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.
On Friday -- on a day that the news should have focused entirely on the funeral of +Rev Clementa Pinckney (attended by His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios) -- the Supreme Court thought it appropriate to announce its decision on the case Obergefell v. Hodges: the Court determined that there is now a federally-protected right of same-sex couples to be married under civil law.
What does this mean? And what does this mean for us?
Historically speaking (that is, outside the Church), this is something new. In general, cultures across the world made marriage a “legal” thing between a man and a woman for the purposes of bearing children (i.e., “procreation”) and owning property. That is why society in general has always been so interested in marriage, and it has -- across the board -- legislated various laws to regulate and to support marriage.
This is what is called “civil marriage.”
We should remember that one of the main reasons why society upheld marriage by law was for the purpose of procreation. That is why marriage has been limited, historically and even outside Christianity, to a relationship between a man and a woman.
As far as the Church is concerned, marriage goes far beyond the legalized “civil union” that society or the State is interested in upholding. Marriage, in Holy Tradition, is a “sacrament.” It is one of the seven primary “means of grace” that God has given us for the sake of our salvation. We say confidently that we can be “saved” through marriage.
For the first few centuries of the Church (until about 900 AD), when early Christians got married, they first went to the city magistrate (kind of like our “Justice of the Peace”) and entered into a “civil union.” Then, soon afterward, they had their marriage blessed in Divine Liturgy on Sunday morning.
The Sacrament of Holy Matrimony -- or, better, the “Holy Mystery of Nuptial Union” -- goes far beyond the interests of society. Marriage, in the Holy Tradition of Orthodoxy, is an eternal union of a man and a woman (just like Adam and Eve, and -- more profoundly -- Christ and His Bride the Church). Every sacramental marriage is a part and a beginning of the cosmic reconciliation of Christ returning all of Creation to the Father in universal transfiguration. Marriage includes the possibility of children, but it extends into love and joy in every moment between the husband and wife.
We Orthodox have deep and eternal view of marriage.
And because of that, we venerate and protect it -- not just as a civil institution, or as a “contract” that will cease at the end of life. Marriage, for us, is forever, always initiating a return to Paradise, always transforming a home into a “Garden of Eden.”
So what do we do when the Supreme Court, in a very poorly written, poorly argued and irresponsible opinion, has changed the legal definition of marriage?
(The gaping holes in this opinion, written by Reagan-appointee Anthony Kennedy, are egregious. One unanswered question in this statement -- as if it didn’t matter -- is whether religious institutions who choose not to perform such unions will receive adequate legal protection.)
First of all, we need to remain “courageously peaceful” and remember that while this decision is huge for civil law, it does nothing to the Orthodox definition of marriage.
I doubt that the Church will ever be forced, by law, to perform same-sex marriages. Such a thing has not happened once in Massachusetts, which has legalized such marriages since 2004.
But in the event that everyone who performs the “civil marriage” within the church ceremony -- which I and every other clergy do for the State in a wedding -- might be required by law to perform a same-sex marriage … then I -- and every other traditional priest -- will stop performing the civil part (i.e., I would no longer sign the marriage license).
I do not think this is a very big deal in itself. The “clergy-signed marriage license” was always a government function, starting around 900 AD with the hugely significant "Novella 89" of Leo VI. Historically, I think that any and every entanglement with the State has turned out to be a huge mistake.
We need to remember that there have been, for a long time, many “civil marriages” that the Church does not recognize as “sacramental”: “same sex union” is not the only impediment to Church-blessed sacramental marriage. There are other “impediments": marriage between too close of blood relations is prohibited; so also is habitual adultery and criminality. Age and consent also factor as significant concerns.
We need to also keep in mind that not only does the Church warn against homosexual activity, but it warns -- just as strongly -- against all sexual behavior outside of sacramental marriage (like adultery). It is usually overlooked that the Church warns against all lustful or fetishizing sex -- even within marriage. The Church warns, too, against childbearing attempts that take place outside sacramental marriage: e.g., sperm or egg donation; in vitro fertilization; surrogate motherhood; and any and all manipulations of human life, including DNA modification.
But most importantly, we need to consider that these warnings are for the conservation of formal human life and culture, and for the beautification of human existence for eternity: so the Church warns against all destructive passions -- not only sexuality outside Holy Tradition, but also greed, anger, gluttony, pride and despair.
We are now in a moment when we need to think carefully about our response to this cultural watershed moment. Unfortunately, it is a watershed: but our response does not need to be so chaotic or reactionary. It is not the best thing, surely, to wage another round of "culture wars." Neither is a retreat from full-on engagement of from contemporary society (and history): we are neither Amish, nor are most of us monastic. So in general, I reject the "Benedict Option." It is neither robust nor comprehensive as a real strategy.
Frankly, we should have been thinking about "responses" to the devolution of contemporary society a long time ago. Maybe as far back as when usury was legalized in modern Europe, and everything became commoditized (even human labor). Maybe even further back as when Christendom lost its soul when the western Church itself began contractualizing the concept of "covenant" and all relationships, and secularity was thus invented and set loose upon human society.
Why do we notice how bad things are only when our hot buttons are pushed? I think our surprise and shock about Friday June 26th reveal not so much the badness of the world, but our egregious lack of wisdom, and failure to discern.
For now, I will offer only this, in the particular subject of marriage:
The best thing to do, in response, is this: We need to understand and reveal the truth of Orthodox Marriage. Our homes need to be islands of the joy and peace of the Risen Christ. Our marriages need to reveal the possibilities of Trinitarian love in our time. And we need to be able to talk freely, peacefully and courageously, about what our marriages mean in Orthodoxy.
In just a little while, the funeral service will commence for Rev (and state senator) Clementa Pinckney at the Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston SC. When the caisson bearing his remains passes under the Confederate flag, it will be the last time this good man will be troubled by the sight of it.
There is a simple reason for the absence of riots, vandalism and other violent disturbances that flared up after other recent deaths. One would have expected such, because these present nine victims were older, placid, so innocent, non-violent.
The reason is because they -- even in their suffering -- showed Christ, the Prince of Peace, so well.
I continue to be surprised when I hear the people and clergy of this AME community speak so confidently of Christ and the Cross, and the seamless link between their individual holiness and the needs and issues of the community.
They are examples to us all.
These days, we worry about events like this "getting politicized," and there is no small frustration at the removal of the Confederate flag.
We need to remember that all politics belong to the larger class of morality. There will always be a political side to a community event. One might get miffed at "people taking political opportunity from a tragedy" -- and this is a very old complaint. But that is like complaining about something that happens as predictably as daylight.
There is always a political moment after every tragedy.
I admire, especially, the southern Republicans who are working hard to remove the Confederate flag from all positions of governmental symbolism. Yes, it is part of the heritage and history. Yes, it should continue on at battlefields and museums.
But these Republicans are responding to this horrific tragedy by empathizing with a population that looks upon the Confederate flag in a much different way. When African Americans look at this symbol, they do not see the romantic nobility of Lee and Jackson and the "Lost Cause." Nor do they see the down-homeness of Daisy and the Dukes of Hazzard.
No. African Americans see -- and they must see -- the Confederate flag just as Jews see the flag of the Third Reich, emblazoned with the swastika. You can point out to me the long history of the swastika that has nothing to do with the Nazis -- and you would be right.
But now that symbol has been permanently stained by the satanic madness of Hitler and his movement.
The Confederate flag, for African Americans, must and can only stand for the Middle Passage of the horrible slave trade. It stands for an entire racial community suffering in bondage for three centuries in this country. It stands for the forced separation of husbands and wives, parents and children. It stands for the bodily mutilation and torture of thousands of escaped or "misbehaved" slaves. It stands for the Nazi-like money-addicted plantation owners and cotton magnates who profited from human suffering.
So since this symbol carries this horrific meaning to my brothers and sisters, would I insist on waving it from a position of authority, or anywhere in my community? Would I be so callous as to wave the swastika in front of those whose last names are written hundreds of times at Yad Vashem?
There is no boundary between morality and politics. All politics is an expression of morality, an interaction between good and evil. Every expression of goodness comes with a price tag in the exchange: at every act of peacemaking (because that is what the Prince of Peace calls us to do with the Cross), the price is the giving up of "personal right," of convenience, of personal taste and maybe, even, political opinion.
You and I hear this next phrase probably once a week: “I don’t go to church because it’s full of hypocrites.”
I have always wanted to reply, “Well, just go and make one more.”
That is not really nice, and it is too snarky by half. When we hear this line, it is obvious that the speaker doesn’t have a clue as to what the word “hypocrite” really means. And it is just as obvious that the speaker is bitter about something that is just as much his fault as it is everyone else’s. Or he is just defensive about his own fear of spiritual realities.
If you absolutely must respond to this worn-out and trite complaint, I suggest you try on this line for size: “The church isn’t full of hypocrites, but it is full of sinners, and I’m one of them. That is why we all go to church, because we need healed by grace, by prayer and sacrament.”
That may or may not work, but it is true.
And such a response spotlights the huge confusion that surrounds the word “hypocrite.” Most of the time when I hear or read this word in popular speech, it seems that what is being complained about is not “hypocrisy,” but “inconsistency.” We Christians are called to practice virtues and to deny the impulses of our passions. Frequently, we fail the commandments to love God and to love each other “as ourselves.” Some days we do very well at love, self-denial and giving mercy: once in a while we do not, and thus we are inconsistent.
And when others see this failure, they like to call it “hypocrisy.”
It is not, of course. When a Christian fails, he is guilty of sin, not hypocrisy. And when someone sins, we are called to forgive such trespasses. Sin requires repentance and restitution and remediation, and it needs forgiveness and restoration.
Hypocrisy is different. It is not inconsistency -- if you want a more correct term, I suggest “incongruence” rather than inconsistency. Hypocrisy actually turns out to be very consistent. Sin, hopefully, is not.
What I mean by “incongruence” is that in hypocrisy, there is a horrible “disconnect” between what is expressed on the outside, and what is actually going on inside -- in the heart. In describing such a nasty disconnect, Jesus once called the Scribes and Pharisees a bunch of “whitewashed selpuchres” -- that is, tombs that looked pretty on the outside, but filled with decay and corruption on the inside.
The Lord condemned the hypocrisy of these politically powerful men. What he condemned, interestingly, was not their sinfulness in general (which they denied). Instead, Jesus denounced their contradiction. In their hypocrisy, the Scribes and the Pharisees reduced religion to a “mask” in the way that trick-or-treaters don plastic faces of Superman or some Disney princess on Halloween.
Notice that these men were not just religious, but were politically powerful. They had turned religion into a business of commodification (e.g., moneychanging in the Temple, and the wretched practice of "corban" and tithing mint and dill), and power-mad domination (e.g., Saul stoning Stephen and hauling Christians off in chains). My point here is that modern sensibilities have restricted the meaning of hypocrisy to "religion," when in reality it is an existential term. Hypocrisy belongs to power.
The hypocrites who were denounced so scarily in Matthew 23 (“woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” the Lord said again and again, paki paki) had pushed religion to the surface and did not let it go any deeper. They had denied the main purpose of religion -- which was for a person saying yes to the Holy Spirit incorporating him or her into the Body of Christ, thus becoming godlike, a child of God the Father.
Hypocrites, as you might imagine, will have none of this.
Hypocrites are addicted to the outside. They cannot stand the inside, the precinct of the heart. They are invested in the fiction that God is distant and wrathful, and find the idea of damnation (that is, of other people) quite appealing. Ultimately, they’d prefer that God not exist, because power and domination are what they are really interested in, not at all true religion.
Hypocrites do not, by definition, ever really pray. They cannot pray because they refuse to repent -- prayer always requires the sacrifice of ego. A hypocrite would never do that. A hypocrite loves his ego but hates his own soul.
The church has always had problems with religious hypocrites: that is old news. There will always be charismatic preachers who rake in millions from their impoverished TV fan base, and take these widow-offerings to buy private jets, yachts, mansions with swimming pools and -- I kid you not -- golden faucets and toilet seats.
That is, as I’ve said, nothing new. We should not be upset by this.
What is new, however, is the arrival of “non-religious” hypocrites. Hypocrites of this sort deny any spiritual reality, but at the same time demand that you accept their "valuations," or their definitions of what is good or important. Hypocrites of this sort put a price on everything and, because they deny anything special about humanity, even put human life up for sale. Think here, in this regard, the practice of pornography, where women are turned into objects for profit. Think of fertilized embryos or fetuses that are discarded because they are not viable or valuable. Think of corporations who pay lip service to democracy, but extort government at all levels and profit from cultural decadence. Or think of real hardworking people who are denied a living wage.
“Non-religious” hypocrites have even changed the definition of “freedom.” Freedom, in this modern secular hypocrisy, now means “freedom to choose,” or “freedom to purchase and own,” or “freedom to change the TV station” or “freedom to be whatever kind of individual you want to be.”
However, “Freedom,” says Holy Tradition, means “freedom to be, freedom to become.” Certainly not freedom to choose.
For us, such freedom is found only in deification -- a life that starts in liturgy and never ends in an infinite ascension into Beauty Divine.
That sort of freedom a hypocrite -- religious or non-religious -- just cannot stand. The sharp irony here -- which is kind of funny -- is that the only ones who call the Church “just a bunch of hypocrites” are hypocrites themselves.
So. I think there are far more non-religious hypocrites than religious ones. In fact, there may be no authentic "religious" hypocrites because a hypocrite will not really pray.
And, you and I will have our problems with inconsistency.
It is true.
We are sinners, to be sure.
But we may not be hypocrites.
Which is far, far worse.
If there will be any regret after the last moment on earth, it will be that I should have, could have, prayed a lot more.
At the end, it will be obvious, even to my little understanding, that prayer not only means something, but makes something, and a very lot of it too.
I keep wondering if prayer is not the greatest work, the most beautiful engagement in art that I can ever do. It is certainly the deepest, truest action from what I really am. Perhaps this is the truest form of what Tolkien called "sub-creation" -- a Christian idea that's been hidden by the construction of the false secular world.
Prayer is not opposed to or distinct from theology. Prayer, rather, is the height of theology, just as theology (i.e., knowledge of God in relationship -- "covenant" as "betrothal") is the natural, even necessary, extension of prayer.
In the past, I separated prayer from theology. I regret this, and will try not to do it again.
These last few months have been like Dickens' London and Paris -- the best of times and the less-than-best. In those "Parisian" moments of challenge, I learned (and not, sadly, from many successes), that there is no romance in confronting evil. Standing up, like St Paul's martial characterization (in Ephesians 6), against the withering tide is not like the war movies with stirring soundtracks, or chivalrous joie de guerre of Arthur, Orlando, or even Hector.
What I found from my time with the devil is that he/it/they/whatever is depressing, sickening, enervating, existentially nauseating. It is not at all like Barad-dûr, nor trudging through Moria nor even the Paths of the Dead. It is much more like the despairing shuffle through the Dead Marshes, where everywhere are anti-icons of the devolution of noble battles into the decay of history and missed chances, nature declining into absurd.
I felt the same sort of cold resistance, low-grade dread and attrition of spirit that C S Lewis so well described in his approach to Ransom's house (in Out of the Silent Planet). Evil does not work in glamor. Only in decay.
So I will tell you this, like Ishmael coming back, surviving not only the whale but the regime of Ahab:
Never before have I needed the sacraments of the Eucharist, and also of human friendship, more.
And never have I found prayer so strong an artesian spring of peace before. And bear in mind that I say this more out of mistakes, missed chances and failure than success.
I have had to understand, sometimes unwillingly, the divine words, "“My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.”
And that weakness would be mine.
We have, in the Church, thousands and thousands of prayers.
But for me in these last few months, I prayed mainly three.
I offered the Lord's Prayer to the Father, believing that since I was incorporated in the Son I was praying with Him in forgiveness, for time, for deliverance.
I prayed in the night watches "O Heavenly King, the Comforter, O Spirit of Truth, Who are in all places and fill all things; Treasury of blessings and Giver of life, come and dwell within us and cleanse us from every blemish and save our souls, O Blessed One." He is the Comforter, the bringer of Peace, the "actualizer" of the miraculous psychology of Christ in the precincts of my soul. Through Him, I see the beauty of the Logos everywhere, and Time again becomes promise, instead of dread.
And, at the negative extremities, when the abyss looked like the old darkness of Sheol, bottomless, catastrophically chasmic, there rose up -- without my conscious will (at first, at least) -- the Jesus Prayer. It came in my breath, cadenced to my heart. And Whose Will was it, in Whose Body I am, but the One Who knocks at my door always, pleading like Lazarus to join my foolish, pseudo-rich table?
Who else but the One Who descends into all and every dereliction, but the Beggar Christ?
So, I will try to have less regrets at the end of days.
I will hope that my friends will say, "At least he prays."
Lead us, leaving no one, in the beggar's glory of Your ways.
Rose peace, silent lyric of flesh forever
Waving from symbolic rain in evening wind
I thought you dead
But here and now you are with bloom spread
Forgiving my grooming neglect you still
Press your petals to my conscious spend
In your sky-ness aroma fill
This ever. Suppose
With your mourning dove, forlorn,
Call in the morning,
How is it, husbanding you,
There is blood on the thorn?
Ah, c'est moi, I had forgotten
The cost of a rose
Sometimes I am, sometimes I'm not. Fearful of the the future, that is. Sort of a phobia of "The times, they are a-changin'."
And I shouldn't be, that is. Shouldn't be future-phobic. After all, the first generation of Christians incorporated into the Word made flesh, destroyer of hell and raised from the dead, was not future phobic at all.
They were radically orthodox enough to say, without question, "Maranatha." It doesn't matter whether this ancient aramaic term is taken in an imperative sense ("O Lord, come"), or in a perfect tense ("Our Lord has come"). In both cases, there is a huge confidence in the fact that Christ is Person and He is infinitely Real, and His Body is a mystical culture of Peace that embraces all reality. Seen and unseen. And beyond.
"Peace to you," He said, and that Christological peace prohibits future-phobia. This peace through Christ and in Christ is the only possible peace at all. So in this, the fundamentalist anti-cultural doomsayers (and future-phobics) are correct when they intone "No peace until the Prince of Peace."
But on the other hand, this peace is not deferred to the future. It is present as Christ is present. Christ is even more present, after Pentecost, than He was in the events of the Gospel. It is the height (or depth) of "un-orthodoxy" to speak or act as if Christ were somehow "not present," or somehow less experienced than the Gospel experience of the apostles. It is a tragic pathology to reduce the meaning of the "Word" to just the printed text of Scripture -- such a reduction is a modern invention, and may have had a hand in turning the modernist project so awry.
Christ is present, as Peace, to you and me in the Eucharist (and all the mysteries) and in the Orthodox Gospel of theology -- a narrative "project" that began with the apostles and has been elaborated to moderns ever since.
Sacraments are the substance of Beauty. Theology is the experience of Beauty.
And Beauty is the prophecy of Peace.
And Peace displaces and overcomes the future phobic temptation that seems to be afflicting many of us.
This fact has practical implications. There are more, but these are just a few.
The first is a mere suggestion of doubt. Not in divinity or orthodoxy by any means, but in institutionality as a ecclesiological construct. In particular, I'd like to serve up an irritating question (something like a grain of sand ticking off an oyster): is it really profitable, or even ethical, to worry about institutional viability when it is hardly certain that what is worried about (i.e., the church in the future) is an institution at all? A few texts -- like David's own experience with a census (1 Chronicles 21); Gideon's phobic insistence on numeric strength (Judges 7); and the Lord's own failure in the church growth movement (John 6.66) -- might be instructive.
I mean, just Whose institution is it anyways?
The second implication is like unto the first. Permit me to preface the proposition with an abbreviated litany of the usual doomsaying. 1) The Pew Report (always the Pew Report, or the Barna Report, or some sociological occult prophecy -- has anyone noticed how close surveys resemble augury?) in its latest screech warns that the "nones" are gaining the upper hand and millennials are leaving the church in droves. 2) The church cannot retain her young people, and young people are not taking their place in stewarding the church (i.e., no one new is running for Church Council). 3) America and the World are getting so damn immoral. Cohabitation. Non-traditional sexuality. Gender identity fluidity. The dominance of pornography as cultural force. 4) The news cycle makes it sound like Arkham's been busted open and the basement's been let loose (e.g., ISIS, riots, gangs, terrorists using pressure-cookers, meth labs in the sticks, heroin in Smallville). 5) Because entertainment and celebrities with power.
Note that I didn't take time to make a nice bulleted list, for the simple reason that you've heard all this already.
But I will set out two more sentences of this dark litany for special notice:
6) The Church is entering into a time of persecution in America. This has long been said all over the place in conservative Christian America, and now it is being chanted in Orthodox America (perhaps because of importation by converts like me). This article is a good example of such a jeremiad prophecy -- tightly analogous with the OT prophet's warning of state dissolution as a consequence of moral ruin. I was intrigued, in this essay, by the possibility of juxtaposing the bedtime reading of Madeline with a narrative of a confessor's torment at the hands of a modern tyrant. The conclusion of the essay was clear:
"The kids wanted to hear more, so I promised to find other (appropriate) passages to read for them later. That boring Sunday liturgy looks different in light of what Father George suffered for it, and to be able to say it in prison. I could tell a change in my children’s view. These are the stories we have to start telling our kids. They are the stories that belong to the church."
Please note that I do not doubt any of these sentences. I, too, am honored to be a member of the fellowship that includes Fr George. I think young people ought to be acquainted, well, with the history of the Church, and the biographies of her saints and martyrs -- if only to reinforce the reality of Christ's presence and His transcendence.
It may be that all the surveys and all the observations are correct. They are likely true because America has never been as Christian as people thought. Morality may not have been so successful in the past as has been assumed, in the popular narrative. And, dare we say it, ethnic communities that revolved around the church have been completely assimilated into the dominant culture.
But I doubt the efficacy of doomsaying in either keeping kids in church after they graduate or insuring the survival of orthodoxy. And I struggle against such (and all) future-phobic language.
I have lived with the language of impending doom for over fifty years: in that narrative, America has always been in decline. The Rapture was always coming. The Communists were always on the verge of taking over. The liberals were always toxifying the faith. Strangers were always invading the community, messing things up.
And I have to tell you, these narratives never worked. They never packed the church. The kids, made to watch "A Thief in the Night" and "The Burning Hell" and getting entertained by rock bands and praise choruses and made to feel important, left anyways.
Future phobic language not only does not work.
Future phobia is, more importantly, toxic.
This leads me to the last sentence of the litany, a sentence one can either be phobic about, or faithful about. And that is this:
7) Never before in human history until this moment -- when there is one civilization unified with one culture (whatever we want to call it) -- has humanity been so non-metaphysical.
Indeed, if civilization is anything, it is anti-metaphysical (despite its complete dependence upon metaphysical realities).
And what can we do for that, when it comes to our kids, our church, our communities, our personal existence?
You can go ahead and tell the scary stories and linger in a doom that might even be likely.
But far, far more important is this: Tell the narrative and doctrine of Christ. Teach your children well -- tell them how to answer the insane and inane anti-theistic complaints of our nitwit culture. Teach orthodox theology by first learning it yourself -- a theology that must go far beyond the simple propositions of brochure catechisms and even exceeds the likes of Pomazansky and Romanides -- these catechisms are not enough for an anti-metaphysical age. By all means, read out loud the saints and the elders: but you need to read and teach the Fathers' doctrine much, much more.
Abba Zosima told Alyosha, in The Brothers Karamazov, to "tell the stories." Certainly do this. But the abba's advice, while necessary, is not sufficient. It is not enough to narrate stories: wisdom (i.e., apostolic theology that is continuous with philosophy) necessitates plunging into the depths that lie beneath the prima facie "simple reading of the text."
We don't want to admit this, but come, let us reason: theology calls for a humble surrender of Occam's Razor.
Take your kids and yourself to Liturgy every single Sunday -- not to survive the future, but to live today.
We need the Eucharist to live in the here and now. Only secondarily do we need it to prepare for a future that we will never predict accurately.
Do you trust God with Time?
Do your kids believe that God's Will is a Good Will? Because you are convinced of this yourself?
And one more thing. Do you know the real reason why kids not only leave church, but do not return?
Because they are sick and tired of church fights and family arguments. They are tired of denunciations at Sunday dinner. They needed discipline and order and love: they never needed domination and authoritarianism and cultish anti-cultural esotericism. They needed guided and encouraged to engage the present, not to run from the future into a fictional narrative that lies about the past.
They were told "Peace be unto you."
They looked for peace.
But didn't find it.
But Mary [Magdalene] stood outside by the tomb weeping, and as she wept she stooped down and looked into the tomb. And she saw two angels in white sitting, one at the head and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain. Then they said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid Him.” Now when she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, and did not know it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” She, supposing Him to be the gardener, said to Him, “Sir, if You have carried Him away, tell me where You have laid Him, and I will take Him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to Him, “Rabboni!” (which is to say, “Great Teacher”). Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to Me, for I have not yet ascended to My Father; but go to My brethren and say to them, ‘I am ascending to My Father and your Father, and to My God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene came and told the disciples that she had seen the Lord, and that He had spoken these things to her.
-- John 20.11-18
There are few things better to do on a Sunday afternoon -- after Liturgy, after the Feast, in the quiet of the sun and the breeze, than to think carefully and quietly on these beautiful words.
They make so much sense. They pull together the bright morning sun, the spring rains, the wind in the new leaves and blossoms, the choir of birdcalls, our own happiness after a long night’s worry and weeping. They settle the meaning of friendship once and for all. They answer the riddle of recognition, the often-hidden presence of God that, at the same time, “is everywhere present and fills all things.”
These verses from John the Evangelist and Theologian say simply, and deeply, what it means to be really human -- born for eternity, alive to become forever brighter, drawn to no other destiny than the beauty of the Trinity: a beauty that is beyond infinite scale.
* * * * * * *
Mary Magdalene and another woman named Mary (“the mother of Joses”) were the first to see that the Tomb where Jesus had been buried was now empty. The stone had been rolled away by an angel of the Lord (Matthew 28.2). The stone was rolled away not to “let Jesus out,” because in His Resurrection, He had already left the Tomb. Later on that afternoon on Pascha, the Risen Christ would meet with His disciples in the Upper Room, despite the fact that all the doors and windows were barred shut: if Jesus did not need these doors opened, surely He did not need the stone of the tomb rolled away just so He could get out. The stone was rolled away for one purpose -- and that was to help the friends of Jesus see the emptiness of the grave.
Mary Magdalene ran back to where the apostles were hiding (in fear and despair -- despite the fact that Jesus had told them several times beforehand that He would rise “on the third day”), and she told them about her discovery. It is for this reason that St Augustine and other Fathers called her “the apostle to the apostles” -- she had been sent (which is the meaning of “apostle”) to tell the good news of the Resurrection to the disciples.
Peter and John ran together to the empty tomb. John, in writing this Gospel, adds the personal detail that he outran Peter and stopped just outside the tomb. Peter, coming up from behind, went into the tomb and found the burial linen cloths and the face shroud lying neatly folded and stacked separately. This is actually an important point: if thieves had stolen the body of Christ (an anti-christian rumor that tried to “explain away” the Resurrection -- a rumor very popular in the first years of the Church and can be heard especially nowadays), they would certainly not have stopped to tidy up the place before they left. I have always found this fact a happy, almost comic, sign that God’s revelation of His glory is often very down-to-earth, and reaches out to our simple common sense.
John writes, at this point (in 20.8), that he too entered the tomb: “and he saw, then, and believed.” He adds that “as yet they did not know the Scripture, that He [Christ] must rise again from the dead.” This is the Apostle John confessing the fact that he should have expected the Resurrection, and not have needed these “proofs” of the empty grave and the neatly-folded grave clothes. It would be later -- starting when Jesus taught His disciples for the next forty days until the Ascension -- that the Lord would show how the entire Old Testament had been preparing the human race to understand that the Holy Trinity would overcome sin and death precisely this way, the way of the Incarnation, the Cross, the descent into Hell and its destruction, and the Resurrection. That is why in the Creed we say “And the third day He arose again according to the Scriptures”: this phrase refers to the plain fact that the Old Testament is all about Christ and His work of salvation.
* * * * * * *
At some point while they were in the tomb, Mary Magdalene must have arrived. Peter and John left the scene, but Mary remained, and she wept. It is not hard to understand why. Jesus’ promise of His rising again was far beyond human experience and expectation. Mary, too, had not understood the main lesson of the psalms and the prophets and the Law. She knew about God as a far off mysterious divinity, but did not know about the Trinity, nor did she know that her wise Teacher (Whom she called “Rabboni”) and wonder-working Friend was also God Himself.
So Mary Magdalene looked at the empty tomb and simply assumed that the body of her Lord was taken away. Perhaps it was the work of thieves. Perhaps someone came to bury Jesus somewhere else, to avoid the interference of the Romans and the Jewish authorities.
She was weeping because she thought the dead body of her Lord was all she had left, the only thing remaining of His friendship with her and all the disciples. You can understand her pain and regret. It is what we all experience at funeral homes. It is the very same grief.
In this understandable -- and very familiar -- grief, Mary “stooped down and looked into the tomb.” She saw two angels in white, seated at the head and foot of the grave where Jesus’ body had lain. St John Chysostom said that she knew they were angels because of their brightness: here is a hint of the same glorious “uncreated light” that was seen at the Transfiguration and the Bethlehem Star, and the angelic choir that sang “Peace on Earth, Good Will to Men.” Angels are committed completely to the adoration of the Holy Trinity -- and in that adoration, they are committed completely to the service of humanity. What more important service is there than the message of salvation, the Gospel of the Cross and the Resurrection? After all, “angel” means just that: “messenger.”
“Woman, why are you weeping?” the angels asked. The address “woman,” at that time, was an address of deep respect. In John 2, at the Wedding of Cana, Jesus said to His mother, “Woman, what is this to Me and you?” Again, that address was not disrespectful, but one of reverence and honor.
That the angels showed Mary Magdalene such respect is important for two reasons. The first is that despite their glory and spiritual nature, they show graciousness to humans that goes beyond courtesy. It is as though they put themselves entirely at the service of the humans they greet.
The second reason is that Mary Magdalene’s life before her meeting with Christ was not respectful at all. She had been called a “woman of the city” -- an obvious euphemism for prostitution. Both Luke and Mark report that Jesus had driven seven demons out of her. So relieved she was of this deliverance and so thankful for her new beautiful life, that when Jesus was dining with Simon the Pharisee, Mary Magdalene came to Jesus, knelt down before Him, bathed His feet with her tears, dried them with her hair, and anointed His feet with a costly, fragrant ointment.
Jesus said of her then: “Her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much” (Luke 7.47).
So now she is here in the empty tomb, with angels calling her, with deep courtesy, “Woman,” and they are asking her “Why are you weeping?” She, a former “woman of the city” who had been possessed by seven demons, who was set free and healed by her Lord, met by angels and the missing body of her Lord, Whom she loved so much.
She answered the angels: “Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid Him.” So still, Mary Magdalene could not think of any possibility that went beyond human expectations. The empty grave could only mean a missing body that must be found somewhere, and was still very dead. Even though He saved her and led her into the beauty of holy life, and even though she loved Him much, Jesus ended up the way all things end up: dead, sad, inescapably real and unsurprising. Like everyone else, Mary believed -- because it was so hard to believe otherwise -- that the stories of history all had sad endings and bad.
* * * * * * *
“She turned around and saw Jesus standing there …”
Can you believe this little sentence is in the Bible?
God surprised Mary, as He always does, for all of us.
While Mary Magdalene was weeping and talking with the angels, and while she was focused on the place of death, outside the grave in the broad daylight the Risen Lord Jesus, Son of God, stood there, waiting for the grieving Mary just to turn around.
But her grief remained.
She did not recognize Him.
This is the oddest, most peculiar part of the story. Mary did not recognize the Risen Christ.
“Woman, why are you weeping,” Jesus, hidden from recognition, asked, just like the angels did, “Who are you looking for?”
Mary Magdalene thought that Jesus must have been the gardener who cared for the graves in the cemetery. There is some irony here: if anyone is a gardener, it is Jesus Who planted the Garden of Eden in the first place, and created the seen and unseen worlds as a thing of matchless beauty. In fact, this very story is like a repetition of the Eden story -- but this time, instead of a Fall, there is a Rising.
Here is where Mary’s courage shines: “Sir, if You have carried Him away, tell me where You have laid Him, and I will take Him away.”
And I will take Him away.
Just consider these words. How much she loved Him, in complete self-sacrifice. How much she had taken up her own cross of self-donation, of breaking out of her self-centeredness and her ego, and setting her heart upon Christ instead of herself. How much she had fought against her own passions which had rotted her heart in sin, passion, and then demonic-possession.
So now, instead of anointing the feet of Christ that had brought such Good News, now she wanted to anoint His body for burial.
And I will take Him away.
She loved much.
But Christ loved even more. Infinitely more.
In infinite love He created Mary Magdalene, and had always had her in His Mind for eternity before she was born in Palestine. He has always thought of you, too, and me. He “brought us from non-existence into being,” as we pray in the Divine Liturgy, in the Anaphora Prayer. He created us in love. He made us in His delight. He pre-destined all of us, every human being, to enjoy eternity with Him, in constant, unbroken growth into glorious theosis, when at every moment we will shine more wondrously as we learn and love Him more. This is the “abundant life” that Jesus said He has come to give: “The thief does not come except to steal and kill and destroy. But I have come that they might have life, and that they may have it more abundantly” (John 10.10).
I do not think we take sin seriously enough. We do not appreciate the horrible problem it really is. Death is the consequence of sin -- and death is much worse than just not breathing anymore, or the heart not beating anymore, or you not “being” anymore, where you just stop and fade to black. No. You and I will live forever no matter who we choose -- the loving God, or the hating spiritual death that lasts and lasts and lasts in a horrible undead sort of existence.
The only way to think of sin in a way that comes closest to God’s view of sin is to be a father, or a mother, and think of your child endangering himself with a deadly poison that will disfigure him and cause unending, tortured pain. You would do anything to save your child.
And God did just that.
* * * * * * *
The Son of God would have always descended toward us and taken upon Himself human nature. Even if humanity would not have fallen, Christ would have become incarnate, because it is by communion with Him in spirit and in flesh that God is able to make us like Himself: “God became man,” St Athanasios the Great said, “so that we might become god.”
However, because we sinned and fell, and willfully infected ourselves with the toxin of sin and addiction to death, Jesus Christ not only became incarnate, but He renewed our human nature and succeeded at perfect obedience to the design of human life made by God the Father. Where the first Adam failed, St Paul said in Romans, the second Adam -- Christ -- succeeded.
But because of sin and death, Christ added to His free obedience and not only gave Himself in the Incarnation, but now He suffered and died on the Cross in a peaceful sacrifice (to end all violence and domination) to overcome sin. And He entered Hell and destroyed its power and authority to overcome death.
He revealed His divinity to the joy of Adam and Eve and all the saints held captive there. On the other hand, this revelation did not work out so well for the devil and the whole culture of death. It was, so to speak, a crushing blow. This “harrowing of hell” is what you see depicted on the Resurrection icon. This is when the “trampling of death” happened. When Jesus left the grave, the triumph had already been achieved.
This is the extent -- the infinite, unimaginable extent -- of how God loves us much.
Love is never cheap.
Love always costs too much.
The price of love is the gift of self, like pouring out your soul like water on the sand.
Love crosses every distance, traverses every interval of time and space, like a shepherd looking for a solitary lost lamb in the existential storm.
No matter how far love has to go, it goes that far.
Love crosses the distance we thought was uncrossable … even, and especially, the horrible distance of death.
Jesus Christ, Whose highest Name is Love itself, went so far.
And all Mary (and the human race) had to do was to turn around.
* * * * * * *
The simple (but very deep) reason why Mary did not recognize her Lord at first was precisely because of how far Jesus had come. Remember, she (and you and I) thought that death was too, too far for anyone to come back from. The certainty of human hopelessness after the Fall clouded her soul from News that seemed too good to be true.
So to uncloud her soul, Jesus the Risen Shepherd did what good shepherds do: He called her by name:
She collapsed before Him in overwhelming joy, once again bathing His feet with her tears. “Rabboni,” said she, now and forever.
Isn’t it the most beautiful thing that the single evidence of the Resurrection for Mary, the only proof she needed that her Friend was here and now and forever, was His gentle voice calling her own name?
* * * * * * *
Listen. In the quiet Sunday afternoon in the sun and the breeze, in the new green leaves and the citron hint of daffodils.
In the quiet you can figure out the riddle of divine mystery, why Jesus told everyone to keep His miracles a secret, why He spoke in parables so the unbelieving authorities could not define Him, why Luke and Cleopas did not know Him until He explained the Old Testament and gave thanks for the Bread.
Listen. Breathe and think. Right now, risen from the dead, He is doing the same.
He is calling you by name.
A post-modern story is told about Marco Polo in Italo Calvino’s superb set of fabulist tales, Invisible Cities. The great Kublai Khan listens to the Venetian’s tales of the many cities he has visited over the years.
At the end, the Great Khan reaches the inexorable, shocking conclusion that each of these many narratives is describing a single place.
The Great Khan leafs through his atlas, nearing despair, and he said,
‘It is all useless, if the last landing place can only be the infernal city, and it is there that, in ever-narrowing circles, the current is drawing us.’
And Marco Polo said: ‘The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together.
‘There are two ways to escape suffering it.
‘The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can longer see it.
‘The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.’
* * * * * * *
Calvino raises the terrible specter of the easy way of “accepting the inferno,” of becoming so acclimated to it that the utter wrongness -- the ugliness and darkness -- of the inferno cannot be seen.
Let us look at a sentence from another modern philosopher from the first half of the twentieth century, the relatively less-known Nicolai Hartmann, and perhaps we will see a similar theme:
"The tragedy of man is that of somebody who is starving and sitting at a richly laden table but does not reach out with his hand, because he cannot see what is right in front of him. For the real world has inexhaustible splendour, the real life is full of meaning and abundance, where we grasp it, it is full of miracles and glory."
That “inexhaustible splendour” is -- as we’ve been at pains to demonstrate in the first part of this talk -- the natural way of things. Humanity is naturally to be moved to desire by Beauty and to move onward and upward in knowledge all the way to the divine vision, the theoria, in the “paths of righteousness” -- if you will -- a journey that is marked and blazed by signposts of “miracles and glory.”
The inimitable Hans Urs von Balthasar, remarking upon that happier and more intelligent age when "philosophy was one with theology," would agree: "Man philo-sophizes in a transport of awe,” he says, “illumined by the light of eternal Being as it shines forth in the world."
That is the natural way of things -- one might go so far as to call it an “essential epistemology.” Obviously, in a fallen world, things are not that way, especially in the way of knowledge. As the late Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann writes:
When we see the world as an end in itself, everything in itself becomes a value and consequently loses all value, because only in God is found the meaning (value) of everything, and the world is meaningful only when it is the "sacrament" of God's presence. Things treated merely as things in themselves destroy themselves because only in God have they any life. The world of nature, cut off from the source of life, is a dying world. For one who thinks food in itself is the source of life, eating is communion with the dying world, it is communion with death. Food itself is dead, it is life that has died and it must be kept in refrigerators like a corpse.
Again, we are quickly reminded of Marco Polo’s “easy way” of acclimation and assimilation into the opaque world of inferno.
* * * * * * *
The Cross and Resurrection -- indeed, the entirety of the Incarnation -- has made the Inferno completely unnecessary. There is no inexorable doom of Hell anymore: no one is determined or pre-determined to enter that psychic possibility.
The Cross cancelled sin in time in a sacrifice of Peace. The Resurrection opened eternal Beauty into our experience, and thus, all of life is illuminated, all moments are made meaningful … even the insignificant intervals of time which comprise most of life, those “in-between” times that are non-historical and outside the notice of biographers and chronicles … those moments of perceived stillness when you see dust-motes wafting in the sharply-defined tri-dimensional beam of an afternoon sun through a southwest-facing window … or when you permit yourself to be dazzled by the white-gold dance of the noonday sun on a stream in the winter woods, on what T S Eliot calls, in Little Gidding, the “zero summer.”
* * * * * * *
There is an odd, elusive property of Beauty: which is that Beauty completely fills time and all its interstitial moments, and Beauty reveals the creatures that inhabit time -- whether these phenomena are small or large, important or disregarded, celebrated in history, or left unrecorded in the chronicles. Beauty comprises the distance that differentiates all things.
It is in the small quiet “zero summer” moments especially that Beauty especially comes to mind.
These moments, when your attention is turned into true perception and then taken, in ascent, by symbol and analogy into the eternal realms by the personal agency of the Logos, and ultimately to recognize the presence of the Trinity … these moments are the proof that Creation is really created in beauty, that the Cross has reversed the tide of Hell in existence by a singularity of peaceful self-donation, and that the Resurrection has inaugurated the eternity of Triune peace in this, our common life and history.
* * * * * * *
The Cross is located in time, and the Resurrection in eternity: both events are inseparably united, along with the entirety of the Incarnation, as both crucially meaningful in historic fact and transcendent truth.
Humanity and Creation can never be the same again. Before this single, defining moment at the center of history, Beauty was often veiled and prophesied in scattered intimations. Now, after the Incarnation, we have seen the true form of humanity, the apex and summation of Beauty:
“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life; (for the life was manifested, and we have see it, and bear witness, and show unto you that eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us;) …” (1 John 1.1-2 KJV).
This Beauty is always expressed to the nous, the heart of the soul: this is the fundamental expression of the Holy Spirit -- Who, after all, is “everywhere present and fills all things.” And St Gregory of Nyssa wants us to remember that when we pray “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done” in the Lord’s Prayer, that “Kingdom” we pray for is the Holy Spirit Himself.
When we consider the Spirit’s constant expression of beauty to the nous, it becomes clear that the nous is not just the attentional apparatus; it is at the same time an interpretative apparatus. All phenomena are interpreted -- there is no completely “objective,” or “non-interpreted” phenomenon. In the perception of life, attention and interpretation cannot be separated: they are unified in the nous.
The question here is not whether life is interpreted by the nous or the mind -- because it must always be so and cannot be otherwise. The question is really whether life is interpreted according to the Logos -- the word of God Who is Truth Himself -- or according to the rubrics of hell (which are not very nice at all)
This question is pertinent, to say the least, because Beauty -- in this context -- becomes much more than a leisurely pastime that should be dispensed with by grownup, serious people … rather, the opposite is true: Beauty becomes a moral, categorical imperative.
The reason why I am so emphatic here is because we are not just talking about deciding whether something is pretty or precious, or whether a work of art “suits your aesthetic taste.” Beauty, here, as the expression of God, involves not only the recognition of Christ, but also the reflection of Him, the broadcast of His Uncreated Light in beauty to the darksome world.
“You are the Light of the world,” He said, “and that Light cannot be hid.”
St Maximos the Confessor wrote that in the course of salvation, the human person is sanctified by God’s deifying grace, and becomes central to the gradual reconciliation of all Creation with the Creator.
When Beauty is recognized as Christocentric, then Beauty -- as the supreme Divine Rhetoric to the deepest and truest human desire -- becomes the actual condition of the process of theosis, of real salvation and spirituality, even -- as it is courageously described in the East -- “deification.”
* * * * * * *
It would be a mistake to put beauty in opposition to either spirituality or social ethics. Sometimes, “beauty” is seen as a waste of time and effort, when it is the more important business of caring for the needy that is the highest priority.
But It turns out that it is precisely for beauty that we care for the poor and show personal regard for humanity, and care for our world -- because we discern the glory of the Lord -- His beauty -- in Creation, and that beauty awakens our desire.
Often, in the context of spirituality, we read or hear that the things of Creation, no matter how beautiful they are, need to be renounced or passed by.
After all, did not Christ Himself say startling things like “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple”? (Luke 14.26 KJV)
In like manner, St John Climacus, discussing the second step of the Ladder called “Detachment,” writes this: “The man who really loves the Lord, who has made a real effort to find the coming Kingdom, who has really begun to be troubled by his sins, who is really mindful of eternal torment and judgment, who really lives in fear of his own departure, will not love, care or worry about money, or possessions, or parents, or worldly glory, or friends, or brothers, or anything at all on earth.”
But note carefully here that Abba John is discussing detachment, and not abandonment. There is an important contrast of meaning between these two terms that has a lot to do with Beauty.
“Abandonment” is clearly condemned by Christ Himself, as He commands care and regard, and the extension of His Peace, to all humanity -- especially to one’s neighbor. And, perhaps, this divine and infinite regard should be extended, analogously, to all creatures. St Paul applies this demand in his “household ethic”: “But if any provide not for his own, and especially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith and is worse than an infidel.”
Abba John himself writes his own “household ethic” in the twenty-first paragraph of the first step, called “Renunciation of the World”:
Some people living carelessly in the world have asked me: ‘We are married and are beset with social cares, and how can we lead the solitary life?’ I replied to them: ‘Do all the good you can; do not speak evil of anyone; do not steal from anyone; do not lie to anyone; do not be arrogant towards anyone; do not hate any one; be sure you go to church; be compassionate to the needy; do not offend anyone; do not wreck another man’s domestic happiness; and be content with your married state. If you behave in this way you will not be far from the Kingdom of Heaven.’
* * * * * * *
Thus, “detachment” cannot be defined in any sense as “abandonment” or any kind of “disregard” or withdrawal of care.
“Detachment” is not so much separation as it is a “disentanglement” from passionate attachment. It is the recognition of the true logoi of a creature, and its utter contingency upon the Creator. In other words, this is an aesthetic “re-contextualization” … more importantly, it is also a movement of the consciousness, in which the object is no longer viewed as an idol, but instead is viewed in the illumination of the Divine, uncreated light.
In other words, Beauty calls for detachment, but prohibits abandonment. It stands as a witness any kind of gnostic rejection of the created world.
To discard Creation is to end up disregarding the Creator.
* * * * * * *
I think Hans Urs von Balthasar is helpful here. He associates this idolatry of the darkened nous with what he calls “aesthetic theology.”
This sort of degenerate “theology” attempts to find meaning and beauty in human experience in itself, by reflection on objects in isolation severed from any connection to transcendent meaning.
Von Balthasar urges the replacement of “aesthetic theology” with its opposite: “theological aesthetics,” which is all about the recognition of trinitarian and christological Beauty as the very theme and condition of theosis.
I would like to read a similar passage from another author, who sets this idea of “theological aesthetics” in the context of intelligence and imagination. Here is William Lynch, in his helpful little book, Christ and Apollo:
… the truth is, of course, that Christian belief is in its essence belief in a person who, having “created” time, could not possibly be hostile to it; who had directed it from the beginning by way of His providence and His having substantially and inwardly shaped it (so that He is the master of both history and psychiatry), who finally entered it and grew into it with such subtlety and power that He is not the enemy of it but the model for the imagination and the intelligence. He is the enemy only of the romantic imagination (i.e., aesthetic theology) and the pure (i.e., abstract) intelligence as ways of life.
* * * * * * *
What is especially germane to our subject at hand is the undeniable fact that the restored interpretation of Beauty, according to the Logos, is to be reflected and extended constantly, to every creature.
We are called by God, in His delight and total freedom, through His revelatory Beauty. We recognize that beauty, and our responding desire moves, with His help, to reflect that beauty.
We recognize the beauty of Christ, we then reflect His beauty. When we perceive divine beauty, we must become a beautifier of our world.
Obviously, the ethic that is rendered by such an interpretation-of-Beauty is going to differ from the interpretation, or hermeneutic, that is predicated upon a narrative of violence and chaos, whether such a narrative is outright materialistic, or more forthrightly demonic. In such a framework, an object will be valued only in an instrumental, practical sense, and will never be “let go” or surrendered in a gift-exchange. There will always be an ulterior motive, or an “edge.” One party at least must always profit, depending upon the system of commodification at hand.
There is no profit or even “ego-defense” in the Christian life of Beauty. There is only gift-giving because of infinite Grace. There is only transcendent reference in each and every particularity.
* * * * * * *
The well-known Parable of the Sheep and the Goats shows that the distinctly CHRISTIAN ethic cannot be divorced at all from theology. This Parable, along with others -- especially the Good Samaritan -- retain that reflexive sense of Beauty -- in that this single term comprises both recognition and reflection.
In this integrated sense, the transcendental term Beauty appears in both knowledge and action, in moments of crisis and enthusiasm but only in intervals of the plain and mundane.
And most importantly, Beauty becomes a critical term for one’s individual growth in theosis, but also for the entire community. In Beauty, Orthodox spirituality is both personal and communal. To say that Orthodox Spirituality is a business of passive isolation for the sake of individual development is to miss the meaning of both “orthodoxy” and “spirituality.”
Not only is there an ethical imperative in Beauty -- an imperative that scandalously opposes the aristocratic aesthetic of Nietzsche (and more than a few others) -- but more importantly to us, Beauty imposes an aesthetic upon our ministry to others, including -- especially -- to the poor.
It does us no good to divide up the Gospel into distinct, separated categories, like “ethics,” “ministry,” “spirituality” and “aesthetics.” To do so is to distort meaning and probably to think of beauty as a waste of time -- like asking “Why was this precious ointment not sold for the benefit of the poor”?
To draw these categories makes us fail to recognize Beauty in its fullest, most comprehensive presence.
The virtue of showing kindness to the poor and small, the powerless and the marginal is predicated upon the mysterious recognition of the Beauty of Christ Himself, and His real presence in the neighborhood of the Created World that He is calling back to communion with the Father.
* * * * * * *
This enormously powerful Parable that we receive as the exposition of the character of the Last Judgment is actually the climactic summation of an entire tradition of symbolic, Christological recognition, starting all the way back in Genesis and working throughout the entirety of the Old Testament, and finally coming into sharp focus in the New Testament
First we have the very immature Adam and Eve, who failed to recognize that God is a God of Gift-giving, Beauty and Peace, Who wanted to bestow upon humanity the gifts of deification and knowledge through growth into His Likeness. In a wretched irony, these very gifts that were intended to be bestowed later on, at the point of maturation, actually became, in a perverse manner, the very things that the deceiver tempted them with -- if they would only denounce their utter dependence, and strike out on their own autonomous path of self-deification, and utter soul-darkening alienation.
Thus, the “darkening of the nous” in the Fall of Humanity was first of all, according to St Gregory the Theologian, a theological apostasy. It was a failure to recognize the Divine Beauty expressed by the Logos in Creation.
The recognition of true Beauty awakens natural desire, an authentic human response in the soul and the body, and the human being responds, in this true eros, by reflecting Beauty in his or her experience, their particular Garden of Eden, their world.
But so tragically contrary to this destiny of meaningful human life, recognition was darkened, and the created beauty of objects was cut off from their divine reference. Created, natural desire that is rises and converges upon transcendence was replaced, perversely, with attraction and passionate entanglement. And humanity was left, thus, to wander in existence as we know it today.
Consequently, the possibility of recognition and, in turn, reflection, was removed from the simple “face-to-face” perception, and was obscured “in a glass darkly.”
The crucial question remains, then: how is recognition possible in this age? in this fractured time and space?
* * * * * * *
Sometime later after the catastrophic events of the third chapter of Genesis we come to the poignant Joseph “Cycle.” I say “cycle,” because there is a recursion in this narrative, a “nested” story located in the , we hear a recursive story of not only Joseph, but also -- nested within it -- the rather story of Judah and Tamar … and these stories are linked by the haunting repetition of the Hebrew word “haker-na” -- or “do you recognize this?”
Some time after Joseph was sold out by his brothers into slavery, the story’s focus fell upon Judah -- who was the one who said “What profit is it if we merely slay our brother and conceal his blood?”
This squalid episode narrates a lustful Judah who fell in with a woman he he took to be a pagan temple prostitute. He failed to recognize the real identity of this woman who was actually Tamar, his widowed daughter-in-law. When he could not not pay his bill immediately, he gave her his signet ring as a pledge.
Three months later, in the tents of Judah, it became obvious that Tamar was pregnant, and Judah and his clan made ready to execute her in the fire.
However, Tamar pulled out the signet ring of Judah for him and the entire camp to see … and she asked Judah, in this most operatic of moments, “Do you recognize this?”
This term -- do you recognize?, or “haker-na” -- is wildly and frightfully meaningful, because it was the same word that was used a chapter earlier, when Judah and his brothers took Joseph’s beautiful coat of many colors and had stained and obscured it with the blood of a goat.
They then showed the blood-stained vestment to Jacob, the patriarch of the twelve brothers, and Jacob was asked, “Do you recognize this?”
Thus, this very word that connotes perception and consciousness, first uttered in perverse irony by Judah, how comes back to damn him in the hard, cold words of the unjustly-used Tamar.
* * * * * * *
But the story cycle doesn’t stop there. For Judah, this was the lowest point, the nadir, of the descent. In the following “ascension” phase of this poignant chiasmus narrative structure -- a rising phase that almost always is longer in duration than the fall -- the theme of “recognition” reappears once again, at the very climax of redemption.
Let us skip ahead to the forty-second chapter. Things have changed: fortunes have reversed. Famine and ruin now plague the tents of Jacob and all his sons in Canaan. Meanwhile, Joseph has risen from slavery and prison to the zenith of viceroy of Egypt.
In a highly sophisticated drama, the sons of Jacob who betrayed their brother had to suffer trumped-up charges involving secretly-returned money ... a curious demand to see all the brothers, especially the youngest, Benjamin … and the wrongful and substitutionary imprisonment of the now-righteous Symeon.
All this narrative, which often tries the patience of modern readers, is a haunting symmetry that correspond, in this phase of ascent, to the very events that marked the descent into dereliction.
Every moment of self-exile is redeemed by a larger moment of divine kenosis, and glorification.
* * * * * * *
Finally, at the climactic scene of the Joseph cycle, the hidden Christ-figure, Joseph the glorified, whose brilliance actually obscured his true identify from his anxious, passionate brethren, invited his captors to a rich, kingly banquet.
Still hidden from his brother’s familiar consciousness, Joseph asked after the health of his father … and when he looked upon the face of his brother Benjamin for the first time, he broke down in secret tears.
And for some reason, Joseph engineers a frightening “play-within-a-play” -- actually, another recursion, another nested episode -- almost like the little drama engineered by Hamlet to express a sign to the larger, meta-drama. And in thisepisode, Joseph hides his own chalice, a priceless silver grail, in the grain bag of Benjamin. After the brothers had gone just a short distance on their return journey home, they were overtaken by Joseph’s men, and accused of theft … threatening that whoever stole the missing chalice would be executed.
All the other bags were opened, and then came Benjamin’s … and when the silver cup tumbled out of the bag, the brothers, for once, responded with real, true grief, rending their garments in sorrow.
Here is the moment of redemption. By now, Judah and all his brothers had come to their senses. In one of the most moving speeches of Scripture, Judah tells the Egyptian prince that if he could not bring Benjamin back to Jacob, the old patriarch would die of grief -- especially since he had already lost Benjamin’s older brother.
And then, here is the great exchange, the great ego-sacrifice of peace offered by Judah: “Now therefore,” he said to that very lost brother, still hidden from his understanding, “Let me your servant, I pray you, remain instead of the lad as a slave to my lord; and let the lad go back with his brothers.”
* * * * * * *
Then the story continues, in even deeper poignance: “Then Joseph could not control himself before all those who stood by him; and he cried, ‘Make every one go out from me’ … And he wept aloud … and called his brothers to draw near. And he said, ‘I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.”
* * * * * * *
Let us consider the mysterious, haunting fact that Joseph was not the sole author of his own words here. Cleary -- a priori and certainly not ex post facto, not in some de-mythologizing “after-the-fact” interpretation -- Joseph and his words are the type of an Antitype that gleams throughout this and all narratives. His brothers represent us and all humanity, who finally recognize the One Who -- more even than Joseph -- was sent to “preserve life.”
Here, at the point of recognition, Divine Beauty shines, even in a context of chaos and meaninglessness. Here, Beauty calls humanity, and the original response of desire rises, and humanity rises to follow.
* * * * * * *
Much has been written and said about Biblical and theological typology: but I would like to focus, specifically, on the connecting threat that ties type and anti-type together.
I suggest to you that this organic link between the figure and its prefigurement, between the anticipation and the fulfillment -- that linkage ever since the Cross must go by way of the Cross.
Such a Cruciform recognition of Divine Beauty that descends to the depths in rescue and recognition, and ascends to peace and glorification, follows a deep structure called “helical chiasmus,” or “concentric parallelism.” It is a structure that does not get much notice, but one that Fr John Breck detects all through the Bible and really all of poetry.
He writes, thus, toward the end of his book The Shape of Biblical Language, a text that really ought to get a lot more attention in exegetical and hermeneutical circles:
"The persistence of chiasmus throughout history ... suggests that the phenomenon is more than just another literary form ... the movement peculiar to chiasmus suggests that in some sense concentric parallelism is 'naturally' imprinted on the fabric of the human mind, on the order of a 'deep-structure' such as narrative or myth ... Chiasmus is a universal form, both learned and intuited. If it has indeed persisted throughout the centuries, even when its most characteristic features have gone unrecognized, is it not because of its unique ability to communicate a message powerfully and concisely by drawing the reader/hearer into its very center of meaning?"
* * * * * * *
The simple reason why true Christological Beauty can be apprehended as the meaning of life in time only through chiasmus is because chiasmus follows the trajectory of the Cross and Resurrection. There is ego-sacrifice, then there there is glory … and let us remember here the main emphasis of true theological aesthetics: “Beauty,” as David Hart writes, “qualifies theology’s understanding of divine glory: it shows that glory to be not only holy, powerful, immense, and righteous, but also good and desirable, a gift graciously shared.”
* * * * * * *
Nowhere is that Beauty seen more clear, more Christological, more explicit in its Divine rhetoric, than in the chiasmic narration of the Gospel itself.
Centuries before the Joseph cycle, a scandalous story is told of Abraham, who was commanded to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice on Mt Moriah. This story itself has puzzled philosophers, and probably led astray non-aesthetic thinkers like Kierkegaard. It has scandalized modern sensibilities, seeming to add weight to the academic certainty that the Old Testament is an anthology of crypto-pagan folktales.
But deeply embedded in the narrative, its characters and its spiritual topography is a secret code. And that is this: this narrative does not and cannot stand on its own. Its answer -- its meaning -- lies somewhere else. It is an anticipation.
It is not an answer: the story itself is a question.
And it is not Abraham or humanity posing the question.
It is the “other” Actor -- it is God Himself.
* * * * * * *
And this is the Question God asks Abraham, and all humanity:
“Do you recognized this? Can you see Beauty?”
* * * * * * *
Sometime later, we see in the Joseph Cycle -- which is itself a nested story within the grand epic inaugurated by Abraham -- the beginning of an answer to that Divine Question, posed rhetorically on Moriah.
We see additional answers, fuller accounts, more shimmering prefigurements in the Psalms of David. The wonderful poet and Psalm-chanter, the late Donald Sheehan, wrote in the introduction to his translation of the Septuagint Psalms that
“… the chiastic pattern of each psalm is an icon of God’s relation to us; and each movement of descent and ascent perfectly reflects our own ceaseless turnings away from and toward Him … God will take each heartfelt cry as an invitation for Him to enter our dance and transform our solo terrors into blessedness. This dance is one that grows always in beauty and graced, as, with David, we allow His mind to become our own.”
* * * * * * *
Finally, we arrive at the crisis moment of the Cross. There, where the world expects the usual pre-determined script -- or doom -- of ugliness, meaningless, violence and a relapse back into primordial chaos … there, the Holy Trinity overturns the doom and establishes the Cross as the Antitype not only of Moses’ Staff, but the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.
There, at the Cross, in the most poignant manner, made possible by this chiasmus of the Gospel, the question asked on Moriah comes doubling back in infinite resonance:
“Do you recognize Me? Do you see Beauty?”
The Gospel of Mark drives home this earth-shaking moment of human recognition. It was at the Cross, in Mark, and no other moment, when the human words were first uttered: “Truly this Man was the Son of God” -- and those words were uttered by a Gentile, a Roman soldier.
Thus, the ugliness of the Cross -- which was was the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, deformed by the darkened nous and broken consciousness -- was transformed into an eternal symbol of beauty and peace.
* * * * * * *
And the chiasmus does not end here, for there is one more level to ascend.
Let us go back to the Fall, one more time. After the deception by the Serpent, Adam and Eve hid themselves “among the trees of the garden.”
And God came, ready for His evening stroll in the garden, His fellowship and communion with the chiefest of His Creation.
“But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?”
* * * * * * *
Enter time and space, and experience as we know, and let us fly through time until its denouement and its supra-rational conclusion in universal transfiguration, at the Last Day.
There, at the End and Beginning of all things, when all is revealed after so much “seeing through the glass darkly,” when we see “face to face,” there in the complete unveiling, we see “the Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come.’ And let him who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let him who is thirsty come, let him who desires take the water of life without price.’”
* * * * * * *
The old, all-too-familiar alienation that began in the fall, in the failure of recognition, is now healed in perfect reconciliation, with restored mutual recognition and co-inherent reflection of beauty, and mutual self-donation.
Finally, God is revealed fully in His highest Name of Love, in Beauty.
And finally, humanity takes its essential role as “the one who desires the water of life,” and humanity is finally revealed in its highest Name, in the Light, and that is the beautiful Bride of Christ.
* * * * * * *
We are not there yet, but we see through the glasses of “cruciform analogy,” a path of righteousness that must go through the kenotic valley of chiasmus.
We still have the culture of inferno to deal with.
But everything belongs to the Risen Christ, and so the Beauty of the Logos is to be recognized everywhere, and reflected.
We recognize Beauty, and we reflect in “beautification.” Now, like Marco Polo advises, it is time to “seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.”
We who have seen Beauty, who have heard it and touched it, smelled it in the incense of prayer ascending and even tasted it in Communion – we who have apprehended Beauty can only beautify this world.
* * * * * * *
So let us go then, you and I, into the inferno, and seek out Beauty and “give it space.”
I have seen His beauty in an adolescent psychiatric ward, when a suicidal teenager needs, and receives, the demonstration of love from her mom and dad.
I have seen His beauty when my wife and I watch our daughters grow, and that beauty grow when I hold my granddaughter in my arms.
I have seen His beauty in miraculous flashes of His particular, concrete glories … when an eight-year-old little girl with Down’s Syndrome receives the Eucharist from me in Liturgy, and she turns up to the icon of Christos Pantocrator and smiles, and says simply, “Thank You Jesus” … or when, a few miles away, I go to my friend’s church at St George’s in Taylor, Pennsylvania, and I venerate an icon that simply gushes sometimes a cup of myrrh in a single day, whose aroma is ineffably gathered, as my late bishop used to say, “from the rose fields of paradise.”
Dr Al Rossi, just a few weeks ago on Ancient Faith Radio about his visit to this miraculous icon, said that in venerating this mysterious icon of Divine Beauty, we become miraculous, myrrh-gushing, beautiful icons ourselves.
He is, of course, absolutely right.
We recognize Beauty, then we reflect its light. We cannot separate reflection from its necessary recognition.
In this reflexive meaning of Beauty, I hope to traverse that chiasmus valley of analogy, and rise with you to the greater light of His glory. I hope, with you, to re-contextualize my story within His story, and to find my true Desirez by surrendering myself in His beautiful Friendship and Peace.
For I have seen His beauty in an unbroken consciousness, in a unity of vision that is always surprising … and in the cold afternoon sun, against the backdrop of a February snow, I see them once again, the cardinals feeding in my dogwood branches, intimating that my red roses will bloom again, and proving among a million proofs that God is surely infinite, that He is highest Name is Love, and that He speaks in Beauty and Peace.
This was the second half of the presentation recently given at the Climacus Conference this past March.
Twenty years ago, a little boy in Germany dreamed about becoming a jet plane pilot, and this dream became the theme of his life.
But about a few weeks ago, this same young man, now 27, deliberately crashed his Germanwings Airbus 320 into a mountainside in the French Alps, killing himself and murdering 149 other people.
At the time of this writing (at the end of March 2015), there is only a lot of guesswork about Lubitz’ motive for his horrendous act. But the general theme is that the young man was depressed, and committed this mass murder as an “acting out” of his emotional problems.
As someone who has helped, over the years, more than a few adults and children with a clinical diagnosis of depression, I take offense at the sloppy, unprofessional suggestion that depression caused this deliberate plane crash.
It is true that depression raises the risk of suicide, but never does it -- by itself -- cause homicide. If homicide occurs, it is because something else was going on as well. And in the case of Lubitz, there is more than just a hint of causal factors other than depression. Notes have been found in his apartment from his physicians that raised concerns about his ability to work. His girlfriend ended a romantic relationship with him soon before the fateful day of his deliberate crash.
Also, in his past, is a record of his receiving an injection of an anti-psychotic medication: note here especially that this was an "injection," which should raise not a few flags. That fact alone is a sign of a condition that goes beyond depression or “emotional problems.” Such medication is given for clinically severe disruptions in thought-organization, or reality-testing, or both.
But even the presence of a more severe psychiatric disorder is not enough. Many, many people with psychotic problems (like schizophrenia) are able to work and enjoy family life successfully if the problem is managed well (with the necessary help of professionals).
So depression cannot be blamed. And neither can schizophrenia (because at the end of March, I suspect this will be the main identified culprit in the media news cycle in April).
Of all the passions, depression (or, rather, “despondency”) is not the one that murders. Rather, it is -- obviously -- anger that most often lurks in homicide’s background.
It is also self-centeredness (or ego-centricity). I doubt if Lubitz was angry at the people he killed on that French mountainside. He probably did not know a single one of his passengers. His anger, rather, was directed at his circumstances -- perhaps at his girlfriend for ending the affair, or at Lufthansa for demanding work performance, or at his colleagues at work for not giving him his due, or at his physicians for threatening to keep him from flying.
Actually, this anger at the physicians might turn out to be the most significant, because someone was threatening to block this young man from attaining his dream.
Lubitz was angry with probably a number of people and circumstances -- so blame anger, first and foremost. The reason why he killed those 149 passengers in particular, though, was not because of direct anger at them: it was due to self-centeredness, or what the Fathers call “self-esteem.” Lubitz was so wrapped up in himself that he lost all sense of pity. He had sunk into his worldwide ego so much that he was able, with satanic strength, to completely disregard the pitiful screaming on the other side of the door, and to ignore the useless bangings of the axe wielded by the pilot who was trying, heroically, to get in.
Whatever the motivation, and if it ever turns up in plain sight (which it almost certainly will not), the fact remains that the motive will be nothing new, and will not be interesting. The script for anger and ego-centricity is as ancient and trite as the rebellion of Lucifer. The more passionate an individual becomes, the more utterly predictable he is, and thus uninteresting and completely uncreative. Only saints are free, after all: Orthodoxy recognizes Satan as the one most imprisoned, along with everyone else who yields their soul to ego, anger and pride (the idea that the devil is the king of hell is reprehensible).
There will certainly be a post-mortem psychiatric diagnosis given to Andreas Lubitz, but it will not explain his horrible decision and blasphemous act. If a diagnosis is waived around as an explanation, then it will become a disgusting excuse, and Lufthansa and whatever media signs on to this lazy explanation really ought to send every single one of my former patients a note of apology ...
… because not a single one of my severely-depressed clients ever got close to thinking of destroying other people.
Our modern culture is producing more despondency and more anger, and maybe more Lubitz’s. Despite the record number of prescriptions handed out for these emotional conditions, the frequency of real, clinical disorder is increasing.
This tells me that our “way of life” in today’s society is not helping young people mature. It is not helping adults find balance and wisdom. It is not helping our seniors make peace with the past and prepare for eternity. Our “way of life” is entertaining everyone, but in the meantime it is killing their soul.
It is obvious that our Church had better not adopt the “way of life” patterns of modernity, since these egocentric patterns have produced such miserable failure.
Rather, the society of Orthodox spirituality is a culture of ego-sacrifice: and that is the single, most important reason why modern America (and modern Europe, including Greece and Russia, and the modern world in general) has become violently allergic to Orthodoxy. (Consider the incursion of corporate-thinking and entertainment/celebrity-cult into American pop-religion as nothing but a histamine reaction.)
The Body of Christ leads us in the way of ego-sacrifice, in a culture that has never been more ego-centric. The world tells us to follow our dreams, identify our perfect career, with a beautiful house framed by glamour and celebrity. The Body of Christ tells us to be willing to give up our lesser dreams, and to walk in the light of Christ instead. God’s Will for us is not a career or a dream: His Will for us is deification.
American individualism has been a toxic disaster all around. Hope, though, remains in Orthodox personhood, the way of the Cross and transfiguration, the way of Resurrection peace.
On one extreme side is this recent instance of Andreas Lubitz who inexorably pursued his individual dream of a flight career: but who should have also sensed his developing psychosis and voluntarily surrendered his wings, so that he would not endanger innocent lives. That is what the Church would have told him. That is what the Holy Spirit was trying to tell him.
But on the other side, in the Body of Christ, in Orthodoxy, we are called to surrender ourselves and give up our rights and our selfish concentration on our own needs and wants, and to instead seek happiness in Christ and in the fellowship of others. We know that only in the direction of a person (your spouse, your friend, your fellow Christians, your children and especially your Lord) can you truly transcend yourself. We know that happiness comes only to the point that you become transparent to the beauty of the infinite Trinity.
So -- against all modernity and selfishness -- be holy, happy and peaceful in the personal light of Christ. Get out of yourself in ego-sacrifice. Worship the Father in spirit and in truth.
After all, we Christians do not crash, egocentrically, into the mountain of reality.
We ascend it.