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.

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A Take on McLaren

As many of you know I try to stay abreast of the Emergent(ing) church literature, and I’m particularly interested because it is both a real divorce from traditional Protestantism and also a natural and unsurprising outgrowth of traditional Protestantism.  I’m been paying particular attention to Vintage Church author Mark Driscoll’s heated disagreement with the authors Pagan Christianity.

The issues brought up by McLaren and Co. require a response, even if, like me, one responds by making them irrelevant.  That is to say that I became Orthodox and the new vision of “what the Gospel means to us today”,  “organic” Christianity, and “rediscovering” the historic Church was replaced by something solid and formative, rather than something McLaren and/or I form.

Something similar is said by Fr. Gregory Jenson on the AOI blog.  It’s self-admittedly strongly worded, but I think he’s getting at something.

McLaren is not presenting us with a new kind of Christianity but simply a re-working of Evangelical Christianity. While he claims his work is post-modern, it isn’t. For that we should look to the works of John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock and David Bentley Hart. Read these theologians and the intellectual and spiritual poverty of McLaren’s work and the emegent church movement is clear.

Whatever good points there might be in his re-working, in the end McLaren’s “new kind of Christianity” demonstrates the inherent and internal theological and spiritual weakness of the Reformation in general and of Evangelical Christianity in particular. That weakness is the weakness of a merely partial faith, a faith that is not orthodox (or Orthodox) because it is not catholic (or Catholic) and not catholic (or Catholic) because it is nor orthodox (or Orthodox).

While I respect Milbank and Hart, I don’t believe that they are the best to contrast against McLaren.  Certainly one could say the same about Luther, Calvin, Newman, and Chesterton.  One could say the same about Ben Witherington or Pope Benedict.  I’m tempted to say the same about Tim Keller. The contrast here is between the Church and McLaren’s vision of the Church.

Viewed in this light, the debate about McLaren, the emergent church movement and a “new kind of Christianity” is the theological equivalent of intramural flag football. You got a lot of guys on the field but none of them are particularly fit or skilled. And certainly none of them play at a professional level.

To push the analogy just one more step, the professional level that McLaren and his critics merely imitate, is the catholic tradition of theological orthodoxy of the Church Fathers and the sacramental, liturgical and ascetical practice of the historic Christian Church. Whatever our differences, this tradition is to be found in the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.

Educating Narcissus

Recently posted on AOI is Bryan Smith’s essay on Christian education, “Educating Narcissus”.  Bryan is a friend, fellow parishioner, and a rare jewel in the educating community.  He is also the founder of the Orthodox School Association and headmaster of St. Peter’s Orthodox Classical School in Fort Worth, TX.  The school has the entire age-range of students, and Bryan works with them everyday.  He knows education from top to bottom.

Unfortunately, we now have behind us several decades of professionally sanctioned educational practices which, in their methods as well as in their results, could be called an education to narcissism. Child-centered learning, whole-language practice, and multiple-intelligence theory have taught countless children that nothing matters which has its origin outside the self.

Though perhaps not overtly, the lesson has, nevertheless, been taught. It has been taught in stream-of-consciousness “journaling” where external forms such as spelling and grammar are of no consequence; it has been taught in anti-knowledge schools where memorization is belittled as “rote learning” and administrators declare openly their inability to predict what children will need to know in the future. It has been taught by teachers telling students there are no right answers, and by the cheap teen novels once hidden from the instructor but now assigned as classroom reading because she believes the young people can “relate” to them better. It has been taught in social studies where students learn nothing of the sacrifices of heroic men and women of the past, but everything of their own personal entitlements. In these and so many other ways, our current “progressive” schools encourage children to gaze no farther than their own adolescent images.

There are many problems with this approach. Most practically, it simply fails as a means of education—a fact by now so well documented that only those with careers rooted in the old theories still echo their empty tenets. Moreover, this approach to education assumes a Romantic optimism about human nature that is unjustified by practical experience, denies the fallen nature, and robs young people of the noblest ideas and examples of human kind while forcing them to wallow in the low, the base, and the mediocre. Furthermore, the progressive approach squanders the best opportunity—that of the early school years—to instill a body of objective factual content that can become a network of epiphanies in later years, and to inculcate habits of diligence in the attention to minute details that must always accompany successes that are not accidental. The most dangerous effect of all, however, may be that this progressive approach to education gives children the idea that the universe orbits around the parochial world of themselves and their peers—that the world will forever reconfigure itself around their desires, moods, and natural inclinations.

Many Christian schools, we must admit, are not guiltless of this pedagogical folly.

Bryan, a historically minded educator as well as an historically minded Christian, casts a corrective vision.

The education offered by Orthodox Christian schools has as one of its intentions to lure Narcissus away from his pool. Our focus on the history of Christian Civilization is an attempt to ground young people outside themselves in a legacy of ideas, actions, and aesthetics that span continents and millennia. We want them to see society as comprising the dead, the living, and those yet unborn. Our studies of great historical personalities are intended to impress upon the students how greatly their own lives and options have been shaped by the prudent foresight of another generation. Even in our study of other cultures we are not so impressed with the insular cults of folk-ways as we are with the common nature all humans share—a nature which universally acknowledges one natural law and so points to the existence of a standard higher than the assumptions of any one self-approving group.

The Hope that Comes with Lent

One thing struck me squarely from Metropolitan JONAH’s Archpastoral letter for the beginning of the Great Fast: Lent is a time for audacious hope. In his first paragraph he writes,

We fast, we pray, we go to services, and we give alms. But what is different in us the very day after Pascha? Have we attained inner peace? Have we come to self-control over our passions? Has my soul been healed, even a little?

The work we set upon during this time is not without purpose.  The most visible aspects of Lent are things like: foods we are giving up, the color purple, and long services. This is just the work, and not the reason for the work.  This is spiritual combat; and as the armies are marching towards the battlefields there is the ever present hope of victory.  His Beatitude reminds us of this: the victory that comes with true repentance.

He continues:

Lent is the time for repentance. But that repentance does not simply mean feeling sorry for our sins, much less trying to do some kind of penitential acts to atone for them. Rather, the goal of repentance is the transformation of our minds and hearts, our very consciousness. It means a transformation of our whole life. To engage it means that we have to embrace change. This change not only affects our diet for a few weeks, or abstaining from some bad habits. It means a different way of behaving, of perceiving God, ourselves, our neighbors. It means a rejection and renunciation of the ways we have been living and treating others, and the adoption of a new way of life. We have to come to the recognition that how we have been living and behaving does not lead us deeper into communion with God and our neighbors, but rather alienates us from both, and from our very self.

The tithe of the year is in fact a return to our own humanity, and our own personal identity.  Read the whole thing.

“Let us set out with joy…”

Last night, during Forgiveness Vespers, we sang to following verses (Stichera) from the Lenten Triodian.  They offer insight into what we are doing (and not doing) during the Fast.  God have mercy upon us.

Save me, O Lord my God, for Thou art the salvation of all. The billows of my passions sorely trouble me, and the burden of my transgressions drags me down. Stretch out Thine hand in help and lead me up to the light of compunction, for Thou are compassionate and lovest mankind.

Gather together my scattered mind, O Lord, and purify my dry and barren heart, giving me like Peter repentance, like the Publican sighs of sorrow, and like the Harlot tears, that I may cry with a loud voice unto Thee:  Save me, O God, for Thou only art compassionate and lovest mankind.

Often when I offer praise to God, I am found to be committing sin; for while I sing the hymns with my tongue, in my soul I ponder evil thoughts.  But through repentance, O Christ my God, set right my tongue and soul, and have mercy upon me.

Let us all make hast to humble the flesh by abstinence, as we set upon the God-given course of the holy Fast, and with prayers and tears let us seek our Lord and Savior. Laying aside all memories of evil, let us cry aloud: We have sinned against Thee, O Christ our King, save us as the men of Ninevah in days of old, and in Thy compassion make us sharers in Thy heavenly Kingdom.

When I think of my works, deserving of every punishment, I despair of myself, O Lord.  For see, I have despised Thy precious commandments and wasted my life as the Prodigal. Therefore I entreat Thee: cleanse me in the waters of repentance, and through prayer and fasting make me shine with light, for Thou alone art merciful; abhor me not, O Benefactor of all, supreme in love.

Let us set out with joy upon the season of the Fast, and prepare ourselves for spiritual combat.  Let us purify our souls and cleanse our flesh; and as we fast from food, let us abstain also from every passion. Rejoicing in the virtues of the Spirit may we persevere with love, and so be counted worthy to see the solemn Passion of Christ our God, and with great spiritual gladness to behold His holy Passover.

Wittgenstein & Chesterton’s ‘Everlasting Man’

There’s an insipid idea of “progress” that not only does a disservice to our ancestors but also fosters and spirit that robs joy and wonder from our experience of the world.  Both Chesterton and Wittgenstein named this spirit for what it was; and urged an awakening of vision of the world.  For Chesterton this awakening was one of beauty and adventure, for Wittgenstein it was one of duty and truth — and maybe the two are not as far off from each other as they might seem.

From Wittgenstein’s notes collected in Culture and Value, written in 1930.

In Renan’s ‘Peuple d’Israel’ I read: “Birth sickness, death, madness, catalepsy, sleep, dreams, all made an immense impression and,  even nowadays, only a few have the gift of seeing clearly that these phenomena have causes within our constitution.”

On the contrary there is absolutely no reason to wonder at these things, because they are such everyday occurrences. If primitive men can’t help but wonder at them, how much more so dogs and monkeys.  Or is it being assumed that men, as it were, suddenly woke up and, noticing for the first time these things that had always been there, were understandably amazed? — Well, as a matter of fact we might assume something like this; though not that they become aware of these things for the first time but that they do suddenly start to wonder at them.  But this again has nothing to do with their being primitive.  Unless it is called primitive not to wonder at things, in which case the people of today are really the primitive ones, and Renan himself too if he supposes that scientific explanation could intensify wonderment.

As though lightning were more commonplace or less astounding today that 2000 years ago.

Man has to awaken to wonder — and so perhaps do peoples.  Science is a way of sending him off to sleep again.

In other words it’s just false to say: Of course, these primitive peoples couldn’t help wondering at everything.  Though perhaps it is true that these peoples did wonder at all the things around them. — To suppose they couldn’t help wondering at them is a primitive superstition…

Things are placed right in front of our eyes, not covered by any veil. — This is where religion and art part company.

Ok, so I don’t know how much they share that last sentiment, but the likeness is enough to make me grin.

Elder Sophrony: Crossing the Abyss

During his life the Elder Sophrony Sakharov lived an intense yet hospitable life: a life characterized by love.  This love appears clearly in his writings.  They are both warm and personal, strong and soaring.  They invite and challenge.  I believe he was able to do this largely because his vision was expanded by suffering, the kind of suffering that is common to all humanity and especially common to the people of this present age.  Meaninglessness.

Consider these sections from a chapter from his book His Life Is Mine entitled “The Bliss of Knowing the Way”. Pardon the length, cutting out anything at all was exasperating.  You can read the whole chapter here.

Those with no experience of prayer find it hard to believe how prayer broadens the horizons of the spirit. Sometimes prayer consumes the heart like fire; and when the heart succumbs to the burning flame, unexpectedly there falls the dew of divine consolation. When we become so conscious of our frailty that our spirit despairs, somehow, in an unknown fashion, a wondrous light appears, proclaiming life incorruptible. When the darkness within us is so appalling that we are paralysed with dread, the same light will turn black night into bright day. When we properly condemn ourselves to eternal infamy and in agony descend into the pit, of a sudden some strength from Above will lift our spirit to the heights. When we are overwhelmed by the feeling of our own utter nothingness, the uncreated light transfigures and brings us like sons into the Father’s house.

How are these contrasting states to be explained? Why does our self-condemnation justify us before God? Is it not because there is truth in this self-condemnation and so the Spirit of Truth finds a place for Himself in us?

Even remote contact with the Divine releases the soul from all passions, including envy, that vile offspring of pride. The man who continues with a humble opinion of himself will be given greater knowledge of the mysteries of the world to come. He will be delivered from the power of death. United through prayer with Christ, he realises that in eternity the whole content of being will belong to him, too, through the perpetual dwelling in him of the Holy Spirit- of the Trinity, it would be truer to say. Father, Son and Holy Spirit will make Their abode with him. By virtue of this, every good or word or deed, from whatever source, will become part of his eternal divinised life. Thus, in the words of St Paul ‘as having nothing yet we possess all things’ (2 Cor. 6.10). If anyone performs deeds to the glory of God which bring him both temporal and eternal renown, the man of prayer feels not envy but joy at our common salvation. My brother’s glory will be my glory, also. What blessedness to behold fellow humans radiant with the Holy Spirit! Yet even this is but a pale reflection of our joy in the Kingdom to come where, in a superabundance of love which never diminishes, the spirit of man will embrace the fulness of god-man being.

Let us not forget, however, that the way to this superabundant love lies through the depths of hell. We must not be afraid of this descent since without it plenitude of knowledge is unobtainable.

Sometimes the trials and difficulties which befall put us in the position of a traveller who suddenly finds himself on the edge of an abyss from which it is impossible to turn back. The abyss is the darkness of ignorance, and terror at being captive to death. Only the energy of a saintly despair will get us across. Upheld by some mysterious strength, we cast ourselves into the unknown, calling upon the Name of the Lord. And what happens? Instead of smashing our heads against unseen rocks, we feel an invisible hand gently carrying us over, and we come to no harm. Throwing ourselves into the unknown means trusting to God, having let go of all hope in the great ones of the earth and setting off in search of a new life in which first place is given to Christ.

Traversing the abyss of the unknown can also be likened to swinging along a cable stretched from one side to the other. The hands of Christ crucified link the far ends of the abyss. The soul that has been given the dread privilege of travelling along this cable can find no words to describe it, just as those who have passed beyond the grave cannot tell us of their experience on the new plane.

The spiritual vision just outlined dissolves into contemplation of the crucified Christ. His arms are outstretched to gather all peoples into one, to link the far concerns of the world; His body, hanging on the cross, forms a stupendous bridge between earth and heaven. Uniting in Himself both God and Man, He calls upon us to follow in His steps. It is not a simple matter to portray what meets the spiritual eye at such times. Just as a heavy body precipitated beyond the range of terrestrial gravity becomes subject to the mechanics of space and moves at a speed impossible on the surface of the earth, so it is with our spirit when prayer in its upsurge towards God overcomes the passions which pin us down, to move in the luminous sphere of the Divine and contemplate the sublime and hitherto unknown. In the depths of our consciousness we apprehend the unoriginate Truth, and the Spirit testifies to our immortality. Thus the first dread vision of darkness and mortality changes to a vision of light and life indestructible.

At first the struggle for prayer seems to be beyond our strength but if she persists the soul will eventually be able to contain within herself at the same time sorrow and joy; despair and hope. There is no more alternating between elation and depression, since all states are gathered into a single whole. Through knowledge of God the soul has acquired profound peace.

O God and Father, without beginning;
Thou Who art blessed throughout all ages;
Who hast revealed unto us the mystery
of the way of Thy salvation:
Renew our nature, by Thy Word abiding in us,
and make us the temple of Thy Holy Spirit,
that being ever guarded by Thy might
we may give glory to Thee in a worthy manner,
now and for ever.