Tuesday, December 6, 2011

St Nicholas Day

Our Wonderful St Nicholas
He told great stories.
We made up 32 St Nicholas Bags
And made yummy cookies for Sandwich Saturday and for ourselves.
We decorated Sandwich Saturday lunch bags.
We put up our parish tree.
  • Thank you to Gaelen and Megan for hosting the Coffee House and raising the money for our St Nicholas day outreach.
  • Thank you Bev and The Admiral for supplying the soap and shampoo.
  • Thank you Charmaine for planning the St Nicholas day and for making monster cookies.
  • Thank you Tasha for bringing the tree and ornaments.
  • Thank you Sunday School Kids for making the packages and for making the cookies.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Schmemann on Baptism

"Our belonging, our loyalty to anything in 'this world' - be it State, nation, family, culture or any other 'value' - is valid only inasmuch as it does not contradict or mutilate our primary loyalty and 'syntaxis' to the Kingdom of Christ. In the light of that Kingdom no other loyalty is absolute, none can claim our unconditional obedience, none is the 'lord' of our life. To remember this is especially important now when not only the 'world' but even Christians themselves so often absolutize their earthly values - national, ethnic, political, cultural - making them the criterion of their Christian fiath, rather than subordinating them to the only absolute oath: the one they took on the day of their Baptism, of their 'enrollment' in the ranks of those for whom Christ is the only King and Lord" (Schmemann Of Water and the Spirit 32).

Gnostic Halloween; or, The Difference Between 1 Samuel 28 & John 20

It's Halloween again. As I was standing outside a department store today, I saw a man enter the paved area, walking from an adjacent neighborhood, and take a quick drag from his cigarette. When I looked up, I noticed that the flesh on his chin had been peeled away and the blood was dripping onto his yellow t-shirt. As he passed people, they looked up in amazement, then either smirked, or hurried on their way, looking unsettled. He did not enter any of the stores, but merely walked along the sidewalk, enjoying the spectacle he obviously intended to be.

Other than aesthetically, I was not impressed. Who gets kicks by walking around looking like you're wounded and frightening children? Losers. I'm sorry, but that's simply what they are. Anything done casually which is sure to strike spontaneous fear into the heart of a child is malicious and banal.

But the more deeply disturbing element to the various antics which people decide to perform in the few days prior to Halloween is their celebration of - not death - but evil, and goriness. One more way for people to express themselves through items or outfits they purchase; one more consumerist holiday.

The ironic thing is that Halloween really is a holiday. That is, a holy-day. That is, a hallowed evening (e'en). Or at least used to be. On the western liturgical calendar, it precedes All Souls Day, or All Saints Day, and the traditions which have clustered around its celebration of holiness are many and diverse. Only some have survived and, as with most religious festivals, they've been successfully stripped of their function as convivial 'thick' moments in which to remember and commune with those we love, in God's name, especially for the lives of the saints. All Saints Day extends this impulse to the innumerable anonymous saints which have populated and enlightened history, but without ever gaining particular ecclesiastical recognition.

But how far this is from what Halloween now is in contemporary North American culture! I remember living in Old Town (San Diego), right across the street from El Campo Santo, a cemetary from the 19th c., and just down the road was the Whaley House, the second most haunted house in California. On Halloween every year there would be various costumed hooligans running around, and 'ghost-hunters' projecting their photos of ghosts (usually strange blurry orbs of light indoors) on the back wall of the Whaley house, where the old willow tree (that they used to hang people from) still stood.

One time, Megan and I - in a reenactment of a medieval German tradition - brought tea-light candles and small cookies out to the small cemetary and placed them on the graves; local Bavarian tradition held that the souls of the dead would come out on Hallowe'en, and visit the homes of their loved ones, who left the stove on (for the ghosts to warm themselves with) and cookies (for a spiritual snack). The paradox of giving physical items to spiritual entities of course makes us snicker; but, after all, as Orthodox, we proclaim the utter ultimate inextricability of body and soul. Death indeed parts them, but in a way that we don't understand, and the reality of 'paranormal' activity/entities seems too numerous to discount prima facie. Yet, after all, Christ has conquered death, and 'even the devils believe in Him, and tremble'. And so, as Orthodox, we proclaim the reality of non-physical entities such as angels and demons, and thus in some sense we take seriously the existence of things which exceed the quantifiable parameters of disenchanted reason.

But ghosts? Well, Holy Scripture has some pretty amazing accounts of what seem accurately considered as ghosts. See, for example, 1 Samuel 28, where Saul - filled with fear from the approaching Philisitnes - visits the 'medium of En Dor'. The passage itself is worth including. Incidentally, this passage was the OT reading at Vespers last night (Oct 29):

3 Now Samuel had died, and all Israel had lamented for him and buried him in Ramah, in his own city. And Saul had put the mediums and the spiritists out of the land.
4 Then the Philistines gathered together, and came and encamped at Shunem. So Saul gathered all Israel together, and they encamped at Gilboa. 5 When Saul saw the army of the Philistines, he was afraid, and his heart trembled greatly. 6 And when Saul inquired of the LORD, the LORD did not answer him, either by dreams or by Urim or by the prophets.
7 Then Saul said to his servants, “Find me a woman who is a medium, that I may go to her and inquire of her.”
And his servants said to him, “In fact, there is a woman who is a medium at En Dor.”
8 So Saul disguised himself and put on other clothes, and he went, and two men with him; and they came to the woman by night. And he said, “Please conduct a seance for me, and bring up for me the one I shall name to you.”
9 Then the woman said to him, “Look, you know what Saul has done, how he has cut off the mediums and the spiritists from the land. Why then do you lay a snare for my life, to cause me to die?”
10 And Saul swore to her by the LORD, saying, “As the LORD lives, no punishment shall come upon you for this thing.”
11 Then the woman said, “Whom shall I bring up for you?”
And he said, “Bring up Samuel for me.”
12 When the woman saw Samuel, she cried out with a loud voice. And the woman spoke to Saul, saying, “Why have you deceived me? For you are Saul!”
13 And the king said to her, “Do not be afraid. What did you see?”
And the woman said to Saul, “I saw a spirit[a] ascending out of the earth.”
14 So he said to her, “What is his form?”
And she said, “An old man is coming up, and he is covered with a mantle.” And Saul perceived that it was Samuel, and he stooped with his face to the ground and bowed down.
15 Now Samuel said to Saul, “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?”
And Saul answered, “I am deeply distressed; for the Philistines make war against me, and God has departed from me and does not answer me anymore, neither by prophets nor by dreams. Therefore I have called you, that you may reveal to me what I should do.”
16 Then Samuel said: “So why do you ask me, seeing the LORD has departed from you and has become your enemy? 17 And the LORD has done for Himself[b] as He spoke by me. For the LORD has torn the kingdom out of your hand and given it to your neighbor, David. 18 Because you did not obey the voice of the LORD nor execute His fierce wrath upon Amalek, therefore the LORD has done this thing to you this day. 19 Moreover the LORD will also deliver Israel with you into the hand of the Philistines. And tomorrow you and your sons will be with me. The LORD will also deliver the army of Israel into the hand of the Philistines.”
20 Immediately Saul fell full length on the ground, and was dreadfully afraid because of the words of Samuel. And there was no strength in him, for he had eaten no food all day or all night.

I think there are several key things to notice in reading and attempting to find the significance of what is happening here. The first is that Saul is afraid, and acts out of fear. He does not act in trust that the Lord will deliver the Israelites from their approaching enemies. So he goes to a medium, otherwise translated as 'witch.' This is someone who engages in (what shall we say?) a practice which involves contacting the dead, but in a way other than prayer. Interestingly enough, seances had been forbidden by Saul, but here Saul trespasses his own word, which is another indication of his fear and desperation, and lack of trust. Desperate times, Saul likely thought to himself, call for desperate measures. Yet as Christians this is perhaps a response we must resist; trusting in the Lord is something for all times, confident or desperate, thankful or pleading.

The other important thing to notice, I think, is that Samuel does in some sense appear and become present to the medium and Saul, yet presumably as a spirit, or soul. He ascends from "out of the earth." Origen reads this passage as indicating Samuel's role as a prophet in Sheol, as one who proclaims the Lord's coming to those who will be resurrected by Him in His harrowing of hell, such as Adam, Eve and the Patriarchs. David, of course, is still alive, and the spirit of Samuel himself tells Saul that David has God's favor, and confirms that Saul doesn't, which is why he's trying to contact Samuel in the first place. Beyond that, Samuel prophesies that Saul will soon join him in Sheol, indeed, "tomorrow." These are hard words, and Saul's response indicates his shock.

But more relevantly, that the ghost of Samuel appears here seems an important verification of at least some of the circulating lore around medieval and contemporary Halloween - that spirits can in some sense be encountered by us embodied folk. For some Orthodox, this is simply obvious. For some, outrageous. More work needs to be done within the Church about this issue, I think, even if primarily as theologoumena.

Another example of Israelite spectrality comes in a passage which serves as an instructive parallel with 1 Samuel 28, and another ascension from the earth, though different. It is John 20: 19-29, and was the Gospel reading at the same Vespers service, immediately following the reading of 1 Samuel 28. Whichever saint pieced together the lectionary knew what he was doing:

19 Then, the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled,[c] for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in the midst, and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 20 When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.
21 So Jesus said to them again, “Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” 22 And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
24 Now Thomas, called the Twin, one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 The other disciples therefore said to him, “We have seen the Lord.”
So he said to them, “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.”
26 And after eight days His disciples were again inside, and Thomas with them. Jesus came, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, “Peace to you!” 27 Then He said to Thomas, “Reach your finger here, and look at My hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into My side. Do not be unbelieving, but believing.”
28 And Thomas answered and said to Him, “My Lord and my God!”
29 Jesus said to him, “Thomas,[d] because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Here we have the appearance of the risen Christ to the disciples, and the amazing yet oblique reference to the capacity of His risen body to - in a ghostlike fashion - move through walls, or at least become manifest wherever He wills. There are two aspects of Christ's appearances which I'd like to point out as particularly important. The first is His breathing on the Disciples, imparting his Spirit to them. The obvious thing is that one needs lungs to breath; in other words, Christ's breathing forth of the Spirit did not come from a spirit; it came from a man, risen from the dead. This is more clearly enunciated by Christ Himself in His second appearance, this time in the face of Thomas' doubts.

Thomas, perhaps, like Saul, would be more content to see a ghost. Yet Christ insists that He is more than a ghost, urging Thomas to touch his wounds. And Thomas' response gains an added importance in light of Christ's manifest materiality; it is here that Christ's divinity is most explicitly proclaimed - 'My Lord and my God!' [in Greek, more like: 'the Lord my, and the God my!'] - and precisely in response to the visceral experience of the Incarnation, of Christ's physical flesh and blood. Christ is seen to be truly God, that is, only when He is seen to be truly Man: the saving Paradox. In the face of this encounter, the skewed emphasis on ghostly, bodiless souls in Halloween seems almost gnostic. Christ's resurrected body, and the hope of our own resurrected bodies someday (with All the Saints), should perhaps always condition our understanding of Hallow-e'en, which is an annual event gesturing toward the reality of paranormality, but only as the pre-Parousia condition of a world still free to choose death instead of the Incarnate Paradox Who is Life.

Friday, October 14, 2011

seeing the whole in God: from M. Avison's 2nd lecture

"...the focus comes by relating everything to God; or rather perceiving God through everything learned, discovering that He is everywhere and always seeking relation with us. (Incidentally, focus, my dictionary says, is simply the Latin word for 'hearth'.) We still speak of the universe, the whole, without losing in that wholeness one particle of the marvellous array of particular, organic and inorganic, visible and invisible and well nigh untrackable. Learning, even in the world's terms, is vast; our capacities are limited and our time here very short. How can we catch the illimitable in our little bottles? Yet we must learn precision with particulars as well as spacious thinking across centuries. In practical terms we keep building between these extremes"

...We need all our minds and all our hearts and souls and strength (or bodily energies) - we need it all to - understand? to love, rather, when the object of our love is the One who is sole source of 'seeing', and of caring and doing and growing. It sounds strenuous. But 'nothing could preserve its own nature as well as go against God,' wrote Boethius, early in the sixth century [Consolatio Philosophiae III.12, iii]. The same truth is jubilantly celebrated in Psalm 148 where 'great sea creatures and all ocean depths...do His bidding,' i.e. where this kind of cosmic delight is a by-product of simply being who we are made to be - that is His will, His bidding!

...We say we 'see', at moments of understanding. But we do not see with the multi-faceted eyes an insect brings to the act. Our limitations, once we acknowledge them, liberate us to steady plodding, and occasional awe. One of Pascal's thoughts turns on an undefined 'it'. ('Be comforted; it is not from yourself that you must expect it, but on the contrary you must expect it by expecting nothing from yourself.' [Pensees. no. 202).

...The truth given in the Holy Word is a disciplined, but not a manageable enterprise. One of our craftiest evasions is trying to manage it, working up by ourselves from the living Word a system we feel sure will keep us on the rails all they way. But no system we work out from the inexhaustible wisdom of the Word will do. Truth is final, but our mortal grasp of it never can be final. The word of truth is living and probes us continually as we live our days and nights. It is a Voice that speaks, revealing truth: 'the sound of many waters', in one passage; 'a still small voice' in another; overpowering one moment, companionable as an aside the next. Some passages are familiar, we think? In the needy moment, one of those threadbare passages will become steel, surgical steel.

...Have I spent two evenings to say that misunderstanding and understanding alike lead to damage and pain? But is that surprising, since our understanding is always partial, a step forward into another part of what we sometimes feel is a maze? It will never be our understanding or intelligence that will rescue us. Oddly, that is the shining hope."

('Understanding is Costly.' A Kind of Perseverance. Erin, Ontario: The Porcupine's Quill, 2010. pp. 47, 48, 49, 50, 52).

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

from Margaret Avison's 'A Kind of Perseverance'

"In our culture, we do not really know or respect the moral code given in the Bible however much we may deplore the lawlessness that seems to be taking over. Alister McGrath sees lawlessness as the prison: when Christ delivers a person, it is a jail-break out of lawlessness into freedom.

It is his assumption, and mine, that it is impossible either to be bored by or to reject Jesus Christ. 'But I am bored, and I do reject Christianity,' you may think. No. You are bored by or reject some notion of what it is, put off by somebody's notion who presents a blurred picture, or by a misunderstood idea from other people's ideas. It is a Person with whom you will have to do, and He is not boring; seen clearly, He could not be rejected. Jesus is consistent with all the difficult-to-accept disciplines and commands but in a new dimension; He is, as it were, God translating Himself into the language of our kind of being, so that we can understand and, in Him, want the goodness of those disciplines and commands.

Evade Him we can, and it can seem the less dangerous course. I knew a child through all her growing-up who became a university scholar; she kept lending me books like Castaneda on peyote-visions, or various rationalists' arguments; and I read in order to keep in contact. But finally I said, 'I have been reading your books off and on for two years now. Isn't it about time you ready my Book - at least one of the Gospels in it?' Her answer, after a minute, was as honest as all her thinking: 'Margaret,' she said, 'I'm afraid to.' She is right. The greatest danger is to stop evading. Unless you consider it damaging to grow." (Avison 32)

Friday, October 7, 2011

Christ above & below

"He is at once above, and below: above in Himself, below in His people; above with the Father, below in us...[Long for] Christ above, recognize Him below. Have Christ above bestowing His fullness, recognize Him here in need. Here He is poor, there He is rich...So then Christ is rich and poor. As God He is rich, as Man poor. Yea, rich too now as Very Man, He hath ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of the Father; yet is He still poor here, is a-hungered and athirst and naked"

(St. Augustine, Serm. (de. Script. N.T.) CXXIII, iv.4; qtd. in Pryzwara 187)

Thursday, October 6, 2011

more from Augustine

"How great is the multitude of His sweetness, which He hath hidden for them that [long for] Him; which He hath wrought for them that hope in Him (Ps. xxx, 20). For now we know in part, until that which is perfect is come (cf. 1 Cor. xiii,9 seq.). And that we might be made fit to understand this, He, the equal of the Father in the form of God, and made in the form of a servant like to us, remakes us to the likeness of God; and He, the unique Son of God, made [to be] the Son of man, makes us sons [and daughters] of men [to be] sons [and daughters] of God, and the servants whom He nourished through the visible form of a servant [in Christ], He perfects in freedom that they may see the form of God..."

(Serm. CXCIV, iii.3; qtd. in Pryzwara 188)

Monday, October 3, 2011

St. Augustine on Christ the Medicine

"The Son of God took upon Himself man[kind], and therin suffered the things which belong to man[kind]. This Medicine is for men so great that thought cannot reach to it. For what pride can be healed, if it be not healed by the humiliation of the Son of God? What avarice can be healed, if it be not healed by the poverty of the Son of God? What anger can be healed, if it be not healed by the long-suffering of the Son of God? What ungodliness can be healed, if it be not healed by the charity of the Son of God? Finally, what fearfulness can be healed, if it be not healed by the resurrection of the body of the Son of God?" (De ag. christ.xi.12; qtd from 'An Augustine Synthesis.' Arr. by Erich Pryzwara.)

Sunday, October 2, 2011

original grace in Bulgakov

I was reading earlier today in Paul Valliere's Modern Russian Theology about Bulgakov's unique thinking about the relationship between Nature and Grace in creation, and the Church. This topic has been on mind since I saw (for the second time) the fantastic new movie by Terence Malick, entitled Tree of Life. See here for a trailer.

If Nature and Grace are opposed, eventually a dualism results which opposes God and the world, which distances God's activity from all natural processes (like mating insects...see below), which are then reified rather than seen as sustained by God, without occassionalism. For the Church, there can no such thing as pure, mere, autonomous nature since nature itself is the free creation of God, and therefore has freedom and love as its very substance, deeper even than - or perhaps somehow equivalent with - what we call 'matter.' (For more on the insidiousness of a concept of 'pure nature', see Conor Cunningham's amazing article, here.)

Yet creation must, in patristic fashion, be held as distinct from God, Who is the Uncreated; pantheism is avoided, divine and human freedom preserved, and yet the Incarnation affirms that God is closer to us than we are to ourselves, for the human nature has been taken up and transformed by the divine nature, and humanity - in the risen Christ - somehow participates in the life of the Trinity.

In light of all this, Bulgakov creatively extends the Orthodox position by describing creation itself as an act of grace. Valliere explains this well:

"The key to the Orthodox position [on the question of nature and grace] is the concept of ‘natural grace.’ The idea is that all creation, by virtue of its being and beauty, reflects the divine ground from which it springs:

'The beauty of the world is the effect of the Holy Spirit, of the Spirit of Beauty, and Beauty is Joy, the joy of being: 'Joy eternal nourishes / The soul of God’s creation.' This effect of the natural grace of creation, this breadth of the Holy Spirit in creation, the continuing, ongoing ‘brooding’ of the Holy Spirit over the ‘waters’ of creation, is the positive power of being.' (Bulgakov)

All cosmic activity, from angelic contemplation to the mating of insects, conforms with divinity “in as much as creation bears within itself the living image of the creator and stands in a relationship with him.” This ontological relationship is a divine gift, the original endowment bestowed on creatures by their creator as the “precondition for [their] sanctification through reception of the Holy Spirit.”

Indeed, Original grace is the foundation for all subsequent works of sanctification, including the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the church. […] The blessing of material things so exuberantly practiced in Orthodoxy – blessing of water, oil, bread, wine, crops, buildings, viands, and so on – [is an example of this] … The challenge is to forge creative linkages between the original grace which sanctifies all creation and the Pentecostal or ecclesial gifts revealed to the historic church” (Valliere Modern Russian Theology 352, 354).

One such creative linkage is inherent here, for Bulgakov (and Valliere) stress that the 'stuff' of creation is intrinsic to our priestly role in offering all of creation - freely given by God to us - back in praise and worship to him. In other words, to incorporate wine, bread, oil and water in the grace-bearing sacraments of worship is reciprocal to our use of them in our daily lives, as sustenance for our bodies which comes naturally from the earth. May we cultivate them to the health of both our souls and bodies, naturally, which is to say, grace-fully.

Monday, September 26, 2011

on Peter, and Love

After a church-packed weekend, I decided to type out some of my thoughts on Fr. Larry's homily on Sunday. What stuck with me most related to the exemplarity for us of Peter's responses to Christ (in Luke 5:1-11).

First, that Peter's initial objection based on his 'rational standards' of knowledge (as an expert fisherman) is superseded by an obedience to Christ's request that he "go out into the deep and let down your nets"; Peter says: "Master, we have toiled all night and caught nothing; nevertheless at Your word I will let down the net."

Peter's 'nevertheless' is a hinge-point of repentance, of a turning from the wisdom of the world (and its expertise, or trends, or even 'common-sense') to the "foolishness" of Christ, a folly which will be manifest most distinctively in the Cross as a sign of victory (followed by the empty tomb). And so part of our movement toward Christ is a movement from an over-reliance on "the slavery of our own reasoning" toward a quest into the "deep" of God's life.

The second example Peter provides was in his response to catching such a huge load of fish: "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!"

Fr. Larry spoke of how this reaction embodies in itself a helpful critique of the modern tendency within certain forms of Christianity to be 'fishers of men' by first trying to convince others of their own sin, and only afterward, and as a result, of their need for Christ. This it to go about it all backward! Rather, if we truly desire to 'catch' others as we are being caught (in the net of Christ, which draws up the teeming cosmos, into the boat of eternity), it is an awareness of and longing for the person of Christ which comes first, since it is this that truly reveals to us the hindrance of our sin, our own unreadiness and unwillingness to face a Love so strong it binds the worlds together and breathes through all things.

And - Lord have mercy! - we are called to offer Christ to the world in this way through the language of our own gestures, actions, words and life - to undergo micro-martyrdoms in each moment, bearing witness to the unseen One in what is seen.

Archbishop Anthony Bloom describes something similar with regard to prayer; that sometimes God's seeming absence in prayer is a gift from Him which may signify that more preparation - more humility, more compunction, contrition, self-awareness - is needed before we can even detect the alarmingly because unwaveringly intimate proximity of God to our very selves, his whisper in our hearts, His fathomless form in our dreams.

The presence of Christ is a consuming fire, and it burns off the dross and grime from our hearts; as Fr. Kaleeg said in his last homily, in the presence of Christ (and He has an infinite number of ways of becoming present to us, as many ways as there are moments in time), our hesitations and doubts melt like wax. May his grace prepare us for Himself.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

distance, freedom, responsibility

I have been lately missing my brother and sister. I cannot say much more than this, at least at the moment. They live in California, at the very south-western corner of the United States, and I live in British Columbia, in Victoria, at the very south-western corner of Canada. The geographical distance which exists between us is rather aching evidence that even with those close to us, trusting in mutual growth and abiding love is all we can do. Often it feels that we are having no real influence, and are not being influenced, by the love we have for each other, and which binds us.

If only we could get rid of space and time and responsibilities, then we could meet together and really connect. Right? As much modern philosophy would have it, freedom is understood as only possible when you and I, as independent and self-contained subjects, meet within the neutral common-ground of transparent discourse and unmotivated proximity. Only when everything unique about us has either been ignored or explained into irrelevance can true free, and thus loving, community happen.

Surely this quasi-gnostic refusal of time, linguistic ambiguity and physical embodiment is not the answer. We see the problems of the attempts to (often quite coercively) inaugurate such Habermasian perfect discourse situations in the very vacuity of the discussions about the nature of the human/common good which take place within governmental congresses and academic conferences. As for the various other organizations which unwittingly or quite enthusiastically support the continued ravages of global capitalism and/or a 'soft' totalitarianism (like the World Bank, of the IMF), need we say anything more?

Yet in this very feeling of incapacity there is room for a more genuine understanding of freedom and relation to emerge. For freedom (Galatians 5:1) is the only real condition for our coming together (Matthew 18:20), yet so often what passes as freedom - our choices made in the twilight of certainty, at the far edge of the world of peace we strive so hard to dream of - seem fraught with consequences both unknowable and therefore seemingly outside the scope of providential patterning. In other words, it is when we are separated - ignorant, afraid, arrogant, stubborn - that coming together again, communing, has especial sweetness, and indeed seems to be something which, like a good idea, seems almost to 'occur to' us.

This is all very nice and clean-cut. But what about in the meanwhile? How should we think of the nature of our actions, in relation to those we love (and thus in regard to a desire for mutual influence), and in relation to the more troubling and broken aspects of existence (which includes not only 'the world out there' but also our very selves)? How do we go on doing and making and thinking and wanting and praying when there seems no way to trace out how such things have an effect?

The Anglican theologian John Milbank has some interesting thoughts on this. He acknowledges that we really cannot know the effects our actions have, and that while this is frustrating, it is also probably quite good for us (lest we claim to exceed finitude through self-possession {a.k.a. The Fall}). What he proposes in his essay 'A Christological Poetics' is that we should think of our activity in the world as "a simultaneous and risky openness both to grace and the possibility of sinful distortion – for which one is responsible and not responsible – within every action which is always from the first ‘other’ to itself, and hence always already a series of actions and not a single action alone.

But, conversely, the later series of actions still forms but a single action, such that all the actors taken collectively in their diachronic series constitute humanity as at last free and responsible. If they (through all history) we may believe, are open to receive by grace the work of humanity, then here is only trust, and no risk of sinful distortion, since here at last the only other co-partner in responsibility is God. Yet this means: only humans together and through all history are the one free human subject, free to receive their own work.” (126-27).

This provides, perhaps, a quite startling understanding of our freedom, one that makes something like monastic prayer for the peace of the world totally vital and indispensable. For prayer, in the eyes of the world (like art) is quite useless. Yet if we take a moment to consider how ambiguous and little are the ultimate effects of actions which are deemed very 'useful' by the world, and how prayer transcends the calculus of mere efficiency, how it undergoes a daily quest for the world's healing and awakening into the knowledge that it is and has always been and will forever be the beloved child of God, how it refashions our very mode of existential relation with the Creator and Redeemer into one of realism and gratitude and hope; then perhaps prayer is the most important thing of all.

It is prayer, in this light, which constitutes our very freedom, as stuttering, tongue-tied interlocutors with the Word himself, making ever more evident (and yet all the more mysterious) that the place of our speech with God is more often than not the very embodied interactions we have with others, friends and enemies, strangers and neighbors. We are in it together. Indeed, as Rowan Williams recently wrote in The New Statesman, "there is another theological strand to be retrieved that is not about "the poor" as objects of kindness but about the nature of sustainable community, seeing it as one in which what circulates - like the flow of blood - is the mutual creation of capacity, building the ability of the other person or group to become, in turn, a giver of life and responsibility. Perhaps surprisingly, this is what is at the heart of St Paul's ideas about community at its fullest; community, in his terms, as God wants to see it" (para. 9).

This, as a manifestation of the importance of prayer, is an insight long understood by Orthodox monasticism, I think (which comes as no surprise given the Archbishop of Canterbury's intimate association with Orthodox thought); that we are in fact our brothers' and sisters' keepers, that the suffering of others - through Christ's own radical self-identification with 'the least of these' - is our own suffering, whether we recognize it or not, and that I am not free until all have been made free in Christ. For true responsibility, after all, is a sort of thankfulness for our own free ability to respond to God's gift of himself, and to the gifts that we all are to each other in Him. And yet through sheer stubbornness and pride, how often do we close ourselves off to what others have to give! These are difficult realizations.

In light of all this, my missing of my brother and sister is reoriented and imbued with perhaps not a more romantic sense, but a soberer and more acute sense that their presence, in Christ's patient and incomprehensible waiting for and guiding of us to see ourselves as He sees us (as infinitely beloved), is a presence more near than the very table at which I sit and type, insofar as they have shaped me, and insofar as I am willing to let them to continue to shape me, in part through remembrance, and in part through seeking to be in their presence again. For love is nothing less than a vital expression of my freedom to be with others, to choose to extend beyond the (illusory) walls of my 'buffered' self.

And in this sense part of what would be a genuine response to missing my brother and sister in California is to also direct my attention toward my brothers and sisters (friends and enemies, strangers and neighbors) up in Victoria. Where we find ourselves as yet incapable (and we shall!), we trust in and pray for God's mercy, abundant and ubiquitous, like air.

That amazing Oxford Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins says it better.

Sometimes a lantern moves along the night,
That interests our eyes. And who goes there?
I think; where from and bound, I wonder, where,
With, all down darkness wide, his wading light?

Men go by me whom either beauty bright
In mould or mind or what not else makes rare:
They rain against our much-thick and marsh air
Rich beams, till death or distance buys them quite.

Death or distance soon consumes them: wind
What most I may eye after, be in at the end
I cannot, and out of sight is out of mind.

Christ minds: Christ's interest, what to avow or amend
There, eyes them, heart wants, care haunts, foot follows kind,
Their ransom, their rescue, and first, fast, last friend.

'The Lantern Out of Doors,' by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)

Monday, June 20, 2011

from Robert Browning's 'Pauline', excerpt 1

"...Up for the glowing day, leave the old woods!
See, they part, like a ruined arch: the sky!
Nothing but sky appears, so close the roots
And grass of the hill-top level with the air -
Blue sunny air, where a great cloud floats laden
With light, like a dead whale that white birds pick,
Floating away in the sun in some north sea.
Air, air, fresh life-blood, thin and searching air,
The clear, dear breath of God that loveth us,
Where small birds reel and winds take their delight!
Water is beautiful, but not like air:
See, where the solid azure waters lie
Made as of thickened air, and down below,
The fern-ranks like a forest spread themselves
As though each pore could feel the element;
Where the quick glancing serpent winds his way,
Float with me there, Pauline! - but not like air.

Down the hill! Stop - a clump of trees, see, set
On a heap of rock, which look o'er the far plain:
So, envious climbing shrubs would mount to rest
And peer from their spread boughs; wide they wave, looking
At the muleteers who whistle on their way,
To the merry chime of morning bells, past all
The little smoking cots, mid fields and banks
And copses bright in the sun. My spirit wanders:
Hedgerows for me - those living hedgerows where
The bushes close and clasp above and keep
Thought in - I am concentrated - I feel;
But my soul saddens when it looks beyond:
I cannot be immortal, taste all joy.

O God, where do they tend - these struggling aims?
What would I have? What is this 'sleep' which seems
To bound all? can there be a 'waking' point
Of crowning life? The soul would never rule;
It would be first in all things, it would have
utmost pleasure filled, but, that complete,
Commanding, for commanding, sickens it.
The last point I can trace is - rest beneath
Some better essence than itself, in weakness;
This is 'myself,' not what I think should be:
And what is that I hunger for but God?

My God, my God, let me for once look on thee
As though nought else existed, we alone!
And as creation crumbles, my soul's spark
Expands till I can say, - even from myself
I need thee and I feel thee and I love thee.
I do not plead my rapture in thy works
For love of thee, nor that I feel as one
Who cannot die: but there is that in me
Which turns to thee, which loves or which should love."

ll. 781-830)

Sunday, June 19, 2011

A poem by Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry is a Kentucky farmer and a poet, novelist and supporter of agrarian sustainable living. Below is a poem of his that I read today. I think it's worth sharing.

The Guest

Washed into the doorway
by the wake of the traffic,
he wears humanity
like a third-hand shirt
- blackened with enough
of Manhattan's dirt to sprout
a tree, or poison one.
His empty hand has led him
where he has come to.
Our differences claim us.
He holds out his hand,
in need of all that's mine.

And so we're joined, as deep
as son and father. His life
is offered me to choose.

Shall I begin servitude
to him? Let this cup pass.
Who am I?
But charity must
suppose, knowing no better,
that this is a man fallen
among thieves, or come
to this strait by no fault
- that our difference
is not a judgment,
though I can afford to eat
and am made his judge.

I am, I nearly believe,
the Samaritan who fell
into the ambush of his heart
on the way to another place.
My stranger waits, his hand
held out like something to read,
as though its emptiness
is an accomplishment.
I give him a smoke and the price
of a meal, no more

- not sufficient kindness
or believable sham.
I paid him to remain strange
to my threshold and table,
to permit me to forget him -
knowing I won't. He's the guest
of my knowing, though not asked.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

the wild dance of orthodoxy; or, the irregular equilibrium

"This was the big fact about Christian ethics; the discovery of the new balance. Paganism had been like a pillar of marble, upright because proportioned with symmetry. Christianity was like a huge and ragged and romantic rock, which, though it sways on its pedestal at a touch, yet, because its exaggerated excrescences exactly balance each other, is enthroned there for a thousand years.
It is exactly this which explains what is so inexplicable to all the modern critics of the history of Christianity. I mean the monstrous wars about small points of theology, the earthquakes of emotion about a gesture or a word. It was only a matter of an inch; but an inch is everything when you are balancing. The Church could not afford to swerve a hair's breadth on some things if she was to continue her great and daring experiment of the irregular equilibrium. Once let one idea become less powerful and some other idea would become too powerful.

It was no flock of sheep the Christian shepherd was leading, but a herd of bulls and tigers, of terrible ideals and devouring doctrines, each one of them strong enough to turn to a false religion and lay waste the world. Remember that the Church went in specifically for dangerous ideas; she was a lion tamer. The idea of a birth through a Holy Spirit, of the death of a divine being, of the forgiveness of sins, or the fulfillment of prophecies, are ideas which, any one can see, need but a touch to turn them into something blasphemous or ferocious.
This is the thrilling romance of Orthodoxy. People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy. It was sanity: and to be sane is more dramatic than to be mad. It was the equilibrium of a man behind madly rushing horses, seeming to stoop this way and to sway that, yet in every attitude having the grace of statuary and the accuracy of arithmetic. The Church in its early days went fierce and fast with any warhorse; yet it is utterly unhistoric to say that she merely went mad along one idea, like a vulgar fanaticism. She swerved left and right, so exactly as to avoid enormous obstacles.
The orthodox Church never took the tame course or accepted the conventions; the orthodox Church was never respectable. It would have been easier to have accepted the earthly power of the Arians. It would have been easy, in the Calvinistic seventeenth century, to fall into the bottomless pit of predestination. It is easy to be a madman: it is easy to be a heretic.
To have fallen into any of those open traps of error and exaggeration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the historic path of Christendom - that would indeed have been simple. It is always simple to fall [...] To have fallen into any of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect."

G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, pp. 303-306

Friday, June 17, 2011

Chesterton's 2 Ways of Getting Home

“There are two ways of getting home; and one of them is to stay there. The other is to walk round the whole world till we come back to the same place; and I tried to trace such a journey in a story I once wrote. […] It concerned some boy whose farm or cottage stood on such a slope, and who went on his travels to find something, such as the effigy and grave of some giant; and when he was far enough from home he looked back and saw that his own farm and kitchen-garden, shining flat on the hill-side like the colours and quarterings of a shield, were but parts of some such gigantic figure, on which he had always lived, but which was too large and too close to be seen. That, I think, is a true picture of the progress of any really independent intelligence to-day; that is the point of this book.


“Now the best relation to our spiritual home is to be near enough to love it. But the next best is to be far enough away not to hate it. It is the contention of these pages that while the best judge of Christianity is a Christian, the next best judge would be something more like a Confucian. The worst judge of all is the man now most ready with his judgments; the ill-educated Christian turning gradually into the ill-tempered agnostic, entangled in the end of a feud of which he never understood the beginning, blighted with a sort of hereditary boredom with he knows not what, and already weary of hearing what he has never heard. He does not judge Christianity calmly as a Confucian would; he does not judge it as he would judge Confucianism. He cannot by an effort of fancy set the Catholic Church thousands of miles away in strange skies of morning and judge it impartially as a Chinese pagoda. [...].

It would be better to see the whole thing as an Asiatic cult; the mitres of its bishops as the towering headdresses of mysterious bonzes; its pastoral staffs as the sticks twisted like serpents carried in some Asiatic procession; to see the prayer book as fantastic as the prayer wheel […] it would be better to see the whole thing as something belonging to another continent, or to another planet. […] For those in whom a mere reaction [against Christianity] has thus become an obsession, I do seriously recommend the imaginative effort of conceiving the Twelve Apostles as Chinamen. In other words, I recommend these critics to try to do as much justice to Christian saints as if they were pagan sages.

But with this we come to the final and vital point. I shall try to show in these pages that when we do make this imaginative effort to see the whole thing from the outside, we find that it really looks like what is traditionally said about it inside. It is exactly when the boy gets far enough off to see the giant that he sees that he is really a giant. It is exactly when we do at last see the Christian Church afar under those clear and level eastern skies that we see that it is really the Church of Christ. […]

“In order to strike, in the only sane or possible sense, the note of impartiality, it is necessary to touch the nerve of novelty. I mean that in one sense we see things fairly when we see them first. That, I may remark in passing, is why children have very little difficulty about the dogmas of the Church. But the Church, being a highly practical thing for working and fighting, is necessarily a thing for men and not merely for children. There must be in it for working purposes a great deal of tradition, of familiarity, and even of routine. So long as its fundamentals are sincerely felt, this may even be the saner condition. But when its fundamentals are doubted, as at present, we must try to recover the candour and wonder of the child; unspoilt realism and objectivity of innocence.

Or if we cannot do that, we must try at least to shake off the cloud of mere custom and see the thing as new, if only by seeing it as unnatural. Things that may well be familiar so long as familiarity breeds affection had much better become unfamiliar when familiarity breeds contempt. For in connection with things so great as are here considered, whatever our view of them, contempt must be a mistake. Indeed contempt must be an illusion. We must invoke the most wild and soaring sort of imagination; the imagination that can see what is there.

G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, pp. 9-14.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

hello All Saints of Alaska

Hello dear fellow parishioners and siblings in Christ,

What better day than a rainy June Wednesday to write my first post on the All Saints of Alaska parish blog, and I am thrilled and honored to have been officially 'invited' as an author. I imagine contributing occasionally throughout the months ahead, with a blend of everything from excerpts from saints' writings to passages from poems or reflections on literature and faith to my own personal musings on particular events throughout the week. I should say that the way I (rather infrequently) write on my own blog (http://gaelangilbert.wordpress.com/) is similar; in many cases I treat my blog like a medieval commonplace book, a place to copy in quotations of things I hear or read which are important enough to merit remembrance, but not vivid enough in my fogbank of a brain to actually be recalled on their own (without a textual crutch).

I envision the All Saints blog as a place to share ideas and reflections, and I hope never to claim to represent the view of the parish as a whole on any particular issue. As is clear from the past posts, this blog is not a podium (as many blogs unfortunately become), but a forum, a place to both share photos and events of parish life (before and after they happen) and to serve as a sort of symposium where voices can intermingle. Accordingly, please always feel free to comment on posts. If there are other things you'd like to say less publicly, don't hesitate to send me an email at gaelanagilbert@gmail.com.

I think I'll begin with a nice dose of exegetical humility (which I, for one, often need) from none other than the man who will someday be my patron saint, Anthony the Great. This comes from the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, ed. Benedicta Ward.

One day some old men came to see Abba Anthony. In the midst of them was Abba Joseph. Wanting to test them, the old man [Anthony] suggested a text from the Scriptures, and, beginning with the youngest, he asked them what it meant. Each gave his opinion as he was able. But to each one the old man said, ‘You have not understood it.’ Last of all he said to Abba Joseph, ‘How would you explain this saying?’ and he replied, ‘I do not know.’ Then Abba Anthony said, ‘Indeed, Abba Joseph has found the way, for he has said, I do not know.’”

(Abba Anthony, Saying # 17).