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“I was thinking of very old times, when the Romans first came here, nineteen hundred years ago — the other day. . . . Light came out of this river since — you say the Knights?  Yes; but it is like a running blaze on a plain, like a flash of lightning in the clouds.  We live in the flicker — may it last as long as the old earth keeps rolling!    But darkness was here yesterday.
 
 
Imagine the feelings of a commander of a fine — what d’ye call ’em? — trireme in the Mediterranean, ordered suddenly to the north…  Imagine him here — the very end of the world, a sea the colour of lead, a sky the colour of smoke, a kind of ship about as rigid as a concertina — and going up this river with stores, or orders, or what you like.   Sand-banks, marshes, forests, savages, — precious little to eat fit for a civilized man, nothing but Thames water to drink.  
 
No Falernian wine here, no going ashore. Here and there a military camp lost in a wilderness, like a needle in a bundle of hay — cold, fog, tempests, disease, exile, and death — death skulking in the air, in the water, in the bush. They must have been dying like flies here. Oh, yes — he did it. Did it very well, too, no doubt, and without thinking much about it either, except afterwards to brag of what he had gone through in his time, perhaps.
 
They were men enough to face the darkness. And perhaps he was cheered by keeping his eye on a chance of promotion to the fleet at Ravenna by and by, if he had good friends in Rome and survived the awful climate.
 
Or think of a decent young citizen in a toga — perhaps too much dice, you know — coming out here in the train of some prefect, or tax-gatherer, or trader even, to mend his fortunes. Land in a swamp, march through the woods, and in some inland post feel the savagery, the utter savagery, had closed round him — all that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men. There’s no initiation either into such mysteries. He has to live in the midst of the incomprehensible, which is also detestable. And it has a fascination, too, that goes to work upon him. The fascination of the abomination — you know, imagine the growing regrets, the longing to escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender, the hate.”

Joseph Conrad – Heart Of Darkness

davidofwales01It was as dark as the Dark Ages got, then, in Britain.  Classical civilization, what was left of it, hugged the shores of the Mediterranean during the Indian Summer of Theodoric’s Ostrogothic kingdom.  Like the blood in the arteries of a severely wounded accident victim,  it refused to circulate to the extremities.  It was at this time, a century or so after the departure of the legions and a century yet before the arrival of the Roman mission, that a holy man was born.  He had the sad misfortune to be born in a very hardscrabble time, in a very hardscrabble place.  People didn’t have much time or inclination to record their doings, indeed, it would be hard to imagine that the people who lived at this time would have thought their struggle for survival worthy of recording.

So what survived were stories, stories vivid enough to be remembered.  Stories such as the one about the wandering Briton princeling who was travelling far from home when he came upon a maiden bathing in a stream and was overcome by lust.  He forced himself on her, and she conceived.  It was a brutal age, and it appears the leaven of the Gospel  had little power to soften men’s passions among these jettisoned folk, and none among the pagan Saxons already coursing far inland.  She carried the child for nine months, refusing on one occasion to allow a local ruler to terminate her pregnancy.  She gave birth in a women’s monastery, and her child was raised there.

This child, grown to be a man, began to preach the gospel in his corner of the world.  The reputation of his sanctity spread, and he began to become known as Sant, or simply, the saint.  It is unusual that the saint would come to be called the Illuminator of Wales, as his country was not known by that name at that time.  Most likely, his country was still known by her Roman name: Britannia, and her people spoke Latin after their fashion as well as their native British, now Welsh.  Like a formerly prosperous family fallen on hard times, they must have cherished these small remnants of Roman civilization, and maybe, just maybe, Christianity was one of these remnants.  It is by no means certain that the saint’s countrymen were all Christian.  It had been the legal religion of the Empire for only a scant 20 years before the legions departed, and there were many pagans for the saint to convert.

The full flower of his manhood is punctuated with many stories.  The saint was preaching to a crowd of people, and the crowd grew to such a proportion that those on the fringes were unable to hear his preaching.  He prayed, and the earth rose under his feet,  forming a hillock so that all could hear his words.   Some farmers nearby were complaining that there wasn’t enough water for their crops, so he prayed, pushed his staff into the ground, and a fountain of water sprayed up to provide the farmers what they needed.   The monks at this time must have been quite lax, although it is remarkable that there were any monks at all.   Brittania was the other side of the world from Christian monasticism’s center of gravity in Egypt and Palestine, but monks there were, and many followed the saint.   He founded many monasteries and guided his monks with a rigorous discipline.   They were forbidden the use of draught animals, and had to pull their plows themselves.  In addition, they were enjoined to forswear beer and wine, and drink only water, a real test of faith in a day before chlorine tablets.

Not that Brittania was hermetically sealed from the rest of the Christian world.  Perhaps because Pelagius himself was a Briton, the saint found it necessary to refute him in several local councils.  It is a shame that his arguments against Pelagius have not survived, and Augustine’s did.  It would have been informative to compare the two.  Towards the end of his life, the saint found it necessary to travel to the center of the remaining Empire, to Palestine, and receive the bishopric of his country from the Patriarch of Jerusalem.  Whether the saint took the land road or the sea road, it must have been a long and arduous journey, and the good patriarch must have felt like the Archbishop of Canterbury appointing the rector of the parish on St. Helena.  The saint returned to his native Brittania, founded one last monastery in the extreme west of his land, and died there on this day, March 1, supposedly in 589.  His last words to his disciples were

Be steadfast, brothers, and do the little things.

The saint’s country changed dramatically after his death.  The pagan Saxon marauders pushed the Britons father and farther north and west until they were bottled up onto the extremities of the island, butwales they never found the Dark Ages to be all that dark.   They had another name for it: Oes y Seintiau – The Age Of Saints.  They named their country Cymru, the land of the people, and their tongue became Cymraeg.  The ungracious Saxons named them the Wealas, the foreigners, but admitted that they were great warriors and greater poets and singers.  Little by little, first the Saxons and later the Normans dragged this people of the retreat into the even longer and more tragic general retreat of the West into feudal Catholicism, Calvinism, secularism, and unbelief

This is Dewi Sant, Saint David, patron of Wales in the undivided Church.  Interestingly, Orthodox, Catholic, and Anglican all honor him, and his last church is now a great cathedral.  The Welsh still love him, and his day is their national day.

He is also my patron, and I would like to share a story of a miracle I believe was wrought by his intercession.  When my family and I moved to Atlanta  late in 2007, the area been suffering a severe drought for many years.  The drought was so absolute that people were not allowed to wash their cars or water their lawns.  I hadn’t been Orthodox longer than a few months, but I noticed that St. David had worked many miracles that were related to water.  I besought his intercession on our behalf and rested the matter with him.  On his day, March 1, 2008, Atlanta experienced a freakish snowfall of several inches that effectively broke the drought.  The commentator on the radio noted that this was the best way to drop so much precipitation on a drought-hardened ground.  Five years later, even though water levels have yet to return to normal, at least the lawns are being watered and the cars washed.

Dewi Sant, gweddia ni

Saint David of Wales, pray for us

 
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Mary Fahl’s voice is the very first thing you notice about October Project.   As colorful as the changing trees, as distinctive as the smell of burning leaves, as thick and rich as a venison ragout, and with a bite as bracing as the first frost, the voice grabs you and pulls you into the music.  October Project produced two albums in the mid 1990s, and were often compared to other groups emerging at the same time as Indigo Girls, Dido, or Loreena McKennitt.  As I see them, though, Mary Fahl and OP were kind of an East Coast yin to the Texas-based Sixpence None The Richer’s yang, but Sixpence road some sort of wave out of the Evangelical youth rally subculture into national prominence.  Somehow, they were able to transform their adolescent whimsy into a lot of radio play.  I have never heard October Project on commercial radio, and would never have know about them except for the Internet.  The similarities between October Project and Sixpence None the Richer end with the jangly ‘nineties guitars and the standout female vocals.  October Project explores a more adult emotional landscape than Sixpence, which makes sense seeing that the members of Sixpence were just barely in their twenties when they cut their first self-titled album, whereas the members of October Project were fifteen to twenty years older.

The songs of October Project are, like those of Sixpence None The Richer and nearly every other pop ensemble on the planet, about love, that most troubling and  disturbing of emotions.  But October Project’s songs are about love in need of grace; love that withdraws from its object because of fear and prior pain, love that is more in need of forgiveness than passion.  Because of this, October Project gained something of a reputation as a “gothic” group.  I know little about ‘goth’ subculture apart from what my children tell me, but I am surprised at its resilience.  Supposedly ‘goth’ subculture reflects on the ‘darker’ elements of our experience; weakness, death, loss, longing, even debauchery, decadence, and terror.  I suppose everything can be mined and marketed in our culture, and the ‘goth’ subculture is no exception.  October Project’s music didn’t seem to be very amenable to commercialization.   Maybe because it was contemplative rather than gloomy.    Gloomy sells well in these apocalyptic times, but contemplation, reflection, and reticence, uh, not so much.

And contemplation, thy name is October.  If you live in the temperate zones of the Northern Hemisphere, there seems to be a biological imperative to celebrate something at this time of year.   The days are growing longer, the bright feast of summer is past.  There is a nip in the air.  The Green Man sheds his mantle as the light fades and photosynthesis, the life support system of our planet, shuts down for the year.  Old pagan-y Hallowe’en beckons with its witches, goblins, and ghosts.  The older customs; the bonfires, the candle divination, the planting of apple seeds have mostly withdrawn into a fleshy bath of candy and carnality, neither of which is either appealing nor particularly seasonal.  Since converting to Orthodoxy, I don’t even have the excuse of All Saints Day the following morning, since the translation of Western All Saints Day from its traditional date on the Sunday following Whitsunday to November the 1st  appears to have been the politically motivated action of a ninth century Pope who wanted to celebrate the erection of a basilica dedicated to all the saints.  So, the traditional ban on Hallowe’en in our household which was instituted  when my wife and I were Evangelicals, still stands, but I believe my children are the poorer for it, and I do somewhat regret it.

Nevertheless, I cannot shake the idea that Hallowe’en is itself something of a fraud and a humbug.  If it were as ancient a feast as pagan apologists hold it out to be, or as demonic as the Christian alarmists make it out to be, it should be celebrated sometime around St. Martins Day (November 11), according to the old calendar.  I cannot believe that pagans, if any existed at the time, would have paid any attention to Pope Gregory in the sixteenth century when he tacked ten days onto the standing calendar, nor would they have cared when King George II added eleven days when the British Empire adopted the Pope’s calendar in 1752.  I have found a lot of survivals of “Old Christmas” (Christmas celebrated on the Julian Calendar – January 6) but I have found nothing about “Old Hallowe’en”.  It looks like the spooks and spirits of Samhain made the jump without a hitch.  Nevertheless I am thinking seriously about resurrecting some old Martinmas customs in my household; lighting a lantern on the lawn, bringing a beggar to a dinner of pork haunch (probably ham), and lifting a glass of red wine in honor of Saint Martin and my Celtic forebears.


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


Today is the day that the Church commemorates the falling asleep of St. Columba of Iona. He was an Irish princeling who went out and killed hundreds of men because one of them had borrowed a book from him and not returned it. After having been shriven by St. Finnian, he swore never to return to home until he had claimed as many souls for Paradise as he had sent to Hell in the battle. In discussing this with my wife this morning, the recent tragedy at Virgina Tech came immediately to mind.

People haven’t stopped committing barbarous and murderous acts. What we have stopped doing is repenting and bearing fruits of repentance for those actions.


 

The parking lot of a suburban Central Florida community college was the last place I ever expected to find a peacock, and yet there he was, picking about the dumpster like a rooster and gobbling down stray grains. Looking back in retrospect I probably should have called security and found out where the poor bird had escaped from. His long tail feathers (peahens have no such decoration) dragged along in the dust behind him. I was in an awful funk. I had been laid off the previous year and was struggling to make ends meet working in positions that I was not good at.

Fortunately, I found a position teaching computer programming at the above mentioned community college, the stipend of which went a long way towards alleviating my financial burdens and for which I remain grateful. Nevertheless, it was a very dark period in my life and that particular day was darker than most. I don’t remember now what had occurred to precipitate such a dark mood, but I do remember the peacock. At first, the bird paid no attention to me, continuing to pick out grains around the dumpster, but when I turned to look at him, he turned to look at me, opened his tail feathers in a magnificent fan, and began strutting towards me. After a few paces, I guess he figured out that I wasn’t a peahen, folded his breathtaking plumage, and returned to his supper. I went on to my class. The words of the Beatitudes presented themselves immediately to my mind:

For this reason I say to you, do not be worried about your life, as to what you will eat or what you will drink; nor for your body, as to what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?

Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they? And who of you by being worried can add a single hour to his life? And why are you worried about clothing? Observe how the lilies of the field grow; they do not toil nor do they spin, yet I say to you that not even Solomon in all his glory clothed himself like one of these.

It was if the illustrations concerning the birds of the air and the lilies of the field were accordioned together into this one gorgeous animal: I had nothing to fear, finally. I and mine would be taken care of, perhaps not in the style to which we had become accustomed, perhaps not in the way we were accustomed to expect, but we would be cared for.

In a similar way, beasts have often accompanied me in prayer. Before becoming Orthodox and introducing icons into my prayer life, my greatest preference was to pray outdoors. This is a habit that I acquired in college, in the acres and acres of orange groves that surrounded the Central Florida campus. Once, there was a time when a very close friend needed prayer. I found a little bench next to a small drainage pond and began to pray. It was one of those times when prayer wasn’t work, when I didn’t have to “prime the pump”. By the grace of God I was allowed to pray with great liberty and boldness for my friend for an extended period of time. When I finished, I found myself surrounded by a menagerie; a pair of squirrels, a heron, a butterfly, several small birds of the sparrow or finch type, and a pesky bee buzzing around my head. All of these animals were closer to me than animals usually approach. The squirrels and the heron were practically in my lap. When I finished praying they went their own ways.

Stories of saints and animals have always moved me deeply. St. Seraphim and his bear was one of the first I learned about in an Orthodox context:

Saint Seraphim began to go to a “far wilderness,” which was a desolate place in a forest 5 miles away from the Sarov monastery. He reached great perfection during that time. Bears, hares, wolves, foxes and other wild animals would come to the hut of the ascetic. One day, Matrona, one of the nuns, saw him sitting on a tree trunk in the company of a bear. Terrified, she let out a scream. The staretz turned around and, seeing her, patted the animal and sent him away Then he invited Matrona to come and sit beside him. ‘But’, Matrona relates, ‘hardly had we sat down when the animal returned from the wood and lay down at the staretz’ feet. I was as terrified as before, but when I saw Father Seraphim, quite unconcerned, treating the bear like a lamb, stroking him and giving him some bread, I calmed down. When I was wholly assured, the Father gave me a piece of bread and said ‘You needn’t be the least afraid of him, he won’t hurt you.’So I held out the bread to the bear, and it was such joy to be feeding him that I wanted to go on doing so.’

The bear became a frequent traveling companion of St. Seraphim, placid and gentle with those who loved the Staretz from the heart, but threatening to those who wished him ill.

The story of St. Francis and the penitent wolf of Gubbio is also well known, as is that Saint’s love of animals. I do wish we Orthodox could venerate Saint Francis officially, but that will have to wait until we have achieved a greater degree of unity than we presently have. In the meantime, his sanctity and example illumine our Catholic brothers and we rejoice.

While Francis was staying in Gubbio, he learned of a wolf so ravenous that it was not only killing and eating animals, but people, too. The people took up arms and went after it, but those who encountered the wolf were killed.

Francis took pity on the people and the wolf as well and decided to go out and meet the wolf. He was desperately warned by the people, but he insisted that God would take care of him. Suddenly the wolf, jaws wide open, charged out of the woods at the couple. Francis made the Sign of the Cross toward the wolf who immediately slowed down and closed its mouth. Then Francis called out to the wolf: “Come to me, Brother Wolf. I wish you no harm.” At that moment the wolf lowered its head and lay down at St. Francis’ feet, meek as a lamb.

St. Francis explained to the wolf that he had been terrorizing the people, killing not only other animals, but humans as well. “Brother Wolf,” said Francis, “I want to make peace between you and the people of Gubbio. They will harm you no more and you must no longer harm them. All past wrongs are to be forgiven.”

The wolf showed its assent by moving its body and nodding its head. Then to the absolute surprise of the gathering crowd, Francis asked the wolf to make a pledge. As St. Francis extended his hand to receive the pledge, so the wolf extended its front paw and placed it into the saint’s hand.

Then he offered the townspeople peace, on behalf of the wolf. The townspeople promised in a loud voice to feed the wolf. Then Francis asked the wolf if he would live in peace under those terms. He bowed his head and twisted his body in a way that convinced everyone he accepted the pact. Then once again the wolf placed its paw in Francis’ hand as a sign of the pact. From that day on the people kept the pact they had made. The wolf lived for two years among the townspeople, going from door to door for food. It hurt no one and no one hurt it. Even the dogs did not bark at it. When the wolf finally died of old age, the people of Gubbio were sad.

Pigeons are a particularly despised bird. Like other animals such as squirrels and rats, they have learned to thrive in the artificial urban environments man has created for himself. Most people look upon them as disease-ridden pests, even though our Lord the Spirit chose their form in which to descend upon our Lord Jesus Christ in his baptism. St. John Maximovich, in his final troubled years, found consolation in the company of a small pigeon he took in and nursed back to health:

This particular day I noticed a white pigeon with a reddish pattern in its feathers, making pigeon noises outside the window on a specially built ledge. It was pacing back and forth, obviously not intending to fly away, but, as I assumed, waiting to be fed. As it seemed no stranger to her, I paid little attention then.

On the feast day of the Baptism of the Lord, I chanced to be in St. Tikhon’s for the Blessing of Water. To my great surprise, as St. John was blessing the water, a dove flew right out into the courtyard. It flapped its wings and actually soared over the basin of holy water, I was amazed, as I had never seen such a service with a live dove hovering over this holiness.

After the service I learned the following touching story of Archbishop John’s “heavenly bird.” Once Archbishop John came home to discover that a pigeon was hurt, his wing was damaged, and was sitting outside the window. He opened the window and let it in. The bird could barely flutter, and Archbishop John bound its wing and fed it. That was enough to make it feel adopted. The bird stayed around, especially when the Saint would arrive and would feed it. Actually it remained a mystery how both of them conversed. But one thing we knew: the pigeon reacted to the words of St. John as if it understood what he said. I was told that both of them would sit facing each other, the man softly speaking and the bird making its pigeon sounds in agreement and peacefully walking to and fro, as if memorizing what it was taught.

On the day Archbishop John died, the bird began to pace the window and flutter in agony, as if knowing about its master. When the death knell announced the earthly end of Archbishop John, the bird was frantic. It fluttered in agony, missing the Saint, and its little heart also stopped a few months afterwards, to our deep sorrow.. I remember Archbishop John’s words to me when I used to complain that in some cities birds are removed from the streets: ‘Yes, now throughout the whole world, attacks are carried out against all living beings that surround us.’

It remains only to point out the obvious: the fantastic way of life we have chosen in the six or seven generations since the advent of Industrial Revolution has estranged us from Creation in ways we can scarcely imagine. We grow more and more estranged from each other as we attempt to make our lives conform more closely to the images that are projected into our craniums during practically every waking moment. If some of the current research into the interface between the human nervous system and the cybernetic networks we have recently created ever bears fruit, we may be tempted to dispense with the natural world as much as possible and take up residence in a fantasy of our own devising. One can only hope God will the cast that particular Tower down before it is ever constructed, but our servants the beasts have never forgotten their blessedness in Paradise, nor do they ever cease to yearn, in their inarticulate way, for the restoration of their communion with their Master Adam.

CURRENTLY READING

The Dragonbone Chair by Tad Williams