Start of the Great Fast, 2

From today’s reading in the Lectionary:

Zechariah 8:19-23  
[19] Thus saith the LORD of hosts; The fast of the fourth month, and the fast of the fifth, and the fast of the seventh, and the fast of the tenth, shall be to the house of Judah joy and gladness, and cheerful feasts; therefore love the truth and peace.
[20] Thus saith the LORD of hosts; It shall yet come to pass, that there shall come people, and the inhabitants of many cities:
[21] And the inhabitants of one city shall go to another, saying, Let us go speedily to pray before the LORD, and to seek the LORD of hosts: I will go also.
[22] Yea, many people and strong nations shall come to seek the LORD of hosts in Jerusalem, and to pray before the LORD.
[23] Thus saith the LORD of hosts; In those days it shall come to pass, that ten men shall take hold out of all languages of the nations, even shall take hold of the skirt of him that is a Jew, saying, We will go with you: for we have heard that God is with you.

The Start of the Great Fast

Today, while others are celebrating Ash Wednesday, the Eastern Orthodox are still in Meatfare Week.  However, the Great Fast is still central in our minds; as witnessed by this passage from today’s lectionary reading.



"Yet even now," declares the LORD, 
"Return to Me with all your heart, 
And with fasting, weeping and mourning;


And rend your heart and not your garments." 
Now return to the LORD your God, 
For He is gracious and compassionate, 
Slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness 
And relenting of evil.


Who knows whether He will not turn and relent 
And leave a blessing behind Him, 
Even a grain offering and a drink offering 
For the LORD your God?


Blow a trumpet in Zion, 
Consecrate a fast, proclaim a solemn assembly,


Gather the people, sanctify the congregation, 
Assemble the elders, 
Gather the children and the nursing infants. 
Let the bridegroom come out of his room 
And the bride out of her bridal chamber.


Let the priests, the LORD'S ministers, 
Weep between the porch and the altar, 
And let them say, "Spare Your people, O LORD, 
And do not make Your inheritance a reproach, 
A byword among the nations. 
Why should they among the peoples say, 
`Where is their God?' "


Then the LORD will be zealous for His land 
And will have pity on His people.


The LORD will answer and say to His people, 
"Behold, I am going to send you grain, new wine and oil, 
And you will be satisfied in full with them; 
And I will never again make you a reproach among the nations.


"But I will remove the northern army far from you, 
And I will drive it into a parched and desolate land, 
And its vanguard into the eastern sea, 
And its rear guard into the western sea. 
And its stench will arise and its foul smell will come up, 
For it has done great things."


Do not fear, O land, rejoice and be glad, 
For the LORD has done great things.

Culture Revisited

Earlier I talked about what I called the Vapid Culture, which is not really a culture but something that poses for culture, like a manikin poses for a human being. The Vapid Culture I called a “conglomeration of ideas, themes, and values consumed through direct or indirect media sources”. The threat of the Vapid Culture is not that it comes from the media, or that it bespeaks of and propagates values, but that it poses as culture, and summarily we mistake it for something it is not. Thus we conflate “impacting culture” with adding our voice to the hectic milieu bombarding us via the economically driven media.

However, I didn’t decry the Vapid Culture in order to urge abdication, cinicism, or despair. Culture building is necessary, and vital for Christianity. We cannot become good Christians unless we are cultured, and we cannot raise good children (whether Christian or no) without being mindful of it. I am wholeheartedly urging culture creation.

So that we can talk of culture creation, we need to first dispense with the phonies, as we did with the Vapid Culture. It is the parasite, and the host is something that we commonly call “pop culture”. This is juxtaposed with another familiar use of the word: “high” culture. If pop culture is about feeding the common desires of the common man, high culture is about the unnecessary needs of a select few. In fact, the more consumeristic pop culture has become, the more high culture has reacted in order that is may become increasingly exclusive. High culture items are limited, expensive, and purposefully not advertised. They are, as it were, better than what the average man should have.

Are they better? Quite often the answer is yes. The make-up the rich and exclusive use are probably much better than the Rite-Aid generic brand, but not enough to justify the gap. In contemporary America, high culture is watermarked by decadence, not necessarily virtue.

Yet high culture has a sense of virtue, while Vapid culture does not. Hence high culture reminds us that culture is not about consumption, but about nurturing; not about the next, but about developing into the next best.

The main ingredient lacking in our understanding of culture is the sense of development. The picture of high culture is accurate here in a way that consumeristic culture is not. A cultured man who appreciates an excellent wine must have a cultured palate – that is to say, it must be developed and grown. Some people have naturally gifted palates, but it takes exposure to good wines and critique to make a cultured someliere. Some people are naturally athletic and competitive, but it takes culturing to make a Michael Jordan or a Cal Ripken. As individuals we develop, and as social creatures we develop into something both natural and societal. Plants are cultured in a garden, because in a garden they can grow into what they are. Plants are developed haphazardly in a jungle – one of the first things one learns about agriculture is the value of pruning.

Clark Carlton kicks off his “Faith and Philosophy” podcast by talking a little about culture. There he quotes Fr. Michael Oleska’s simple definition as culture being “a way of seeing the world”. I find this definition to be very helpful, though I would add that a good culture is one that enables us to see the world correctly. Culture, rather than merely being something we consume, is something that nourishes and grows us into our place in reality. The vapid culture is something that we consume, but it has difficulty nourishing us and it has no sense of what sort of thing we are supposed develop into. It suffers from a lack of vision.

When we speak of impacting culture, what we tend to speak as if the project was creating something for media to give people to consume. Yet it comes across as both nit-picky and useless – nit-picky because it is just replacing one kind of junk food with one of another’s preference, and useless because it still has no picture of what culture is for and what it is working towards.

This can be understood when we talk about subcultures. A subculture isn’t just a small culture, its a kind of spare Vapid culture. Subcultures keep the linchpins of the paradigm of Vapid culture intact, and focus on trying to exchange one conglomeration for another of their own making. It is likely that CCM and Christian radio will be less soul decaying junk food than MTV, but it is essentially the same animal. Hidden within the conglomeration may be real art – cultured art – and it may provide us and our children with nourishment, but it is still just one aspect of life, one that most of our children do not know how to appreciate. At Flexing Poplars I will mention a good movie like Garden State, and usually at least one girl will exclaim that it is her favorite movie. Then I will ask her what its about, and what follows is a poor plot summary ending with “and they kiss at the end”. They watched it the same way they watch Harold and Kumar and feel compelled to say that there is no way that anyone can claim that one is a better movie than the other. This is, of course, wrong. Certain things are better than others, and America knows this, even if it is trying to forget it.

Culture creation is about development, about growth. It is fundamentally about becoming a human being, and culture is the atmosphere and fertile ground that allows that becoming to take place.

Saints and Monks Among Us

It  is an incredible thing to visit the incorupt body of St. John Maximovitch in San Francisco.  The nearness of such an incredible man is a shock to one’s system.  It’s like having cold water splashed on your spirit; you realize what is possible, what is near, and how dark you yourself are.  All this while experiencing hope, joy, and love.

I’ve had similar shocks from visiting monastics lately too.  Last month the elder Dionysius visited St. Seraphim with Metropolitan Jonah.  He came with some of  his spiritual children, whose love for mankind were apparent, and whose tenacity and devotion to God were tangible.  And I do mean tangible – the air was thick with it.  We were blessed to have a small dinner with the group of them, and to ask the elder questions.   For about an hour we sat at his feet – the Metropolitan, the Dean of a Seminary, a couple priests, and a couple families.  I have little more to say about that, except that it was loving and holy.

Nowadays there’s a distrust of monasticism, and for that matter, of holiness. I don’t claim to be an expert, but now that I have gotten to know the monks and nuns that walk among us, I find myself extremely reliant upon them.  The ones that I have met, I trust like an infant trust his mother.  I get this sense to from the books I’ve read, like The Mountain of Silence,  from the writings of the contemporary elders, and from the enlivened faces of my friends when they return from trips to monasteries.

In a time of scandal and fear, my experience cries for trust and obedience.