Posted by: jamesthethickheaded | March 6, 2013

Going to the Well

This morning’s Washington Post had two letters that gave me pause. One seconded a columnist’s call for renewed “mysticism” in the Catholic Church, and another offered that mysticism was the ticket to escaping superstition. My heart goes out to these folks, and I’m thankful for their views as much as I’ve not found the mystic writers recommended my cup of tea. More to the point, given the rarity of mysticism – especially in the Age of Faith, one wonders whether this is in fact the right idea for the Age of Scepticism… as it’s unlikely to offer much to Average Joe… whoever he is. By contrast, an Orthodox Christian’s Life in Christ seems more accessible and more appealing… even as it promises instead a way that is anything but exotic or ecstatic; for nothing could be less exotic or ecstatic than asceticism and a drop-in visit to ordinary reality… and believe me, I write this standing on the verge of Great Lent… dreading the appearance of that first bowl of Lentils.  And so despite the temptation to the contrary, I wouldn’t think anyone has the gall to suggest they or their church has an “exclusive” on anything… much less this approach… only that no matter what others do for reasons of their own – or reasons that seem to make greater sense to them, to me, and to anyone looking at a bowl of gruel for 50 days, we crazed Orthodox still hold and will continue to hold this “stuff” as somehow normative in formation of a Christian life. Just don’t ask me why… it’s a mystery. Anyway… the foregoing letters prompted a response of sorts and here it is.

As it comes to the place of faith in our lives, G.K. Chesterton’s “The Well and the Shallows” lays our choices out rather clearly: We can wrestle or we can slide by. No one else makes this decision; no one else can make us take one path or another. And it’s our choice, and we shouldn’t want it any other way. More to the point, this is God’s choice… as the path of love does not and cannot begin with compulsion.

And whoever says evangelism and proselytism don’t work hasn’t seen the power of the gospel of secular consumerism. It’s not shy, nor is it waiting for you to make a choice. Fact is there is never a single moment where it assumes that you can do anything other than to choose among the offerings it places before you. No, it’s not what you choose that it demands, but that you choose “Now!” …before we have to put you on one of those list of subversive types. Indeed, that someone could do something else entirely… like “Nothing” …seems a choice considered possible only to the extent it fits within the alternatives of the consumerist cornucopia. What this means is that “doing nothing” is less about defiance and something that looks more like compliance with the over-arching demand to do something… anything. And so this “nothing” has to constitute an activity we can sell to… if we’re going to accept it as legit. And it is by this means that even intentional subversion is converted into consumption and self-gratification. Never mind that the end may be a consumption of a different sort… it is nevertheless self gratification all the same.

Thus, “Religion” becomes of necessity your private choice – and it must be kept private! as if it were yours alone, and no more than this! lest it become… there it is again… subversive. Hence more than any other Seventh Day Adventist, Moonie, or Buddhist monk, the missionaries for this Faith in Modernity and its oracles of progressive advancement of mankind and his possibilities or destiny are everywhere present and filling all corners, ads, dramas, and indeed every waking moment so as to transform you and your world into theirs. Even your choice to opt out entirely becomes …in their vision …a self-fulfillment of some new pursuit of yours – and safely sanitized. There will of course be books, seminars, and get-a-ways sold to you to further feed your “hobby” and keep you safely occupied and away from the mainstream… as though you in turn must be quarantined for our protection.

Many of these opt-outs will even be sold to us as Christianity, Judaism, Islam or whatever. But looked at candidly, even and especially here… most religions and “spiritualities” have already succumbed to the power of this gospel. For no matter what the intent of their resistance, increasingly these great religions (or many of their adherents) see themselves as fitting within this exaltation as a profitable (whether these profits are measured in dollars or spiritual benefits is no matter to them) sideshow, a minor deity in the pantheon idolizing “the Self” and its rule. And so for the most part those still obsessed with issues like Works vs. Faith, or Scripture vs. the Church, even Science vs Religion… these just aren’t our real problems (if they ever were) and many are completely unaware of the revolution already lost. No, we don’t need lie detectors to spot our errors or GPS’s to rechart our location. We’ve got these handy dandy active Atheists to tell us where we are… we don’t even need to ask! Heck they’ve spotted all our errors, our transgressions and stupidities for us! It’s almost as though by professeing to “see” our sins…. those of us with the temerity to hold ourselves on some hallowed path (whatever it is they don’t care), they can see where we’ve missed. Yeah… I know… sure: So what if it proves the Gospel … that whole mote-beam thing? Point is they nailed us, divined our sins and rare occasions may have even mentioned some of their own. But isn’t it odd how the outgrowth of this exorcism isn’t our damnation or theirs, their salvation or ours either… but simply a validation that we’re all really brothers in the Kingdom? For neither God’s prophets, nor his oracles, his worshippers nor even those who curse his name are able to escape the our condition on our own.

So what are we to do? Opting out involves submission of our selves to another authority. Typically, we underestimate the powerful cultural resistance and start off as though it’s a simple task. It’s not. You literally can’t “just do it”. There far more preparation required. I mean Nike’s mission is to sell the fool’s gold that the only difference between the amateur slacker and the expert sportsman lies in the shoes. Commitment, endurance, endeavor, courage, faith…. those things that constitute the sort of strength of character that keeps us going when there’s nothing we can see, seems nothing we can do… and it’s all on the come. When all we know for sure are the aches and pains of endless and inconvenient training, dieting, working out, matches… not all those years, experiences, all those sacrifices….those things we could have and would rather have done… all these are dismissed. No, what separates one from the other is just a quick purchase. “Just do it!” More succinctly, “Do it now!”

Freedom moves in another direction. And yet as simple as that first other directed step may seem, it’s the next and the next and the next where it’s tested, tried and proven… and inevitably there’s a moment… where the dullness hits, and the lure of the former way seeks to reset its hooks once more. Like the  alcoholic’s initial wake-up call, it’s an admission that there is something, some power, greater than ourselves, and we can do nothing of our own, on our own, or by ourselves without this assistance – it’s this acknowledgement of powerlessness that is the beginning of freedom. For its typically our dependence on the contemporary currents that shackles us in the shallows even as it shakes its fist in pretense of a freedom from tradition, superstition, stupidity, narrow mindedness… and all those things taken to demean our humanity. But deception is always more convenient, and what path could appear more wise than to unmask our fears, feed them with a sense that we’ve been misled, and proceed to ensnare us in a deeper confusion as though the only way forward were to reject all other possibilities.

The truth is quite opposite. The very grave struggle of coming to this realization is the beginning of a battle to gain our freedom through an awareness of the greater subtleties of life, of other persons, and even the person of God. If this were either a simple minded task or a simplistic belief involving no more than, “Where do I sign?”, those who accuse religious people of superstition might rightly be credited as on to something. But to take the Marxist quip, “Show me how you spend your money and I’ll show you what you worship”, the narrowing of religious understanding to… well, “standing as if in a certain pose” is precisely the tool applied to deceiving these same well-meaning folks into mistaking their freedom as servitude by reversing and limiting their perspective. No, it’s not that my worship that makes me superstitious as though pretending to see what isn’t… because that’s not what we’re about in our worship. Rather what we seek to do is more focused on trying with all our strength to pierce the veil obscuring our vision and see what truly is… as it is… and without all the glitter and distraction of our personal delusions, fears, and wishes. But if following the crowd in the obsession of the moment is more compelling, fine. Only there can be no greater superstition than to follow a crowd as though it were a protection form evil consequences.

Fact is that this resistance and self-actuation on this or any path can easily become… well, just as annoying. For whatever path we choose to make as our own, for our self-annointed “wonder” (or “weirdness”) is similarly balanced on a knife’s edge between success and failure. And so the true power of Christianity as I’ve come to know it in the Orthodox Church is less in what it seems to build up and more what it turns over in one’s way: Failure  may be the path to success; weakness of greater power than strength; and death… well, the path to new and eternal life. And it starts with a hard push, literally seizing the freedom from intellectual self-flattery and then kicks toward reducing the ego, letting it and “the old man” go, and taking up a service to others – God especially, but his people – ALL of them… those we think good, those we think bad, and even those we think ugly or of any attribute we might name: All are beautiful in His eyes… and should become  so in ours.

I’m pained when I see myself and others miss this. I should be. And yet for a long time… yeah… I know I wasn’t. I remember one time when one of those folks who had a greater impact on my life than I realized asked us (her parish council at the time) where we had seen God that day. And we’d all had such wrestles rushing about our day just to get there… I’m afraid there wasn’t a whole lot of patience with the question. Fact is there wasn’t a single one of us who answered other than,

“Nope. Didn’t see him.”
“I think He was on break, man.”
“Yeah… like why didn’t he show up?”

And I look back on that moment as one of those great misses in my life. And in her gentleness, our pastor said nothing.

That was in my pre-Orthodox days and so there’s nothing untoward or unwelcome in laying it out there (as if we have to?): Yes, women can be good spiritual guides. Duh. Shouldn’t be news… especially to the Orthodox. Or as the ad might say, “Got a mom?” It’s only our destructive clericalism that leads us to think, “Hmmm, shouldn’t that be a guy… like a priest?” No. Fact is, maybe like St. Seraphim, it oughtta be a bear! My point in relaying this isn’t to shock, but to lay the conditions in which I was first struck by Metropolitan Kallistos Ware’s books, and the notion that we may not be able to see God, but we can know his path by the mark of His footsteps as they leave impressions in the sand. We have to look harder… but He is always there. Even when we don’t want Him to be there; even when we despise Him, and even when we deny His presence; …and even when we’d like to think He’s in us but not the other guy… He is there and in both. And our denial, our separation, and our Fall …. is all that we know, or know for now.

And more than that, it occurs to me the real answer is simply that in the Garden is a well… a well of great depth where the water is sweet and over-flows with an abundance of life. But instead of drinking, for some reason the abundance of life giving water that joins both life and death in an experience of eternity… instead of the rippling music that flows from the great gift of even a small waterfall… you know what it does? For some reason drinking is the last thing on our mind… and instead we hunger for something else, for a difference, for a fruit whose after-known bitter taste still leaves us confused, blinded, and pointed everywhere else but back to a Source far greater than any that can be known. Glory to God for His great and abundant mercy, for the freedom He gives us, and the love that He offers us in communion with His Son in the one and only path that is our return, for the life giving waters and the courage, the patience and gentle wisdom to drink as offered rather than turn elsewhere. But especially for the renewed sweetness in our labors along this way.

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