Francis Mallmann, trans Peter Kaminsky: Seven Fires: Grilling the Argentine Way
My favorite cookbook for now.
T.S. Eliot: Complete Poems and Plays
A love/hate thing for conservatives and modernists. For me, all the former.
John Milbank: Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason (Political Profiles)
The idea of the secular is a product of a degenerate Church -- only one of many trenchant points in a brave and very blue book.
Richard Wilbur: Collected Poems 1943-2004
One of the two best living poets. This one is American.
Geoffrey Hill: Selected Poems
The other of the two best living poets. This one is English.
William F. Lynch: Christ and Apollo: The Dimensions of the Literary Imagination
Why should Harry Potter die? Here's why.
Owen Barfield: Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning (Wesleyan Paperback)
A single proof that poetry possesses a closer grasp of the world than does science. Well, real poetry, that is.
Wendell Berry: The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry
Local economies, farming communities, family integrity, things agrarian and a kind of conservatism that has been raptured from the goblin world of politics.
Richard M. Weaver: Ideas Have Consequences
Well, if we are all Odysseus (as Joyce seems to think), Weaver is certainly our Tiresias, whose dour but sagacious prophecies are marching up out of the surf every year.
G. K. Chesterton: Orthodoxy
After reading this, who can deny that Orthodoxy is perilous, exciting, and downright intimidatingly grand to the benighted modernists? They can only run, surrender, or change the language.
About a week ago, Dustin Johnson won the US Open nearby at the Oakmont Country Club. It was close to miraculous that he made it at the last. On the fifth hole, his ball rolled a little bit backward. He told the official, and later on was told he might have to take a one-stroke penalty (which is a lot given this level of play).
The idea that he was given a penalty was, I thought, about the most extreme case of legalism I’ve seen in sport. How could a golf ball move like that? His club didn’t do it, because it moved backward. Some reporters suggest that it must have been the wind, or even the tight poa-grass blades springing back and forth. One columnist even said it must have been a ghost — I’m inclined to agree with him. In any case, Johnson should never have been penalized (and millions of fans are telling the PGA exactly that).
But the story has a happy ending. Johnson played beautifully, and so much so that his lead, established on probably the toughest back seven holes in golf anywhere in the world, extended far enough that the penalty shot didn’t matter.
He beat the legalism of the PGA by the beauty of his play. And that has a lot to say about salvation, beauty and the saints.
In popular thinking, “salvation” only means being saved from damnation, or hell.
But this is not the case. If that is all a person cares about — escape from damnation — then he or she will be disappointed.
Salvation is not later. It begins now. Salvation is not just escaping a bad end, but more importantly it is all about becoming a saint, just like the gathering of saints that we celebrate today on the Sunday after Pentecost.
We call this day “All Saints Sunday.” It is immediately after Pentecost because “saints” is exactly and only what the Holy Spirit does to humans who receive Him. We celebrate “All Saints” not only to remember the heroes and the heroines of the faith, and to thank them for their faithfulness. We also celebrate this day because “All Saints” tells us precisely where we need to end up. It is God’s Will — without a doubt — that we join with all the saints throughout time.
It is God’s Will that you and I become saints. Here and now. It is what the Spirit does.
So obviously, becoming a saint, starting now, goes far beyond an escape from hellfire. That will be no small deliverance, to be sure, but we confront death a lot sooner than the moment that we die. We confront death every day. We must, in every moment, move from the hell of sin to the peace of the Risen Christ.
This is why “becoming a saint” means much, much more than avoiding sin. Yes, to be sure, it is necessary to keep the Ten Commandments. We need to be honest, decent, sexually pure and chaste, loyal and faithful, hardworking, kind and generous, spiritual and pious.
But that is only the beginning of salvation.
Salvation is not just a matter of observing the law and fulfilling expectations. Salvation is the Holy Spirit gradually transforming you into something divine.
If we thought that salvation was only just following the rules, then we would be no better than the Pharisees. But the Lord, on one occasion, said that our “righteousness needs to exceed the Pharisees” (Matthew 5.20).
What does this mean? Obviously, it means to love, to forgive. It means letting go of old memories and old ways. We give charity generously and do not want any notice of our good works. Our church giving is not limited by the “tithe,” or ten percent. We Christians cannot hate anymore, cannot take revenge. The old tradition of “an eye for an eye” is strictly Old Testament stuff and has been rendered obsolete by the Cross. We cannot even be angry at human beings anymore.
That kind of lifestyle, or “ethic,” goes way, way beyond the Old Testament “righteousness of the Pharisees” and of all legalists.
But a “higher ethic,” or a “righteousness beyond,” really does not say enough about salvation, or the Holy Spirit’s work of making saints out of people like us.
A better word to describe salvation or “saintliness” is “beauty.” God’s “glory” is better understood as “beauty” as it exists in His creation. The process of people becoming saints is called “sanctification” (as protestants like to call it), or better, “theosis” or “deification.”
I like to call this process “beautification.”
The Holy Spirit is, essentially, the “Beautifier.”
A saint, then, is the most beautiful achievement of the Holy Trinity in all of Creation.
And part of the saint’s beauty, in turn, is that saints themselves, as agents of the Beautifier, cannot help but beautify everything around them. Saints, too, engage in “beautification” -- they, too, become “beautifiers.”
We see this today, especially in Orthodox saints. For example, when I visit the Monastery of the Transfiguration in Ellwood City, the “beauty of holiness” is obvious. The flowers bloom brightly. Everything is neat. All of nature seems to bloom there, and makes the air seem to glow.
The West reveres St Francis of Assisi and marvels at his connection with animals and plants, and the natural environment around him. But in Eastern Orthodoxy, we have hundreds, if not thousands, of such saints -- many of them live today at Mt Athos and other holy places.
This is not science fiction or exaggeration. This is real. Many, many have witnessed this, even coldly-objective scientists who do not want to believe have seen holy monks (like St Tikhon) embrace enormous brown bears, or holy nuns (like Mother Mary of Egypt) befriend ferocious lions, or holy ones on Athos today emerge from their huts to an awaiting crowd of squirrels, rabbits, little birds -- all of whom seem to recognize the restoration of Adam.
We make the mistake of thinking that the Uncreated Light of Transfiguration is like some sort of unearthly laser-beam or nuclear-flash kind of light that you see frequently in science fiction movies.
No, it is not.
Holiness is not revealed in spectacular, apocalyptic explosions or dramatic, ecstatic events.
It is revealed best in peace and beauty: the world might get bored -- but we are enthralled by the Light of silence.
The beauty of holiness is shown by the Holy Spirit -- in His project of beautification of you and me -- both inside and out. Inside, there is a growing peace and contentment as we grow older. There is a growing confidence in what we believe. There is love, hope, patience and forgiveness. There is maturity.
On the outside, there is organization, self-discipline, cleanliness, charity and service. There is quietness and meekness, solitude and helpful, encouraging speech.
It is obvious to everyone at St John’s (and all of Pittsburgh) that I haven’t a hope this side of Paradise to come close to the skill of Dustin Johnson. But despite my distance from his performance, I admire the wonderful skill of his drive, his chip shots and his putting on the green. I love the gorgeous splendor of the links at Oakmont.
So also do I love the beauty of our saints. I see them, hear them and pray to them as agents of beauty, artists of peace, announcers of joy, vessels of the Holy Spirit of Christ.
They give me hope in their friendship with me as I believe, pray and love.
And, unlike Dustin’s skill in golf, the saintliness of saints, the beauty of holiness, is something that I -- and you -- can do:
“I can do all things through Christ, Who strengthens me” (Philippians 4.13).
Come on. Let’s become beautiful together.
More importantly, let's beautify, in this legalistic world.
A Loutish Question, a Sublime Answer
A Loutish Question & a Sublime Answer:
the healing of the man born blind, & the meaning of Siloam
by Fr Jonathan Tobias
An understandable frustration
When Jesus and His disciples passed by a man who was blind since birth, the first thing they asked Him was “Whose fault is this?”
What a loutish question. I can just imagine how it sounded. In my old job as a counselor, when I would work with troubled marriages and families, the very worst time-wasting, frustrating distraction was when everyone would pursue the same question: “Whose fault is this problem?”
All I cared about, as a therapist and follower of Rabbi Hillel (remember: “If not now, when? If not here, where? If not you, who?”), was who would help fix the problem -- who would take responsibility, who would commit to forgive and heal. I didn’t care about who was right or who was to blame.
More than once, the Lord showed a similar frustration with His disciples. Once, in a quick storm that blew up on the Sea of Galilee, they were sure they were going to sink. Jesus criticized them for their lack of faith (Mark 4.40), and He said, “Peace, be still” to the wind and the waves. When the apostles could not help a poor demon-infested boy, the Lord actually said, “O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? how long shall I suffer you? bring him hither to me” (Matthew 17.17). Then Jesus healed the boy. He was able to do this not just because He is God (as well as human): the apostles could have performed this ministry if they would have only opened their spiritual eyes, prayed with confident knowledge, and had more faith.
Blindness and darkness
More than once, Jesus talked about the problem of the lack of faith. His favorite way of describing “faithlessness” was by describing it as “blindness.” He said that the contemporary religious leaders and experts utterly failed in leading people into true reality: they were “the blind leading the blind” (Matthew 15.14).
You can imagine His frustration -- which was a non-sinful emotion rising up from His full human nature, in which He experienced hunger, thirst, weariness, and also this mix of anger and sorrow that showed especially at His cleaning of the Temple ... when He said “My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves” (Matthew 21.13).
Human beings -- especially the Jews, who had a history of being God’s “chosen people” with the written law (i.e., the Ten Commandments) -- should have always seen reality — they should have always known that the Temple was a place where prayer and communion with the Loving God should start to spread out through all humanity. But instead, humanity turned the Temple and all religion into a place of commerce and an “us/them” cult. The world was no longer seen and cherished as Creation, but was turned instead into a lifeless pile of resources that could be bought, sold, manufactured and thrown away. People were no longer recognized and venerated as the image of God and icons of Christ, but were instead regarded as competitors, problems, less-than-human deadweights on the budget, enemies, or worse, people who were condemned to hell even before they were born (which is a really horrible pagan heresy).
A very present darkness
Humanity was stuck -- as it is now -- in a culture of faithlessness, or blind darkness. Every part of creation should be recognized and experienced with delight. It should shine with God’s happiness -- there is no other reason for the fluttering of a butterfly’s wings, or a cloud mounting up to the heavens, than for the sheer fact that the “joy of the Lord is our strength” (Nehemiah 8.10). People are to be treasured as the crown of God’s creation, and as real images of Christ, whether or not they act (or look) nice.
And what about God? Everything turns on how God is “seen.” How is it even possible for Him to be thought of as absent or uncaring? Why would anyone even think that bad things are caused by Him, when He is only light, only love, and everything in His Creation reveals His beauty and goodness?
When a person, or a whole society, thinks that God either doesn’t exist, or just doesn’t care, then there is darkness. When someone says that this is all there is, or that “nothing matters,” then there is darkness. When we look at the sky, the sun, the green hills, or a smiling face, and do not see divine love looking out at us from the mysterious depths, then there is darkness. When we think that things will never change, or that there is just nothingness after death, then there is darkness.
When there is no perception of beauty, no experience of peace, there is darkness.
When there is meaninglessness, or hopelessness, then there is darkness.
When Christ does not shine in the heart and in every experience, and when experience is not brightened by certain hope, there is darkness.
So when the disciples asked Jesus, “Who sinned — whose fault is it — that this man was born blind?”, the question was complicated by its own poor logic. The problem of blindness was not limited to this poor man: the far worse sort of blindness that has radiated out from the lost human heart into culture and a sin-ravaged earth has gripped the entire human race.
Miracle as a sign
You cannot live without faith. You cannot be saved without faith. You cannot find your way without faith. You cannot breathe or be human or live forever without faith. You cannot be real without faith.
You know this already: "... faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen" (Hebrews 11.1). Faith is seeing reality without dark prejudice, without the smog of hellish meaninglessness.
So Jesus told His disciples that they were all wrong when they asked this loutish question, “Whose fault is this tragedy?”
Jesus said, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him. As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (John 4.3-5).
Why do miracles happen to some people and not to other people?
The quick, and true, answer is that miracles happen to all people. The reason why this man born blind was about to be healed of his physical blindness — which is a rare, limited event that obviously doesn’t happen all the time — was that this miracle would become a sign of an even greater, deeper miracle that would, and could, happen all of the time, for anyone who asks.
Miracles in the Gospels happen because they were meant to be signs of the Kingdom. All of Jesus’ spoken words, and all of His actions, are signs that mean an infinite prism of beautiful, shining truths. In reading about them, in hearing about them in the Gospel and in the sermon, they actually bring healing and peace in that very moment. They are, as some linguists like to say, “performative.” They actually bring about light and peace in the moment of thinking about the very event. They show you the beauty of Christ in this very instant.
This is pretty cool: in reading these words, right now, you are being healed, you are being brought into peace, your eyes are opening.
Right now, if you allow it.
The miracle just happened, and is happening.
This is what the Gospel always does.
Christ is the Word of the Trinity to you. You are loved. The whole earth is full of His glory. Wake up. You’re here.
The meaning of the sign
Jesus Christ never was, even after He rose from the dead, and never will be, a ghost or a hallucination or a hypothesis. His work is not confined to theoretical abstraction or within historical footnotes, much as His detractors would like to keep Him (that is, away from their conscience). He cannot be evicted to the past or to any sort of “somewhere else.”
He is only here, and everywhere. Now and always.
So Jesus, to deeply plant this seed of truth into human memory, reached down and picked up a smidgeon of dirt. He spat into it and fashioned a spot of clay. And smeared the clay — made up of His own breath and water, produced from His own fully divine and fully human natures unified in His single Personhood as the Second Person of the Trinity — upon this poor man’s eyes that had never seen the light of day.
“‘Go,’ Jesus told him, ‘wash in the Pool of Siloam’ (this word means ‘Sent’). So the man went and washed, and came home seeing” (John 9.7).
I am always surprised, wonderfully, that the Bible is full of puns, about which some unenlightened people complain are the lowest form of comedy. Jesus sent the man born blind, with clay on his eyes, to a pool which happens to mean, in its Aramaic name of “Siloam,” “Sent.”
Wow. Anytime that you read an Evangelist in the Gospels stop to tell you what a translation is, you’d better pay attention. The pool Jesus sends blind people to is obviously the sacrament of baptism, and every baptismal pool is called “Siloam” from that time on, for Baptism — the ultimate healing of the spiritual eyes — is hereinafter called “Sent.”
As in “Sent by Christ.”
Who is Healer of all who are blind in spiritual sight.
That is, you and me.
He sends us to Baptism, which is the real meaning of Siloam, the water of Eden unfallen.
We need sight in the morning, rising from the darkness of the night: “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning” (Psalm 29.6 LXX).
The culture of darkness is what was handed to us in this life, in TV, in the internet, in movies and magazines, in school and, unfortunately, in our everyday language. “It is what it is.” “Whatever.”
Worst of all:
That is the language of the inferno.
We need to wake up, rise in the morning of Christ, to see His beautiful world, which is everywhere, and every one.
What you see is what you get
There is no Christianity without the spit of Christ, without His breath and water, without His earth and spirit, without His nature and grace that cannot be divided, or ever seen apart.
I know that sounds less than elegant, but I intend the scandal, if only just to double-down on a certain point. You cannot have faith without the earth, without dirt and substance: God is the Creator and you cannot ever think of Him without His creation. If you want to see glory, you must be rooted, in God’s beautiful Will, from the particular soil He planted you in, and bloom through water of His grace to glory in the sun of His (and your) eternity.
That’s just the way Jesus, the Wisdom, Peace and Power of God, works. His baptismal miracle working in you, through the transfiguring power of the Eucharist, is in every moment the same application of the Divine sacramental mud salved on your spiritual eyes to make you see light as on the very First Day of Creation in the New Eden.
This is Christ, the eternal Word, the expression of the Peace and Beauty of the Holy Trinity, to His Creation — created in Him, through Him and for Him creating something new in you. You are joined to the Risen Christ in Baptism, in your own personal “Siloam,” and you are given new eyes, to see the transfigured Creation even before the Last Day: “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new” (2 Corinthians 5.17).
In the old days, when Christians were baptized on Holy Saturday, the day before Pascha, just as they were lifted out of the holy baptismal waters, the singers sang, “Rise thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead: and Christ shall enlighten thee” (Ephesians 5.14).
You were baptized and joined into the Body of Christ — Which is material and immaterial, body and spirit, in Him Who is the Head and we are His hands and His feet. That is just how close we are to the Ascended, incarnate Second Person of the Holy Trinity, Jesus Christ risen from the dead, the Crucified and Risen Lord and Word of the Created Universe, seen and unseen, of men and angels.
Can’t you see this?
This is Reality. The only reality. If you do not see Christ in everything, from galaxy to flowering tree, from sunrise to storm and sea, from triumphant peace to the suffering even of a flea, especially a child who cannot see, then you see nothing.
If the Risen Christ is not everything then I am nothing.
But He is everything.
In my recognition of Him, risen from the dead and ascended, everything is made new.
In Him I see that all can be redeemed and set free. In Him all is meaningful and hopeful, a future made sure because the past has been made whole.
In our new and miraculous sightedness, in the personal experience symbolized by the man born blind, we can see all of life in our open eyes made bright by the Resurrection. We can seen the Transfiguration of the Last Day. It is not an alien, strange sight. It is when we see our common daily things made plain and beautiful. It is when we seen the usual things but now in the light of grace put simply into divine design and providence. It is when we see our brothers and sisters, all who bear the form of Christ and the image of God, in the iconic light of the Transfiguration: then we see and actually make our friends into persons in our sight, not as mere objects of the world and its dark psychology.
This new sight is not an alien vision: it is a deified but very human vision. It is familiar and strange, immanent and transcendent.
It is not unknown, but it is infinitely beautiful, in the here-and-now, the invisible made manifest in the visible.
It is Christian mysticism under the beautiful Cross wed with the Paschal shining. It is the theology crucis perfected in the theologia gloria. That is, it is the understanding of the Suffering Servant that is Christ, Who is recognized as God on the Cross -- but (contra Luther) within the greater light of the beauty of His exaltation as the Son of God in the Resurrection and Ascension.
Come now. Open your eyes with me and see.
It is the morning of Christ Resurrected.
All things are new, if you would only open your eyes.
What we see is what we get.
I don’t believe that scientists will ever find evidence of intelligent life in outer space.
On top of this, I don’t think that NASA, or Russia, or the ESA (European Space Administration) or anyone else will ever find evidence of any life anywhere else than the planet Earth. Just to make this clear: not only will we never meet little green men in flying saucers (or any space aliens like the scarecrow-like figures in X Files or the engineers and monsters in Prometheus) — we will never find any sign of life at all, even in the remote past, on any planet or any asteroid, in this solar system or any other star.
That is my private prediction. You may disagree if you’d like. And if future events prove me wrong, I’ll be the first to eat a nice crow fricasée (I’ve heard it can be quite tasty if one does not ask too many questions).
Don’t get me wrong. I’m a big science fiction fan. I belong to both Star Wars and Star Trek camps. I don’t have action figures but I do have posters. I built and launched Estes model rockets when I was a kid and learned simple trigonometry just to calculate the arched height of my D-engine flights.
But, truth be told, there is a lot more fiction in science fiction than science. Time cannot be traveled, especially backward, because it is not a dimension to be traveled upon (or through). The speed of light cannot be surpassed. Space is bigger than anyone could possibly imagine — and in this, especially, the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is spot on. Any access to a new dimension actually increases distance exponentially — such access never opens up short cuts (my apologies to the Wrinkle in Time fans out there, which I read to my daughters years ago). There are no alternative universes to this one, despite the fervent wishes of a lot of pop scientists. There may be black holes, but there are almost certainly no wormholes. We’ve talked so long about their theoretical possibility on Deep Space Nine that we think they are fact, but they are not. And they certainly could not be traveled like one would in a subway. There is no evidence for wormholes: no shortcuts in reality.
And, sadly, there is not a shred of evidence for intelligent life in the universe apart from us humans (not counting the unseen powers).
Even more disconcerting is the complete absence of any sign of any life anywhere off this little green and blue marble, floating in space, that we call home sweet home. The notion that life must be present elsewhere, since there are so many many stars splayed out in the night sky, is just that: only a notion. No: probability does not at all demand that we should presume extra-terrestrial life (I think the Drake Equation is an egregious instance of the misuse of probability in particular and math in general). There is not a single piece of evidence for extra-terrestrial life. And there never may be.
I’m such a spoil sport. I know. But I’m not a cranky one.
I only want to think with you about a strong possibility: what if we were the only beings capable of real thought? of real planning, of hopes and wishes? of real memory (not just habit)? of consciousness, being and bliss? of real intelligence? (and please don’t mention artificial intelligence, for all that will ever be is a higher more complex development of computation: the only reasons why we assume the possibility of artificial intelligence is that we’ve confused intelligence with computation ... secondly, and worse, we've denied the reality of spirit).
And what if the only place in fourteen billion years since the Big Bang (yes, I believe that) that ever nurtured not only intelligent human life, but any life is this single world?
What if the only place where a mere single cell that ever existed was this place?
If that were so, then that changes everything.
Because life — all life, not just human life — is itself an unprecedented miracle, confined to this place.
What in the world (or off of the world) does any of this have to do with what Jesus said to the Samaritan Woman at the Well?
The poor woman, who had migrated from one disastrous romantic entanglement to another, had told Jesus that she — as a Samaritan — worshiped God on Mount Gerazim. And that she could really not talk about religion to Jesus, because He was a Jew and everyone knew they worshiped God at the Temple in Jerusalem.
Jesus, Who we know is the Son and Word of God, did not berate this young woman, who had such a messed up life. Instead, He told her that God is spirit. That is, He is not tied down to a certain place, since He is everywhere. You and I are always in a location, but God — as spirit — is in every location all at once. Or rather, all locations are in Him.
God holds all places in His hand. This means that you don’t have to wait until you get to Mt Gerazim or Jerusalem to worship Him.
In fact, you must not wait at all. You and I should worship God — because He is spirit — right here, and right now. Rabbi Hillel, an old wise teacher from centuries ago, gave this piece of good advice: “If not now, then when? If not here, then where? If not you, then who?”
This is good advice for anything in life. But it is best for the most important thing in life.
Worshiping God is the most important thing in life. It is the meaning of life. It is why you and I exist exist, why God thought of us for eternity before we were brought into being in this moment.
We were born to worship God in spirit — God Who is everywhere present and fills all things.
God is everywhere, but life is not. It may only be here. All of creation shows the glory — the love, the goodness, the splendor — of God. But only intelligent life worships Him.
Intelligent life is only humanity. Life is the highest form of physical creation, and humanity is the highest form of life.
And we were created to worship.
But Jesus said, in the hot noon at the Samaritan well, that we must worship God “in spirit and in truth.”
We, too, are spiritual. We are both physical and spiritual. We are the only creatures who exist in both worlds — material, and non-material. We are both embodied and bodiless, corporeal and incorporeal. Certainly, no other physical species can say that — not dolphins or horses or cute dogs or space aliens (who do not exist). And, no angel can say this.
Humanity is rare and singular. It is the only creation that is both physical and spiritual. We occupy the “linch-pin” between two worlds. It is up to us to bring them together in Christ.
Our job, our greatest responsibility, is to bring the physical world to God in spiritual worship (as Maximus the Confessor taught so clearly). Because only by doing this can we save the physical world.
We are the only ones, the only rational beings in the physical universe who can worship God.
We are the only chance, just like the Virgin Mary was the only human chance for the Incarnation.
That is a lot of pressure to put on a species, in a non-science-fiction reality.
We humans are a divine gamble.
And in the Incarnation, God took on only human nature, no other.
How are these worlds, that are so huge (the spiritual much larger than the physical), brought together (or reconciled)?
By worshiping God in spirit and in truth. This is the essential priestly "vocation" of humanity.
It is interesting that everyone “worships.” You can’t help but worshiping some god or another one. If it isn’t the true God, then a human being will construct his own version. He may not call it “god” and will probably even deny that his invention is a “god,” but it occupies the place of “god” in his thoughts and emotions. The very people that claim that God does not exist, but that there is only stuff that you can scientifically observe are the people who have ended up making this “stuff” their god.
Human beings cannot get away from their human nature. Worshiping “god” is a necessary part of what makes us human (and I suggest here that “worship” is the highest act of being human). You and I are going to worship something: “You’re gonna have to serve somebody,” as Dylan once sang. You can deny the true God, but you cannot deny worship. Worship is tangled up all through your psychology: seeking god is not part of your consciousness … it is your consciousness.
Let me say that again.
Seeking God IS your consciousness. It is the essence of your rationality. Seeking God is your life. Seeking God is the air that you breathe.
Let’s just hope that the “god” you seek is the true God, the Holy Trinity, of Which Jesus is the only Word.
That is the meaning of “worshiping God in spirit and in truth”: we worship the God Who is everywhere present and in every moment (“even in Hell,” the Psalmist says in Psalm 138.8 LXX, and that is no poetic exaggeration).
But we must worship Him right. Correctly. That is, in truth.
That means that human beings should not construct their own gods out of their private wishes or personal opinions, or worst of all, from popular notions in society. These constructions obviously cannot save, cannot think: “Like scarecrows in a cucumber field they cannot speak,” the Prophet Jeremiah says (Jeremiah 10.5), “they must be carried for they cannot walk.”
Worst of all, “god-constructs” like personal opinions fail to save when we need saved … they cannot deify when we must be deified, since we’re going to live forever … and being deified, or “divinized,” to participate in God’s nature (2 Peter 1.4) is the only meaning of life when life will go on and on and on, without end.
So what is worshiping God “in truth”?
This is not hard. God has done all the work. In His economy of salvation, the Holy Trinity has reached out to us “in spirit,” in every moment and place, to artistically express the unseen Father as seeable and knowable and imitatable. Never define-able, but certainly experience-able.
Jesus Christ is the only revelation of God the Father as spirit: “For it was the good pleasure of the Father that in him should all the fulness dwell” (Colossians 1.19).
It is Jesus Christ Whom we follow, for He is the only Way, the only Truth, the only Light. He is not a “god-construct.”
He is God.
He is truth.
And He can be met in every moment and in every place, because He is already there. You can think thoughts or make sense of things only because of Christ, Who is the only “sense” of things.
Everything in Creation (seen or unseen, that is, angelic) was made through Him, in Him and for Him. That means everything, small or great, near or far, is meaningful only in Christ. And Christ is everything’s destiny. The destiny of the universe starts on Earth, the only home of life, and in the heart of humanity, the crown of life -- in Christ, the crown of humanity, Who is God made flesh.
Christ is the only meaning of you and me. He is our only destiny.
And that destiny is infinitely rich. Wherever there is beauty, Christ the Word is speaking to your heart of the Love the Holy Trinity has for you. You can see His artistry in the leaves, in the summer green, in every smile. You can feel His mystery of peace in the soft breeze and the bracing wind. You can sense His mercy in the rain and sunrise. In the stars you can perceive the depth of His great majestic love, and the unending, infinite eternity He calls as Friend to you.
The meaning of all life everyone and everywhere, for eternity and in this very moment is Christ, the revelation of the unseen Trinitarian God.
And the only true response in all your thoughts, all your feelings, is worship.
Everywhere is holy ground then. This beautiful earth, even the universe, is holy ground. Your whole, entire life in every moment is holy ground. God is Spirit, truly, and He is no longer to be worshiped only on Mt Gerazim and Jerusalem. His Temple has now moved to your body, to your soul, and all the moments you experience and places you see.
Turn away from the dark vision of a godless world, a dark life of meaningless moments. Repent. Turn around. Love your family, your neighbor. Forgive wildly, kiss your enemy. Be free.
And see the Holy Land of the awesome, beautiful and infinite Presence of Christ.
You’re walking in it.
Forever begins at the edge of the universe. You are invited to dinner at the table there. It is only a Gift: the idea of payment, there, no longer exists. The Host of the dinner was our Victim: but because of the Resurrection, this Victim of everyone has become everyone’s Hope.
The Dinner is free. It is meant to make you free. Free to be. Free to become like Him, which is as beautiful as the sunrise that never sets, always rising.
* * * * * *
What follows is not a sermon. It is more like a “credo,” that is, a statement of what I believe as an Orthodox Christian. It is not just what I believe about Easter. More than this, it is better to say what Easter is all about for me, and you. I would die for this belief, because this belief -- our Orthodox knowledge of the Risen Christ -- makes us live forever.
* * * * * * *
Sometime (maybe a few weeks) after the Crucifixion and Resurrection, the remaining apostles -- now only Eleven, no longer Twelve -- decided to go fishing. There is nothing like doing hard physical work that is familiar, especially after a mind-bending crisis such as they had just experienced.
They fished all night, throwing their net over the side of the boat. But all night, they dragged in a completely empty net, each and every time.
In the morning, the Risen Christ, their Friend Jesus, stood on the shore, and He said “Children, have you any food?” (John 21.5). In other words, “Did you catch anything?”
It is sweetly haunting that the Gospel here makes sure that we know that the apostles did not recognize Christ at first. This same “hiddenness” of the Risen Christ occurred with Mary Magdalene in the Garden, soon after the Resurrection, and with Luke and Cleopas on the way to Emmaus (also on the day of the Resurrection).
The Risen Christ is recognized only in Friendship. Do you remember when, on the night when He was betrayed, He said, “I know longer call you servants, but now I call you friends”? (John 15.15) And when He said, “This is My commandment, that you love one another” (John 15.12); and “If you love Me, keep My commandments” (John 14.15)?
It is clear, here, that we can recognize the Risen Christ only if we know Him in His love for us, and in our love for Him and each other. The world will never recognize the Risen Christ: He is hidden from its view. The devil never saw what, or Who, obliterated him. Even if the Risen Christ had appeared on a grand stage in Rome, or on TV today, no one would recognize God, standing right before them. Even Pilate, the powerful Roman, could not recognize Truth when “the very Word of God that is Truth” was standing right before him in the Praetorium ... even when he said, in the greatest irony of all time, “What is truth?” (John 18.38).
Truth is Love: and Jesus Christ is the Father’s Word of Love to the world. No spectacle can prove faith: only relationship, or communion.
Besides, we humans have grown so accustomed to death that when it is no longer present as an always-there-reality, we are disoriented. When Jesus stood on the shore after the Resurrection, in His risen, glorified flesh, the complete absence of death was so odd, and the presence of glorious life was so overwhelming that the reality of it just could not fit into the poor apostles’ death-familiar perception.
(alcedo azurea making a surprise, incomprehensible visit to the underworld -- photo by Koen Cuppens)
Seeing the Risen Christ for them was like a fish underwater trying to understand the flight of a kingfisher: the fish only see a flash of white silver and blue. The sky is utterly unthinkable to a creature who is accustomed to underwater, and cannot begin to understand the glories of flight and wind.
So it is with the Resurrection to those who can only think that death is the end and all there is.
* * * * * *
The poor apostles, who had a frustrating time of it, answered “No, it was a bad night for fishing.” Jesus told them to let down their net on the other side of the boat. On the face of it, this advice was nonsense, because your net is going to occupy the very same volume of water below the hull of the boat no matter what side you throw it over.
But they did. Immediately, a bunch of fish -- 153 to be exact -- stuffed themselves in the net. They were probably mango tilapia (sarotherodon galilaeus), what is popularly known in Palestine as “St Peter’s Fish.”
When they arrived on shore, they found Jesus, the Risen Christ, waiting for them. He had already built a fire. A few fish were already grilling on the coals. I kid you not. God, grilling on shore: it can’t get better than this.
“Come and dine,” He said.
By this moment, the apostles realized just Who this mysterious Person was waiting for them on shore. Surely, the miraculous (and a little comic) haul of tilapia had to ring the bell of déjà vu (because it had happened before -- this was not the first time that Jesus repeated a miracle in the same way to make a point). So the weight of the full net had to give some indication.
But when they heard His voice, and felt His welcome, when they walked into the light of His Face of Resurrection, and when they sat down with Him at Table and dined with Him, they knew.
Here He was, on shore, risen from the dead.
You can only recognize Jesus, Risen from the Dead, in love.
To believe is to know, and to know is to love.
In the Resurrection, Love is Faith: and that is a miracle that always requires a victory over death, and the destruction of Hell.
Hell cannot tolerate Love at all. And Divine Love, especially so united with Humanity (as it is in Christ), will utterly destroy Hell, and Death, and Sin.
* * * * * *
I think the chief mark that identified Christ at that dinner was His wounds. These were the scars left by the nails that were driven through His palms and feet, and the lance that pierced His side. These wounds are the marks of violence, and by bearing them, Jesus is marked as the ultimate Victim. Not only was He completely innocent (none of us are this: “all have sinned,” St Paul says in his Epistle to the Romans), but He is God the Son. The sheer fact that the Trinity “was acquainted with grief” through the human suffering of Jesus is one of the most heartbreaking and profound mysteries of Time.
The Holy Trinity is the infinite, tri-personal divine communion of Peace and Beauty. Its divine nature is unchanging, far beyond any vulnerability to passion. How is it even possible that that the God-Man (i.e., “theanthropos”) suffered such ugly violence, to the extreme that He bore the death-sickness of sin of all Time?
The total human suffering of the divine Jesus was the sum total of all human grief and pain that Christ voluntarily took upon Himself, so that the divine grace of the Holy Trinity could totally heal all grief for all time: from all wars, to a lifelong addiction and abuse, to a single abortion.
Jesus became the total Victim, standing in for the self-inflicted pain of all human evil. “Surely, He has born our suffering. He is acquainted with grief. He is the Man of Sorrows.”
Hell is the grave where all victimizing descends. It is the destination of every hatred, broken communion, betrayal and violence. You and I were sinking there. Jesus Christ stopped our descent by going there first.
Every sin has consequences that we can never fully comprehend, and these consequences have an accumulating weight, like Jacob Marley’s chain in Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” In a way, every single sin makes Hell larger.
Hell is not a creation. Hell is merely a psychotic extension.
What Jesus did was this. He died on the Cross and descended into Hell as a human -- but because He is also God, the Second Person of the Trinity, His infinite divinity completely swallowed up Hell. Jesus made Himself the inheritor of all the consequences of all sin for all time. He offered Himself as the Victim of all the violence, evil and wicked judgment of the world.
Jesus was certainly not the victim of the Father’s wrath. He was the victim of us. God never wills chaos or violence: we often do, in our sub-humanity.
Every sin is a violence that lands as a thrash on Jesus’ back. Every hatred, every pride, every slander, every lie, every rejection of a fellow human, every cruelty against the weak and the meek ... every single failure to love is one more pounding of the nail into His palm.
Every embrace of darkness is a thrust of the lance into His side.
In His human agony, Jesus exclaimed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” He did not say this just about the Romans who were pounding the nails, or the Jewish leaders who manipulated this execution to protect their own political turf.
Jesus said “Father forgive them” meaning them, of course, but also us.
It’s true. In every single sin, we are clueless about the consequences of what we do, the chain of bad events that we set into motion with every rejection of love. We are always stupid about our sins: humans rarely mean to be evil. It really isn’t in their nature.
Sin is not human at all.
And we certainly had no idea that every one of our sins added more pain to the Son of God’s agony on a tree, one horrible afternoon on a Friday in Palestine, in AD 29, when the sun grew dark and the earth shook with horror.
“Surely, He hath borne our sorrows.”
“By His stripes we are healed.”
He is God Who created everything in His beautiful peace: now, on the Cross, He is Victim of every darkness, the inheritor of all disease ... and decease.
This agony is exactly what the Holy Trinity decided to assume just as soon as God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit knew about the fall of humanity into darkness. Which means that God knew forever about the Cross, and His descent into Hell and His obliteration of it as a necessary, objective reality.
Jesus descending from Heaven, pouring out His divine life on the Cross to anyone who would receive it and descending all the way to Hell to destroy its bondage was simply the same love that the Three Persons of the Trinity always extended to Each Other.
Hell is destroyed as mandatory thing. It is no longer a necessity, or a curse, or a pre-destination or even the power of an evil eye. It exists today only as a possibility or a choice for those who are so addicted to Ego that they reject the universal Grace of the Trinity.
No one “has to” go to Hell. Hell is the blackhole of all cursing, pre-determinism, fate, the feeling that “nothing will ever get better." Hell invented the idea that your genes determine your behavior and that you have no free will. Fate, determinism and cursing are all just other words for corruption.
Every doubt, every unbelief, every bout of despair is the cold, aching wind of Hell. You and I need the dawn, and the sky of the new clear sun. That is what human nature needs: our sin is healed only by the Resurrection.
After the Cross and Holy Saturday, Hell’s gates are wide open because, after all, the revelation of Jesus’ divinity destroyed them. Anyone who wants to leave with Christ can. But that’s just it. He is the only way out. He is, after all, “the Way, the Truth and the Life.”
That revelation of Jesus’ divinity in Hell on Holy Saturday was like a supernova. It is a transformative, healing fire that restores creation to the way it should be, and sets creation on its right course to always becoming deified, always becoming filled with more light.
The supernova started on Holy Saturday. It will completely engulf the entire universe at the Last Day. Who knows how long that will take? No one knows the hour of the coming back of the Son of Man, when He comes, “seated on the clouds in glory.”
* * * * * *
So what do you do when your own victim of your own violence asks you to dinner? Ask the disciples, they’ll tell you.
And they’ll tell you -- this theme was in all their preaching in the New Testament -- that it is only because of the Resurrection that the Total Victim Who is Jesus has now become our Total Hope.
So the Risen Jesus Christ, Whose resurrected reality just couldn’t fit in their usual, dreary point of view, welcome His friends to dinner, and turned their weariness of violence and darkness, into the brightness of hope eternal, a lifestyle of beauty and peace that will never end.
* * * * * *
So what do you do when your own victim asks you to dinner?
I’ll ask you. Because you already know.
Oh, yes you do.
Because the dinner of the Victim Who has become our Hope wasn’t just held there on the misty shores of Lake Galilee with a grilled catch of tilapia.
And it wasn’t just there in the pretty picture at the beginning of this article (which, for your information, is the lovely Jordan Pond on Mt Desert Island in Acadia National Park).
No, it is here, now and always. The Table is the Altar, and the dinner is the Paschal Liturgy today, and every Sunday that is actually a part of this one.
In this dinner, Christ welcomes you to His Table, and He it is Who serves you His Bread and His Wine, which is nothing less than His Body and Blood ...
... every Liturgy is a dinner at the edge of the Universe, on the shore that marks the difference between Time and Eternity.
“Take and eat, this is My Resurrected Body, broken for you, for the remission of sins. Take and drink. This is My Blood of the New Covenant.”
This is the manna from Heaven, the only antidote for Hell-disease. Eat, drink in this morning shore faith, in the Face of the Hidden Friend, and you will understand, then, the Dayspring.
There is, now, only life for you, and that is life abundant, eternal and free.
* * * * * * *
In probably the best sermon ever preached, St Gregory showed his obvious happiness about the Resurrection in his Paschal Oration:
“I will stand on my watch,” says the wondrous Habakkuk (2.1); and I also will stand with him today, by the authority and vision given me by the Spirit, and I will look steadily and observe what will be seen and what will be spoken to me. I have stood and looked steadily, and behold a man mounted upon the clouds, and he was very exalted; and his appearance was like the brightness of an angel (Judges 13.6); and his raiment was like the brightness of lightning; and he was lifting up his hand toward the East and shouting in a great voice ... And he said, “Today salvation has come to the world, to things visible and to things invisible. Christ is risen from the dead: Rise with Him! Christ has returned to Himself: Return! Christ is freed from the tomb: Be freed from the bonds of sin! The gates of Hell are opened, and death is destroyed, and the old Adam is put aside, and the new is fulfilled. If anyone in Christ is a new creation (2 Corinthians 5.17), be made new!
Rise with Him. Be free. Become new.
Believing is knowing, and knowing is believing. I believe in the Resurrection of Christ more than my own reality, because I am nothing if Christ is not everything. You and I are being drawn toward a New Creation only because Christ is Risen, and is Risen Indeed.
I know this as fact: “For I know Whom I have believed, and am persuaded that He is able to keep that which I have committed unto Him against that Day” (2 Timothy 1.12).
“You have to” is only the language of sin and death: the devil’s way is the way of “No.”
But Jesus Christ is forever the Lord of Yes (2 Corinthians 1.20). His Word to you is always this: “You are free to be, unloosed to become. You can become more and more the you that you that I always meant you to be” -- and that is a never ending, exhilarating growth from one moment to another horizon, bluer, greener, brighter, even more beautiful than the one before.
You can become a kingfisher that soars in the clouds of glory, flying in blue splendor, wending your way toward one horizon, and then finding an even more breathtakingly beautiful horizon beyond. “It will always be this way,” He tells you, in the whisper of the heavenly wind.
As St Paul said, “But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Corinthians 3.18).
“You have always wanted this to be true in your heart of hearts,” Jesus tells you, His friend, in the Eucharist of the Resurrection, at the Dinner at the Edge of the Universe.
“I am here to tell you that it is true indeed. For I have made it so.”
* * * * * *
Forever begins at the edge of the universe. You are invited to dinner at the table there. It is only a Gift: the idea of payment, there, no longer exists. The Host of the dinner was our Victim: but because of the Resurrection, this Victim of everyone has become everyone’s Hope.
The Dinner is free. It is meant to make you free. Free to be. Free to become like Him, which is as beautiful as the sunrise that never sets, always rising.
So I asked God to help me find a parking space, a request that is frowned upon by my more astute philosophical friends. Heavens, I frown myself upon such a squalid prayer. It is so illogical, so unimportant and redolent of vanity.
Really today, I asked Him -- Christ, actually -- to help me with my tax return. And all the while there is the suffering of millions of humans and a possible mass extinction in the seas, the die-off of honeybees, and the possibility of global war and revolution about which I'm warned by hierarchs and clergy.
To make my request even more inane, in my own local context, there are suicides and approaching suicides -- especially the sort that take years instead of an instant to pull off ... there are backsliding families who are fading into the ubiquitous "nones" who won't believe in anything ... there are an expanding list of addictions.
Still, I have the simple-minded audacity to ask for Divine help on my 1040.
You see, I need my familiar God.
Yes, yes, I know. He is infinite, if He is real at all. He is monotheistic if there is a God at all. He is transcendent and apathetic if He is Creator at all, completely independent of the creation that is utterly contingent upon Him.
Let us take the argument against my childishness to its logical end: if the Holy Trinity were to commit everything, personally, to salvation -- to the Incarnation and even the Cross and the unimaginable descent into Hell, then why would I dare -- in the vast perspective of infinite and absolute transcendence on one hand, and on the other the decrepitude of humanity and the remainder of the physical creation it has polluted --
-- why would I even suggest a stupid, childish request for help in this scary approach of an undisciplined, naive bowing and scraping approach to the desk of the tax collector (albeit on the internet), from this Crucified Christ to help me with a bureaucratic ritual, a veritable "first world" problem, in the face of the dying third and fourth and fifth world poor?
If there is reality at all, there is God at all. And if there is God at all, there is One, not a pantheon, not a pleroma, and certainly not the lazy materialistic quanta of divinity just beyond the next projection of the maths at LHC. And if there is One, there are Three Persons: such is the logic of the sheer givens.
It is that Personhood that lets me apprehend Christ in the present, even in the small time, the time of looking for a parking space at a hospital, wondering what to say at a funeral, praying hard to call back an embittered parishioner to communion, pleading to protect my daughters and sons-in-law and especially my granddaughter, yearning for providence to watch over my best friend and soulmate and helpmeet of my heart ...
... and, to make things clear, do I deprive a starving, impoverished third-worlder, unjustly deprived of his providence by an admittedly cruel imperialistic, globalized one percent nameless corporate system (that I no doubt have colluded with) -- do I deprive him or her of grace by asking for Divine aid in my tiny first-world irritations?
Do I dare to ask Him for a parking space, to watch over my little dog?
If the One Who is asked is infinite, it would be not be unlikely.
And if the Infinite One -- Christ the Word -- is Person, it would be likely.
Because God is Love, He is Trinity, and He is Person.
Because He is Person, I can confess that I am small, and be okay. And ask away.
Orthodoxy is not fun.
It is beautiful,
which is different.
Untold damage has been done
under the rubric of making Christianity fun,
The missing education for children these days
Is the simple fact
that joy comes only from beauty
(sometimes at the expense of pain and discipline)
And that is why in a funny age
There is so little joy,
which is a dull inevitability from having exchanged
beauty for thrill,
The Eucharist is the only taste of heaven
in the here and now,
and the Liturgy the only rehearsal
of its language,
Baptism the door that I need to remember,
Orthodoxy is irreplaceable, radically un-exchangeable
and thus, cannot be
even at the expense of loss
of sociological, apparent mass.
(We could, you know, go down the Mad Men trail
of census data and marketing trends
and still hear the same regrets:
"I have bought five yoke of oxen and I must prove them"
"I have married a wife and cannot come"
"Suffer me first go and bury my father"
Sure. Heard that before.
Spend your money on bands and stars, but
only Beauty Will Save the World.)
I had climbed a long ladder to see the top,
and found a fellowship who showed me
the true mountain,
real substance that would not die.
Orthodoxy is true insofar as it is beautiful,
for in Christ alone, truth is beauty
and beauty, truth.
That is, as Keats said,
all ye need to know.
When I was a protestant lad, one of the songs we sang on Sunday morning went like this:
“In the cross of Christ I glory, Towering o’er the wrecks of time; All the light of sacred story Gathers round its head sublime.”
St Maximus the Confessor went further. Not only does the Cross shine the light of “sacred story,” but all stories. He wrote that “the one who has known the mystery of the Cross and the Tomb, knows the essential reasons for all things ... and the one who is initiated into the mystery of the resurrection, knows the end ...” (First Century on Theology, 66).
This means that the Orthodox Christian can only see life and all reality from the place of the Cross. Trying to look at things from any other point of view will make the picture go out of focus, or even turn the lights completely off.
The Cross is the bottom line, the only way to look straight.
Don’t be afraid of this fact. You might be thinking that Maximus is recommending a depressing point of view, where the only way to be “realistic” is to be tragic or pessimistic.
Obviously, the Confessor is talking about something else entirely. St Paul held on to this truth with open arms: “Far be it from me to glory except in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Galatians 6.14).
To St Paul the Apostle, and to St Maximus the Confessor -- and really, to all the Apostles and the Fathers -- the Cross is a beautiful, not ugly, thing.
In fact, it is the thing by which all things are are shown to be truly beautiful.
Because the Cross is really a Beautiful Tree, and it has always been that way.
* * * * * *
Do you remember the Garden of Eden?
Well, you actually do, just by virtue of the fact that you can tell if something is beautiful. No, beauty is certainly not merely something “in the eye of the beholder.” There is a reality of beauty: it is not just opinion or taste.
We should know this clearly, if only in our hearts. You do not need to go to school to understand this truth. The reason why God planted the Garden of Eden was to establish, once and for all, the form of beauty in human nature.
And of course, the whole meaning of beauty is summed up and perfected in the presence of Jesus Christ, God the Word, Who visited Adam and Eve every evening in the Garden. He did so before He took on human nature and became incarnate in the womb of the Theotokos. He appeared to humanity in Paradise before the Fall so that we might get to know Him and never forget.
Because -- and you must know this -- the reason why Eden was Paradise was simply because of the Presence of Christ. Paradise is the nearness, the communion of Jesus.
But you know what happened next. There was a dangerous Tree that grew in the middle. It was called the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. If you ate the fruit of this Tree, whatever it was, you were announcing to the universe that you had elected yourself as your own authority ... that you were going to decide what was real or important in your own opinions and feelings ... that you were going to define your own values and priorities and goals ...
... that you were going to choose your own god, and that god would be you.
So the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was really a declaration of independence ... from the real God, that is, the Holy Trinity.
The problem is that it worked. Exactly as advertised.
At the precise moment of sin, I became a lonely god. And so did you.
We became independent and left the Presence of Christ. We ate from our own little gardens of self and ego, and thus we had to leave the beautiful real Garden, and no longer walked in the evening with the God Who wanted to be our Friend.
No matter how much we try to forget that story, we can’t help but miss the Garden of Eden. The memory of our real home remains in our heart.
That is why in this life there is always a touch of sweet sadness every time we see something truly beautiful. For a moment, in a glance of sunlight on the sea, we see things as they were meant to be. In the wafting incense at Liturgy and the amber glow of candlelight, we feel the evenings, and glad fellowship, of Paradise.
And in the summer nights, when the breezes sigh through the trees like a distant waterfall, we can still hear the whisper of Eden, “come home.”
* * * * * *
Don’t you wish things could be different? I do. I don’t understand people who say “I have no regrets.” I have a lot of them. There are many things in the past I wish I could change. It is like every mistake, every wrong decision, every selfish thought and action seems to dig a hole that gets deeper and deeper, where cries of impossibility and condemnation echo in the great cavern of the smoggy darkness.
And just think. I made that cave. Maybe you did, too.
And that abyss is so deep, so hard to climb out of. It lingers in the way of you and me getting back home, back to Eden.
That ugly abyss can get very, very deep. It goes by different names. Doubt. Atheism. Grudge. Despair. Freedom to do instead of freedom to be. Alienation. Enmity. Bitterness. Did I say despair? Cold forgetfulness.
The oldest son of Adam and Eve, Cain who slew Abel, built his city in this darkness, and so did everyone else.
We tied our thoughts and feelings like chains in that cavern. That is why we think we cannot remember the voice of our Friend in Eden.
So we couldn’t go back to Eden, because we made our way impossible, we were in too deep. If sin is falling, death is the hole.
* * * * * *
Someone once said, however, that “With man things are impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19.26).
So, when God the Word became Incarnate, for the sake of deifying all humanity and radiating His Light into all Creation through man, He also came to bring man back to Eden.
He brought Eden to man. He planted the Tree of Paradise -- the Tree of Life -- at the extremity of sin, death and darkness. Right where humanity was.
If you and I could not get back to Eden, Eden came to us in the shade of this Beautiful Tree. Jesus Christ, in His Passion, took every sin and failure, every selfish thought and act, the entire past of despair, resolved it all in the infinity of His love and filled the abyss with His peace. Our friend Maximus wrote that “Christ’s death upon the Cross is a judgment of judgment” (Questions to Thalassius, 48) -- that is, it is a condemnation of all condemnation.
No judgment, no condemnation, exists at all except in the psychotic mind of the devil, and in the mind of anyone else who wants to linger in the hole, like him.
That Tree, which is the Paradise and Presence of Christ, replaced the withered tree of self-deification and independence. “For me,” wrote St Hippolytus (we think), “this tree is a plant of eternal health. I feed on it; by its roots I am rooted; by its braches I spread myself; I rejoice in its dew; the rustling of its leaves invigorates me … This tree of celestial dimensions rises up from the earth to heaven, an eternal plant deeply rooted in heaven and earth, the foundation of the universe, assembling together all the diversity of humankind, fastened by invisible nails of the Spirit, so that its links with the divine power may never again be broken …” (Easter Homily, Treatise on Easter 50, as cited in Olivier Clément, The Roots of Christian Tradition).
Paradise is God giving Himself to you, to me, and to everyone and everything in beauty, through and on this very Tree.
It sure is a far, far better thing. I don’t want to be a lonely god anymore, and I think you are tired of that too.
So listen to the leaves. Breathe the air of Resurrection. Feel the Presence of freedom, liberation from the hole of regret.
Take a look. Everything is beautiful. Because we know in Christ what everything will become. That’s what the Cross and the Empty Tomb say.
And here, take the fruit. Eat and drink. Taste and see that the Lord is good.
It is Eden.
by Percy Bysshe Shelley
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away".
(where are the Nephilim today? here, and nowhere)
Who are the Nephilim?
Come with me, and let’s solve an ancient Bible mystery. This will be an adventure worthy of Indiana Jones.
Who in the world are these strange people, the “Nephilim”?
Here are two passages in Scripture that mention them:
Genesis 6.4: The Nephilim were in the earth in those days, and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bore children to them; the same were the mighty men that were of old, the men of renown.
Numbers 13.33 And there we saw the Nephilim, the sons of Anak, who come of the Nephilim; and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight.'
In our Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified Gifts last Friday evening, we heard about these mysterious people right before the account of Noah’s Flood. Remember that after Cain slew his brother Abel, he wandered into the chaotic space called the land “East of Eden.” If this reminds you of the story of the Prodigal Son, you’re right: sin always takes the direction of Cain, and that is why his script crops up over and over again. There, east of Eden, he established human culture as we know it today: clever, technological, but also God-rejecting, supposedly totally self-reliant. Cain is the proper father of secular culture that so many people want today.
Meanwhile, Adam and Eve produced a third son, whose name was Seth. The Bible says that he was different from Cain. He called upon the Name of the Lord, and “put his hope in God.”
Thus in these early times before the Flood there were two directions that humanity was taking -- the way of Seth, which was the way of humility and seeking God in the heart. Then there was the way of Cain, which was the way of self-centeredness, the way of rejecting God. The people of Cain soon found that there is no way that God could be known if the self is not first sacrificed in love. Seeking God in the heart requires pouring oneself out: that is exactly what God is like ... after all, this is God’s name, His personality, or -- as St Gregory Palamas would say thousands of years later, this is is “energy,” or uncreated Light of Grace.
Life was different back then. Seth’s family, at least, lived a very, very long time. Some lived almost a thousand years. The Fathers say that they still benefited from the human nature so close to Eden and its creation. And, it could be that the Earth itself was different. Before the Flood, it is possible that nature was a lot friendlier to life worldwide. Of course, there is no scientific proof for this (but then again, there is a lot of reality that science has no explanation for, so that doesn’t bother me).
Things would have been better if Seth’s people would have stuck to themselves. But they didn’t. The sixth chapter of Genesis recounts that the “sons of God saw that the daughters of men were fair; and they took to wife such of them that they chose.” The “sons of God” are the people of Seth. And the “daughters of men” are those of Cain. This verse describes, in a short symbolic way, the tragedy of how Seth’s culture got mixed up with Cain’s culture. People not only intermarried, but more importantly, they gave up their belief. Seth’s people -- or most of them -- no longer sought God in their heart. They no longer prayed the old prayer of Adam and Eve that they prayed as soon as they left Eden: “Lord, have mercy on me.” Instead, Seth’s people started living the self-centered life of comfort, technology, power, greatness ... and violence.
Thus we hear of the appearance of the “Nephilim” in that mysterious, ancient age before the Flood. Most of the time, that word “Nephilim” is translated as the English word “giants.” But “giant” does not come close to the full meaning of the term. “Nephil” carries the meaning of “superiority,” “great and powerful,” and also “violent.”
And also “fallen” -- as in apostasy. As in, the people of Seth who had first believed in God, had “fallen away” from belief into the egocentric rejection of God of the culture of Cain.
The Nephilim were the people of the time before the Flood. They were far, far greater in intelligence, strength, attractiveness and skill than we humans are today. They are not “fallen angels” or space aliens (there are a lot of trashy TV pseudo-documentaries and blathering articles that suggest this).
Instead, the Nephilim were the original aristocrats. It could be that memories of them survived the Flood and have passed into legend: and thus we have stories of Hercules, Thor, perhaps the pagan gods in general. Later on, when people of great height and strength appeared, like Goliath (the Philistine who fought David), they were called “Nephilim,” because they reminded people of the old memories.
It is possible that the civilization of the Nephilim was more advanced than ours. There is no proof of this. And certainly, not a single paragraph of this essay would ever see daylight in school. It is an altogether “alternate” history, or story of the past.
But here is the main thing. The Nephilim were exactly what people, nowadays, want to become. They were beautiful, in an alluring way. They were strong and powerful, many times more than we are. They were long-lived, seemingly immortal. They were great, feared by the weak and the meek. They were important.
I imagine that the philosophy of the Nephilim could be summed up by the last two lines of a horrid little poem (called “Invictus”) that too many people have memorized, to their embarrassment: “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.” This piece of ugliness is certainly something that the Nephilim would have endorsed, enthusiastically.
Because whatever they wanted, they went out and got. Immediately.
Which is always an evil thing, and always involves the “collateral” pain and suffering of the weak.
The Nephilim were therefore violent and God-rejecting.
They had become demonic.
The rest of Creation -- from the sky to the seas, from the mountains to the green fields, from the blue whale to the lambs -- depended from the beginning of time on mankind to bring the grace of Christ to it: “Creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God” (Romans 8.19). Creation has always needed the true culture, the ethos, of Seth and his people.
But now, instead of God-seekers, they who sought the uncreated light of grace in their hearts ... now, instead of Seth’s children, Creation was afflicted by a human population that had become dark, violent, and not human at all, but demonic instead.
Creation is allergic to the demonic. Remember the story of the Gadarene demonic, when the Lord permitted a thousand demons to enter into a herd of pigs. They had the sense to stampede off a cliff and dive into the sea. Remember, more importantly, the fact that the sun itself darkened at the sight of the Artist of Creation raised to the dark sky on Golgotha.
Creation waits for the “sons of God,” the descendants of Seth. It reacts to the violent, demonic God-rejection of Cain with utter revulsion.
And thus, the floods came.
* * * * * * *
Better to go the ethos, the way of Seth, which is now even better, more beautifully formed, better known, as the Way of the Cross. Since the Incarnation, now the old prayer of Adam and Eve -- “Have mercy on me” -- has been improved: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Now the way of Seth has been expanded into the fullness of beauty and peace.
It is known, today, as Orthodoxy, which is a lifestyle of Christ making you shine like Him, having given us the “power to become children of God” (John 1.12), receiving and living in His uncreated light of Grace, and broadcasting it to our neighborhood and the universe.
This is what Creation waits for.
Not in the horrible demonic form of the grotesque Nephilim.
But only you as cross-bearing, self-sacrificing, in the likeness of Christ. You as meek, not violent. You as peace-making, not self-worshiping. You as truly beautiful, not vulgar. You as cruciform, not egocentric.
You, only as deified, not demonic.
The only way you were meant to be.
What does "triumph" mean, today when we think about the "Triumph of Orthodoxy"?
Three years ago, my students give me a gift at the end of the Spring Semester. No, it wasn’t an icon of Maximus the Confessor or Gregory of Nysa, which would have made sense. It was a wooden shingle with these words emblazoned upon it: “It is what it is.”
There is a story behind this odd gift. My students learn very soon that certain phrases are discouraged in my classroom — phrases like “Whatever” … or “I can’t help it” … or especially, “It is what it is.” The sign was a comic souvenir of my opposition to this common phrase.
I will tell you why I protest this phrase. It obscures the fact that things should not be the way they are.
There is a lot that happens in reality that is not God’s Will. There is a reason why we pray “Thy Kingdom come, Thy Will be done.” And that reason is simply because there is a lot of stuff that goes on that is certainly not God’s Will. When evil happens, when people get hurt, when the innocent suffer -- this is not the work of God Who tells us that “He is Love,” and that in Him there is no darkness or turning, and that He is only the giver of all good gifts.
So we do not have to accept that the way things are is the way things really are. We can confidently say that this world where there is so much violence and ugliness doesn’t have to be that way. It is okay to think that things ought to be better. Actually, the very fact that we are even aware that there is something wrong is proof that we have a soul. Only an eternal soul would make it possible for us to know about a better world, about a better arrangement of things, and about a beautiful world that is to come.
In fact, that very impatience should move us to pray, with deep emotion, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy Will be done.”
Because God’s reality is much, much better than the reality we’ve become so used to. We call this divine “reality” the Kingdom of God, which is the Personal Presence of Jesus Christ. And the “view” of that reality is truth.
This brings me back to why today is so important. When we celebrate the Triumph of Orthodoxy today, we rejoice in this “view,” a “new vision” that the Fathers call “theoria.” It is a vision of the world as Creation in the light of the Risen Lord Jesus Christ. It is a vision of the way things really are and are meant to be.
“Thus we preach our true Christ our true God and honor His saints in words, in writings, in thoughts, in liturgy, in churches, in icons …” So we say, confidently, in the Synodikon after the procession.
This new vision is the light of Christ. We preach this vision of a reality that is very, very different from what we’ve been told in the world. We’ve grown up hearing — and we continue to hear — that reality is what you can see, touch, smell or hear and there is nothing else … we are told that everything can be explained by science and math … we are told that all problems can be solved by the right technology, or by a politician or party …
… in sum, we are told that the best way to get by in life is to accept that, you know, “it is what it is.”
No. It most assuredly is not. If you stick with only science or math, you wouldn’t even be able to say that something is beautiful, despite the fact that you know that beauty is all around you in Creation. All the technology and politics in the world cannot explain how you think thoughts and how you feel emotions … or how you love … or how you even know that you’re alive.
Years ago — like seventeen hundred years ago, before Constantine legalized Christianity — the Orthodox Church educated people for three years before they were baptized. During this “catechumenate” time of preparation, they learned the Creed so they could recite it at baptism. They learned doctrine. They were taught how to struggle against the passions of pride, anger, lust and greed. They practiced the virtues of charity and hospitality.
Why so long? Because healing, while it is beautiful, is neither easy nor comfortable. Because it takes a while to go from “knowing information” to believing. After all, it took the Apostles three years to make this transition from “fact” to “truth.” Memorizing a bunch of facts is not going to make much difference.
The Church did this three year catechumenate for good reason. They knew then — probably better than it does now — that Orthodox doctrine is the most important education that a person could get. It is more important than science, math, technology and politics put together. The Church knew, indeed, that “this is the Faith of the Orthodox, this is the Faith that has established the Universe” — human science doesn’t establish the Universe, nor does math, nor -- most certainly -- politics. The Orthodox Faith establishes the Universe. It especially establishes the human heart, and the human mind.
It is very interesting what the Church called those teachers of these older teenagers and adults during this three-year process. Today, we call them “catechists” or “Sunday School teachers.” But in the first five hundred years of the Church, these teachers were most frequently called “exorcists.”
And why? At the beginning of this three-year education, prayers of exorcism were prayed over the catechumens — the very same prayers we pray today at the beginning of the Baptism service. These same people that prayed these prayers were the instructors for the next three years. There is no better way to fight off a passion or a demon than through learning and “living out” Orthodox truth — which is the vision of Christ that makes all things new.
I think this makes a lot of sense. I know, from personal and professional experience as a psychotherapist, how toxic passion can be. We live in a culture today that suffers from an epidemic of anger and despair. But I also know that this darkness can be cleansed by hearing just what those catechumens heard, seventeen hundred years ago, listening to an exorcist gently leading them to a new, brighter vision.
This long education that is also an extended exorcism started with happy news: at the deepest level of reality, at the very basis of existence is the fact of Divine Love — not chaos and violence. God Himself is Trinity: a totally united Friendship of Three Persons, constantly pouring out themselves to each other in infinite love.
With that same outpouring of love, God creates the world in peace and beauty.
He makes man and woman in His own image: they are able to receive His love as a free gift … they are also able to freely refuse it.
Everything in Creation clearly revealed God’s personality as Love, and Adam and Eve could clearly see this. God planted, deeply within the human heart, a way to see Him and a desire to reflect His light.
In every work of Creation, the Father is the Creator, the Son is the Artist, and the Spirit is the Finisher. And in everything — from every blade of grass to every mountain, from every little animal to the ocean and the stars — Christ has designed Creation to prove His love for you, and to draw you, in deep desire, to communion with Him in friendship.
In all of this, God pours out Himself to us — and when we refused this divine, Personal gift of love when we desired sin instead, then God poured out Himself even more.
And that “something even more” took the shape of the Cross … when the Artist of all creation was raised up to the sky on Good Friday, when, by His passion and death, the cancer of sin was stopped.
When Christ descended into Hell on Holy Saturday, He destroyed the power of death in the explosion of the revelation of His divine glory.
Then, forty days later, He ascended into heaven and took our humanity with Him.
The catechumens were taught that in Baptism, they actually joined this beautiful, joyous story. They discovered that they could really enter this new Vision. They were taught that when they received the Eucharist, they were truly participating in the divine nature of Christ and experiencing the light and peace of the Resurrection, even now …
… whenever I get “down” from listening to too much news, I go back to this New Vision of the way things really are in Christ, and I work hard to believe better, and believe more. And the more I believe, through learning and prayer and fasting, the more I am liberated from those dark shadows of anger and despair.
I think this will work for you, too. You can’t stop learning about Holy Tradition when you finish First Confession class, or when you leave Sunday School at seventeen. The older you get, the more you need Orthodox doctrine to save your life, and to keep you sane.
There is a strong relationship between doctrine and sanity, between perceiving this New Vision and experiencing “the peace that passes all understanding.” Look at the saints in the icons that we celebrate today. Their faces show not a trace of despair or worry, anger or greed. There is only peace, clarity, balance, confidence and hope.
Do you remember the story of the poor man who was possessed by a thousand demons, who wore broken chains clanging from his wrists and crawled around naked amongst the tombstones? He — the Gadarene Demoniac — looked the complete opposite of the saints: no peace, no hope, only fear and rage.
Remember how even the pigs had more sense than humans. Only humans choose to tolerate the presence of demons. The pigs were so revolted by the presence of demons that they did the only thing they could: they jumped off a cliff, because they couldn’t stand the stench of demon filth.
I like to think that this poor man represents the world of “it is what it is” — a world that’s gone stark raving mad with anger, pride, greed, lust and despair, a world polluted with the stench of demons.
Remember what happened? The only thing that could help was a New Vision of the way things God means them to be: and that Vision was, and is, the Presence of Jesus Christ Himself.
It is a beautiful thing that when all the people came to find out what happened, they saw this man, but he was completely changed.
The chains were off. He was wearing clothes. His hair was combed, his body was washed and clean.
The Gospel says that the townspeople found him “in his right mind.” And it showed on his face. It was peace. It was hope. It was clear and sane. For the first time, the eyes were bright and a smile of hope beamed from his face.
He had met God, and found the True Friend.
This is the Triumph of Orthodoxy. This is what happens every time when we turn away from a mad world of “it is what it is,” and turn instead, in the truth of Orthodoxy, to the Vision of Christ, full of grace and peace. ❦