Stoking coals

This essay by Scott Atran at Aeon was very interesting. I commend it, though I also question its theory of available options (since it seems limited, secular).

This blog is named after the communal hearth of a Greek polis, the place that kept the home fire burning for everyone, linking each home in the city together – after all, every fire came from it. It was a kind of sacrament, an action that linked the souls of the citizens. And the purpose of the blog is largely to explore those themes in our families – what links us? What is community? How can we contribute to it, enjoy it without destroying it, and pass it on to our children? Is it something distinct from “us and our children” – part of the target of the gospel, which also includes “all those who are afar off”.

Atran’s article follows along with a good bit of my trauma reading, which is in many ways occupied with “community” – how can the traumatized re-enter community? How can communities accept them in healthy ways? When the traumatized form trauma-selected communities, are these healthy? (I was passed by a “AZ COMBAT VETS” motorcycle gang/group member on my way home from the hospital this morning, and it made me wonder about this. Too, the closely-knit “special-needs-family” community has both good and bad things…)

This piece was very much worth reading, too, as it uniquely weaves together battlefield trauma, just war, and the Liturgy…

Following the above, the Church figures very high in my thinking about community. The idea of trauma as a “dark liturgy” in the Emmaus piece is very intriguing – a fully-embodied experience with a lie/evil at its core. That seems to be a pretty all-encompassing definition of trauma. And it points to the only healthy solution – true liturgy – true communion – comes only in the offering-up on behalf of all and for all. And if we wish to be like Christ, to take his Cross up and follow him, we also must be willing to lay down our life for our friends.

This all seems nice until we, with the lawyer, receive the answer to the question “and who is my friend?”.

In the piercing words of St Silouan, “My brother is my life.”

So let us stir one another up to love and good works, stoking the coals of love into flame.

In Christ,

Mark

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Thanksgiving

Below is the last homily ever given by Fr. Alexander Schmemann, on Thanksgiving Day 1983, two weeks before his repose. Cited from OCA.org

Everyone capable of thanksgiving is capable of salvation and eternal joy.

Thank You, O Lord, for having accepted this Eucharist, which we offered to the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and which filled our hearts with the joy, peace and righteousness of the Holy Spirit.

Thank You, O Lord, for having revealed Yourself unto us and given us the foretaste of Your Kingdom.

Thank You, O Lord, for having united us to one another in serving You and Your Holy Church.

Thank You, O Lord, for having helped us to overcome all difficulties, tensions, passions, temptations and restored peace, mutual love and joy in sharing the communion of the Holy Spirit.

Thank You, O Lord, for the sufferings You bestowed upon us, for they are purifying us from selfishness and reminding us of the “one thing needed;” Your eternal Kingdom.

Thank You, O Lord, for having given us this country where we are free to worship You.

Thank You, O Lord, for this school, where the name of God is proclaimed.

Thank You, O Lord, for our families: husbands, wives and, especially, children who teach us how to celebrate Your holy Name in joy, movement and holy noise.

Thank You, O Lord, for everyone and everything.

Great are You, O Lord, and marvelous are Your deeds, and no word is sufficient to celebrate Your miracles.

Lord, it is good to be here! Amen.

~~

I am very thankful that our church celebrates a Thanksgiving Day liturgy. It seems fitting, since, after all, eucharist means thanksgiving.

A belated Happy Thanksgiving to you, dear reader.

MJM

The Res Publica

I will bear the shame of admitting before my co-authors and readers that I have never read Plato’s Republic. But I am correcting that defect now.  I’m presently in part seven, book six, 505-506,  where Socrates is discussing the knowledge of the good, and it strikes me how he so often carefully distinguishes between reality and appearance, noting that many are satisfied with appearance only, but the philosopher must pursue the reality, the true form of the good.

And then I thought about the sacraments. In the Liturgy, the priest holds up the bread and wine , making a cross with his arms, and declares: “On behalf of all, and for all.”

The sacraments are a true res publica, a public matter of the people of God. They unite the church as a Body even as they unite the individual to Christ. They are chief means of grace, available in God’s house (though not every individual partakes of every sacrament, this is not seen as a problem in Orthodoxy – the one body has many members of varying function, and on some more honor is bestowed). And again I think of the demand for the reality – the true truth, not simply the appearance of the truth.

The Docetists were a Gnostic group ca. the 2nd and 3rd centuries, denying the physical reality of Christ’s advent, life, death, resurrection, ascension, etc., affirming only that Jesus had appeared to do these things (dokein, appear or seem to be). As an aside, the Koran (Sura 4:157-158) affirms a docetist view of the crucifixion, which is interesting, especially as there is a beautiful troparion explicitly countering this, (Resurrection, Tone 5):

Let us the faithful, praise and worship the Word Who is co-unorignate with the Father and the Spirit, and Who was born of the Virgin for our salvation; for He was pleased to ascend the Cross in the flesh, to endure death, and to raise the dead by His glorious Resurrection.

But to the point here, the public matter of the sacrament of the Eucharist is explicitly real in the Church. It is not an appearance of Christ, for that would be docetism. When Jesus Christ visits his worshipping people, He Himself – the Person Jesus, who is the true and perfect Human with a glorious and mysterious physical body and immaculate soul – is there. The Bridegroom comes, not a phantom or specter or dream, not even a token or symbol of the Bridegroom (though those are by no means insignificant – and it may be noted that Calvin’s view of the Lord’s Supper is reasonably close to an Orthodox view of icons – a window into heavenly reality through a token or symbol although not the reality itself, or at any rate, a reality apprehended spiritually through material means), but Christ Himself comes to His bride, visits her, feasts her, encourages her to persevere until the end and after she has suffered a little while, join Him in glory.

This is the true good, which the philosopher must seek. It is the “truly just man” described in part one, book two, 361-362, who endures scorn, mocking, and crucifixion, all to show that the dikaios is truly happier than the adikaios. That justice/righteousness is to be chosen at all costs. This is the person of Jesus Christ. And He calls all to join Him at table.

In Christ,

MJM

Hand in Hand – Hurrah Karamazov!

Tears are one measure of a good book. The Brothers Karamazov affords many, most poignantly at the end. I look forward to knowing Fyodor Dostoevsky in the new heavens and new earth where righteousness dwells.

It’s such a vast book, with the brothers arrayed about the father in four: passion, reason, good, evil; nobility, modernity, piety, servitude. But they are not ideas, they are characters. And even more to the point, they are men. And they are men in which we see ourselves. God help me to be more like Alexi the man of God. Deliver me from the passions, deliver me from calculation, and most of all, deliver me from evil. God is not found in the passions, nor is He found in the systems of men’s logic or ideas. If one believes, one may see miracles. If one refuses, no proof can force belief. And if one ruminates, devoid of God, evil readily gains an audience.

The crushing courtroom scenes stand as a grand rebuke of reason, psychology, logic, and rhetoric – all are helpless in the face of a lie. Truth is spoken, but is not heard, because it does not seem to fit the facts, the arguments, the ideas in the minds of the hearers. And truth is spoken by only a few – the pious Alyosha, the fallen and redeemed Grushenka, and the tormented Ivan (who has been forced to it by the confession of the murderer, and speaks truth as from madness).

And what can be made of it? What can be made of the absurdity? Of the evil and the lies? Of the golden nobility mixed with base clay?

That man is fallen, but may be redeemed. Man is surrounded by evil, but may still love God and seek good. There is no resolution for the problem of evil, but there is a bigger point – the love of God. It is not comprehensible – nothing can wrap around it. But it comprehends everything – the cross is the power and weakness and the wisdom and the foolishness of God. Before the cross, the problem of evil is quite beside the point. It is still evil, and must be resisted by us in ourselves and around us. But there is no “problem” to speak of. Simply the unutterable, ineffable, eternal wisdom of God in the face of Jesus Christ. Will we weep with those who weep over the grave of Ilyushecka? Will we rejoice with those who rejoice, even in the unknown prospect of the life that lies ahead?

And will we love?

Then perhaps we will have made a close read of Dostoevsky.

A lesson from Antarctica

The ratio of permanent residents to churches on Antarctica is 500:1 in the summer and about 120:1 during the winter. The US ratio is about 900:1.

Antarctica has proportionally more churches than America. And half are Roman Catholic, three are Orthodox, one is Protestant (this is like a 4th grade math problem, how many are there? but to be fair, the interdenominational Protestant one is the oldest).

As of 2015, Moscow had about 20000 persons per church. The “Build 200 Churches” program (that had some wags worried about overbuilding…) would leave the ratio at 15000 persons per church, still a long way from the US or Antarctica.

As an interesting tangent, upper estimates for Christianity in China report perhaps 1:10 to 1:20 persons as Christian. If a house church averages 20-40 people (a total guess), that would put the population:church ratio at about 200-800 : 1 – possibly better than the US.

Anyhow, if I had grabbed a population-per-church number out of the air, it would probably be close to 1000:1, which fits the US. I would not have guessed that Antarctica was way out front. (No data on attendance, though.)

But the annual-average winner (in my very limited survey of the internets):

Vatican City. 120:1. (All Catholic, of course…)

Go figure.

 

Dostoevsky

I felt pretty odd after reading Notes from the Underground in a sitting. But I think it’s supposed to be tackled whole, like it is written, in no more than two breaths, and those breathings are the panting of a madman.

But it made sense.

Dostoevsky dearly wanted man to be saved – or at least to be saveable, and I think that is why he so deeply explores the bitter depths of tormented characters. Notes seems to sit unfinished, like it is the parlor game in The Idiot where each tells the worst thing he or she has done. But the book certainly doesn’t end there. And Crime and Punishment does not even end at the prison – we are told so by its reliable narrator.

The narrator of Notes is not reliable, in the extreme. But his thesis – that man cannot be perfectable, because of his basic drive to muck it all up – is actually a demand that the door be left open to salvation and Christ. While he himself may perish (we are not told), his demand is that mankind be left unperfected, natural, raw, capable of good and evil. If the perfect (social/predictive/descriptive/governmental) system is ever found, man will be left knowing that he is incapable of good or evil, simply because it had to be that way according to the system. Dostoevsky demands, via his really awful narrator, that the system be left open. The door must be ajar. The window shall remain cracked, that the Holy Spirit may blow through when He wills.

And as you probably remember from my Iain McGilchrist kick, I think that’s spot on. However, postmodernism may have made one positive contribution that Dostoevsky hinted at (or maybe he got there first, not sure): any attempt to fully close the system, shut the door, slam the window, will make the house of cards fall flat.

I’m hoping Andrew will interact some with this as he ploughs the seas of Kant – does Kant think he exhaustively critiqued pure (or applied) reason? I’m curious, because to claim an exhaustive critique is also to claim a perfectly closed system.

Anyhow, there may be more on this theme from me, too, as I have a bit more of Idiot, and a re-read of Brothers K- ahead (the Pevear and Volokhonsky translations – my travel books).

Kindly,

Mark

Wisdom

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?

Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

T.S. Eliot (from Choruses from the Rock)

 

Later this month, I will be bringing home Stefan from Bulgaria. He is eight. He has some receptive language (in Bulgarian) and no known expressive language. He has been institutionalized from birth. When I first met him, he was five, and he greeted Ana and me with gentle pats and hoots. When I met him again on the official visit trip, this past January, he was able to demonstrate hand-over-hand instruction, as when he wanted me to open my water bottle. He will join our little family and begin to learn what his home is.

Our salvation is spoken of in terms of adoption at times. And many (perhaps most) people have an unrealistically rosy picture of adoption, and I suggest, of salvation, too.

Adoption is violence. It is the disruption of some kind of status quo. Perhaps the status quo was horrific. Perhaps it was merely oppressive or simply banal. But our expectations of the possible are conditioned by our experience, and we humans are remarkably adaptive to awful situations.

But (done by loving people and for the right reasons) adoption can be good violence. Christ did great violence to the Gates of Hell. We enter the kingdom following the voice of the Good Shepherd, but this does not mean the road is easy. It is narrow, and it is hard. The kingdom of heaven is taken by violence.

And I wonder if we (especially in comfy America) are really interested in a violent salvation.

We do not like to have our world shaken. Yet this is one of the things Christ promises (literally, in the Olivet discourse). And we realize, upon following the Shepherd into the sheepfold, that we are in a strange place surrounded by strangers. Many of them are strangely kind. But we do not yet know them. It takes time to get accustomed to the light, after being in darkness. It takes a long time to become part of the family. It takes time to learn a new language, a new culture, new foods, new music (or perhaps, music for the first time). We do not love well. Yet, if our hearts are following our Father, we want to love well, and try not to get discouraged when we fail. And we fail.

And what do we learn?

We can gather information about our new home. Names, dates, facts, data.

We can, eventually, synthesize this into knowledge of the new place. How to do things there. What things can be done there.

But if, by the grace of God, love takes deep root, we may become wise in the ways of our new home. This is never quick. It is never easy. But it is the most important. And it does not necessarily depend on the other two.

Ana loves us, her family. She may have no (or extremely limited) information about us, her home, her school (she got a 4.0, but made minimal progress on her IEP goals… oh the US public schools…). She has very limited knowledge (lip smacking brings food, fussing might get extra snuggles). But I believe – and I have been told by those holier than myself – that she has wisdom.

She has the wisdom of waiting.

She has the wisdom of trusting.

She has the wisdom to love the sounds, smells, and motions of God’s holy temple.

She has the wisdom of taking the Eucharist, even though she will spit other food out of her mouth.

Will Stefan attain to wisdom? He is more able than Ana, he will likely be quite good at assembling information and synthesizing knowledge in his own ways. In time, he may be adept at these things in the more conventional Western ways. But I pray most of all that he will have the wisdom to love.

And I must pray that for myself, as I gird my loins to undertake the violence of an adoption pickup trip, with its interminable waits at clinics, embassy, and airports; with nights I expect to be long and uncertain; with meals that are utterly alien to this young Bulgarian who must eat, but has never tasted his country’s delectable food; with a hole in my heart for my family at home, to whom I am bringing a stranger who only I have met.

It will not be by might or by power, but by the Holy Spirit. And I ask for the one thing God has promised to give: wisdom.

Lord, have mercy.

Mark