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It has been a couple of weeks since my long-awaited [used] copy of Taliessin Through Logres – The Region Of the Summer Stars – Arthurian Torso arrived from the used bookstore in Michigan from which I ordered it. It was a surprisingly good copy, well worth what I paid for it. The edition is, I believe, pretty well known; Eerdman’s published it in 1974 and I could have picked it up for $7.95 at that time. It’s odd, but I remember seeing it in a Christian bookstore forty years ago, and shuffling through the pages. I was familiar with CS Lewis and I had heard that Charles Williams was a friend of his. Having puzzled my way through Many Mansions, I had already had a taste of Williams and wanted more. The dense and deeply self-referential poetry of Williams’ Arthuriad completely defeated my casual perusal and I put the book back on the shelf.
Not too many copies of the Eerdman’s volume were published. Maybe my recently acquired book was the same one I held in my hands forty years ago. Stranger things have been known to happen.
My eye was caught by a phrase that began an essay “The Coming Of The King” in the explanatory work by Charles Williams, The Figure of Arthur, which was included in the volume I purchased:
By the twelfth century the outline of the new metaphysical civilization in Europe was taking shape
and I knew that my reading of Williams was going to be different from that of a Western Christian. For me, the twelfth century marks an ending, not a beginning. The “new metaphysical civilization” that arose after the sundering of Latin Christendom is for me already a seminal apostasy, a long fading rather than a new quickening. The ruthless imposition of continental feudalism over the conciliar Anglo-Saxon polity, the suppression of the variegated local liturgies in favor of the Roman rite, to choose only two examples, speak to me more of
Union is breached; the imams stand in Sophia
Good Is God, the muzzein
calls, but lost is the light on the hills of Caucasia
glory of the Emperor, glory of substantial Being.
As I begin to attempt to dovetail Williams’ mythology of Camelot-as-the City with my own dreams of the pre-schism eucharistic Commonwealth [however vaguely or however imprecisely that Commonwealth may have existed or not in history], I find three great burning ideas stand out to me.
- The Arthurian corpus, I believe, is Charles Williams’ great clearinghouse for all of his literary and theological output. The themes that Williams touches upon in all of his writings; The Web of Exchange, Co-inherence, The Vision of the City, the Way of the Affirmation of Images and the Way of the Denial of Images, are all present here and elevated from concept to archetype, or at least as far as Williams’ poetic abilities are able to carry them.
- Charles Williams was not a Roman Catholic but an Anglican. This is important. Forged in Tudor politics during an uncertain time, Anglicanism as a faith has had a more elliptical orbit than other Christian bodies. There have been times during its career when Anglicanism has wobbled close enough to Orthodoxy for the broad majority to thrive within something of a celestial “temperate zone”. I don’t want to go to far into this, but it appears to me that Charles Williams’ and CS Lewis’ time was just about optimal.
- Williams had the keen intuition to use the pre-Schism figure of Arthur [and the barely-historical figure of Taliessin] to anchor his romance of Christendom. The period of time between Theodosius and Alfred the Great is an interesting time. I always thought of pre-literate man as somewhat childlike, and high Roman culture was always more unstable in Britain than anywhere else in the Western Empire. The fall, when it finally came, was almost total, and there was enough “wiggle room” for the collective mythopoetic imagination to begin to accrete material around a minor Brythonic warlord with a shallow gloss of Romanitas, much as an oyster around a grain of sand, until the pearl of legend emerged.
Just on a whim, this morning I entered the phrase “male spirituality” into Google. The quotation marks are explicit, so that Google would search for the phrase rather than the two words. What came back was an interesting potpourri of links that I had only the time to skim the very surface of, much like a water-skeeter dances across the surface of a pond without breaking the surface tension. If she stops (I believe water-skeeters, like bees, are female), she drowns. There is almost no subject in the contemporary universe of discourse where there is as much danger of drowning is as in discussing sex, gender, and the relationship between the sexes. So I’m going to try to keep things as light as possible, to avoid breaking surface tension, to avoid drowning. For this reason, I start with a question, and it is not rhetorical. I am open to wherever the investigation leads.
About a year ago, someone asked me point blank in an email if I believed that men and women were equal. Because I didn’t really want to engage with this person and because the probability of mutual respect and civil discourse was minimal, I responded ‘Of course. What’s your point? ‘ It was cowardly on my part, I guess, because I don’t even believe men and men or women and women are equal, or that the same man or woman is equal diachronically. It got me thinking about our concept of equality. What does it mean for a man to be equal to a woman? What does it mean for a man to be equal to another man? It obviously isn’t the same as identity, or being the same, which is the schoolyard equivalent. Sameness is more of a function of manufactured things, things made by machine, on purpose, to be as identical as possible. Variety, diversity is more of a function of nature. But we live in a time where manufactured equality is crucial. Among other things, it makes it much easier and much less expensive to repair our cars, build a house, or track a household’s consumption of peanut butter. Also, we grow from the playground into the courtroom, but we carry our playground concepts with us when we go, and they grow along with us.
Equality, then, has to be something of an abstraction. We have to consciously disregard differences if we are going to treat two things as equal. I am a Trinitarian Christian, and therefore I can be neither a holist nor a reductionist. Neither the similarities nor the differences between men and women are absolute. The prevailing sentiment is that the differences between men and women should be minimized, that they are culturally defined, and these differences should never enter into consideration when a man or a woman is considering a course of action. Biology will have her tribute, though. Barring a technology that I can only imagine as infernal, men will never give birth, and a trained female mixed martial arts fighter would be suicidal to enter the Thunderdome against her male counterpart. These are differences of the body, of the human being considered as a physical object with all of its quiddity and measurability. A toaster and a grandmother dropped from Galileo’s tower will both strike the pavement simultaneously, but no one on this side of madness would consider them equal because of that.
But what happens when we leave the body, as we suppose, behind? What happens when we move into the realm of the spirit, of that indefinable something that differentiates the grandmother from the toaster, indeed, even from a birch tree, sea snail, or a Shetland pony ? Surely we leave the distinctions of the body behind. Now, I am not a trained theologian, but I can follow theologians when they talk, and that is a useful skill. What I want to do is examine evidence both for and against the idea of gender-specific spirituality and leave aside the urgency of coming to a conclusion. Especially, I don’t want to be railroaded towards a conclusion. I may as well mention the Manosphere, especially its Christian “branch”, whose meticulously ground and deeply resentful axes will find plenty of timber upon which to assay purchase.
I lean by temperament and upbringing to believe that men and women will respond to God differently. I am not alone in thinking so. Very soon after becoming a conscious disciple of Christ I was assailed by a group of married Christian women who wanted me to ‘evangelize’ their husbands. It was thought that, being a man, it would be easier for me to encourage them to participate in churchly activities. I was a dismal failure at this. I am a transplanted Yankee. Their husbands were Southern good ol’ boys. Church was, for them, something that it was fitting for women and children to be involved in, and Yankees, who don’t much care for NASCAR and whose football loyalties were tied to Big Ten teams with highly suspect ground games. “Men are too proud for church. Their masculine pride won’t allow them to accept any help, even from the Lord”, one wife complained to me in the presence of our pastor. This pastor had been on the ground at Guadalcanal. I don’t think anybody could accuse him of a lack of masculinity. Yet the fact remained, men were scarce in our church. They were scarce in the Pentecostal Church, in the Baptist Church, in the Methodist Church. They were less scarce in the PCA Presbyterian church, but they tended to be bookish and intellectual. If they were aggressive, it was usually with a lawyerly kind of aggression.
The Orthodox church doesn’t have this problem. If anything, it has too many men. It is said that Orthodoxy attracts and retains men because it is “challenging”. The rules are more stringent in Orthodoxy than they are in other precincts of Christendom. The fasting rules are strict. The Orthodox faithful are vegan some 40% of the year, and often at inconvenient times. Services are long and you are expected to stand for most them. Prayers are interminable, and no quarter is given to the flesh. It remains that many people believe that Orthodoxy has a “heroic ethos” that “attracts men”. The less charitable accuse us of being the last bastion of the He-Man Woman Haters Club that used to be coterminous with Christendom and has been reduced in these enlightened times to a diminishing circle of Slavic waggons, and THAT is what attracts men, and you are welcome to them.
A thousand words in, and I haven’t even quoted a Bible verse. I’ll do that next time. Actually I think the venerable Auld Booke is more egalitarian than I am, but that for next time.
Lent has started, and my belly is rumbling. Even though the freshness of the Fast has yet to fade and the initial enthusiasm is still riding high, I know that before long the drab meals, the prostrations, and the abstention from electronic entertainment will begin to take its toll on my good nature. My family, unfortunately, will be the first to pay the price. Sooner or later, the Great Fast will bring me face to face with an undeniable fact about myself that I try energetically to deny the rest of the year; that I am a sinner, someone who puts his own comfort and convenience ahead of even the most legitimate of claims others have on me.
By the time the fourth week in Lent rolls around, my bruised and battered self-righteousness may be ready to pray this lovely prayer, and mean it:
“I have outdone the Publican in my transgressions,
yet I do not emulate him in his repentance;
I have not gained the virtue of the Pharisee,
yet I surpass his self-conceit.
O Christ my God, in Thy supreme humility
Thou hast upon the Cross destroyed the devil’s arrogance;
make me a stranger to the past sins of the Publican
and to the great foolishness of the Pharisee;
establish in my soul the good that each of them possessed,
and save me.”
The Orthodox Church is a good place for sinners. There are a lot of us here. As a former Evangelical, it has been quite costly to jettison the concept of the “regenerate Church”. The field of Protestantism is full of formerly “pure churches” where the hands currently on the rudder are steering their barques in a direction that I don’t believe the original pilots would have wanted them to take. It is hard anyway to keep a church in pristine form longer than one or two generations, and it would take a heart of diamantine hardness and abstraction to look down at your newborn child and see only an unregenerate heathen, cordwood for the fires of Hell. I think this may indeed be the genesis of that peculiar informal Protestant doctrine of the “age of accountability” , which if it were true, would make abortion something of a mercy rather than a misfortune.
Unfortunately, the Orthodox Church in the United States is a wonderful place to indulge a spiritual elitism that would be the envy of the most fastidious supralapsarian Neo-Calvinist or the most prophetically endowed Third Wave Pentecostal. Our parishes are for the most part small, the regular attendees at Liturgy are mostly pious and those who attend Vespers and Orthros even more so. Ehrmergerd! All of this and we’re in The One True Church as well? Talk about dropping the bacterium of Phariseeism into a Petri dish full of yummy sugar water…
Thank God as Holy Week approaches, more and more of the marginal members of the parish start showing up; that rough looking guy with the flashy wife and the tattoos on his knuckles, the couple who own the nightclub, the Coptic girl who’s married to a Muslim and wears a hijab, the husbands and wives of parishoners who you see so seldom that it is hard to remember who goes with whom. Its hard to talk with them at coffee hour, but they remind you that the Church is indeed for everyone. James Joyce made the remark about the Catholic Church – “Here comes everyone!” With a change in geography, the same could be said of the Orthodox Church. I wonder if I lived in a traditional Orthodox society whether I’d see these ‘marginal’ types more often. Would I see them as brothers and sisters in Christ, or would I see them as part of the mission field?
JRR Tolkien, in one of his letters to his son, recommended that he embrace the catholicity of the Church as a spiritual discipline :
“Also I can recommend this as an exercise (alas! only too easy to find opportunity for): make your communion in circumstances that affront your taste. Choose a snuffling or gabbling priest or a proud and vulgar friar; and a church full of the usual bourgeois crowd, ill-behaved children – from those who yell to those products of Catholic schools who the moment the tabernacle is opened sit back and yawn – open necked and dirty youths, women in trousers and often with hair both unkempt and uncovered. Go to communion with them (and pray for them). It will be just the same (or better than that) as a mass said beautifully by a visibly holy man, and shared by a few devout and decorous people. It could not be worse than the mess of the feeding of the Five Thousand – after which our Lord propounded the feeding that was to come.”
PS – Sorry about the super-heroes.
Not too many years ago a young monastic aspirant went to Mount Athos. In talking with the venerable abbot of the monastery where he wished to stay, he told him, “Holy Father! My heart burns for the spiritual life, for asceticism, for unceasing communion with God, for obedience to an Elder. Instruct me, please, holy Father, that I may attain to spiritual advancement.”
Going to the bookshelf, the Abbot pulled down a copy of David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. “Read this, son,” he said.
“But Father!” objected the disturbed aspirant. “This is heterodox Victorian sentimentality, a product of the Western captivity! This isn’t spiritual; it’s not even Orthodox! I need writings which will teach me spirituality!”
The Abbot smiled, saying, “Unless you first develop normal, human, Christian feelings and learn to view life as little Davey did – with simplicity, kindness, warmth, and forgiveness – then all the Orthodox ‘spirituality’ and Patristic writings will not only be of no help to you-they will turn you into a ‘spiritual’ monster and destroy your soul.”
A while back, blogger with similar interests to mine posted that Christians ought not, and Orthodox Christians most definitely should not, read fantasy literature:
Fantasy… is a pure expression of the passions. Basically it’s whatever the mind imagines ends up on paper. So then we end up with werewolves and vampires and a celebration of evil that in the modern genre completely lacks what the original characters were intended to portray. In this way, a genre that was meant to lead someone toward Christ now pulls them in the opposite direction by tantalizing every wicked fantasy and passion imaginable, and infusing it with a lustful voyeurism so that people constantly want more and more perverse and graphic fantasies.
On the surface, I have to say that I agree with her. “Man’s imaginations are wicked from his youth”, Genesis says. I made an offhand comment about fifteen years ago to a friend on the ‘darkening’ of the fantasy genre; most of the material that was coming out at that time seemed to be concerned with the demonic, and with the infernal side of occultic powers. There didn’t seem to be any celestial counterweight and a lot of fantasy material seemed to be moving from the Tolkienesque to the “gritty”, “realistic” outlook. The best of it was pagan/stoic and the worst of it was flatly demonic. Once the pornification of Western society got underway in earnest, wrought in great part by the Internet, fantasy literature followed suit, and now you can’t turn a page without some sexual practice that would have shocked a jury forty years ago described in painstaking detail between orcs and elves.
It is not fantasy material exclusively that as fallen prey to this; romances are saucier and kinkier; simple murder no longer suffices to carry a detective novel, you need cannibalism or torture. The problem is that there is no longer any intermediary between the head, the eyes, and the loins. Lewis’ Men Without Chests have arrived, and they are worse than any glittering vampire or werewolf out of the latest potboiler. There is in Tibetan Buddhism the concept of the Hungry Ghost (ཡི་དྭགས), an entity with overdeveloped mouth and stomach, but with a neck and chest too thin to allow for the passage of food. This parcel of decayed human energy lives in constant torment as its enormous stomach demands input from its hypertrophied mouth, but there is nothing in between that can mediate the transfer. We have starved the sentiments for so long that we may be said to exist in a state of spiritual diabetes. We devour and devour all manner of stories; fantasies, romances, novels, but we seem incapable to extract even the minutest nutrition from any on them, We are like those who lack a vital digestive enzyme.
Forty years ago, Father Seraphim Rose also noticed this strange deficiency in young pilgrims coming to his California monastery for spiritual guidance:
[There is a] problem [which] lies in the poverty of our modern soul, which has not been prepared or trained to receive the depths of true Christian experience. There is a cultural as well as a psychological aspect to this poverty of ours: The education of youth today, especially in America, is notoriously deficient in developing responsiveness to the best expressions of human art, literature, and music, as a result of which young people are formed haphazardly under the influence of television, rock music, and other manifestations of today’s culture (or rather, anti-culture); and, both as a cause and as a result of this–but most of all because of the absence on the part of parents and teachers of any conscious idea of what Christian Life is and how a young person should be brought up in it–the soul of a person who has survived the years of youth is often an emotional wasteland, and at best reveals deficiencies in the basic attitudes towards life that were once considered normal and indispensable
Father Seraphim went on to say that what was needed in this situation was a “Dushevni diet”, one that would nourish the middle soul, the Chest, in Lewis’ vocabulary. The idea of the “Dushevni diet” is to allow the soul to learn those responses to an object which those objects ought naturally to invoke, or which a well-trained soul should naturally feel. Lewis himself, in The Abolition Of Man, uses the example of Samuel Johnson’s observation that
That man is little to be envied, whose patriotism would not gain force
upon the plain of Marathon, or whose piety would not grow warmer among the
ruins of Iona.
with the caveat that the man whose patriotism does not swell at Marathon or whose piety is not warmed at Iona will inevitably complain that because his [lack of] patriotism and his [lack of] piety are neither strengthened nor fortified at either Marathon or Iona, it must follow the idea of these places doing either is a subjective fantasy, and that his feelings of tedium and his desire to find an inn where he can grab a beer and watch the soccer matches are just as valid as all that sentimental nonsense about brave ancient Athenian citizen-warriors or Celtic monks standing waist deep in freezing water chanting the Psalms. I’m sorry, but those thoughts are the grandfathers to the complaints of overweight women that they are equally as desirable to as wide an array of men as their slender sisters. That just is not so. Value is as objective as anything measured by the positive sciences. It is just that the instrument used to measure it is not a scale, or a measuring stick, or a pipette, but rather the human soul itself. If that soul is faulty or unbalanced, it will perforce register a different value for the object than will the purer soul.
Until this point, I have said nothing that Fr. Seraphim and Dr. Lewis have not said before me, and much more eloquently. However, as far as an Orthodox Christian who enjoys and appreciates the fantasy genre as I do, I would like to make the following observations:
First of all, salvation is offered to us through What Is, not through what we would like it to be. The very first time I saw an Orthodox icon of Christ, I was struck by the Greek legend Ὁ ὮΝ, “That Which IS”, in the nimbus of his halo. In itself, this would appear to be reason enough to exclude anything of a fantastic nature from Fr. Seraphim’s “dushevni diet”, and with the vast majority of modern fantasy, I would be in complete agreement with myself. There is a lot of brutality, a lot of anxiety, a lot of lasciviousness, and a complete lack of transcendence in most fantasy material these days, both Western and Eastern. I include Eastern fantastic literature because Japanese and Korean manga (comics) and anime (cartoons) are occupy the same literary niche for young people of my son’s generation that The Lord Of The Rings and the Narnia books occupied for me when I was younger.
But there is an important point I would like to make: For all the popularity of the ‘gritty’, ‘realistic’ fantasies of Joe Abercrombie, George R. R. Martin, and China Mieville, we would do well to remember that they are considered ‘realistic’ because of one important point; their narratives unwind in created worlds that resemble our own in one essential way; they are closed worlds where even magic is technological in nature. It obeys ‘rules’ that cannot be broken, which can be observed and mastered, and using techniques which can be perfected through experimentation and practice. There is no help coming from beyond the circle of the invented world. Self-interest rules all things, and the struggle of omnes contra omnes continues apace. In the hands of the aforementioned authors, this “realistic” approach to fantasy has produced some engaging yarns. They are gifted writers, and, interestingly, Mr. Mieville has produced a story which points beyond itself in a way I’m not certain the author didn’t intend.
In The City And The City, Mr. Mieville has created two separate cities, Beszel and Ul Quoma. The two cities occupy the same physical space, and may even share buildings and streets. Each ‘city’ has its own airport and port district. Citizens of each city can dimly glimpse, at times, residents of the other city or the outlines of buildings. However, to admit to this is to commit Breach, risking arrest and incarceration. Citizens of both cities have been strictly trained since earliest childhood to disregard all evidence of the other city. The narrative of Mr. Mieville’s book unwinds as a policeman in the less wealthy city, Beszel, is investigating a murder of a young woman which implicates a well-connected functionary in the corresponding, wealthier city of Ul Quoma. His distress increases as he realizes that the world in which he grew up believing does not correspond to the world as it actually is.
In the same way, there is something fantastic about the life we live in our sanitized, corporatized, modern world. We fly across the landscape like Djinn in metal boxes. We know the thoughts of others at multiplied hundreds of leagues. We hear no animals bawl out their agonies when their time comes to keep us nourished. In addition, a constant barrage of intellectual static that attempts to convince us that This Truncated World Is The Real World, that nothing exists outside of what can be measured, monetarized, and manipulated. If you want to maintain little fantasy religious worlds or little counter-cultural worlds within strict boundaries of a “religious” or “intentional” community, you are by all means free to do so (We are not tyrants, after all, is another song that is sung constantly). If you try to smuggle anything out from behind those well-guarded frontiers, though, you will find yourself committing Breach and arousing the ire of the Gatekeepers. In this way, something like The Lord Of The Rings, or even Spirited Away, can serve to cast doubt on the Official Narrative. Spiritual forces and proper human sentiment can be experienced as liberating and empowering, and in this way, the Real World, The Only One That Truly Is, that which is signalled by the Greek letters in the halo, can be made more real than this dreary official fantasy in which we find ourselves.
I admit I’m in kind of a quandary.
The pastor at the the Assemblies of God church my wife attends spent 45 minutes last Sunday pleading with God for a “community wide revival”. Now, although I was baptized in a church that isn’t known as a hotbed of revival, I spent around thirty years of my life between 1973 and about 1996 in and out of different revival-oriented churches. Somehow, I had gotten the idea that the church into which I was baptized was not a church to be taken seriously by serious Christians, and in 1973, I considered myself a serious Christian. You see, I had a serious “come to Jesus” moment. After several years in the late sixties, early seventies drug-and-rock-and-roll culture, something of a revival broke out among people my age. It was called The Jesus Movement, and I don’t want to think about the influence it had on American Protestantism because dwelling on that depresses me profoundly. Suffice it to say that in 1968, Protestantism was a pursuit for grown-ups and for those young people who aspired to that label. Fast forward forty years and the most important thing in Protestant Christianity is that it be relevant, i.e. amenable to a group of people who, as CS Lewis said of Susan Pevensie, want ” to race on to the silliest time of one’s life as [possible] and then stop there as long as [one] can.” Boomer fingerprints are all over early 21st century Protestant Christianity, and you can barely see inside for all the smudges.
The church into which I was baptized was a Constantinian church, that is to say, a state church or an ethnic church. It was old-school. A Christian was someone who was born into the ethnic group and who had been baptized into its fellowship as an infant. The Assemblies of God church I found refuge in in 1973 was what I guess you would call a Revival church. Father Stephen Freeman, on his excellent blog Glory To God For All Things, does a very good job of explaining the difference. You become a member of a Revival church by “getting saved” and undergoing baptism as an adult. It was implied that something was defective if you had only the first level of Christianity. It was implied that the only thing baptism accomplished for you as an infant was to make you wet. I remember the Assemblies of God pastor and many of the more eminent layfolk considering people in my native church valid objects of evangelism. I did too, and it led to some embarrassing incidents where I displayed too much zeal and too little discernment. There are a lot of very pious people in the Assemblies of God. I could tell the difference even when I was very young. A Congregational minister in whose choir I sang because my mother earned a stipend as their choir leader often allowed his Assemblies of God-ordained sister to preach when he was absent. The difference was between night and day. It took a while, and a lot of growing up, before I could appreciate the serious Christians in my ancestral church.
The “Jesus Revolution” started in earnest in my neck of the woods in the early 70s. A lot of the ne’er-do-wells I hung around with at the time put down the hash pipes, picked up Bibles and headed for the churches, especially the more progressive, cooler ones that embraced coffee houses with lots of espresso and folk-rock bands as a means of attracting truculent, “hard to reach” young people. The idea was that we would funnel from the coffee houses into the churches, eventually. What a surprise to find that the coffee houses digested the churches and now it is very, very difficult to find a church that still acts like the churches of my parents’ generation, what with introits, Kyries, responsive readings, and all of that panoplia. Indeed, it is hard to find a church that will admit to being a church at all – we are overwhelmed with Worship Centers, Family Life Centers, Gathering Places, Deliverance Ministries, etc, and sometimes you have to dig pretty hard to find out what brand of Christianity is subscribed to.
Now, I did not leave Evangelicalism/Pentecostalism because I was “disillusioned” with Evangelicalism/Pentecostalism. Evangelicalism fulfilled its purpose in my life. It introduced me to Jesus Christ, which 20 years as a member in good standing in my ancestral Reformed church did not do. This bothers me, because it was not that I didn’t have ample opportunity to meen Jesus in the Reformed church. It was that I wasn’t paying any attention. When I finally started paying attention, it was the Pentecostals who benefitted. It was the miracle stories, really, I guess. The Pentecostal God was the kind of God I assumed from my glancing knowledge of the Scriptures. But once Evangelicalism introduces you to Jesus, there isn’t a whole lot further it can take you. It’s a design flaw, really. Everything about Evangelicalism is designed to get you to Jesus as quickly and as painlessly as possible. Whether you stay with Him is pretty much entirely up to you.
I left Evangelicalism in its Pentecostal variety because I encountered the Orthodox Church, and I was convinced of her claim to be the apostolic Church founded by Jesus Christ on the foundation of the Holy Apostles. That meant that the original design was much more like my ancestral Reformed church than it was like any of the Revivalist churches I spent time in afterwards. People are born into it and find their spiritual subsistence there. Pastors of revivalist churches often scratch their heads when I explain this to them, because nobody in the Orthodox Church is “born again” according to their lights. Except the converts from Evangelicalism, who by those rights should be the ‘best’ Christians in the Orthodox Church, but who usually aren’t.
But once again, I wonder what Orthodox spiritual renewal looks like. I know the Orthodox Church went through some very decadent times, when the faith of the faithful was reduced to a handful of superstitions and family customs. Apart from this historical understanding, the stories of St. Cosmas of Aitolos and St. Nektarios of Corinth make little sense at all. I mentioned to my parish priest that the career of St. Cosmas of Aitolos reminded me a great deal of that of John Wesley, his contemporary. Now the Orthodox Church does not do “revivals” or “renewals”, like you see so often in the history of Western Christendom, but SS Cosmas and Nektarios were instrumental in “reOrthodoxing the Orthodox”; like Wesley, they founded churches, schools, and orphanges, rekindled parish life. Father replied, “Wesley, sadly, provoked a schism. St. Cosmas created unity.” That started me thinking. In every major Protestant awakening, from the first flutterings of Pietism and Puritanism in the 17th century to the Emergent movement in the 21st, the price of increased spirituality always came to be paid in the coin of schism, with one group of Christians labeling their predecessors as lacking in zeal and not really worthy of the term. Maybe monasticism takes the place of this in the Catholic and Orthodox Church.
I know what my wife’s pastor is saying. The darkness of this age is getting so thick it is nearly palpable. At a time when we need to love each other or perish, we cannot abide the sight of one another. Jesus has gone from being the Savior of penitents and the Lord of the Church to a nosegay for our culture and an issuer of seals of approval for our political positions, left or right.
But I don’t want another revival. Please, Lord, don’t send another revival. We won’t survive another revival.
Send the Holy Spirit, but Lord, to be honest, I haven’t been Orthodox long enough to know what this would mean for my wife’s pastor’s community, for my county, for my city, right now.
The first fifteen days of August the Orthodox Church dedicates to Mary, the Mother of God. There is a fast, the Dormition fast, that lasts from the first of the month to the fifteenth, which is the Feast of the Dormition of the Most Holy Mother of God. Even though the fast is not as extended or as severe as Great Lent, it is a beautiful and restful season in the time of the Church, and it comes at a time when there isn’t much else going on in the secular calendar. Summer is winding down to a conclusion, and schoolchildren are preparing to return to their studies, so there is little to distract from the precious person of the Mother of God.
As a former Protestant, and especially as a former Calvinist, it hasn’t been easy for me to appreciate or properly honor Jesus’ mother, from whom He acquired our nature and united it to His Divine nature. There is always the memory of the bearded jealous fiend who rent Jesus on the cross to satisfy his inflated sense of honor, and who, having by creating created an ontological abyss even He cannot bridge, flies into paroxysms of rage if one iota of that honor is appropriated by another. Nevertheless, most of this disappeared like a morning fog at midday when I began to learn something of the Orthodox tradition of the Mother of God, who in her own person recapitulated Israel and became the tabernacle of God, the dwelling place of His glory.
The story that convinced me was the beautiful story of when St Joachim and St Anna took her to the Temple when she was three years old. The Protoevangelium of James reports that “he [St. Joachim her father, I imagine] made her to sit upon the third step of the altar. And the Lord put grace upon her and she danced with her feet and all the house of Israel loved her.” Upon reading that, the image of a tiny dark-haired girl dancing for joy before a row of solemn, bearded priests lept unbidden to my mind and I too loved her. I loved not the concept of the Mother of God, which title really speaks more about Her great Son, but I loved her, the tiny joy-filled girl she was, the obedient mother she became, the church matron beyond and behind all church matrons for whom she served as the first and greatest; the archtype of all the yiayias, matushkas, abuelitas, and grannies who pray so ardently for the salvation of their children and grandchildren.
So, enjoy the Lady Days, as I have come to call them for myself. Give your hearts and your stomachs a rest, and rejoice in her whose obedience reversed the disobedience of Eve, whose candor brought to completion the deception of Tamar, whose perseverance crowned the loyalty and patience of Ruth.
Thou who art truly the Mother of God, we magnify you
Oh, Heavenly King, Comforter, Spirit of Truth
You who are everywhere and fill all things
Treasury of blessing and Giver of Life
Come and abide in us and cleanse us from every stain,
Oh, Good One!
From the Trisagion Prayers of the Orthodox Church
The concept of coinherence is foundational to Charles Williams’ writing; his prose fantasies, his poetry, and his non-fictional theological works, but it is very hard to understand exactly what he means by it. People claim it is too abstract, but it is based on the Patristic concept of perichoreisis, which is the mode of being of the most Holy Trinity.
As I delayed in getting this post out of WordPress’ penalty box, another blogger has essentially beaten me to the punch. The writer of The Orthosphere has written a three post series on The Economy of Forgiveness which is based on a meditation on Charles Williams’ novel All Hallows’ Eve , and which is expanded in two subsequent posts:
The first post introduces Williams’ key concepts of Co-inherence and The Way Of Exchange. The writer of the Orthosphere does a masterful job here unpacking what Williams meant by both of these terms.
There is no escape from the Web Of Exchange – all of reality, material and immaterial, is constructed to reflect the nature of the most Holy Trinity, that is to say, it is a Unity composed of interconnected parts which, as you rise higher and higher in the chain of being from inert matter through the biosphere into human society and culminating in the society of the Blessed Trinity, the component parts become more and more distinct and their interpenetration and mutual dependence more and more absolute.
In the second post the writer of the Orthosphere introduces another Williamsian concept, the idea of vicarious suffering as the medium of exchange in the moral universe, which allows for something akin to an orthopedia of the soul to occur. In the final post he introduces the Communion of the Saints through mutual intercession.
When I was in the process of converting from the Reformed version of Christianity to Holy Orthodoxy, I was continually reminded by friends who were nervous about my insistence on the intercessions of the Saints that ‘there was only one mediator between God and man, the Man Christ Jesus’. My response was that that word was mediated to us through Paul and the dubious ministrations of, among others, the Zondervan Corporation, now part of Rupert Murdoch’s empire of mediation.
Indeed, mediation is the point of the Universe.
Lent is beginning to creep up upon us again. In the Orthodox Church we are in the middle of what is called the Triodion, a period of preparation for Lent which is, in itself, a preparation for Pascha. There are, aptly, three Sundays in the Triodion, all of which bring repentance front and center; last week was Zacchaeus Sunday, tomorrow is the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee followed by a week free of fasting. Next Sunday is the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, and the Triodion will be complete. After that is Meatfare Sunday and Cheesefare week, where dairy is allowed but meat prescribed. This completes the gradual descent into the full rigors of an Orthodox Lent.
Last year, I asked for suggestions about movies that might be appropriate viewing for the Lenten season. I got a lot of recommendations. Some were classics; Ben-Hur, The Ten Commandments, The Gospel According to St. Matthew. Some were wonderful surprises; The Island, Godspell, In Bruges, Italian For Beginners, Tokyo Godfathers
There were some which were recommended for which I couldn’t discern any connection to the season; Au Hasard Baltasar, Ordet, Seventh Seal. There were some that even interfered with my celebration of the season, although they are excellent films otherwise; Gran Torino, Facing The Giants, The Blind Side. I found Fireproof unwatchable.
Of all the films I watched during Lent last year, there are three in particular I want to take with me into Lent this year as being particularly reflective of three major virtues I am going to try to cultivate; Repentance, Simplicity, Gratitude.
Repentance: Flywheel (2003).
Before culture-war Christianity there was just plain Christianity. This comes out clearly in this first film by Sherwood Productions, a production company which has since gone on to release lucrative releases for the Evangelical market such as Fireproof and Courageous. Flywheel was their first attempt, and it shgows, especially in the acting and in the production values. The spiritual value of the film, however, is head and shoulders above its successors.
The protagonist is the church-going owner of a used car lot. He takes pride in being able to milk more profit out of each transactions than any of his other salespeople. His marriage is falling apart, but that doesn’t particularly concern him. I don’t remember offhand what the crisis was that led to his repentance, but at one point he came face to face with the teachings of Christ. He had to make a decision to cease his dishonest dealings and make costly restitution. The struggles he faces while attempting to reorder his business in a way that would not be unfaithful to his faith are believable This modern-day Zacchaeus re-emerges as a business leader in a way that is neither hokey or predictable.
Simplicity Amal (2007)
Truth be told, we Orthodox are proudly semi-Pelagian. Inasmuch the whole nature vs grace distinction that so preoccupied the Blessed Augustine makes any sense in our context at all, we are not so uncomfortable with nature as are many other Christian traditions (Forgive me if appear as though I am speaking for the whole Orthodox Church here. I am a layman, and not a very good one at that). Natural human goodness was God’s original plan. There is more of it than we have a right to expect, and wherever it is encountered, it should be encouraged.
This film is the story of Dostoyevsky’s Prince Mishkin on the crowded streets of New Delhi. Amal is a rickshaw driver, who never complains when others abuse him, never charges more than his due, and who is honest to a fault. Indeed, like Mishkin, he is thought to be a little bit simple. However, one day he gives a rich man a ride who is in the throes of an existential crisis. Amal so impresses the rich man that the rich man determines to leave his entire fortune to the rickshaw driver to the despite of his dissolute and violent children. Amal’s character illuminates the flaws of the other, more self-centered characters in the film, and many of them come to, if not repentance, at least a greater self-knowledge a lessening of their egoism.
Gratitude Babette’s Feast (1987)
Two sisters, spinster daughters of the founder of an austere Protestant sect, take in as a cook/servant a worldly Parisian woman who is in some political trouble. Despite the hard-scrabble lifestyle of the sisters and the barrenness of their physical surroundings, the Frenchwoman does not complain and earns the respect and even the love of the two sisters over the years.
The Frenchwoman wins a sum of money in a lottery, and everyone expects her to return to Paris and resume her life. Instead, she spends the bulk of her winnings on a single night’s dinner for the sisters and surviving members of their sect. Indeed, the major part of the film is food porn at its most lascivious – the Frenchwoman is a master chef and she lavishes all her considerable skill on this single meal.
When the food and drink finally arrives at the table, it works an almost Eucharistic spell; old wrongs are forgiven, lapsed friendships are renewed, paths not taken are reopened and cherished for what might have ensued. Briefly, earthly food and drink becomes the transmitter of grace, and the barrier between the sensuous and the spiritual dissolves.