Ruthie

There are few blogs I read regularly.  After moving to Dallas and meeting Rod Dreher I started reading his blog regularly, and read his book. Rod and I have a lot in common (facility with words aside).  His blog, which is an eclectic commentary on politics, culture, Church, and food,  is often thoughtful and interesting. (Again, not something we have in common.) More valuable however, are his more personal entries; helped no doubt by the fact that he is a dear friend. I found him to be honest, observant, and relate-able.  His personal insight aided my own.

In January Rod moved from Dallas to Philadelphia.  My wife and I have been mourning the move since Rod first mentioned the possibility to us this summer.  Indeed our entire parish family was hit very hard by the Dreher’s departure, but we knew that we’d still have them as family.

So when Lent started last week, and my spiritual family started enduring the things come with Lent, I counted Rod’s trials among them. Our parish suffered car troubles, a priest breaking his leg, sickness, and Rod’s only sibling — his sister Ruthie — being diagnosed with Stage Four cancer in her lungs and brain.

And so Rod boarded an airplane to be with his sister, suspending his regularly blogging schedule to write about Ruthie.  What came out was something special.

In his usual frank and honest manner Dreher invited his readers to experience along with him pain, struggle, and lurking despair. Do yourself a favor: read all the posts in which he tagged his sister. Because pain, struggle, and lurking despair is not what this story is about.

Shortly after arriving at his sister’s bedside, Rod shares his exasperation with the silence of God and the sense of futility.

I am finding it hard to maintain my prayers right now. I know in my head that just because my sister has not experienced a miraculous recovery and jumped out of bed to second-line out of the hospital, that does not mean my prayers have been in vain. I’ve got enough sense to know that’s not how it works. But emotionally, this is difficult. All the praying, the begging, the anguishing, the fasting — and there has been no miracle. She’s still very sick indeed. I realized tonight that in my frenzy to call the attention of God to my sister’s plight and to convince him to heal her, I’ve been playing a kind of saints roulette, trying to hit on the right saint to ask prayers of, as if somehow my placing a bet on the right saint’s name would make an electric connection with heaven, and divine energy would course right down to my sister’s hospital room and save her, bam, just like that.

I know it doesn’t work that way. Believe me, I do. But I don’t know what else to say to God, or the saints, on my sister’s behalf. I know this isn’t like a courtroom, in which I need to come up with the cleverest argument to convince the judge that my sister’s life is worth saving. I know that magical thinking is a fallacy. I know that the communion of saints is not like a cocktail party in which I’m the wild-eyed stranger who’s walked in off the street and is annoying partygoers by interrupting their conversations to see who can spare the time to come out and help me get my car unstuck from the snowbank on the curb.

But I don’t know what else to do. And it’s not working.

Reading this went straight to my heart; and not because I judge Rod for feeling this way, but because I too have found myself Dark Night of the Soul. The Dark Night is difficult to be sure, but it is not bad.  When we’re lost in the dark woods, with the right road wholly lost and gone, God provides. As Rod points out, Lent is a time for sorrow, but by God’s grace, we may have “bright sadness”. The brightness is God’s, shining through Ruthie.

I wish I had the words to express how brave my sister is. I write this through tears tonight — tears not of sadness for her, though God knows that’s there, but tears of admiration. Who among us could get such news today, and react with such evenness? Not me. She apologized to her husband, saying softly, “I’m sorry, I was hoping for better news.” Later in the day, I spoke with Dr. Tim Lindsey, her GP, and we talked about how astonishingly courageous she’s been throughout this short, terrible ordeal. He went on about how she’s not wanted to hide from anything, and how she’s withstood horrific blows without bowing. Dr. Tim and I agreed that there is something miraculous about the witness she’s showing to the rest of us, in how to suffer. He said that however long she has to live, whether it’s weeks or years or decades, her children will always remember the courage under fire — Hemingway’s definition of grace — that their mother showed in these days.

And the story gets better, sweeter, and more powerful. Our God is a good God, and Ruthie a good person.

The Devolution of Derek Webb

Few songwriters have had more impact on my life than Derek Webb.  I distinctly remember the first time I heard “Center Isle”.  I didn’t know that songs could do that to you: give you all the slow sweetness of the personal nostalgia to a place you’ve never been with people you don’t know, and hit you like a Mac Truck.  I remember sharing his “Standing up for Nothing” with some of my fellow high school Freshmen, and they all just sat there like all the air had been sucked out of the room.

And it just got better. 40 Acres ushered in “Faith My Eyes”, which is probably my favorite of Derek’s songs, and a song that never far from my favorite playlists. I remember seeing Caedmon’s Call in concert right before Long Line of Leavers, showing up early to see Derek play guitar by himself for about an hour and half before the show started.  During that show the band would turn over the stage entirely to Derek for a couple of songs; and I distinctly remember him unveiling “Can’t Lose You” there.  Judging by all the times I’ve played “What You Want” and “Somewhere North” I didn’t think he could ever lose me either.

Derek’s career would reach a watershed in 2003 when he released his first solo album, She Must and Shall Go Free.  The album, recorded during his engagement, is an intense reflection on the idea of marriage as it relates to the Christ and His Bride, the Church.  Musically reminiscent of a backwoods Sunday service, and lyrically commanding Webb left us with several passionate and profound songs. Chiefly mentioned of these is “Wedding Dress“, the chorus of which is “I am a whore I do confess, but I put you on just like a wedding dress, and run down the isle to you.”  I’m more personally fond of “Lover”and “Beloved” (yeah, I know it sounds redundant, but hey its theme album!) and “The Church”.  One of the most resonant ideas on the album is that the Church communal is His Bride, and not individual Christians.  “You cannot care for me, with no regard for her, if you love me you will love the Church.”

She Must and Shall Go Free was followed up by I See Things Upside Down and the EP The House Show, which contains more preaching than singing.  When I heard “I Repent“, which appears on both albums, I immediately ditched the other song I had been planning on playing for church for it.  The song was received as it was intended; as a “thank you” for a needed slap across the face.

There’s only so much loving that can be delivered in the form of a punch in the face though, and Derek began to make a habit of it.  One of the throw-a-way songs from I See Things Upside Down is “T-shirts“; a cheap criticism on the easy target of Christian sloganeering.  More disappointing is Derek’s 2005 Mockingbird, a rather unthoughtful apolgetic for disliking America and George Bush.  Also, with the exception of the  title track, the album is musically uninspired and has disappeared into the recesses of my coat closet.

For the first time Webb seemed angry, and self righteous.  His usually provocative lyrics culminated this time in the entirely unhelpful anthem “Love is Not Against the Law“.  Sure I couldn’t disagree with Webb, but I couldn’t agree with him either, mostly because he wasn’t saying anything very coherent or meaningful.  The album didn’t strike me as controversial, thoughtful, or even interesting, just basically vapid. Other than the title track, the album gets pretty much no play time from me.

2007’s The Ringing Bell is perhaps only a little better of a sample from the same vein. Webb, in usual outcast tone, sings of the inability of children to learn when you “stack them like lumber” and don’t feed them.  I can indulge these sort of heavy-handed obvious statements if they build to a legitimate payoff, but when the album was over, no payoff came.  I was officially unenthusiastic, and I didn’t think much about Derek Webb and his career.

That is, till Stockholm Syndrome hit the airwaves: or rather, when it didn’t.  But that story will have to wait for another day.

Culture, A Place to Start

A while ago I started writing on the misuse of the word “culture”; aiming at understanding how we miss what a true culture is.  I accussed us of falling for the manikin of Vapid Culture, then  I wanted to dial in closer to the real thing by looking at “high” culture and subcultures.  Today I hope to hit on what the real thing is, offer a place to start thinking about culture building, and offer a start of Christian culture.  Off course, this is a blog – not a book – so even if these thoughts are pretty good, they are bound to be over-reaching and insufficient.  Given that, it is only appropriate to place my thoughts in context.

A couple things have sparked my interest in the misconception of culture. The first is my experience at the strange little private school I work at, aka “Flexing Poplars”. Walking into the place is a bit like walking into another world. Hogwarts would be more relateable. When I first started working there a year ago several of the students had heroin problems. One of my favorite students was a 14 year old boy who was working very hard to kick a nasty cocaine problem. Everything I normally assume was exchanged for the opposite, and it has been difficult adjusting without letting the mission become derailed.

What does a place like Flexing Poplars need? It needs more than just motivation, direction, vision, and competence. It needs a culture change. So I have been focusing on using my presence there to affect aculture change, both in and outside of class.

Teaching high school Sunday School has afforded me a means of comparison. The problems there are similar but different, and the discussions between the priests and myself have been on the same motif: culture creation.

The more direct impetus for this rant was a discussion with a group of conservative Christian men (from many denominations) about how Christians should view education. The issue was brought up by a man who has been deliberating over different post-high school options for his daughter, and it bears noting that his daughter was present. During the conversation I noticed that culture and education were sometimes used synonymously, and sometimes antithetically. Now both these terms suffer frequent violence, but the drum of “impacting culture” was beat regularly and unenthusiastically by everyone present.

The man’s main concern was for his daughter’s development; he wants her to be a happy, responsible, and respectable person. His worries were concerning the information she would be fed, and that the conglomeration of ideas, themes, and values present in the media would be absorbed by her. Surely these fears are reasonable, but what is the response? I know people who went to Berkley in the 60’s and are as conservative as they come. There are plenty of people who are media-literate who aren’t enslaved to whatever happens to be channeled on a given week.

The problem is not as simple as where you get your information from. It’s about who you are.

Of course that seems like a tall order: “who you are”. How does one become a good person? This is in fact the question that forms culture.

So I asked the man’s daughter, “What has shaped you into who you are?” This question is beyond the scope of this piece, but it throws into relief where I think we go wrong. Culture isn’t mainly about information, it’s about the vision of the Good Person.

Two sober remarks need to be made about the current state of our culture: American culture was not formed as a Christian culture, and the secular/sacred distinction has neutralized American culture from developing. The founding fathers’ view of the Good Person was largely the Ben Franklin model. Franklin, not a Christian, was working towards human perfection sans God. Ingenuity, hard work, and habits that supported these virtues took the spotlight. Humility and mercy receded. Ben Franklin, who was not meek, has inherited this piece of earth.

The founding fathers were largely deistic in their philosophy, and certainly shows in their politics. They created a government that assumes that God will not be acting within it, and encouraged mankind to prepare to live and govern without His help. Government, then became a space neutral to divinity. Secularism is built into political philosophy.

Christ was baptized. Water has not been the same since. He was nailed to a tree, and they have yet to forget it. He was buried in the earth, and it is hallowed. I may render to Caesar what belongs to him, but he belongs to God. Christ is present, and he is the Good Person. Christianity is about this Good Person and us becoming more and more like Him as we abide in Him. Christianity acknowledges everything as sacred, and the role of humankind is to take the fruits of the earth and, lifting it up to Him, allow Him to exchange it with something holy. Everything is being transformed, nothing is secular.

Living this way is a tall order, and it is one that we cannot do by ourselves. Convinced as we might be of the sacredness of all things, we wake up in the morning feeling removed from the sacred and ignorant of how to continue in the movement of Christ’s transformation of the cosmos. This is because transformation is occurring within us: we are growing and developing. That is, we are developing if we continue.

I’ve found myself asked quite frequently if being a Christian has any impact in our lives. Can it be the case that I can look like everyone else, act like everyone else, and be a perfect Christian because what Christ has done for me has already been done. However, until death, what is there for us to do? Evangelizing doesn’t seem to match many people’s personalities, and those who seem suited to it are often very annoying and counterproductive.

The dilemma is, in other words, either Christ affects my entire life, or He affects only my post-death destination. Personally, I understand this dilemma well, and it points to a deficiency in contemporary Christianity. Why do we have no Christian culture, no development, no hope? How can we read the Bible and not see the concern that God and his authors have for the continual deification of His people?

If culture is “how one sees the world”, and we cannot see Christ anywhere in the world, then either Christ is false or we are blind to reality. Fr. Alexander Schmemman offers this definition of a Christian: one who sees Christ in everything and rejoices. The mark of culture is that those who grow it see the world in a mature, developed, and cultivated way, and the mark of Christian culture is that we see Truth in the world, shining in the light of His glory.

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.  

Where I Fail in Prayer

What does it mean to pray?  In what sense is prayer “doing something”?  While I was convinced of this long ago, I’ve been learning (painfully) that prayer is an activity that encompasses all parts of who we are.  In other words, prayer is not just mental, it’s physical.  Prayer is not just where we are, it’s where we’ve been and where we’re going.  It’s not just what we say, it’s what we mean – and that is not divorced from what we do.  Says the Blessed Sophrony in his book On Prayer:

In our prayer we try to stand as a whole, uniting all our being, heart and mind most of all.  In order to achieve this blessed union of the two most important components of our personality we do not have recourse to any artificial means (psychotechnics).  To begin with we train the mind to continue attentive in prayer, as the Fathers teach – that is, carefully pronounce the Divine Name of Jesus Christ and the rest of the prayer.  Concentrated invocation of the Divine name together with unremitting effort to live one’s life in accordance with the Gospel commandments leads to a state where both mind and heart actually function together.

“Unremitting effort to live one’s life in accordance with the Gospel commandments” is where I fail in prayer.  I cannot pray always, as St. Paul commands, because of my hypocrisy.  Even on my knees, on my face, or in Church – when I am praying with the utmost of my capacity – to I fall short.  The rest of my life is suspect, so I my prayer life is handicapped.

It is not all bad news; progress can be made.  I hope that I am becoming a little less hypocritical, able to live the Gospel a little more each day.  I can also help my prayer life by working on other aspects of my life.  A friend once advised me to keep cans of food in my car, and hand them out to the homeless I drive past.  This, he said, was greatly influential in his prayer life.  

Progress is possible, but does not often come quickly.  This struggle, long and tedious, is precisely what the Christian life is.

It is essential to dismiss the idea of achieving the maximum result in the shortest time.  Experience down the centuries shows that fusion of mind and heart achieved psychotechnically never lasts long; and, more importantly, does not unite our spirit with the Spirit of the Living God.  Eternal salvation in the most profound sense is the question that lies before us.  For this our whole nature must be reborn, the carnal to become spiritual.  And when the Lord finds us able to take in His grace He is not slow to respond to our humble invocations.  His coming is sometimes so all-consuming that heart and mind are both completely occupied by Him only.  This visible world gives place to a reality of another, higher order.  The mind ceases to think discursively: it becomes all attention.  And the heart finds itself in a state difficult to describe: it is filled with fear but a reverent, life-giving fear.  Breathing is restrained: God is seen both within and without.  He fills all things, all of man: mind-spirit, heart-feeling and even the body, all together, live only through God.

“Oh Lord Jesus Christ, our God, have mercy upon us and upon Thy world.” (On Prayer, 153-4)