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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.
There, far away, beyond sad Gondor now overwhelmed in shade, the Sun was sinking, finding at last the hem of the great slow-rolling pall of cloud, and falling in an ominous fire towrds the yet unsullied Sea. The brief glow fell upon a huge sitting figure, still and solemn as the great stone kings of Argonath. The years had gnawed it, and violent hands had maimed it. Its head was gone, and in its place was set in mockery a round rough-hewn stone, rudely painted by savage hands in the likeness of a grinning face with one large red eye in the midst of its forehead. Upon its knees and mighty chair, and all about the pedestal, were idle scrawls mixed with the foul symbols that the maggot folk of Mordor used.
Suddenly, caught by the level beam, Frodo saw the old king’s head: it was lying rolled away by the road side. ‘Look, Sam!’ he cried, startled into speech. ‘The king has got a crown again!’
The eyes were hollow and the carven head was broken, but about the high stern forehead there was a coronal of silver and gold. A trailing plant with flowers like small white stars had bound itself across the brows as if in reverence for the fallen king, and in the crevices of his stony hair yellow stonecrop gleamed.
‘They cannot conquer forever!’ said Frodo. And then suddenly the brief glimpse was gone. The Sun dipped and vanished, and as if at the stuttering of a lamp, black night fell.
JRR Tolkien, The Lord Of The Rings , II, Journey To The Crossroads
“There are only so many people capable of putting together words that stir and move and sing. When it became possible to earn a very good living in advertising by exercising this capability, lyric poetry was left to untalented screwballs who had to shriek for attention and compete by eccentricity.”
“You can’t trust reason. We threw it out of the ad profession long ago and have never missed it.”CM Kornbluth
Father Stephen Freeman, on his popular blog, Glory To God For All Things, swings for the fence a lot. He is the kind of blogger who isn’t content to hit singles and doubles consistently and get on base, but he expects to hit a bases-loaded home run each time he steps out of the batting box. With his latest post, A Crisis Of Beauty, he does precisely that.
Father Stephen lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, a community that received in the 1940s the sobriquet of being “the ugliest city in America”, and has recently been anointed as the “most Bible-minded city in America.” Father Stephen meditates on the ugliness of modern American life and wonders why it has to be so, especially in a community that is so ‘Bible minded’. The comments that the good Father’s post engendered discuss a number of possible causes, from the baleful influence of popular Evangelical Protestantism, to the Malthusian argument that there are too many [of the wrong kind of] people, to the corruption of oligarchic market capitalism.
Ugliness was one of the marks of evil in Tolkien’s trilogy The Lord Of The Rings. Orcs were ‘ruined elves’, and the cannon fodder of the Dark Lord. It was a mark of their degradation that they hated beauty. The poor deformed creatures could create no beauty of their own, and the mere existence of it reminded them of their lost estate, so they hated beauty and defaced it whenever they encountered it.
I think something orc-like has entered into the soul of Late Imperial America. Ugliness sets up a self-reinforcing feedback loop. Working in an ugly building, living in an ugly, cookie-cutter house, eating tasteless, corn syrup-based foods in an ugly AppleChili’s Red Olive Barrel, worshiping in a gymnasium or a hangar to a cacophony of electronically distorted noises, makes you uglier, and this internal ugliness produces in turn more ugliness, and worse, a contentment with ugliness and eventually, a resentment of beauty. But there us another force at work, something that will not prove easy to undo, because it has lodged in one of our most basic and most primal human passions.
What I have to say here is going to be controversial The pornification of American culture has played a key role in uglifying it. A frequent Orthodox poster on blogs pertaining to modern relationships between the sexes remarks that about the only personal characteristic that 21st century cares about is sex appeal. Everything else is secondary, maybe even superfluous
The problem is that porn is boring. There are just so many ways that you can rub body parts together, and eventually, the itch you are trying to scratch becomes larger than anything you can scratch it with. Additionally, for some reason not immediately apparent to me, use of pornography sears a sector of the human soul that appreciates and evaluates beauty. As the flesh and the sexual passions clamor more insistently, little by little, the other pleasures recede and lose their ability to charm, entice, or motivate.
I don’t think that even 20 years ago, it was apparent that our society would become as highly sexualized as it currently is. The Sexual Revolution is, of course, very old news, and the original impetus for it came from Scandinavia and France, were traditional attitudes towards sexuality dissolved before they did here in the US. The message that you can have sex with whomever you want whenever you want with no adverse effects is one that is always going to find fertile soil, though.
The increasing sexualization of society has a side-effect. We are primates, and whatever your view of human origins and our relationship to monkeys, apes, and lemurs, human females share an observable tendency that they share with other female primates – they are attracted to males who exhibit what is called conspicuous consumption. These days, the most desirable females come with a very, very high price tag. This is, I believe, the motive force, the engine behind the ruthless exploitation of resources and rapid monetarization of anything that provokes even a momentary interest. A market will be found, and usually it will be ignited by the image of an appealing young woman.
Which is a shame. Americans are not an ugly people, more that any other other people who dwell on the face of the earth, and we were, as recently as the early forties, exploring our own way of creating beauty. There are English ways of being beautiful, French ways, Russian ways, Chinese ways, and if you have ever heard the Cherubic hymn sung by a Kenyan choir, African ways as well. Indeed, a lot of what it means to be beautiful is what it means to be beautiful right here, right now. There is an Beauty of This Moment and This Place which is not transferable to There and Then. It is the increasing homogenization, the franchising of America [as Father Stephen calls it] that is a key element to its uglification.
American Beauty, which is essentially a regional beauty, even a local beauty, was strangled in the crib by a rising advertising/promotional industry, an industry whose goal was to decouple the purchasing will from the higher brain functions and make it as reliable as breathing and circulation by attaching it to our most basic passions. Once the link to sex was discovered and ruthlessly exploited, there was no more room for American Beauty.
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.
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
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.
I responded to the late Michael Spencer, of Internet Monk fame, when he posted a couple of years ago about the lack of sacramentality in Evangelical worship:But evangelicals are in sacramental chaos, and the results are quite obvious. Evangelicals are “re-sacramentalizing” in an uncritical and unbiblical way. The Planetshakers article was good evidence, but you can see and hear it everywhere. What are our evangelical sacraments? Where will evangelicals defend the idea that “God is dependably at work?” We have sacramentalized technology.
We have sacramentalized the pastor and other leaders.
We have sacramentalized music. (i.e. the songs themselves and the experience of singing.)
We have sacramentalized leaders of musical worship.
We have sacramentalized events. (God is here!)
We have sacramentalized the various forms of the altar call.
We have sacramentalized the creation of an emotional reaction.
We’ve done all of this, amazingly, while de-emphasizing and theologically gutting baptism. We’ve done this while reducing the Lord’s Supper to a relatively meaningless, optional recollection. We’ve done this while removing any aspects of sacramentalism from our worship and even our architecture. (Public reading of scripture, hymns, tables/altars, baptisteries, pulpits.) And we’ve given over to whomever wants to speak up the power to say what God is saying, what God is doing, what God is using, what God thinks of whatever we’re doing, what the Spirit is up to and so on.
I hadn’t been Orthodox a year when all of a sudden it hit me why Evangelicals, my former self included, believed that Catholics and Orthodox **worshipped saints**, statues, icons and Mary. We treat them the way Evangelicals treat God. That is to say, we do religious acts in their presence, directed to them. No wonder. Since there is no [official] sacrifice in Evangelical worship, there is just “dylia” offered to God, religious acts done in His presence, directed to Him.
Any Cathodox would be aghast, and rightly so, at offering the Eucharist to anyone except the most Holy Trinity. Without the Eucharist properly understood… You have kind of a Jesusism, an ideology extracted from a text, subject to all of the vicissitudes and mutations of any ideology.
Apparently, that is the Paschal Greeting in Tolkien’s constructed Elvish language Quenya. It was fun tracking down the exact translation of this phrase. Apparently, it comes from Tolkien himself, who also translated several Christian prayers into Quenya, such as The Lord’s Prayer and the Hail Mary.
Naturally, this leads to some speculation as to what significance the Incarnation, Passion, and Resurrection of Eru Ilúvatar has for the Elves. There is precious little to go by either in The Lord of the Rings or The Silmarillon. Human piety or apostasy is measured in these works by the human group’s faithfulness to the alliance with the Eldar, and by extension, to the Valar. Yet there is a line drawn between the Elves, who are bound to this world and cannot transpass it, and Men, whose fate lies “beyond the circle of the world, and what it is, even Mandos cannot tell.”
Nevertheless, Tolkien constructed his mythology to be, at the least, compatible with the worship of the Blessed Trinity. I view the Valar as Elementals, roughly corresponding to the των στοιχειων του κοσμου [“the elements of this world”], mentioned so coyly in St. Paul’s Letter to the Colossians (2:20). Alas, the Elves never finish their apprenticeship. The virtual immortality in this world which is so coveted by the fallen Numenoreans, turns out to be a perpetual submission to the Valar. Men would eventually come, because of their participation in the Divine nature, to overshadow their titular overlords. So, the First would be Last, and the Last, First.
The number and depth of human-Elvish relationships show that the Elves have at least a capacity to enter into the communio sanctorum, except that they would be participating from the streets of Tirion and Alqualondë, rejoicing in the good fortune of their younger brethren and awaiting their own eventual redemption. I am certain that the learned among them, on this bright Feast of Feasts, would greet each other with the Paschal greeting:
Ortanne Laivino! Anwa ortanne Laivino!
laivë noun “ointment” , hence Laivino, “the Anointed, the Christ”
orta– vb. “rise”, also transitive “raise, lift up”, pa.t. ortanë (Nam, RGEO:67, ORO; misreading “ortani” in Letters:426). According to PE17:63-64, this pa.t. form ortanë is only transitive (*”raised”), whereas the intransitive pa.t. (*”rose”) is orontë.
anwa adj. “real, actual, true”
From an online Quenya dictionary
Since my family’s Baptism and Chrismation into Holy Orthodoxy in 2006, we have been involved in a number of parishes; OCA, Greek and Antiochian. Since we are converts ourselves, we feel most comfortable where there are a lot of other converts, especially those coming from an Evangelical Christian background.
However, this can sometimes lead to a niggling suspicious feeling that I as a convert am just “playing Orthodox” I have a bad self-congratulatory attitude about being in the “true Church” which feeds my ego at both ends; first, for having been an Evangelical Protestant and so understanding the concept of regeneration and enjoying a facility with the Bible, and second, for being Orthodox and knowing about the Saints and the disciplines and all the panoply of historic Christianity.
The Ochlophobist has a friend, Samn!, that left the following comment on his blog amidst all the flotsam and jetsam concerning the current malcriadez in the Antiochian Archdiocese:
+Philip and his clerical friends are quite anomalous even in their generation of Arab Orthodox because they for whatever reason missed out on the revival that came from the Orthodox Youth Movement and were already in America by the time the Lebanese monasteries like Dayr el-Harf really started bearing fruit. And so, like Jewish actors acquiring waspy surnames, they went out of their way to trade in Orthodox ways for the ways of the perceived American elites of the early sixties, Episcopalians. (I’m glad I’m not the only one who has seen this)
And so, when converts came, they were unable to transmit the heritage of the Church of Antioch to them, but rather allowed a trial-and-error approach to figuring out what a lived Orthodoxy is. The anti-monasticism and the America-firstism that have been signature traits of much of the Archdiocese’s leadership… have served to hinder spiritual bonds and bonds of affection and communication with the mother church. In the aftermath of this current crisis, those are the things that need to be cultivated, regardless of the Archdiocese’s ultimate autonomy, both for the sake of having a healthy and fruitful relationship with Damascus and for the authentic transmission of Antioch’s ancient heritage of lived Orthodoxy to all those who come to her thirsting for it.
And, just in case you are thirsting to know more about Antioch’s ancient heritage of lived Orthodoxy, Samn! offers his own Arab Orthodoxy blog, and it is first-rate.
Please visit and encourage.