Posted by: jamesthethickheaded | December 5, 2012

Dashed Off to Orthodoxy

Anastasia has a bit on becoming Orthodox that had me… shall I say wanting to dash off a response… a sort of resistance in detail hardly worth a bother, and so rather than clutter up her combox, I’ve posted here instead. Let me begin by saying that as I recall… thinking of ol’ Dash, Dash Rip Rock was Ellie Mae’s heart throb on The Beverly Hillbillies… at least that’s my memory. Seem to recall he had files on everyone he’d ever dated, what they wore, where they went to dinner, what she ordered, how they danced, ….the whole business. What he understood was that every girl was different, and every girl wanted to be remembered for the special evening she spent with him.

Fact is, it’s probably fair to say we think the same of ourselves no matter where the romance is… whether it’s finding our true love in the flesh or our true faith. We’re individuals, and everyone of us is as different as the sunrises and sunsets we find wherever we go… and even if we go no place at all…. each is a fascinating remembrance…. each different even as each may in so many ways also have much of the same. But the idea that there is only one way or one conversion or one reason to become Orthodox is… well, it’s not wrong… though perhaps it’s off-putting and a partial understanding… and it’s not that I’m better at more than partials, but that I see things with a different twist… like the one I did last summer.

Conversion is much more like a sunset you never tire of watching. Only with the Church, we come for a million reasons. And we will stay for a million reasons… sequentially converting through each one of them the same way we fall in love with our spouses through the series of their years, and the wonder of their ever changing and ever the same lives. This is life together… and if it were lived only one way, there’d be room for exactly one person and that’d be it. But the Church is so much greater than that… it’s a community that loves each other with an intensity … that sometimes the stand-offishness of our visible selves… well… doesn’t always iconograph as well as it might… not because there isn’t love, but because more often than not, we have yet to completely comprehend how our love for each other can offer the freedom to recognize and embrace each other exactly as we need, want and should. This is how we start… and we start as with so many things in so many places… paused to reflect on the wonder how this moment captures all the others that have passed together with the present and all those moments yet to come.

And so each conversion is perfectly different from each other, and yet exactly the same as it continues to unfold through the conversion of each day into the fullness of our lives… as though captured through each of these simultaneously. There is no one I think who completely understands his or her conversion of their heart. This is God’s work… we’re simply witnesses standing at one point and place in one time, and our comprehension incomplete. Ultimately, ours will become a type of conversion no other can match, and its depth, its breath, it height and width will be without peer or without measure… and yet it will be paired with so many others along these lines that the wonder is how we can possibly say it’s different…. and yet it is so incredibly different. It will not be captured in words, but in the flesh, will live through you as you live through others, and the wonder of Christ’s life is revealed in yours and through yours, revealed to others – or at least that’s how He would have it. Our life is here, in this Church, and is to become part of Life itself… and that’s why we come. It may have been something else initially, and that’s well and good. It brought us here… and it may be many, many other things next week, or the week after… and that’s fine if it keeps us coming back – which it does. And then as we progress from one to another, we ultimately discover… there was far more in this than we might ever have imagined, and this work of conversion is Christ’s work and not our own. We’ve participated… surely, but not alone.

Could we have proceeded directly here on this basis initially? Probably not. We’d have been put off. But gently in this way of sequential discovery, we find the wonder extends and expands gradually from a small point to the whole of Creation. Both are infinite. Don’t be sold for less. But come as you are, however you are, and for whatever…. it’s all fine. We’re all small as we start. But if we open ourselves to Christ, bigger things lie ahead. May God speed us on our ways towards His way.

Posted by: jamesthethickheaded | December 4, 2012

More News from the “Why Bother Department?”

So why bother with blogging?

Dunno. Seems the crowd has moved on, the parade’s gone by and all that. And maybe that’s well deserved; maybe it’s just what’s needed; maybe we’ll just have to wait and see. I think of blogging as a good place to journal a few things with the “publish” as a point of polish… not a final draft per se… but close enough to let another take a look’n’move on.

But today, social media – which unfairly I think of as anti-social media – is all the rage. Deep thoughts in 120 characters. “Yeah, don’t bore me, fill out the form! None of this long-windedness … just gimme a few words and buzz off. Can’t handle it.” Mostly judging from my “friends” on Facebook, it’s guys into marketing and advertising… and yeah… that’s about the tops we want from them anyway. Which puzzles me about the Pope… who is now into Twitter? What’s with that?

I’m thinking, “Sure. Thomas Acquinas in Twitter would probably have been a lot more to the point. Cut the crap man… just gimme hit me with what you got in 120 or less.” I know for one if the guy had done it, my Philosophy of Religion course would sure have been a lot easier. Probably wouldn’t even have to think or anything.

FWIW, don’t think I could nail it myself that short, nor if I did, that it’d be a good thing. The amount of thought involved in communicating phrases as terse has got to have you so focused on your own thoughts and inattentive to others, I can’t possibly imagine how “social” that really is. Then again, does anyone really care what any of us thinks? or that somewhere in the midst of our lives we manage even one or two complex thoughts… even if they’re poorly expressed?

“Sure, sure… heard it all before. And these new things… these mammals… what’d ya think of them Mr. T Rex? Not gonna make it, huh? Jus’ another fad? Yeah… yer right there. Sure ya’ are. Why don’t you climb into this oil can and mark yourself SAE 50 ? Yeah? An’ when you’re done, do us a favor and climb on to the shelf next to the wiper blades.”

So yeah… I run a tad long. Thoughts of high viscosity, too? Maybe… make that way long. But what’s the deal? We’re each writing for ourselves in some measure (see the notes on the recent pub of John Lennon tidbits from here and there), and we all have to learn to “express ourselves”… which I’d prefer to mean something other than what my vet’s referring to we asks that we express certain glands.

“Ah… but then y’don’ read your own stuff, now, d’ya? Kin’ o’… hmmm… comesy goesy now, ain’t ya?”
“Well… it’s been a long slog of a year. ‘Pologies. an’ all that We’ll get back to a little more variety…uh… soon enough.”
“What with Christmas an’ all that right around the corner? Oh go on!”
“Well… at anyrate…’tis an ambition.”

And at that, it maybe no better than my ambition to make Vespers regularly, or that the Church get busy working on its married saints who stay married… as in the same household and acting like… well… y’know… least we could say is that they wouldn’t be the types goin’ to a monastery any time soon… if y’know what I mean. Then there’s the ambition that maybe the Church could say something like:

“Y’know… we’ve thought about it, an’ well… Heaven’s kind of… well… not sure how to put this, but seems we’re kind of full-up on the tragic types. Done. Topped off and all. And we’re getting kind of antsy for a little … should we say ‘balance’? Fact is, we’ve put in for a few more comedians… an’ y’know… that’s a way edgy request if you know the type… rare up here… even if we don’t say so ourselves.

“How rare is that?” you say.

Glad you asked. It’s like so rare… it’s like if you’ve got nothing better than a sad story… um… recommendation would be to try cheering yourself up a bit… b’fore you put your app in and go and martyr yourself.

Really… these essays… don’t know if you’re reading the rough drafts or anything… but you people obviously don’t get why we came up with the multiple choice app in the first place, huh? Like… seriously… we mean … tripple OMG… losing our minds reading these things. An’ FYI… we’re like on our umpty-ump rotation of folks just trying to staff that committee just since last week. Lots of folks quitting jus’ ’cause they can’t take it… these things… not kiddin’… make’em feel like they ended on the other team.

So c’mon… Give us a break.

An’ y’know anytime now…. you can let go of the woe is me bit, too. Sooooo been there, done that. An’ the tears for the whole world, talking and making friends with wild animals …in the wild blah blah blah…yeah… full up there, too. An’ just for the record: No, you can’t bring the bear or whatever it is with you. Especially bees… tired of sorting the happy bees from the angry ones. Seriously. An we’ve got plenty of “the lived a million days in desert eating sand and singin’ hymns”, tons of folks from caves… I mean if there’s one BamBam’ there’s a million all sending their “love ya’ man… doin’ okay and thank you an’ all that… still here’s intercedin’ fer ye dude!”. Caveman speak… like surfer speak is another headache we can do without.

So to cut to the chase… let’s just get it out there… ya’ don’t have to go be a weirdo or anything. Really. Mean it. Sure… we got’em… boy… do we got’em… but what’s wrong with someone here and there just a tad bit towards normal? Someone we could …like be done with some of those tiring questions… y’know… ‘did you feed me when I was this?’ or ‘clothe me when I was that?’ or even ‘visit me when I was where?’ an’ so on. B’tween us? Let’s just say it’d be nice to ask someone… as if they might have a clue what we’re talkin’ ’bout: “Whose gonna win the BCS this year? Bama or the Irish? An’ by the way, whaddya make of the new Bond flick?”

Now don’t get us wrong or anything… an’ it’s not like we’re gonna run out mercy slots any time soon… its just when we get to celebrating the ‘one who’s lost and found’… we could really use a little variety and all that. Spice of Eternity if you know what we mean.

Just sayin’ .”

Yeah. Heard that. And no, if Moses heard the guys say this, it must have been on one of his rough drafts… y’know… the tablets that didn’t make the final cut. And I know what you’re thinking: “Kind of like me, huh?” Whoah. Dodged that thunderbolt.

Posted by: jamesthethickheaded | December 3, 2012

Taught by God – Part 3

“And they will all be taught by God” John 6:45 – Part 3

Finally, the power of the Epilogue to Boosalis’s “Taught by God” is inescapable. He begins it with the familiar idea that as we struggle in the process towards becoming holy by divine grace, “one’s sanctification is not limited to one’s own nature.. but extends outward to all creation” (p. 129). And most helpfully, he returns to the role of icons in the Church:

“The Orthodox icon points toward the potential sanctification of all God’s creation. In an existential and eschatological way, it proclaims this sanctification as a present, though not yet perfected reality.”

“And in a world that has become a global marketplace of idolatry and false idols, such as money and power, celebrity and fame; the light of the icon shines on brightly, illuminating the Orthodox understanding of man’s true spiritual potential.”

“This is what makes the icon so relevant for us Orthodox. This is what makes Orthodoxy so relevant today. This is why we Orthodox kiss our icons, and offer incense before them, and sprinkle them with holy water. We light candles before them, and pray before them; we cry before them, and bow before them. They are there when we are married, and they are there when we are buried. They are present with us always, from our baptism to our grave.”

“Many people today tend to identify the Orthodox Church with incense and icons. It is interesting to note how during the Divine Liturgy, when the priest censes the iconostasis and the other icons in the Church, he also censes the people in the congregation.”

“The Church does this because she believes that it is man himself who is the greatest icon of all. Man created in the image of God, is indeed a living icon of the living God. The Church censes the icons of paint and wood, as a way to honor them. And she censes the icons of flesh and blood, honoring the image within, venerating the icon inside.”

“To venerate and honor painted icons is a good thing. Yet is even better to venerate and honor the living icons of God, who are our fellow human beings. Every man and every woman has been created in the image of God, whether we are black or white, Catholic or Protestant, Muslim or Jew.”

“If I venerate painted icons, yet disregard and despise God’s living icons, then I am simply re-enacting the iconoclastic heresy. I become like those Byzantine emperors who persecuted divine images (pp. 129-131).

And ultimately then it is this process of the veneration of God’s Holy Icons – the whole of his Creation living or aspiring to live in communion in the Glory of God – that our theology is meant to instill. This is the purpose of our Orthodoxy, our worship, our prayer and even the whole of our lives. It’s really that simple!

Funny, how the hard things really can be quite simple if we let them. But that’s just it: We don’t, and we don’t because it seems to be something of our nature to wander off from this sort of unnervingly precise clarity… as though it were the gaze of Truth looking us squarely, and uncomfortably in the eye. And it’s almost as though by letting our eyes dart aside, we can continue sifting as though we’re not quite “done”, and so escape the inevitable consequences of that next step …putting off all that bit about changing… “at least for now”.  And so the church gives us all this “stuff” … the liturgy, the hymns, the prayers, the lives of the saints, the icons and the intricate web woven between them all – as a way to keep the focus on Christ even as our gaze shifts to someone or something else in this Holy community… and so softens our resistance.

Sure, there’s the idea that we won’t or don’t resist… but as for me, that’s not been the way. At best, I’d say I find there’s always an appeal that keeps me coming back, something just beyond expression or awareness… like the awkward mix of emotions when my mom or grandmother used to pull me close in the middle of her friends… and there’s no right or wrong here, but somehow, you just let it happen for a moment, and then you’re free to go off again. I think it’s more this way than we think: We’re kept close, and our attention’s retained even as it shifts… even when we run back to the playground until mom’s finally ready to get in the car. She knows we’re listening now… even as she continues her own pause, keeps her discourse with her friends, but her ears out for us as well.

That’s okay. Maybe it’s even a training of sorts… to see Christ in each of these others around us so that in turn, we might be strengthened for the more difficult tasks of seeing Him not just in ourselves as the light within our lives as it spreads from revelation to revelation, but perhaps more importantly that which illuminates and animates others as well… and their listening to the Shepherd’s call. And to come to know Christ in the freedom He gives us as well… to hold Him close, to allow that embrace, and then to run off again… each knowing the other is there and comfortably aware… each waiting for the other’s next step… like that moment before leaving for home.

And perhaps that’s an odd take-away: The Church and all it gives us is Christ’s playground… a playground within His greater Creation where all that surrounds us in the Church reflects His presence, and His awareness of us… and invites our attention as well to His life, His discourse, His attention … as we wander through and along our way. We’re loved, we’re nourished, we’re even doted on for a moment while at the same moment… perhaps even gently admonished to “take more care on the sliding board” or whatever… and then let go again. And whether we stay here, or as we grow, pass beyond its walls and fences, our hearts may remember this to our benefit.  And what I do know is that there is indeed great joy, freedom and love in these remembrances… even as some are long gone. And if this is a prayer of sorts, or a progress into a different sort of prayerful awareness… then so much the better. May we enter and remain with these to the Glory to God.

Posted by: jamesthethickheaded | November 26, 2012

Taught by God – Part 2

“And they will all be taught by God” John 6:45 – Part 2

Having identified that we can learn Orthodox theology only by living an Orthodox life in an Orthodox community, Boosalis proceeds in his second chapter to identify what it is that comprises theology more concretely. But immediately there’s a problem and moment that pauses: “Why am I doing this? Just what is the theology? What exactly am I getting myself into?” All good questions most of us have puzzled through ourselves or have stumped others with (our spouses) as we begin. As a start on an answer, he offers:

“Orthodox theology is primarily a spiritual process. And by ‘process’ we mean a ‘continuous action or series of events…a method of action… leading to the accomplishment of some result. More specifically, Orthodox theology is a personal process aimed at progress in prayer, which is acquired through one’s participation in the ascetical, sacramental and liturgical life of the Church.” P. 29

More than just a mouthful, it seems a fairly accurate summation which he follows with the note that what this means for the beginner is that “…the student of theology must… work on himself and on his own spiritual formation” (p. 33) …and puts his trust in those who have had the experience and accepts their teachings rather than his own ideas and opinions.” (p.35)

This is easier said than done. But if it is done, and in the writings of the saints we read that at least a number of supermen can and have done it, and written about their journeys. And in these writings we can see that others before us following this way have come to know that “Blessed is the man who knows his own weakness, because this knowledge becomes to him the foundation, the root, and the beginning of all goodness. …Before ascending to the heights of theology, we must therefore first descend into the dark abyss of our heart. This is the way of humility, one of the primary virtues that attracts the grace of the Holy Spirit.”  (p. 38) And though he doesn’t reference the writings of the saints directly, I have here because it is in these that we read the experience of those in the Church… as something actual living breathing people have concretely followed and left their trails behind for us like Hansel and Gretel in their words.

The whole point is that indeed, the student is meant to follow the path rather than simply read and think about it. For “…it is not enough, therefore, simply to talk (and read about) theology. What is required of the Orthodox student is to live it. We must transform our individual and isolated way of life and lead it into the catholic fullness of the life of the Orthodox Church, where we begin to hand ourselves over to the grace of the Holy Spirit” (p. 41). And as time progresses, “…there must be a conscious effort on the part of the theologian, not simply to call on, but to come to depend upon, the grace of the Holy Spirit. It is His guidance and His inspiration which are needed…” (p. 43). And given that our greatest interaction with the Holy Spirit lies in worship, “…outside the framework of the Divine Liturgy… it is impossible to understand Orthodox faith and theology” (p. 44). And it is in these simple phrases that the whole case for the inquirer to convert is made: It’s not about a new label or a new way of worship or new readings and new church friends, but about something far more practical and down to earth – taking the medicine for one’s soul under the care of a physician. You can’t build in the good, the non-woolly parts of Orthodoxy into your regular, comfortable ways… these ways stand on their own as a fabric that must become a new set of clothes rather than a set of patches on the old.

And I particularly liked his point that we have “to come to depend upon the grace of the Holy Spirit”  because in so much of what seems to assail us through what is often a whirlwind in conversion (and in truth those years even now…. long after) that seem to buffet us about as though driven by another source. And yet perhaps if instead we make a concerted effort to turn this process over to the Holy Spirit we may eventually find an inviting peace where we can step back from the driver’s seat, give up something of our self and what we think we’re about, our ideas on this process for one, and listen to what He has to say, follow where He leads, and walk in those things prepared for our Way. I sense that in fact this has been happening all along… it wasn’t me or about me, although at times clearly I’ve erred by making it about me or pushing in that direction, or at least sounding  as though I were in charge.  Either God’s in charge, or we’re all lost. And He knows well enough when to keep hidden and from whom what must be hidden (meaning me).

And my point in pulling out Boosalis’s familiar words here isn’t to obviate reading the book, but to note the logical conclusion that if the theologian is one who prays, and a life of prayer and progress in prayer in this life is part and parcel with becoming Orthodox, then what seems to make this journey so hard initially may be that in effect we are all asked to become theologians… or to begin on that Way. Orthodox Christianity may therefore seem to many a tough calling… and it is, but that’s our failing rather than our virtue. For if we share only the burdens, what have we done but breach our community with others by putting them off. Inadvertently or more specifically… unknowingly… this must be our intent… to pursue an Orthodoxy …still on our own terms, by ourselves or with a community of only the committed… and the rest… perhaps it’s as though we profess to love, but in effect we’re telling them to buzz off. Dunno whether that gets it done or not,  but it’s certainly not making anything easier. The task of making the hard sweet springs from and within the heart… and until it does, we must obviously still need the medicine of immortality and remain lacking.

In his third chapter, Boosalis goes on to make a number of excellent points about dogma… but you’ll have to engage those on your own. I found his fourth chapter on icons, iconoclasm, incarnation and all that equally… something you may wish to pursue as well. Again, good points. What I liked best was his conclusion… which I’ll pick up with next… but in the interim, I’m sticking close to the medicine cabinet.

Posted by: jamesthethickheaded | November 24, 2012

Taught by God – Part 1

“And they will all be taught by God” John 6:45 – Part 1

Harry Boosalis’s book Taught by Godpromises the reader to be a preliminary to the study of Orthodox Theology, and I’d agree. And though the text is intended for seminary students and driven laity, I wonder that the book – or at least it’s conclusions – doesn’t form the nucleus of excellent advice for those of us who have come to the Orthodox Church in our “hunger and thirst” after something … and we might not even know what it is… but it seems as though perhaps we were driven, or drive ourselves as though for life giving water… when on subsequent reflection the truth may be that this zeal… as good as it is… will have to wither as well and be transformed if it is ultimately to bear fruit as we intend.

And it’s this bearing fruit that’s the problem. For if the Life in Christ is the language of the heart, then it seems to require much study of grammar, vocabulary and context (idiom) to even begin to absorb an understanding of what is being said. And like all language learning, understanding the words that are being said – and only at that level, actually takes us only so far as an ability to find one’s way to a restaurant, order dinner and or sing a song. Living with another person who knows only this language, much less falling in love with them? My guess is that it’s going to take a lot more patience and understanding… real empathy… to pull this off. Perhaps in a nutshell… this is the challenge of the Christian Life as we see it or come to know it in the Orthodox Church.

Leaving Boosalis’s text aside for the moment to ponder some of what springs within as a result, let me suggest that I wonder increasingly that the difference between East and West may be as simple as the speed of life which on one hand wants in one to resonate, sound out and harmonize as a prelude to a waltz, whereas on the other it seems far less musical, far more singular and focused on motion than its grace, and almost as intent as someone caught-up and driven in a march. And so it may be less that this describes a difference between our churches but more of a divergence in our outlooks, characters and within ourselves that result in a scramble as muddled as the chicken-and-egg dilemma… for in truth these difference lie within each of us as much as they lie between.

How do you tell the average achievement oriented American this sort of stuff? We want to have an experience of Christ, we want to reach a new understanding of his message, we want to apply his precepts, we want to fill our senses, our minds, and more as though Christ were some sort of air we could inhale… and we just want this and that… and without limit… that if we really think about it, it seems almost as though we’d rather there weren’t a person of Christ, but an obsession more appropriate to a vending machine you can just punch when you need Him. No, don’t want Him all the time… perish the thought, but when we do… there’s no limit. And it’s not that this is wrong per se (though it seems it), but perhaps these things just have to run their course. And it’d be my guess that our fears in these things – for in some measure surely this is part of the behavior – is that our “turn” somehow lapses untaken or seized by another, and so we press on with all the relentlessness of an ill-dressed tourist intent on seeing the Taj Mahal “today” on his terms… even if it’s closed.

Boosalis begins the book with a somewhat familiar presentation I’d pin down by distinguishing what  Orthodox theology is not rather than what it is. This leads him toward what many converts like me will recognize as the seemingly impossible response that it has to be studied in context. Of course the trouble as we begin is that we don’t even know what we’re studying, and thus finding the right context to study a subject about which we know little, and whose content we know even less, much less our  our own impediments in learning is almost to leave us ready to call it quits at the very beginning as an impossible journey… which if we follow our usual mode… indeed it is. So he makes the case for a different approach, and so he offers Elder Paisius of Mt. Athos’s quote:

“Theology that is taught as a [worldly] science usually examines things historically and consequently understands things externally. Because patristic asceticism and inner experience are absent, this theology is full of doubts and questions. With his mind man is not able to comprehend the divine energies unless he first struggles ascetically to live these energies, so that the grace of God might work within him.” P.23

Living this life is where Boosalis points us – toward a worshipping community where students live and share the same Orthodox Christian lives that have been lived through the ages by their forebears, “emulating the same spiritual virtues, partaking in the same sacraments, attending the same services, following the same liturgical cycles, singing the same hymns, reciting the same prayers and following the same ways of prayer, being inspired by the same Scriptural readings, observing the same fasts, celebrating the same feasts, commemorating the same Saints, venerating the same holy relics, kissing the same icons, obeying the same canons, upholding the same ethics, preserving the same practices, identifying with the same theological teachings – and above all, receiving the same Holy Body and Blood of Christ – all students of Orthodox theology, from throughout the centuries of the Church’s existence, share a common Faith and communal experience and are thus united in the timeless and eternal bond of two thousand years of Holy Tradition.” P. 27

In the second chapter, Boosalis carries this forward.

Posted by: jamesthethickheaded | November 13, 2012

Linked Together

This day we are bound together as our Holy Synod makes an effort to give steerage way to our foundering ship. As any sailor knows, a ship’s motion follows the currents when it loses headway, when the passage of water along the keel and thus by the rudder is eliminated. Whether we move forward or backward is less the issue for the moment, it is simply a matter of restoring the flow along the keel that will get us steerage, and with that, ultimately back on course and towards our destination. Sometime… rare times one hopes… the helmsman even leaves the deck to check down below, to assure the soundness of the ship. And this seems one of those times. When this happens, floundering… floundering without incident… may in fact be the best that can be hoped. But if we are to get going again… well, the rest is obvious.

One thing I know as someone whose had to run below whether sailing alone or with a crew is that these moments of leaving one’s station to check below typically involve a resurfacing on deck to a few surprises. Surprises and their consequences are always the captain’s responsibility. Many apologies are always in order – to one’s crew, to the ships nearby, to the Lord himself. And so in thinking on these piloting skills today, I’m reminded that the FAA has just upped the hours required for a commercial aviation license to 1,500 hours – which some suggested was a five-fold increase. There’s something about experience and assuring experience incorporates not just the good times and smooth ops, but especially the mishaps and recoveries from them that long experience inevitably entails. For the discipline to run a tight ship, to know the conditions of the sea and ship and project the course and tick down through the possibilities – these come not from reading, but from the sweat and blood and sheer terror of not wanting to repeat a searing experience. What we want is to differentiate between those still thrilling to the experience of flight itself and enthralled with the sense of three dimensional freedom unparalleled by any other from those seasoned veterans who take their responsibilities in the transport of others as a sacred trust and employ all their skills to reduce the risks these thrills might represent in order to assure safe and comfortable passage. And these skills and intentions should all be requisite to those aspiring to run any operation of any sort. And unfortunately experience comes only through exposure to risks, and even the risk of total loss, and more often than not, we entrust our passage to those too young to have transitted fully from thrill seeker to passagemaker. And we take it on trust that the remaining change will in fact occur as they are invested with new responsibilities. Undoubtedly, there is no other recourse.

So it seems we’re linked together in this way, and can only pray the enterprise succeeds as its new captain takes the helm, and the bubbles begin once more to pass beneath the transom. One might even suggest that as we bind ourselves to a new captain, we loose our ties to the old, to the mess and to this point where the ship has floundered. We can hold on to all of that, or we can try to get the ship moving again. Believe me, I’ve seen as much of the shipwreck as I can stand, and I’d prefer it not to have happened, but it did, and it cannot be undone. What I believe is that by restoring water to the keel, restoring steerage, we can even make those lost in the shipwreck whole. Some do not believe this, and that may be their due, but until we move forward, we can do nothing. And as for me, I’m tired of staring at slack water and drifting. Was there in truth a problem with our old captain? No, of course not, or at least not likely. But something was wrong with the ship and it foundered and we continued too long in the pretense that all was fine. Our captain did what he could and what seemed necessary, but the inescapable tragedy is that it wasn’t enough given the situation, and unlike the maritime examples I refer to, no one seeing the ship in distress came to our aid. No one. Not one diocese, one bishop or jurisdiction or mother church or anyone. Not even one website that professes only that it is bothered by just about everything… especially the joy of gossiping about the bother. From my crow’s nest, the OCA has been left to its own in ways that can only be construed as parallel to ships standing off a foundering vessel because of conflicting signals from the crew – and allowing it to sink. Say what you will, that itself is not the right call either… there must be and there is a point where saving lives forces intervention even between the sacred bond of a ill-served crew and their overwhelmed  internal hierarchy as you pull along side, throw over your lines and ask for all the souls who can be saved before Neptune claims his own. And because there is more murkiness about these depths than I can fathom, I won’t.

Yet what strikes me is that Fr. Ted has a good read that applies in some ways to this situation, but more broadly to every situation. Please give it a go.

Posted by: jamesthethickheaded | November 10, 2012

Let down your nets on the other side

Some texts let you down. You keep trying them, but they don’t yield. Oh… how that has been the story of my life. Often of course it says more about the sympathies of the fisherman than the fish, does it not? Any questions, read my comments on the Brother K… and you’ll see my shortcomings. But this same thing holds true elsewhere. Sometimes, I’m simply too distracted to extract from a text what it offers. Some literally do require you to push through because it is the sweep rather than the specks of the text that draw. More often as it comes to these things, it’s the intense focus that finds merit… a practice that those later hours of the evening when so many of us do our reading simply find ourselves lacking in energy to accomplish.

“For myself, I cannot deny that although I have worked all night I have caught nothing. Yet at your suggestion I have again let down the nets, and I have made a large catch. They are not big fish, but there a hundred and fifty-three of them (cf. John 21:11). These, as you requested, I am sending you in a creel of love, in the form of a hundred and fifty-three texts.
 
I am delighted to find you so eager for texts on prayer  eager not simply for those written on paper with ink but also for those which are fixed in the intellect through love and generosity. But since ‘all things go in pairs, one complementing the other’, as the wise Jesus puts it (Ecclus. 42:24), please accept the letter and understand its spirit, since every written word presupposed the intellect: for where there is no intellect there is no written word. The way of prayer is also twofold: it comprises practice of the virtues and contemplation. The same applies to numbers: literally they are quantities, but they can also signify qualities.” from p. 55 of “The Philokalia, Volume One”, and one of my favorites, Evagrios of Pontus (or The Solitary), and for some reason “not a saint”… which “as for me” bodes rather ominously.

Thus if and when I have a problem with catching anything in some of these texts, the fact is that yes, it is me. And sometimes, it’s simply better to move my nets to the other side of the boat. I won’t necessarily catch fish where others have. On the other hand, sometimes I might benefit from keeping at it. Listen to the Holy Spirit. Work where He is preparing us and the fish to come together. Leave aside that which isn’t working. And don’t stress about it. Conclusions are never conclusive, so don’t try to make them. Be pragmatic. If that thick book isn’t getting anywhere for you… maybe it’s the temptation of the thinner books surrounding it and not a fault of its own.

Ah… but that would lead to discussing my distraction. Distraction with prayer is a misunderstanding… and rather than a virtue, misconstrues the content of prayer as only one sort of discourse in body and spirit. I think we all have this… but surely it is mine especially to think I am only at prayer when there are words in my mind, my heart or on my lips. Putting them there may not serve, or may simply narrow my options, my worship, and my prayer offerings… and that is indeed a likelihood. Resolution is not action. Ah… but there’s the rub. And so rather than let down, let me throw the nets on the other side…. all this work, all these evenings and mornings, all these days of our lives, all these words… and where is my prayer? Where, Lord, is it found in these waters surrounding this vessel? Pray that you might tell me, and that if you tell me from afar, that I might hear and obey… here, near to my heart and in my life. Lord have mercy.

Posted by: jamesthethickheaded | October 23, 2012

Akathist for a Loved One Fallen Asleep

Sunday, Carol pushed me toward the “Akathist to Jesus Christ – For a Loved One who has Fallen Asleep”. Our bookstore had a copy published by St. Paisius Orthodox Monastery in Arizona, which is translated from the Russian by Elizabeth Purdy. The introduction by Protopriest Milos M. Vesin is very good. As he puts it, “The Orthodox Church is the Church of the resurrection, the Church of joy and the Church of love; and because of these three most important elements of Orthodoxy we cannot but openly, lovingly and faithfully embrace this which faces every one of us – namely, the question of our dying and death.” He then adds, “The Akathist… should be used both as an act of love toward those whom we have loved and who have fallen asleep, as well as an effective spiritual “therapy” for those of us who remain, so as not to fall into the grief or sorrow that might lead to despondency.” 

And so with my prayers thismorning and yesterday, I’ve now said this twice. Not exactly a ton of experience, but a start. Unfortunately, a close friend and Reader from St. Gregory’s (with whom I acolyted for years) lost his mother yesterday. And so I added her name to Dad’s. This renders the prayers “him/her” as “theirs”, and the names when given as “James and Barbara”… which happen as well to be the names of both my wife and I. And I hadn’t thought of that in advance, nor intended the sense it gives of time – as though praying one’s own Akathist at the same time as praying for another… as though… well, you get the idea. Oddly, very Orthodox in a way, but otherwise a paradox of sorts.

And the heart is pierced in the Ikos 7 where the prayer continues:

“When the fate of the departed fades into oblivion, when his(her) image dims in the heart, and time obliterates, along with his(her) tomb, the fervency of prayer for him(her), then do Thou not abandon him(her) but give delight to his(her) lonely soul…”

Yes, this is a fear… we now know and acknowledge. And so the prayer answers that Jesus’s love will never cease, is inexhaustible, and washes away our sins… and through the intercessions of all Thy Saints, “grant him(her) the grace of prayer for the living”, and grant as well that we may accept these intercessions in our own trials. And that’s an unexpected (?) transition… very consistent with the experience these last few weeks of transition continuing here and in heaven – at all ends of creation and for all of us – the living and departed. And as the Akathist continues, it transitions to where we have vanished, and the permanence of Holy Eternity endures; a place where our continuance is ended – an oddity to our present vision and experience of life; and the continuance of our departed becomes our own.

And so as it offers in Ikos 11, “At Thy breath flowers come to life, the river Nile is resurrected and a multitude of tiny creatures awakens. Thy glance is brighter than the spring sky; and Thy love, O Jesus, is warmer than the rays of the sun. Thou didst raise our mortal human flesh from the dust of the earth unto the blossoming of the eternal spring of incorruptible life. Do Thou then illumine also Thy servant (Name) with the light of Thy mercy.”

“Vouchsafe Thy servant(s) (Name) the sweetness of Paradise!… Alleluia!”

And while I think this is helpful in working out some of my grief, emotions, baggage, fears…. whatever… I’m not sure the usage of both names doesn’t blunt the impact. Felt I had to include Barbara… but may not continue with that as I think the impact must be greater in singles… at least at our end of the pipe. In either case, I am glad for having had the opportunity to pray this, and recommend it to your use.

Posted by: jamesthethickheaded | October 20, 2012

Because Peter Needs Us…

My friend Peter lies in a hospital today recovering from surgery to alleviate three aneurysms. Tough surgery on a tough but sweetheart of a guy. Pete’s line is, “Every day is a great day, some… better than others.” This is one of those that for him… is better than some, but maybe not as great as the others. He’s expected to spend a number of weeks in recovery and then transfer somewhere else for recupperation. Pete told me before going in, “I want the Lord either to fix me, or take me. Nothing in-between.” We don’t know which of these he fits at the moment: He’s suffered some minor strokes, and his movement is apparently impaired a bit. Much therapy will be needed. So if we have to answer which of these categories fits, I’d have to say we don’t know with another of his favorite line, “The Lord works in mysterious ways.”

Tuesday last week, we gathered at Oak Hill for my dad’s burial. Oak Hill is at the top of Georgetown, and while very much in the city, as quiet and peaceful a place as it was intended. It remains beautiful and was this early morning. I’d been here once before. The place is normally locked on the odd hours I’ve passed by, but one Saturday, my wife and I had chanced to pass and see it open. We walked in along the main road I now know as the exit. And it curves along a winding path down the hill. On that visit, I was overcome by the number of memorials to infants, and simply couldn’t go on. Everyone pressed upon you the grief their parents must have felt, and my imagination choked on the image of losing my own, now grown children – not just now in their twenties, but what joys would have been missed had their lives been similarly cut short.

One of the things I think makes death so hard in the modern world is not just that we keep it from view, but that we have such infrequent contact with it entirely. Infants normally and overwhelmingly survive to adulthood. Adults normally and overwhelmingly survive into old age. Our losses are so few and death so uncommon that we really don’t know how to comfort each other. We try. We imagine. We dig deep into our memories, and we reach wide and far and come up with something. But it is the sense that the world continues while we alone suffer that is hard. No, we’re not alone of course, but the sadness brings up one’s awareness. And it’s not a matter that no one tries, they do. We’ve all tried over and over we’ve tried. But love continues in two places – here with those among us, and there with those taken from us. Christ can bridge the gap, but we cannot. Knowing that He is here with us… isn’t the same, but it is a great comfort that He is with both, and through our prayers and the intercessions of the saints, we can continue our love and walk together.

Dad’s funeral was held at the Episcopal church where he and mom were married, my sister and I baptised, and she later confirmed. My timing took longer, and confirmation was held at another place – the first of my wanderings in my forty-year unsuccessful struggle to remain an Episcopalian, but that’s another story. I’d met the priest earlier in the summer on the way to a Nats, and he’s close friends with the couple who were hosting our outing that day. And it was with great pleasure that I met with him in his office the Friday before my dad died to discuss the circumstances and how to proceed. Episcopalian worship allows a lot of freedom to the process, so there would be choices for Old and New Testament texts and hymns, and he offered to send some suggestions. Mom had of course been keeping notes on what she liked and didn’t over the years, and so she knew what hymn she wanted. The texts were the issue. I tried to stay in the background: this was her choice, and it seemed right to let her make it.

When later I walked into her apartment, she was going over Fr. Ed’s text suggestions with my sister’s Bible. Sis had these wonderful tabs on all the texts, so it was particularly easy to flip through. Mom said she didn’t like any of the texts. Uh oh.  So I suggested to her that there were a tremendous number of beautiful passages of comfort, and maybe we should look at them. We talked about Dad, and we talked about some of the things that had gone on. I mentioned I thought it would be good to focus on some texts that dealt with things as they are and were. And from there stumbled into the ending texts of Job. Dad had mentioned at one point he knew he must have done something to deserve this… this Parkinson’s. And I countered that no, that wasn’t the case. Mom had been peripherally aware, but listened and was moved. Job makes it clear that this is a viewpoint, and many share it. But there’s another version that we don’t suffer for what we’ve done, but for our lack of experience and comprehension of God. This is where I read to her from Job beginning at chapter 40. How can you not weep in these pages… filled with the beauty and wonder of God’s creation, and the way the God marvels at his creatures…. even their wildness. And I said to her that I’d always wondered myself, but finally learned to marvel at Dad’s own wildness… even as the disease took down his inhibitions that would otherwise have kept him much gentler …even than the guy with a sharp tongue as we knew him. And if we can learn to marvel at him and each other as creatures of God – even in these moments, then we can see things from a new perspective of love we might otherwise not have known.

We looked at the 139th Psalm and picked out a couple of verses. Fr. Ed had picked this one, too. So that was easy. Then of course the 23rd psalm… and that was easy. And I told mom there was a Gospel passage from a prayerbook I’d read that morning for the first time that I’d suggest we look at as it wasn’t all that common in the funerals I’d been to, but had sort of a different twist. It was in my car, and I had to get over to the office, so I told her I’d send it, and she could look it over. She could think whether it fit… as I told her it was less about the wonders of heaven and more about the lifting of sorrows. I suggested that’s where I was, and perhaps she might be there as well.

We used it, and I’ve appended it here. My sorrow for Dad remains. I’m hoping it will lift in time, as I don’t try to dwell on it overly much. But I do know there is a sense that the sorrow is what you hold on to as though it were something of his presence and a memory of his experience in your life. It’s a nostalgia, and for a while that’s okay I guess. Maybe even something that for a time can be therapeutic and help. But I know I’ll have to let go of this as well. I pray for that fortieth day.

When my attorney called back yesterday to finish our revisions to our office’s compliance procedures manual, we hadn’t talked in almost three weeks. I’d left her a message and as she began to speak, she asked, “First, how’s your dad?” I told her he’d passed on, and she said, “I could hear it in your voicemail.” So I guess I’m not hiding it all that well after all. Some decent digestion, a little sleep, and a lot of time… who knows? Maybe that’ll help.

In the meantime, the day after is another day of searching for peace, finding it, but not lasting. Sleep comes slowly and easily at times, at others less so. Mom is doing better than I would have imagined, probably better than all of us. But we’re still here. People continue to help, and life picks up again. It will be good to help someone else as a reprieve. And so that’s my call: “Enough of our own troubles. Pete needs us…and we can’t dwell in our own mess, let’s go help him.”

“And Jesus said to them: But now I am returning to him who sent me. Yet none of you asks me, where is it you are going? But because I have said these things, sorrow has filled your hearts. Even so, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I should depart, for if I do not depart, the Paraclete (Holy Spirit) will not come to you. But if I do go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will convince the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment. I still have so many things to tell you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of Truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth. Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, while the world rejoices. You will be full of sorrow: but your sorrow will turn into joy. When a woman is in labor she has much sorrow, because her hour has come; but when she has given birth to the child, she can no longer remember the anguish, because the joy that a child is newly born into the world. So it is with you: you have sorrow now, but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice. And then no one will take your joy from you.” John (16:5-8, 12-13, 20-22 ) as rendered  in Fr. John A. McGuckin: Prayer Book of the Early Christians; Paraclete Press, Brewster, MA 2011) Uses: Author’s own paraphrases from RSV or original Greek.

Posted by: jamesthethickheaded | October 16, 2012

Remembering Dad

No matter how much you think you have prepared, you are never ready when the call comes. And when that call comes, it will be as the first time… as it is always a first time for whomever we’ve lost… and it is our first and only loss of this person. And for those of us who remain, it is as much a beginning in new life as it is for the person we have lost. Perhaps it’s as busy for them as it is for us… I don’t know. But I do know time seems to rush by for at least a week, and the number of new things you find yourself caught up with… seem to run a long list of either horrible or terrible. But then… in the midst of this bustle, your grief begins as you lay in bed one night, and the weight of the world falls upon your lungs so that you can scarcely breathe. And you can feel your mind and heart stretching out into a darkness you haven’t known before… as though it were your hand and seeking that last touch. And so there without air or sleep, with little food and much stress… you realize you’re doing too much and must let God take charge. Turn it all over to the merciful ones… and let go. And so I went to confession, and we talked for a good, long time Friday morning. And Father was gentle and helpful, and after a busy week at work in the midst of all this, I began to finally write my last love letter to Dad… for a while. And when complete, the weight began to lift a little.

That Father’s Day note I began and couldn’t end… here it would be finished and performed… so I knew there was much I couldn’t say without falling to pieces. Folks might love to know all that gooey stuff, but the task was different here… they just wanted to help us through this and part of my job wasn’t to preach or to teach or to make claims or do anything odd, but simply to let them help us through it as they could. And more than that, I wanted to thank them for the wondrous gifts of their love when one of the greatest gifts in our lives falls from our grasp… as if we ever grasp any life or presence! … not quickly, but slowly… like sandpaper or water torture of some sort. And so as hard as Sunday morning was when he died – for him, for mom and all of us – it was also a release for all of us as well. And seldom in my life have I ever seen such wonderful sharing… so if I went overboard there, this is part of the context. The week was also hard because Wednesday was mom’s 80th birthday, and dad would have 82 on Thursday. They shared 59 years of marriage, and Dad and I shared offices for 25 years. My sister joined us for the last five, so I guess if you wanted to say we’re a tight knit family… I’m sure most would agree.  His funeral was Monday, October 15th… and here’s the bit I wrote and spoke for him there. 

Now as I post this here, let me say that years of tension in losing my best partner to retirement, my best friend from as far back as Indian Guides and “pals forever”, my playmate, my disciplinarian, my teacher and in part my inspiration… all those things… even the reason that as all this was taken in the course of his years of symptoms and suspected symptoms of Parkinson’s… I have no doubt that this affected me at the core of my shallows and played a part in pushing me into the arms of this crazy church. But thank God it did… for it helped immeasurably. And yes, I did write my kids in the middle of the week as I came near to breaking down in the middle of the grocery store, and yes, again last night when I stood where he stood last Thanksgiving and Christmas… and even for the BCS Bowl Game when he could come watch a bit… and while he is with me, so too is this grief… and I am thankful for that. But there is joy we will find, too, soon enough.

Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory to Him forever!

 First I’d like to thank all of you for coming, for your calls, your visits, cards, letters, hugs and all your intentions. It means a lot. For so many who have been friends forever; for so many who have been friends for just a while; and just for all who in their hearts are here or wanted to be here – thank you. For all who have ministered to my dad and mom whether as caregivers, as friends, as family or in any and all ways – your gifts have been an inspiration. Thank you, and thanks be to God.

 There’s a piece Dad wanted here. You may recognize it from broadcast sign-offs back when stations did that sort of thing. And as I stumble through this, I’d ask that you call to mind one of those IMAX films on flight with the voice of a better narrator and imagine the way a plane shreds the clouds, as it bursts through the upper reaches, popping blissfully up into high altitude. And can’t you feel the exhilarating speed and three-axis motion; hear the roar of the wind in diving here and soaring there; and with a mix of wild abandon and absolute control, you sweep the blue yonder thinking this… this is really is the core of Dad’s playful spirit.

“High Flight”
by Pilot Officer Gillespie Magee, Jr. No. 412 Squadron, RCAF, killed December 11, 1941
 
“Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds – and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of – wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up in the long delirious, burning blue,
I’ve topped the windswept heights with easy grace
Where NEVER lark or EVEN eagle flew –
And while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.”
 

The first time I ever heard this – or more readily “saw” it played out was after coming home well past curfew to find Dad waiting up, watching a movie. His price for bending the rules was you had stay up and help him finish whatever he was watching. And it worked. Lynda and I both found this true; and it ran pretty much this way:

 He had these Late Nights down to a science. And he liked to let on as though he were working on a formula for predicting whether the juice was worth the squeeze. To the undedicated eye, knowing who played lead or directed was enough. But more often with Late Night, you were dealing with unknowns, or knowns outside their prime or venue. And like flying blind in a cloud bank, you had to switch to instruments, and constantly check your indicators. And as someone with a keen mind always looking for an angle, Dad was convinced the key factor lay in the commercials. First you checked out the products – were we talking big tickets… like cars? or something more forgettable… like Ronco, $19.99, and “not available in stores” ? Next it’s the number of commercials per break, and finally, the intervals between. Your job was to sift through these, play your hunches, and keep checking the instruments.

 And at first, the station wouldn’t tip their hand, but somewhere… somewhere in the middle things would flip over, and you went from watching to “investing time”. And either a stinker got better, or a flick with a decent premise fell apart. He liked that now he had you in two games: First against the station that was either hiding a sleeper, or signaling a real bomb. And either way just blasting commercials at you as long as they thought there might still be an eyeball out there somewhere. And second, the game of who can outlast who; which with all his experience and staying power meant he figured on having this one in the bag.

 And so we sat through the wee hours more Friday and Saturday nights than I can recall, and true to form, there were some keepers. And unless he was sandbagging me, some even came just as Dad predicted. But the fact is, here is where we began getting to “know” each other, what we each liked about this, and about that, and Lynda and I we both found this the way to begin building from there into something more… into a real relationship.

 So when evening sign-off finally came, they played Magee’s poem as we’ve just run through – only with great visuals. And it was just so cool! Dad knew a lot about lead-ins that got you going and signing up to whatever it was he had in mind. And as much as he liked surprises just like this, he was always a real wing man, and he’d stick with you no matter what, nor no matter how you reacted, and often for my part it wasn’t great. And yet he was still there when you needed him. And he had a great co-pilot, too, in mom. She’s been a real trooper as well these past months, going far above and beyond the call of any of our imaginings, and as he said not long ago, of all his many, wonderful, beautiful collections, prizes, and investments, she’s the greatest and most precious pick he ever made.

 Surely Dad’s still with us. Even and especially now, up there just slicing through the flak as though it were some butter mountain, just so he could touch others – you and I. And so it’s impossible to tell you, the way you all in turn have touched our own lives these past few days. You have each helped us with so much and in so many ways, making all things new in how we hear the phrase, “your own of your own we offer unto thee”. Not just now, or just with us, but always, and with so many, that what can I say other than that the words “thank you” don’t even begin to cover it.

So as I think of it MacArthur had it wrong: Old soldiers may do a lot of things, but they sure don’t fade away. We give thanks for Dad’s life, for the mercies of peace granted at the end of his walk, and we look forward to the next passage. We ask for your continued prayers, for him, and for all of us at this time, as he joins his new squadron. We love him.

Memory Eternal!

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