The Thing as Presentable

When I became Orthodox I didn’t think much about icons.  I do remember my first liturgy, and one of the most distinctive things about the whole overwhelming experience for me was the icons – their impact on worship is not  merely artistic.  Trust me.  After that first experience, having already heard the standard array of defenses for their use, I accepted them and incorporated them into my life.  I have meant to cultivate my understanding of them and their function in my life, but it hasn’t yet reached the foreground.  However the topic keeps surfacing; both here and in my phenomenology class.  And, having just completed my midterm for the class, I figured I might attempt a quick glimpse into what pictures are, what they are not, and how icons are a natural and grace-filled medium.  Forgive me if this post has limited appeal – it’s a balancing act between subjects.

I have said that icons are natural – this does not mean that they are secular.  Though often the Orthodox treatment of icons are striking and strange to people, their function is not “mystically” explainable.  The phenomenon of “picturing” or “imaging” is abundant and common.  Before asking the specific religious questions surrounding icons, let’s  first look into their natural function as images and what that means for the average human being.  Unfortunately this is going to take some tedious terminological work first.

Think about your perception of a cube.  If you have one handy, pull it out and look at it.  How many sides do you see?  How many sides does it have? Depending on your perspective you might see anywhere from 1-3 sides of the cube, but a little thought (and a little counting) tells us that the cube has 6 sides.  When you see the cube, even in passing, do you (for lack of a better word at the moment) understand that cube has 6 sides?  Of course you do, even though you only see about half of that.  In your “passive” perception of the object, you have somehow seen-without-seeing the sides of the cube.  The term for this seeing-without-seeing is intention, so we would say that you saw 3 sides of the cube that were present to you, but intended 6 sides.

What’s my point here?  First of all it is that perception of the things around us is an active, though not necessarily effort-full, participation on our part.  St. Nicodemus the Hagiorite wrote a book called A Handbook of Spiritual Council that focuses on each of the senses and how they relate to our spiritual lives.  As psycho-somatic wholes, that is as whole people we cannot create a rift between the physical and the spiritual easily.  St. Nicodemus (and I have read the same from St. Gregory of Palamas) shows us that thinkable content enters us through the body, or said another way: ideas enter us through the doors of the senses.  But the ideas are not merely ideas, for they enter in the form of perceivable objects.  And we are participating with them. Continue reading “The Thing as Presentable”

Despair, Cowardice, and This Generation’s Saints

The Sunday post-liturgy discussion  – amongst the men at least  – ranged over several blogs worth of material, but I wanted to throw out a quote applying to one particular aspect.  The question at hand was, how is the Church to be incarnate here in the this here culture?  How are we to open ourselves up to this change, and not fall into the trap of mistaking certain things of a certain culture as prone to holiness in a way that we are not?  (Part of this I hope to argue later by suggesting that we hold the terms “Western” and “Eastern” as essentially insufficient, and we must always introduce them into a discussion to the end of discarding it.)

 On a personal and a cultural level, I think that St. Peter of Damascus speaks to us:

“It is now (that) the devil, having failed in all his other schemes, tempts us with thoughts of despair: he tries to persuade us that in the past things were different and that the men through whom God performed wonders for the strengthening of the faith were not like us. He also tell us that there is now no need for exertion…” (Philokalia III).

 There is no methodology here that guarantees the proper development and maintenence of an Christ-seeking and Christ-seeing attitude.  The secret to maintenence is continued acts of maintaininence.  The solution to distinguishing that which is more Christian from that which is less Christian (for nothing is entirely secular) is to know Christ.  There is no sort of thing to avoid, unless it is sin; and the only real ground of knowledge and Truth is Christ, any other answer can at best be hopeful but incomplete.

Definitely, Maybe

It’s not too often that the wife and I see eye to eye about the same movies, but we found ourselves drawn in by the trailers for “Definitely, Maybe”, a sort of romantic comedy whodunnit that opens on Valentine’s Day.  The big sell for me was the names they dropped during the trailer, “Love Actually” (one of my faves) and “Four Weddings and a Funeral”.  Both are thoughtful and sweet movies worthy of plenteous discussion; and a surprisingly masculine take on the perils of navigating a love life though today’s dangerous waters.  And from the previews “Definitely, Maybe” looked like the next installment from clever British writer Richard Curtis. 

The film did not disappoint, and in fact, I believed that Curtis was the writer till I got home and checked IMDB.  In reality the credit goes to Adam Brooks, who worked with Curtis on “Bridget Jones II: The One I Never Saw” or something like that.  But before I start fawning over the film, I have to make a point or two from “Four Weddings…” which I saw a couple months back and was immediately stirred by.  The film takes place over 5 distinct and separate scenes: yes, four of which are weddings and one of which is a funeral.  But as we get to know the usual cast of characters, and we sense the complication of the situation and character’s frustrations as they desperately try to find a lasting love.  The solution for lasting love seems to be ostensibly placed in the institution of marriage, and for some of the characters it seems to provide what it promises.  For the rest of the cast however, marriage is a misleading trick that slips a yoke about one, condemning them to quarrels, unhappiness, and most importantly insincerity.  What does marriage have to do with love?  What does it offer love?  The movie ends with a sort of rejection of the institution – not outright rejection, rather a childlike entering into an anti-marriage.  To no ones complete surprise, the only real difference between marriage as most people know it, and the portrayed anti-marriage is the name and the ceremony, which somehow the two lovebirds are allergic to.

Now, while this picture of marriage is not particularly commendable, neither are the characters.  They, like Dr. Cox and Jordan from Scrubs, are emotionally misfiring, which is reason for their allergic reaction to marriage and its blessings.  It is not freeing to not be able to celebrate the coming together of two people into one flesh in the celebratory sacrament of marriage, nor is it freeing to not be able to describe your state of almost being married.  The movie doesn’t portray the situation as commendable as much as it does relieving.  It offers a sense of hope, and sense of trust in the continued, reliable, and mundane love between two people, and that palpable hope is worthy of a qualified endorsement.

“Maybe” is a graduation up from this unpleasantly reserved commendation.  The movie begins with the surprisingly able Ryan Reynolds being handed his divorce papers, which he sorrows over and doesn’t sign. After picking up his delightful daughter Mia from school, he finds himself telling her the story of how he met her mom.  Mia shows a glimmer of hope that if he tells her the story he would realize that everything wasn’t always “complicated”, the way he keeps saying it is.  So he begins, with the concession that by changing the names of the parties involved that he will keep the identity of her mom a mystery. 

Like “Love Actually” and “Four Weddings” the movie’s rich characters search for that thing that is missing in their life; sometimes intensely, other times despondently, but always in a way that is relatable and compelling.  Will (Ryan Reynolds) is sure that he’s in love with his college sweetheart – he “has plans” – but soon he’s finding that the commitment to her is closing down other paths… and which one to take? who can tell.  So he wanders through life, chasing something that is only partly in his control, trying to live well, loving the one he’s with, and all the while confessing to his daughter his candid past.  (….delivered as only a 12 year old can: “Daddy, I’m mad that you smoked, I’m mad you drank, and I’m mad that you were a slut!  But I love you.”)

The story ends, and the real mom revealed, but the divorce is still looming and Will finds himself once more torn in several directions.  In a particularly touching scene the perspective shifts from Will to Mia, as she stares at her mom and her dad talking about something, anything.  Closely she inspects their expression and movements, looking for the tell-tale sign that will either signal the hope of reunion or the end of a story.

Love leads us into love, and the love of one person can sometimes be what we need to find our way back into the arms of another.  The kicker about love is, that sometimes those arms are open, and sometimes they aren’t; and as Shakespeare has taught us more than once, timing is everything.

I would love to talk more about the movie, but I really would rather not spoil the movie by either revealing the ending or by baiting your anticipation.  But if you do see it, please tell me… what do you think it the family unit and the institution of marriage?

On Doubt and the Death unto Health

I have a friend who is always asking me why I am studying philosophy.  After I explained it to his apparent satisfaction for the third time, and then he asked me again for the fourth time I realized that what was bugging him just wouldn’t go away.  And that might be okay.  The real reason to study philosophy is said best by the famous Socratic statement that the unexamined life is not worth living. 

If this is the beginning, and founding motivation of philosophy, then we need to reexamine what is going on in philosophy as we know it today.  Much of what we think of tends to center around arguments and doubt.  “I think therefore I am”, has become the new foundation, and this foundation is one that begins with the free choice of doubt.  Ironically what is scarcely called into doubt is the motivation for using doubt as a vehicle of truth.  Not many years removed from Descartes Hobbes allows doubt to rather mockingly describe the irrationality of human life, and the inevitable hopelessness of attaining truth.  And philosophy has run the gamut where it is no longer attached to any sort of sanity.

Not every question “why” is equal to another, any teacher can tell you that?  One might ask why from a simply cantankerous spirit, or one can ask why from humble reverence and youthful curiosity.  But the difference is not merely in the internal attitude of the questioner, but in the as-of-yet undiscovered answer to the question.  There is no cure for the cantankerous, but there is always hope for a little more enlightenment for the bright-eyed.  I submit that the person that has decided (probably because there were told to) to start with doubt as their dialectical vehicle will become more and more removed from sanity, because the starting principle is itself unreasonable; and it becomes this way because the principle cemented into its place of honor without any reason to do so.  Sane people act on reasons, it is the hubristic man that arbitrarily determines what will guide his search for truth.

For this reason philosophers have looked less like truth seekers and more like angry, haughty speculators.  For this reason prudence and practical rationality have found the halls of the academic to be a hostile environment; and the man outside the ivory tower believes rightly that philosophy is an empty and irrelevant pursuit. 

But Socrates… Socrates the man, the soldier, the husband, did not concern himself with corrosive and unreasonable doubt.  He certainly lived in what one might call a religious temperament, full of fantastic myths, cosmological guesses, and after-death speculation, but he was also in the world.  What Socrates shows us, hemlock in hand, is that life and death, though separate, inform one another essentially.  Chesterton said that the courageous man is he who loves life so much he senses the necessity to risk death.  The existentialist likewise try to remind us that life, living, and the here and now have a self-apparent value to them – and posit that as a response to Descartes. 

Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who came to give us life abundantly, reminds us that he who tries to save his life will lose it, and he who loses his life will gain it.  And I submit that the examined life, the philosophical life, inasmuch as it is a suspension of natural prudential life, is a form of such healthy death.  It is within the realm of true reality, and it is also a path that reveals another aspect of He who is The Way, The Truth, and The Life.