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,




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

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.


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,


The Pilgrim’s Progress: by Vaughan Williams

So it turns out that Ralph Vaughan Williams, the great British composer of the first half of the twentieth century, wrote a now forgotten opera based on Bunyan’s great work the Pilgrim’s Progress. I am going through a piano reduction copy I managed to acquire from the fine library collection of the University of Arkansas (universities really are remarkable things, whatever their drawbacks), and its quite an impressive work. It has a huge casting, which probably has made it unnecessarily impractical to stage, and its overtly spiritual content probably makes it a little too moral for contemporary artistic tastes. Vaughan Williams himself was of course a cheerful agnostic, and the main character’s name is switched to the more generic “Pilgrim” to fit this more metaphorical frame of mind. However, in this day and age of looking for lost or forgotten masterworks of the classical music repertory, I hope more listeners and performers may draw their attention to this piece of very heartfelt Vaughan Williams on a large scale. I haven’t dug into recordings of the work yet but they probably exist, and for us anglophones there is no language barrier.

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.

Music and Transportation

I was reading an essay in a collection of contributions by great Russian piano teachers of the last century, and there was a striking recommendation. By way of background, it is very common in music circles to talk about mental practicing, which just means going through the music you are working on in your head away from the instrument. But something one doesn’t usually think of is when one is supposed to do this. As if it were as plain as day, it was recommended that of course the best time to do mental practicing, which is essential to artistic development, is while you are walking. You know, from one place to another, or on some quiet path somewhere. So I tried it, since it was still summer, and I walked to school to practice instead of biking with earbuds in. I began to very deeply resent the usage of fossil fuels for cars, trucks, lawn mowers, leaf blowers, etc. But there are some quieter neighborhoods on my way and I have to say it was some of the best mental practicing I have ever done, and I could hear Chopin’s Third Piano Sonata quite clearly in my mind.

Tchaikovsky in a letter wrote once that he longed for the lifestyle when he had time to walk, whereas he was too busy and had to rush around to make his engagements. Why is New York City of all places the mecca of music?

There is an anecdote that Beethoven included a little horn call fan fare in one of his sonatas because he was walking through the woods and heard hunters chasing through on horses in the distance.

When Bach was I think still a teenager, he walked all the way by himself from south Germany to the north, some couple hundred miles, simply to hear the great organist Buxtehude play. I wonder what he heard along the way, internally and externally.

In the business building on campus at Rice University, there is a beautiful reading room that someone clued me in to. Large spacious tables, long library shelves (full of books about self-actualization, I will grant) and no cell phones even allowed in. So quiet that the crinkle of my clothes as I leaned down echoed. A room full of people successfully thinking, because one can hardly even help it when it is that quiet. This was the business building. What was it Uncle Screwtape said about noise?

On correction

Why is it so hard to accept what someone else says, even if it is right? In issues of morality as well as thought I sometimes find this to be true. I think it is because when one listens to someone else, one becomes a servant. If someone points something out to you, and you change your behavior, they can tell you what to do. Even in less moral and more intellectual or aesthetic confrontations of the mildest kind, when someone says they like Rachmaninoff and you know in your heart that you adore Rachmaninoff but you recognize that it is bad taste to admit this too earnestly in public, as if it were confessing to who you had a crush on in middle school, and you have to distinguish yourself through some more knowing and worldly-wise reference. To agree is to be undistinguished, unless it is agreement which secures one’s place in the inner circle about which C.S. Lewis has spoken.

We think the truth belongs to us, and it has to come out of our own mouths. In classrooms, everyone waits until they can say something sufficiently clever to maintain the facade that they completely understand what is being discussed, and no one touches what they might not yet fully grasp, or dares to risk misunderstanding. But why not risk it, for the sake of your classmates? Why not be wrong, so that someone else can be right, and everyone will see more clearly for it? Does one learn to swim by only submerging one’s shins? Can one learn to dance by oneself?

The other half of the coin is also relevant: why don’t people ever seem to listen to us when we are right? Why doesn’t the pot smoker just stop, why doesn’t that family member just let go of that habit we’ve been reminding them about for years? Many things are going on here, but one of them is that it would be fatal to our characters to know that we can change people and tell them what to do. We are not God, we don’t have that power, and anytime we think otherwise the world is very quick on the draw to remind us that that is a lie.

Truth is out there, outside of our minds, and its public. As a matter of the plainest practical reality, if the students in a classroom or the family members in a dispute do not believe that the truth is only reached through conversations in which you are frequently wrong, truth will not be approached. The Lord is the creator of all, and he became man to become the servant of all. We are not lords, and our Lord distinguished himself through being like us in all ways except sin. We can afford to let other people be right.