the divine life (2 Peter 1:4) which causes man to participate in the love that flows within the Trinity. This union is the only way which humans can love God and neighbor perfectly. It is accomplished through the Mediator, Jesus Christ, and through the operation of the Spirit. It is a product of the action of God and not the natural effects obtained by human discipline. "The basis of the spiritual life is not psychological, but ontological."
  2. Divine grace and human will. "The incorporation of man into Christ and his union with God require the co-operation of two unequal, but equally necessary forces: divine grace and human will. Will - and not intellect or feeling - is the chief human instrument of the union with God. ... But our weak human will remains powerless if it is not anticipated and upheld by the grace of God." Orthodoxy has a synergistic view. They did not face Pelagianism (as in the West) and so do not speak the language that arose out of that controversy. Their fight was against an "oriental fatalist gnosis."
  3. Asceticism and Mysticism. "The 'ascetical life' is a life in which 'acquired' virtues, i.e., virtues resulting from a personal effort, only accompanied by that general grace which God grants to every good will, prevail. The 'mystical life' is a life in which the gifts of the Holy Spirit are predominant over human efforts, and in which 'infused' virtues are predominant over 'acquired' ones; the soul has become more passive than active." These are not mutually exclusive lives, though one may be predominant in a particular individual. "Graces of the mystical order are not necessary to salvation", but many of the Greek fathers believed that they are offered to all souls of good will.
  4. Prayer and Contemplation. "Prayer is a necessary instrument of salvation." Cassian distinguishes three ascending degrees of prayer:
    • Supplication for oneself
    • Intercession for others
    • Thanksgiving or praise
    Contemplation is not necessary to salvation, but, like mysticism, is open to all. Contemplation is not "high intellectual speculations or extraordinary insight". It begins with the "prayer of simplicity" or "prayer of simple regard", which consists in "placing yourself in the presence of God and maintaining yourself in His presence for a certain time, in an interior silence which is as complete as possible, while you concentrate upon the divine Object, reduce to unity the multiplicity of your thought and feelings, and endeavor to 'keep yourself quiet' without words or arguments." A contemplative life is one that opens itself up regularly to these acts of contemplation. Contemplation can be acquired by personal effort (as the ascetical life) or it can be infused by divine grace (as the mystical life). In the West, St Theresa distinguished four states of contemplative prayer:
    • The prayer of quiet, silent concentration of the soul on God, which however does not exclude distractions
    • Full union, in which there are no longer distractions, and which is accompanied by a feeling of "ligature of the powers" of the soul
    • Ecstatic union, in which the soul "goes out of itself"
    • Transforming union, or spiritual marriage
    The Greek fathers do not have such a strict classification, but it does parallel their thought. The first two stages are degrees of hesychia and are "the normal end of any habitual and loving prayer-life", though, again, love is the perfection of the Christian life, not contemplation.
  5. The Holy Mysteries, i.e., (in Western terms) the sacraments. The Orthodox church believes "the sacraments are not mere symbols of divine things, but that the gift of a spiritual reality is attached to the sign perceptible by the senses." They are reluctant to give exact definitions of the mysteries, e.g., the eucharistic presence. "The Orthodox Church wants a mystery to remain a 'mystery', and not to become a theorem, or a juridical institution." They agree with the scholastic axiom that "God is not bound to the sacraments" and do not assert that those who are outside the Orthodox church are deprived of grace.
  6. The Communion of Saints. "The worship of the saints is not latreia, the adoration due to God, but douleia, service or sebasmos, veneration." In addition to the apostles, the martyrs, and the other saints, the Orthodox church also venerates OT saints and the angels. The Greek fathers particularly emphasized guardian angels. "At the summit of the celestial hierarchy is the Theotokos, the blessed Virgin Mary." The Council of Ephesus (431) was key here. The most Orthodox form of piety toward Mary is based on the Gospel texts themselves, e.g., Luke 1:28, 38; John 2:3, 5; Luke 11:27-28; John 19:26-27. Ikons occupy an important place in prayer. They are designed not as a resemblance of the subject but as a stylized symbol or hieroglyph. "While the likeness is for the West a means of evocation and teaching, the Eastern ikon is a means of communion."
  7. The stages of the spiritual life. The western distinction between the three stages of the spiritual life (purgative, illuminative, and unitive) has correlations in the Orthodox church. More authoritative, however, is the view that the three holy mysteries - Baptism, Chrisma, and Eucharist - represent the three stages in the way that leads to God. All the sacraments, sacramentals, prayers, and the liturgy itself are focused on these three mysteries. This does not mean that the spiritual life is "merely ritual life". On the contrary, these mysteries are signs of invisible graces, viz, Baptismal grace, Pentecostal grace, and Paschal grace. It is the realities behind the outward signs that are the essential thing.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The historical development of Orthodox spirituality

I'm currently reading Orthodox Spirituality: An Outline of the Orthodox Ascetical and Mystical Tradition by "A Monk of the Eastern Church". I thought I would post notes on the book here, in case anyone else is interested.

Six elements in the development of Orthodox spirituality:

  1. The Scriptural element. Certain books have been particularly influential:
    • The Psalms, through their use in both public worship and monastic life.
    • The synoptic Gospels.
    • The letters of Paul, especially as interpreted by St John Chrysostom.
    • The Gospel of John is sometimes thought to have been particularly influential, but this is doubtful.
    Traditions of scriptural interpretation include both the literal and historicist school of Antioch and the allegorical and speculative school of Alexandria. In addition to this there is the tradition of an evangelical spirituality, which stresses the values of the Gospel, on following Christ, and caring for the poor. Examples include St John Chrysostom, the rules of St Basil, St Theodore the Studite, St Nicholas, St John the Almsgiver. It also has a long tradition in Russia.
  2. The "Primitive Christian" element, i.e., the first three centuries before the conciliar and dogmatic fourth century. Martyrdom is central here. Asceticism also developed in this time as a preparation, or in some cases a substitute, for martyrdom. It is also characterized by a belief in the imminent Parousia.
  3. The Intellectual element. This is the Alexandrian school of speculative spirituality. Its main features are:
    • Dualistic view of matter and spirit
    • Leaning towards dialectic
    • Scriptural allegorism
    • Apophatic theology
    The dogmatic formulations of this era were also brought to bear on the spiritual life, e.g., in Maximus the Confessor's interpretations of pseudo-Dionysius. Orthodox contemplative spirituality was indeed influenced by Platonism/neo-Platonism. On the other hand, in ethics and asceticism, Orthodoxy has also been influenced by Aristotelianism and Stoicism. There is also present a "'sophianic' attitude which might defined as an acute perception of, and communion with, the spiritual beauty of the world. ... This spiritual-aesthetic element is very strong in Orthodoxy."
  4. The Early Monastic Element, i.e., the monasticism of the desert fathers. Desert monasticism differs from Benedictine or Basilian monasticism in several ways:
    • Separation from the world is rigorous. The only "work for the world" is prayer.
    • Life is directed toward contemplation and asceticism.
    • Individual forms of monastic life prevail, though there are instances of communal life.
    • Emphasis on fighting against the powers of evil. Demonology owes a great deal to the desert fathers.
    • Prayers of a few words, e.g., the Jesus prayer, is a favored method.
    • Apatheia was the supreme ideal. It is the "state of a soul in which love towards God and men is so ruling and burning as to leave no room for human (self-centred) passions." It is not apathy or Stoic impassibility.
    Desert monasticism still exercises an influence on Orthodoxy today. "An Orthodox can hardly conceive of salvation without a certain severance from the world, without a complete self-denial."
  5. The Liturgical element. General characteristics of Orthodox liturgy:
    • Dispenses both Word and sacrament
    • Elaborate, intended to convey spiritual truth and beauty
    • Public worship predominates over private devotions
    • Church calendar recollects the life of Jesus
    The liturgical practices are to some degree influenced by both the Hellenistic mystery cults and the Byzantine court, in addition to Scripture. Beyond these characteristics, the liturgy itself exercises influence over theology, most notably in the work of Nicholas Cabasilas (c 1371). The veneration of icons, relics, the saints, and the Virgin Mary are also essential aspects of Orthodox spirituality.
  6. The contemplative element, i.e., the "hesychast" tradition. Goes back to St Symeon the New Theologian and Nicetas Stethatos. Associated with Mt Athos and, later, with the theology of St Gregory Palamas, though it can be understood apart from Palamas' disputed theology. Four characteristics of the hesychast method:
    • The striving toward a state of total rest and quiet.
    • The repetition of the Jesus Prayer.
    • Practices designed to help the concentration of the mind, e.g., physical immobility, breathing exercises, fixation of the eyes on the heart or stomach
    • The feeling of an inner warmth and physical perception of a "divine light" or "light of Tabor"
    Points two and three are ways to achieve the state of total rest so that culmination of point four can occur. The hesychasts, however, are not offering an infallible technique. It is also important to place this tradition in its proper position. It "may be compared with the great Spanish school of mystics in the Latin church of the 16th century" in its attempt to make spirituality more practical and accessible. It does not surpass or supercede the spiritual traditions that preceded it.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Cut military spending, strengthen diplomacy and the economy

In his latest column, Nick Kristof says we must bust the taboo against cutting military and security spending. He cites some facts (the following points are direct quotes):
  • The United States spends nearly as much on military power as every other country in the world combined, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. It says that we spend more than six times as much as the country with the next highest budget, China.
  • The United States maintains troops at more than 560 bases and other sites abroad, many of them a legacy of a world war that ended 65 years ago. Do we fear that if we pull our bases from Germany, Russia might invade?
  • The intelligence community is so vast that more people have “top secret” clearance than live in Washington, D.C.
  • The U.S. will spend more on the war in Afghanistan this year, adjusting for inflation, than we spent on the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Civil War and the Spanish-American War combined.
He goes on to say that we need a strong military, but that it must be balanced with strong diplomacy. The problem is that our military budget is wildly out of proportion to our diplomatic budget. In fact, House Republicans want to cut the State Department budget further.

The world and the problems it faces are changing. Traditional military solutions, as we have seen in our very recent history, are not always effective; rather, they sometimes worsen the problem. There are several proven ways of "winning hearts and minds" that have nothing to do with the DoD budget. (Kristof mentions several of these, and not for the first time.)

In a New Republic article, Paul Kennedy writes that American power is and has been abnormally huge and that is must, like every other great power, decline to a more normal size. He doesn't deny that America will remain enormously powerful, but that the level of power we wield today cannot be sustained. It will take on more normal proportions and we must prepare ourselves for this. Citing Joseph Nye, he says that American power is like a stool of three legs: soft power, economic power, and military power. Soft power (the ability to persuade other nations to do what we want) is clearly waning. Economic power has taken a serious blow. Military power is the only leg that remains strong. But, like Kristof, Kennedy says that military power is not an all-purpose cure.

In light of all of this it seems to me (and my opinion plus a dollar will buy you a cup of coffee) that we should cut military spending and direct it toward strengthening those other two legs, especially since it is increasingly clear that it is an ineffective way of solving our problems.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Pray for peace.

It's Christmas time - a time when Christians hear the angels proclaim peace on earth and our thoughts turn to the Holy Land. It is fitting then to remember and pray about the plight of Christians in the Middle East. Here is a story about Iraqi Christians (like the one in the image above) fleeing in increasing numbers from their homeland. Here is a story about the institutionalized prejudice face by Coptic Christians in Egypt.

But we must neither limit our prayers to persecuted Christians nor direct our anger at their persecutors. That would be to ignore the command of Jesus to love our neighbors and pray for those who persecute you. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem, yes, but pray also for the peace of the whole world.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A God who turns the other cheek

In Patience with God Tomas Halik tells of a man who sent him a manuscript whose purpose was to disprove the existence of God. After advancing the usual arguments it suddenly turned personal as the writer expressed his rage at God for allowing the death of his granddaughter from cancer. It ended with the line: "You're a tyrant with bloody claws. I curse you!"

With his litanies of atheist arguments, was the man trying to take revenge on God for the loss he had suffered? Did he really want to trample God into nonexistence? Or had the vacuum left by the God whose nonexistence he had so intricately proved been immediately filled by the "tyrant with bloody claws," the very God he needed on whom to vent his rage, because yelling into a total void is even more wretched?

Am I to write to him that the "tyrant with bloody claws" really does not exist, that the arguments with which he'd just filled so many sheets of paper were all true as regards that monster? A god like that truly does not exist - we are in total agreement on that score! But what is his prospect now? Will it help him to think that the death of his granddaughter was just an "accident," an absurdity without any meaning at all? Will it help him to be advised not to seek any deeper meaning in her death, to simply content himself with the medical explanation of the malignant process that cause the death of such and such a number of people according to statistics, and simply suppress the unanswerable question: "Why me of all people?" "Why her of all people?" Did it come as a relief for him to find in God a culprit into whose face he could yell all his pain because he could find no other culprit? And even if he found one - a doctor who had diagnosed the condition too late, or the mother who failed to seek medical advice in time - could he use the same tone with impunity when speaking to them?

Is it part of God's service to humanity that he "turns the other cheek," that he puts up with a cry that is even harsher than Job's indictment - or had God really hidden his face from this atheist, so that he wrestled with only a projection of his own horror and pain?

Or had the man never in fact encountered the Gospel, so that his religious world was actually the world of ancient tragedy, where all events in the world of humans are directly controlled by gods, and implacable Fate rules over gods and man alike? A Promethean revolt against the gods may have made some sense there. But the God of the Bible is not a cold-blooded director of our destinies, hidden somewhere behind the scenes of the historical stage. He personally entered the history of our misfortune and drained the cup of our pain to its dregs; He knows all too well the weight of our crosses! Why revile a God who does not intervene in our lives like a deus ex machina in the dramas of antiquity, a God to whom we have access solely through the one who took upon himself the fate of a servant, "who came in human likeness," who "was accustomed to suffering"? After all, Christianity does not offer us a God who is to provide us with a life without adversity or who will immediately provide satisfactory answers to all the painful questions that adversity raises in our hearts, nor does it promise days that will not be followed by night. All He assures us is that, in those profoundest nights, He is with us, so that this assurance itself would give the strength not only to bear their darkness and burden, but also to help others to bear it, particularly those who have not heard or accepted His assurance.
He goes on to say that it is at times like these that we should simply "mourn with those that mourn", not offer contrived arguments. He concludes:
I still haven't replied to his letter, and I'm not sure whether it is due to cowardice, laziness, weakness, and the irresoluteness of my own faith and theology, or whether I judged correctly that any words in this phase could only pour more oil on the flames and salt in the wound. If I didn't live so far away, I expect I would have gone to see him and gripped his hand in mine. "Where was God when your granddaughter was dying? I don't know," I'd tell him truthfully. "But at this moment, I'd like you to feel Him in the hand gripping yours."

Monday, December 20, 2010

What have you learned?

Andy and I have been arguing for years - though it does seem like things have settled down recently. I don't know if that is because we've given up on each other or we've learned how to tolerate our differences.

At first, I merely wanted to win, that is, force him, by the power of my arguments, into agreement with me. Eventually, though, I started to actually listen to him. I attempted to see the world through his eyes. Once I did that I quit seeing his beliefs and questions as threats to be defeated. In fact, I not only came to question some facile assumptions - I actually changed in important ways.

Your ability to answer the following question will determine whether you and your "opponent" are simply arguing from entrenched positions or having a productive discussion: What have you learned from her or him?

These thoughts were inspired, in part, by the book I'm reading now, Patience with God by Tomas Halik.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

This mountain will be thrown into the sea.

Tomas Halik, in Patience with God, says that the "mountain" of Mark 11:23 (which will be thrown into the sea, if we believe) is actually the Temple Mount. I was fascinated by this interpretation, which sounded very N.T. Wright-ish. Sure enough, Wright says the same thing in Mark for Everyone. I'm dependent upon him for the following.

It's important to keep the flow of the story in mind. First, Jesus curses the fig tree, which seems odd since it's not the season for figs. This is a signal that this is a dramatic or enacted parable, not an outburst of anger from a hungry man. We understand the point of the parable in the next event, the Temple cleansing.

The Temple cleansing is not simply about religious commercialism - it is a condemnation of the Temple itself. As Wright says, "The Temple has always been an ambiguous thing." Israel knew that it could not be the full and final dwelling place of God. Isaiah and Jeremiah made it clear that Israel would be blessed through the Temple, but that if they used it as a cover for unjust or immoral behavior they and the Temple would fall under judgment. By bringing the sacrificial system to a grinding halt (even for a few minutes) Jesus was acting out God's judgment on the Temple system as a whole.

The next day they passed by the cursed fig tree, which had withered. What does this tell us about the Temple? Just as Jesus had cursed the fig tree and it withered, so would his curse against the Temple bring it to an end. It is at this point that he says:
"Have faith in God. Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, 'Be taken up and thrown into the sea', and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you. So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses."
Judging by the context, the mountain Jesus is referring to is the Temple Mount. This is not a promise that if you pray in faith God will "move your mountains". This is about the passing away of the Temple system and the coming of the kingdom of God in the ministry of Jesus. Read in this way, Jesus' statement reminds me forcefully of the words of the Lord's Prayer: "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." In saying these words we are joining with Jesus in prayer for the coming of God's kingdom and, by implication, the casting down of all competing kingdoms. Since this is prayer according to the will of God we are assured that it will come to pass. But note that this is not to be prayed in a spirit of anger, but with humility and the acknowledgment of our own sins (v. 25). Again, we see the same model in the Lord's Prayer.

In context, then, this exhortation to prayer is not a way to get God to fix our problems (because, if nothing else, experience teaches us that God does not always do that), but a participation in the work of Jesus. As Jesus predicted, the Temple system passed away. Yet, other systems oppose themselves to the kingdom of God in our day. We have this promise that they, too, will fall.

Friday, December 10, 2010

War's a banker, flesh his gold

While Philip Vellacott's translation of Aeschylus' "Agamemnon" is, by his own admission, not very literal, it is powerful. Having just described the misery of Menelaus after losing Helen, the Chorus of Elders tells of the sorrow - and anger - of the Argive soldiers' families:
Such are the searching sorrows
This royal palace knows,
While through the streets of Argos
Grief yet more grievous grows,
With all our manhood gathered
So far from earth of Hellas;
As in each home unfathered,
Each widowed bed, the whetted
Sword of despair assails
Hearts where all hope has withered
And angry hate prevails.
They sent forth men to battle,
But no such men return;
And home, to claim their welcome,
Come ashes in an urn.

For War’s a banker, flesh his gold.
There by the furnace of Troy’s field,
Where thrust meets thrust, he sits to hold
His scale, and watch the spear-point sway;
And back to waiting homes he sends
Slag from the ore, a little dust
To drain hot tears from hearts of friends;
Good measure, safely stored and sealed
In a convenient jar – the just
Price for the man they sent away.
They praise him through their tears, and say,
"He was a solder!" or, "He died
Nobly, with death on every side!"
And fierce resentment mutters low,
"Yes – for another’s wife!" And so
From grief springs gall, which fear must hide
Let kings and their revenges go!
But under Ilion’s wall the dead,
Heirs of her earth, lie chambered deep;
While she, whose living blood they shed,
Covers her conquerors in sleep.

A nation’s voice, enforced with anger,
Strikes deadly as a public curse.
I wait for word of hidden danger,
And fear lest bad give place to worse.
God marks that man with watchful eyes
Who counts his killed by companies;
And when his luck, his proud success,
Forgets the law of righteousness,
Then the dark Furies launch at length
A counter-blow to crush his strength
And cloud his brightness, till the dim
Pit of oblivion swallows him.
In fame unmeasured, praise too high,
Lies danger: God’s sharp lightnings fly
To stagger mountains. Then, I choose
Wealth that invites no rankling hate;
Neither to lay towns desolate,
Nor wear the chains of those who lose
Freedom and life to war and Fate.
Aeschylus, trans. Philip Vellacott, The Oresteian Trilogy, Penguin: 1964, p. 58-59.

The voice of the Lord speaks

I was looking through some old posts from my various defunct blogs and found this from five years ago. I am not a poet, but I'm at least not embarrassed by this attempt.

Inspired by Psalm 29

The voice of the Lord speaks:
   Leviathan plays in the sea,
   The sons of God shout for joy,
   Man awakes.

The voice of the Lord speaks:
   Stars make obeisance,
   Oaks dance like dervishes,
   Waves clap their hands.

The voice of the Lord speaks:
   The snake crawls on his belly,
   The cherubim draws his sword,
   Man dies.

The voice of the Lord speaks:
   Children promised without number,
   A bush burns, unconsumed,
   The waters open like gates.

The voice of the Lord speaks:
   His handmaiden sings,
   An Infant is laid in a manger,
   God cries.

The voice of the Lord speaks:
   A mother’s heart is pierced,
   “Father, into Your hands I commend my spirit.”
   God dies.

The voice of the Lord speaks:
   The strong man is cast down,
   Angels speak to startled women,
   Man lives.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Mister Rogers, the saint

Just watch this interview with Fred Rogers:

Isn't it wonderful how he starts asking Charlie Rose questions, with what appears to be such genuine concern? It's as if we're watching a private counseling session rather than an interview. (He was a ordained Presbyterian minister, after all.) I'll even admit to getting a little choked up as I watched it.

Brief thoughts on self-denial

We believe that God created the universe not out of any internal necessity but out of pure self-giving love. It was creation for the benefit of others.

God, not being subject to sinful passions, can fully and freely love in this manner. Humans, on the other hand, being subject to sinful passions, must first engage in self-denial before any self-giving is possible.

Here we must follow Jesus. The culmination of his life was the abnegation of his own will in his gift of himself for others. It was self-denial oriented towards love. Take up your cross and follow him.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Christmas wars are a failure of hospitality

It's almost Christmas, and that means it's time to start griping about people saying "Happy Holidays". Right?

It seems to me that the Christmas wars are primarily a failure of hospitality on the part of those Christians engaged in them. Hospitality is a prominent theme of the Bible. "You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt" (Exodus 22:21, NRSV). "Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it" (Hebrews 13:2, NRSV). We are commanded to be hospitable, especially to those who are not like us.

In a country with a variety of religions, ethnicities, and cultural backgrounds the practice of hospitality takes on a new importance. Our neglect of it has led to our annual conflict - conflict at the time of year when we remember the song of the angels proclaiming peace on earth. Hospitality, among other things, mean making room for those who are "other", welcoming them, even learning from them. A hospitable person will not be offended by others saying "Happy Holidays" in recognition that, for example, not all of their customers are Christians. A hospitable person will not demand that their ways dominate to the exclusion of others.

This becomes especially ironic when we consider that the Christmas story turns on the issue of hospitality. Mary and Joseph could find no room at the "inn". This could be, in the traditional telling, because the innkeeper was a nasty man who only grudgingly allowed the pregnant woman to stay in the barn. There is an alternate version, though, that portrays the "innkeeper" as a relative of Joseph who did what he could to give them a place to stay, possibly in the family quarters since there was no room in the guest room/"inn". (For more information see here and here. It looks like Kenneth Bailey, a respected scholar, is behind this retelling.)

However you take it, hospitality is an important Christmas theme. It is all the more urgent, then, to be hospitable at Christmas. This means more than opening your home to your family ("do not even the gentiles do the same?"). It means making room for those who are not like us. If hospitality in a multicultural society demands that we modify our holiday greetings then it seems like a small price to pay.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Angelus: A Christ-Centered Marian Prayer

I have heard people defend Marian prayers on the grounds that Mary is only revered because of her relationship to Christ, that is, strictly in her role as Mother of God. Nevertheless, I've never been comfortable with Marian devotion, for all the usual reasons - not the least of which is that we have no promise she (or any of the saints) hear us.

I have come to see that the Angelus, on the other hand, can be read in a Christ-centered way. Here is the text:
V. The angel of the Lord declared unto Mary.
R. And she conceived by the power of Holy Spirit.

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

V. Behold the handmaid of the Lord.
R. Be it done unto me according to your Word.

Hail Mary...

V. And the Word was made flesh.
R. And dwelt among us.

Hail Mary...

V. Pray for us, O Holy Mother of God.
R. That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

Let us pray: Pour forth, we beseech thee, O Lord, Your grace into our hearts, that we to whom the incarnation of Christ Thy son was made known by the message of an angel, may by His Passion and Cross be brought to the glory of His resurrection; through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.
The context of the prayer is the remembrance of the Incarnation. We remember (in the versicle and response) and then we respond by asking Mary to pray for us that we may receive the word of God as faithfully as her. Read in this way, the Hail Marys are not prayers to an alternate, more compassionate mediator, but requests to an (the?) exemplar of faithful response to God to pray for us that we may also hear and treasure the words of God.

The lack of a promise that Mary hears our prayers remains as a real problem. There are plenty of standard answers given in any number of Catholic apologetics books or websites. One way of framing this, however, comes from Elizabeth Johnson:
Interpreting invocation of the saints within the companionship model of the communion of saints allows a measure of response to the criticisms rightly levied against its practice in the patronage model. To Reformation commitment that Christ not be overshadowed: the saints are not petitioned as intermediaries with a judgmental Christ but addressed as codisciples in a small act that strengthens bonds of fellowship in grace across the generations. To feminist passion for relationships of mutuality: rather than casting one into the dependent, subordinate position of petitioner typical of patriarchal elitism, invocation activates mutual regard and provides a vehicle for leaning on and being supported by the saving solidarity among all the friends of God and prophets. To postmodern spiritual agnosticism [with its doubts about the specifics of the “afterlife” and the relationship between the living and the dead]: read as symbolic rather than literal address, calling the other by name with a request for prayer is a concrete act by which we join our lives with the prayer of all who have gone before us in common yearning for God. Within the companionship model, invocation of any saint, in Rahner’s luminous words, “is always the invocation of all the saints, i.e., an act by which we take refuge in faith in the all-enfolding community of all the redeemed.” We dive into the whole company of saints through a single categorical deed.
The Angelus can be a way of imaginatively placing yourself in first century Palestine, witnessing the Annunciation and, later, the Visitation, and asking the Blessed Virgin Mary to pray for you. In this way it is a form of imaginative prayer, not a direct address to Mary, which sidesteps the problem of whether she actually hears our prayers. It is by framing it in this way that I've tentatively begun incorporating it into my prayers. Am I merely making arguments for a practice I already want to accept? Maybe, but you do it too.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Follow-up on healing and acceptance

Julie Clawson has an excellent post related to what I was saying a few days ago in "The suffering God accepts you". She speaks from experience, having been born missing her left arm below the elbow. Here is an excerpt:
I have church friends (and yes, family members) who let me know that they have been praying for years that God would grow my arm. According to their view, if I only had the faith of a mustard seed then some sort of miraculous arm sprouting would occur. I've learned to take such responses in stride, knowing that their rejection of who I am says more about their insecurities than it says about me.


Few people would deny that it is hurtful to tell a woman she must become a man or to tell a black man he must become white in order to be a full member of the body and experience wholeness. But some people still assume that people who are differently-abled need to become like someone else in order to be whole.

Our faith celebrates the idea of the word becoming flesh and dwelling among us, yet we reject physical bodies that seem different. It is one thing to say that our condition as human beings is broken. It's another thing to assert that some people are more broken simply because they have only one arm, or use a wheelchair, or have different mental processes. We are all the broken body of Christ struggling to be in communion with God and each other.
Please, read the whole thing.

About Me

I'm Rachel's husband and Darcy's daddy. I'm a Hoosier, an accountant, and an Episcopalian. Politically, I'm a progressive who believes in the preferential option for the poor. I use the blog as a sort of journal - to interact with my reading and sketch out ideas.