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 ( 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

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).