Struggle: What I learned this Lent

16 04 2015

Now that the warm glow of Eastertide is starting fade for most, being a week and a half into the season, I’d like to share with you what I learned this Lent. In short:

I am undisciplined.

If you recall, I decided to set my sights mid-height for Lent 2015 — take on two spiritual disciplines I long to incorporate into my everyday life during Regular Time (you know, when everything at church is green). I wanted to pray morning prayer every day and fast once a week.

Not once did I manage to fast an entire day — some time around lunch I would give in. And then I fell ill, so for the last two weeks of the season I didn’t even skip breakfast. For just over half of Lent I prayed morning prayer. Then the unbearable pressure of feeling like I need to be writing, writing, writing this PhD starting pressing upon me every morning as I breakfasted. I’ve read enough monks to know that this is precisely how the tempters draw us away from prayer — the lure of the ‘important’.

I also wanted to read The Ladder of Divine Ascent by John Climacus (as mentioned here), but found that too difficult to process and apply. The sheer mental energy of my PhD has made spiritual reading a challenge, and sixth/seventh-century monastic texts even more so.

I am undisciplined.

And what is discipline for? It is for making us Christlike, right?

If I can keep Christ in my heart and love those around me as He would, and do so without these two disciplines or reading spiritual books, all the better.

And some days I can.

But most days I can’t.

Then again, not being a monk, I can tailor my daily devotional and discipline needs to my temperament and lifestyle.

So I need to think about what I can handle in the high-stress, time-consuming world of two-and-a-half-months-until-submission(!!!) — and what suits my temperament. Not what I can writer ‘clever’ things about here. Not what everyone else recommends. But what actually helps me and what I can handle without false guilt.

Time to take stock — perhaps you should, too.





Orthodox Easter

12 04 2015

Re-post from elsewhere in (I think) 2009. This year, Western and Orthodox Easter were only one week apart. Today, 12 April, is Orthodox Easter. Enjoy!

AnastasiThis year, Eastern and Western Easter were about a month apart (the farthest apart they can be, as well as ours being the earliest it will be for another 220 years). And so, as my Russian, Greek, Cypriot, Antiochene, Syrian, Alexandrian, Ukrainian brothers and sisters celebrate the Feast of Feasts, the Resurrection of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, I’d just like to say:

Crist aras! (Crist sodhlice aras!) (Old English)

Crist is arisen! (Arisen he sothe!) (Middle English)

Which is to say: Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! (For how to say this traditional Easter greeting in more languages, go here.)

I like Orthodox Easter… [and] it was while abiding on the island of Cyprus I first encountered the Eastern celebration of Easter. Here in Toronto, I went to a Russian church which happens to be in my neighbourhood.

I showed up early, around 10:30 PM. I asked about the candles and whatnot from a young cantor and his wife. I bought two slender beeswax tapers for $2 each, then went into the sanctuary. There were people moving about at the different icons, as well as in what looked like a line for confession (?). I walked up and stood in the centre aisle for a bit, focussing on the focal point of the room and praying.

This church is very open; it’s an old Anglican building with pews relegated to the walls only, and a few rows of chairs at the back. The rest of the space is essentially empty, with icons along the walls and on the pillars. In the centre of the nave (what I would call the chancel is hidden behind the iconostasis, the icon screen) was a table covered in white flowers, daisies and lilies. And on the table, in the midst of the white flowers, was a red cloth, representing the shroud of Christ. Atop it were a book of the Gospel (I surmise) and a cross. The shroud itself, I believe, had Christ in the tomb on it.

After I had watched some others praying before this shroud, symbolising the fact that Christ died and went down to Hades, I approached it myself. Some had kneeled; all had crossed themselves; most had kissed at least the book of the Gospel, if not the shroud itself and the cross. I mounted the step in front of the shroud, crossed myself, and prayed to the Eternal Risen Christ, holding the candles in my hand. I crossed myself again, kissed the book of the Gospel, and crossed myself a third time.

Then I dismounted and and went to the candlestand on the right of the shroud. I lit one of my two candles and prayed to Christ, proclaiming Him the Light of World and smiled within since a city on a hill cannot be hidden. Then I stepped back, beside the lectern where a lector was reading the scriptures in Slavonic.

I occupied the next hour of my life in various ways. I stood before an icon of St. Nicholas for a while, noting that Russian icons are more three-dimensional than Byzantine ones. I sat for a while. I wandered past all the icons, praying to Christ for His glory. Before the icon of the Blessed Virgin, I sang the Magnificat quietly to myself. Throughout it all, I was often singing quietly to myself, especially this Taize chant:

Laudate Dominum! Laudate Dominum, omnes gentes! Alleluia! (repeat)

Eventually, it was 11:30, and the clergy came out in their fine robes. There was singing in Old Church Slavonic before the shroud, with the choir answering (also in Slavonic) from the balcony at the back. The singing was beautiful. A deacon appeared beside the priest and his deacon with a candle. Then they processed around the table with the shroud, the priest censing everything. Following was more singing, and the shroud was removed.

Next, they did things behind the Holy Doors of the iconostasis. I don’t know what. There was, undoubtedly, incense and Slavonic involved. The choir would occasionally sing. Then they got ready for the procession.

The procession was led by some servers carrying an icon of Christ surrounded by a great wreath. Following them were others with candles and the priests and deacons. Then regular laymen in street clothes carried six standards with icons on them, topped by crosses. Behind them went the choir. We lit our candles from the stands around us (they were equipped with Dixie cups to catch the wax).

We processed around the block. I wended my way through the procession so that I could spent the last bit close enough to hear the choir over the hubbub around me. Then, singing a hymn, we stopped at the church steps. The priest had a microphone and sang some antiphons, the choir responding with something to do with Christ every time. And then he declared:

Christos Voskrese!

To which everyone but me responded:

Voistino Voskrese!

Fortunately, I could respond to, “Christ is Risen!” (Indeed, He is risen!) and “Christos Anesti!” (Alithos Anesti!) Next was French, and I didn’t know the response. None knew the German response. Then a smattering of other languages, to each of which a few knew the answer. He concluded with the Slavonic version seven times.

They sang a hymn and went in for the Divine Liturgy. I slipped away, since the Divine Liturgy takes three hours.

From the moment I stepped into that church, it felt right. You should all go next year!





Hymnody helps make the season(s)

9 04 2015

AnastasiI’ve joked this week with a couple of friends that if their church didn’t sing either ‘Christ the Lord Is Risen Today‘ or ‘Jesus Christ Is Risen Today‘, they didn’t ‘have Easter’. This, of course, isn’t really fair, but it’s interesting how deeply hymns can affect one’s experience of the feasts of the church year. For me, a great lover of Easter, no amount of confetti (actually used at an Edinburgh church), no size of chocolate egg (giant egg actually present at another Edinbugh church) can really make the festival feel complete without the ‘right’ hymns (plus the ancient, universal Easter acclamation — Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed!). A sermon on the Resurrection is always good (that [Anglican] church in Toronto that once preached on the Good Samaritan one Easter Sunday missed the ball there), as are Easter lilies.

But for me, Easter without the ‘right’ hymns is like … Christmas with no presents. Or something.

Easter is not alone.

Good Friday requires ‘O Sacred Head‘, does it not?

Palm Sunday would seem off without ‘All Glory, Laud, and Honour‘ and ‘Ride On, Ride on in Majesty‘.

And what of Ash Wednesday without ‘Forty Days and Forty Nights‘?

Christmas carols and Advent hymns obviously make the season, so I’ll skip them.

In Toronto, we went to Little Trinity Anglican Church, and what makes Trinity Sunday there is the singing of ‘St Patrick’s Breasplate‘.

Long after the chocolate has been eaten, the lilies have withered, the sermon has been mostly forgotten, the hymns — the beautiful, triumphant Easter hymns — stay with us, dancing through our minds and hearts, drawing us to our risen Saviour.

They are a blessing and to be highly esteemed.





Charles Williams on the Scandal of the Cross

1 04 2015

Modified re-post from a few years ago elsewhere.

Aelfwine's Office of the Holy Cross now upHere’s a little something from my breakfast reading, a reminder from Charles Williams (of Inklings fame, along with JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis) of how comfortable we get with what we believe, a reminder that the cross is foolishness to the Greeks.

The passage is from The Descent of the Dove: A Short History of the Holy Spirit in the Church, which is basically a delightful romp through church history dancing in the beauty and the glory of it all, full of fresh thoughts, well-crafted sentences, and startling observations. He writes:

When St. Paul preached in Athens, the world was thronged with crosses, rooted outside cities, bearing all of them the bodies of slowly dying men. When Augustine preached in Carthage, the world was also thronged with crosses, but now in the very centre of cities, lifted in processions and above altars, decorated and jewelled, and bearing all of them the image of the Identity of dying Man. There can hardly ever have been — it is a platitude — a more astonishing reversion in the history of the world. It is not surprising that Christianity should sometimes be regarded as the darkest of superstitions, when it is considered that a thing of the lowest and most indecent horror should have been lifted, lit, and monstrously adored, and that not merely sensationally but by the vivid and philosophic assent of the great intellects of the Roman world. The worship in jungles and marshes, the intoxication of Oriental mysteries, had not hidden in incense and litany a more shocking idol. The bloody and mutilated Form went up everywhere; Justinian built the Church of Holy Wisdom to it in Byzantium, and the Pope sang Mass before it on the hills where Rome had been founded. The jewelled crosses hid one thing only — they hid the indecency. But original crucifixion was precisely indecent. The images we still retain conceal — perhaps necessarily — the same thing; they preserve pain but they lack obscenity. But the dying agony of the God-Man exhibited both; depth below depth of meaning lies in that phrase — “My Eros is crucified.” (75-76)





Culture wars diminish and distract from Gospel witness

31 03 2015

When I was a kid, we used to sing a song in church with the lines:

They will know we are Christians by our love, by our love
Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love

I’m not disputing that most Christians I know are, in fact, genuinely lovely and loving people. However, many of us have managed to produce a public face that does not look so much loving as angry. Possibly bigoted (which may be accurate of true Christianity, depending on a. how you define bigotry and b. how you define true Christianity). But not necessarily loving, and not necessarily filled with the love of Christ.

Today, I read the piece by George Takei (of Mr Sulu fame!) criticising the practice of Indiana and some other US states to allow business owners to refuse services to people on the grounds that so doing would contravene the owners’ sincerely held religious beliefs. Given that bar owners technically already have a legal responsibility to keep people from getting drunk, the only application for this that I can think of is if an unmarried heterosexual couple or a gay couple wanted to spend the night at a hotel owned by a conservative Christian/Jew/Muslim (most likely Christian, quite frankly).

There is a variety of responses to this, but the one that hits me first is: Where is the uncompromising love and the Gospel witness at a moment such as this? Is my job as a Christian to police the morality of my fellow citizens? Or is it my job to love them effluously while at the same time being a strict policeman of my own morality?

It’s not just the battle over what sorts of relationships the secular government wants to extend certain protections to that is distracting, though — so don’t let the George Takei piece blind you to other issues.

Elsewhere in the USA, a politician has apparently said that rape is beautiful if it results in the conception of a child. It is one thing to say that, regardless of how a child was conceived that child has a right to live and a mother a duty to carry the child to term, and quite another to use complimentary adjectives about a heinous, hideous, destructive act that can leave serious emotional, psychological, and physical wounds in a person. Even if this may be a misquotation, it is a very clear instance of how culture wars distract from the Gospel, in my opinion. Whatever the politician said, this is what the world heard.

Rather than scoring points in a culture war, shouldn’t we be providing refuge for the victims of terrible acts of male aggression? How many rape victims would feel safe in churches associated with such rhetoric? How many young women who have had abortions would feel loved in churches who rail against the practice vociferously? Where is the Gospel witness? Or are we just moralising yet again?

These Dinosaurs certainly existed.

Science has also come under fire in the culture wars. One woman goes so far as to say that dinosaurs never existed. I’m not kidding. The video is here, at ‘Crazy Christian Mother Thinks Dinosaurs Never Existed.’ American anti-establishment culture combined with a variety of evangelical anti-intellectualism has led to people making us look like a bunch of idiots. A friend commented on Facebook concerning the dinosaur video that either religion makes you stupid, or if you are stupid, you’re drawn to religion. (Or something along those lines.)

A disconcerting moment came to me whilst listening to the Newsboys album God’s Not Dead. The beginning of the title song is either recorded live at a concert or from the film (which I’ve never seen). Michael Tate (of former DC Talk fame) is talking to the crowd about ‘scientists’ telling us there’s no God and all the usual stuff, and in his dismissal of the naturalists/atheists, getting big cheers from the crowd. But when he moves to Gospel proclamation, when he starts proclaiming the power of God to save us from the power and penalty of sin, evil, and death — then the cheers dimish a little.

A page from the Statute of the Guild of San Martino, 1362; in the Museo Correr, Venice (my pic)

A page from the Statute of the Guild of San Martino, 1362; in the Museo Correr, Venice (my pic)

Shouldn’t these be our biggest cheers? Not only that ‘God’s not dead’, not only that there’s a Creator (I mean, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and certain Buddhists can claim the same), but that He is the God of unconditional love who chooses to spill over into our mundane (world-bound) history and raise us to heaven, not simply in spite of our own sin and wickedness, but precisely because He loves us more than we can imagine. That’s Good News! Shouldn’t our proclamation of the Gospel of Grace be the loudest, clearest message we send to an unbelieving world?

I’m not saying we shouldn’t hold firm as individuals to a traditional, scriptural viewpoint on issues of ethics. But what is the public faith — the public face — of the church? Are we (figuratively) washing the feet of unbelieving neighbours or (sometimes literally) yelling in their faces? Are we telling them the resplendent glory of the story of the God Who became a man to set us free, or are we telling them all about how they’re sinners (and we, presumably [as they think it], are not)? Are we preaching Christ crucified, or simply some pat answers and apologetics?

I realise that even broaching these topics can bring a firestorm of activity in a blog’s comments. So, please, take a breath and think carefully about what you’re going to post, and please keep to the main thesis of this post, which is not whether gay marriage is right or abortion is right or evolution is true, but whether issues like these are distracting us from authentic Gospel witness in Anglophone Christianity — if you disagree with me on that issue, feel free to do so lovingly. If your comments are uncharitable or libellous, I reserve the right to remove them as moderator of my blog.





Icons: The Participatory Full Affirmation of the Incarnation

26 03 2015

Last night, at the recommendation of Fr. Raphael, I watched the second episode of Andrew Graham-Dixon’s 2007 documentary Art of Eternity, ‘The Glory of Byzantium’. In this episode, he visits some of the great sites of Byzantine art from c. 500 with St. David’s in Thessaloniki to 1315 with the Chora monastery in Constantinople.* In between, Graham-Dixon brought us to Ravenna — San Apollinare Nuovo and San Vitale — as well as Hosios Loukas Monastery in southern Greece and the 13th-c mosaics in Hagia Sophia. Before we go any further, the apsidal mosaic from St David’s, Thessaloniki:

Along the way, he interviewed an iconographer and a priest. The iconographer explained to Graham-Dixon the idea that a Byzantine icon has ‘rhythm'; this use of the word didn’t make a lot of sense to an Anglophone, so he had the iconographer explain. Basically, Byzantine icons are drawn in such a way that the perspective is not at all like looking through a window (which would be the goal of Renaissance art). Instead, the idea is that the image is coming at you out of the wood on which it is painted.

Apsidal mosaic, San Vitale, Ravenna

This rhythm of the image, this movement towards you, explained the iconographer, brings you into the world of the image. It is no longer a strictly two-dimensional object, no longer merely geometric. You are participating in the image yourself. This, he said, is central to the Orthodox theology that lies behind Byzantine icons. In Orthodox theology, you know something by participating in it. We know God, to use the greatest example, by participating in God (an idea not without biblical precedent, if you get your ideas of ‘participation’ correct). Thus, when you behold an icon, you are participating in the image itself.

Later, Graham-Dixon interviewed an Orthodox priest. The priest explained many things about icons and their importance. He, too, brought out the significance of participation. When the Orthodox venerate an icon, they are not actually venerating the tesserae of the mosaic or the paint and plaster on wood, but the person of whom the image is made. This is an important distinction lost on many Protestants and, I fear, some Orthodox as well.

What this priest left out, or had cut from the interview, is the main reason icons are important. Icons are the full affirmation of the reality of the incarnation of God the Word. God became flesh and pitched his tent among us. He had two eyes, two ears, a mouth, and a nose. He walked on two (dirty) feet around the Judaean and Galilaean countryside. He touched real lepers with real hands. He preached with a literal voice from an actual larynx. He shed real tears at the death of Lazarus. He died a real death for us on the Cross. He rose again in just as real (if not more real) a body as before.

With the Incarnation, we behold God. Face-to-face. For 33 years He was literally present to the human race in an actual human form. This means that the prohibition on images doesn’t apply to Jesus. We may not know exactly what he looked like, but we do know this — he looked like a man. Because he was a man. Fully human, yet fully divine. As in this mosaic over the doorway into the church in Hosios Loukas Monastery:

By allowing images of Christ, we produce a tangible way of celebrating a full affirmation of the incarnation of the Creator God Who irrupted into human history and changed things forever.

When you take this theology of the incarnation that lies behind the theology of the icon, and then reflect on the idea of participation in Orthodox theology, you come across something beautiful. It is not truly the icon itself, the physical object, that is worthy of veneration, but the One Whom it represents. And when we behold an icon of Christ face-to-face, we are invited to participate in that image, to participate in the action of the image, to participate in the life of the Person Who looks upon us.

Graham-Dixon’s documentary is not available on DVD for normal people, unfortunately — I got it from the Edinburgh College of Art library, recorded from TV onto a DVD. I think it may be illicitly available on YouTube, though…

*If you have a date in Constantinople, she’ll be waiting for you in Istanbul.





“The joy of inquiry into God is a sufficient end in itself”

18 03 2015

Repost from elsewhere in 2008.

I just read a good piece by Thomas C. Oden (The Rebirth of Orthodoxy) that tells a bit about his journey from modernist neo-orthodox liberalism to postmodern paleo-orthodoxy entitled “Then and Now: The Recovery of Patristic Wisdoms“. He brings up some of the issues he mentioned in his book, noting that we will be forever spiritual children in the shallow end (my words, not his) if we do not rediscover the ancient Christian masters of spirituality and biblical exegesis.

He mentions how many of his friends from “then”, when he was a social activist who listened to the world around him to give him the agenda, ask him why he is not “on the street” engaging in social action. He says that his work of reading and writing is itself social action; by this work, he can change his mind to be more like God’s and the minds of others. In other words, our world will change if our worldview does. He writes:

No current moral issue is more deep-going than the acid destructiveness of modernity. No political project is more urgent for society than the recovery of classic Christian consciousness through the direct address of texts of Scripture and tradition. There is nothing better I can do for the moral dilemmas of our time than offer undiluted the ancient wisdom of the community of celebration.

I recommend this article if you’re curious about paleo-orthodoxy and one man’s journey into it and the hope that it offers us in these postmodern days.








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