Thursday, May 31, 2012


A kindly turn of speech multiplies a man's friends,
and a courteous way of speaking invites many a friendly reply.

Let your acquaintances be many,
but your advisors one in a thousand.

If you want to make a friend, take him on trial,
and be in no hurry to trust him;
for one kind of friend is only so when it suits him
but will not stand by you in your day of trouble.
Another kind of friend will fall out with you
and to your dismay will make your quarrel public,
and a third kind of friend will share your table,
but not stand by you in your day of trouble:
when you are doing well he will be your second self,
ordering your servants about;
but if ever you are brought low he will turn against you
and will hide himself from you.

Keep well clear of your enemies,
and be wary of your friends.

A faithful friend is a sure shelter,
whoever finds one has found a rare treasure.
A faithful friend is something beyond price,
there is no measuring his worth.
A faithful friend is the elixir of life,
and those who fear the Lord will find one.
Whoever fears the Lord makes true friends,
for as a man is, so is his friend.

Ecclesiasticus 6:5-17 Jerusalem Bible

Prick an eye and you will draw a tear,
prick a heart and you will bring its feelings to light.
Throw stones at birds and you scare them away,
revile a friend and you break up friendship.

If you have drawn your sword on a friend,
do not despair; there is a way back.
If you have opened your mouth against your friend,
do not worry; there is hope for reconciliation;
but insult, arrogance, betrayal of secrets, and the stab in the back—
in these cases, any friend will run away.

Ecclesiasticus 22:19-22 Jerusalem Bible

杉原 千畝 Chiune Sugihara

In the Catholic Hagiography Circle webpage dedicated to non-Catholics, I noticed a photo of Japanese diplomat 杉原 千畝 Sugihara Chiune (Japanese place the family name first), whom I knew to be a hero of the Holocaust, or השואה ha-sho’ah, during World War II, when he was instrumental in saving the lives of over 6,000 European Jews by getting them exit visas to Japanese territory. For his heroic acts, he was awarded the status of חסידי אומות העולם Chassidéy ’Ummót Ha‘olám, Righteous among the Nations, by the State of Israel in 1985.

Chiune Sugihara was born January 1, 1900, in Yaotsu, a rural area in Gifu Prefecture of the Chūbu region to a middle-class father, Mitsugoro Sugihara, and Yatsu Sugihara, a samurai-class mother. He was the second son among five boys and one girl. I don't want to repeat his story in this post, but you can read it here in Wikipedia, and also here in a private webpage titled A Hidden Life. This morning, I also found a short video (in English, with Japanese and English subtitles) that tells his story and includes interviews with his wife, as well as many photos.

What prompted me to research a little further was the question whether or not he was a Christian. From seeing him being included in the Catholic Hagiography Circle webpage dedicated to non-Catholics, I assumed he must have been, but I wanted to find out for sure. Many Japanese that are well known in the West have been Christians, such as my favorite actor Toshiro Mifune, or the conductor Seiji Ozawa, but it hadn't occurred to me that Sugihara might have been one too. Being a Christian in Japan is not quite the same as being one in America or Europe where it's almost something you are born into. Usually, you must choose.

As it turns out, Chiune Sugihara had accepted Orthodox Christianity when he lived in Harbin, Manchuria. He had married a White Russian woman, so the original impetus may have been as it often is, convert in order to marry. Orthodox Christianity does not permit the marriage of believers with non-Christians. But they were divorced, and in 1935 when he married his second wife, a Japanese, she also converted to Orthodox Christianity, taking the name Maria. This leads me to suspect that his Christianity was not merely a formality, as his later actions proved.

In his quiet, modest way, Sugihara very much embodied the noble concept of Tolstoy’s prince. He sought neither fame nor fortune, merely saying ‘I may have to disobey my government, but if I don't I would be disobeying God.’ When asked why he chose to help the Jewish refugees, he responded,
‘You want to know about my motivation, don't you? Well. It is the kind of sentiments anyone would have when he actually sees refugees face to face, begging with tears in their eyes. He just cannot help but sympathize with them. Among the refugees were the elderly and women. They were so desperate that they went so far as to kiss my shoes, Yes, I actually witnessed such scenes with my own eyes. Also, I felt at that time, that the Japanese government did not have any uniform opinion in Tokyo. Some Japanese military leaders were just scared because of the pressure from the Nazis; while other officials in the Home Ministry were simply ambivalent. People in Tokyo were not united. I felt it silly to deal with them. So, I made up my mind not to wait for their reply. I knew that somebody would surely complain about me in the future. But, I myself thought this would be the right thing to do. There is nothing wrong in saving many people's lives… The spirit of humanity, philanthropy… neighborly friendship… with this spirit, I ventured to do what I did, confronting this most difficult situation… and because of this reason, I went ahead with redoubled courage.’
Ikon of Japanese
‘Righteous among the nations’
Chiune Sugihara 杉原千畝
The verse reads:
Let the righteous rejoice in the LORD
and take refuge in him.
Svetlana, an Orthodox Christian ikonographer in Serbia, has written this ikon of Chiune Sugihara. As far as I know, Sugihara, an Orthodox layman, has not been ‘glorified’—that is, formally canonised—by any Orthodox jurisdiction, yet here is an ikon. And this morning, brother Bojan Teodosijevic sent me an audio link to a troparion chanted by Deacon Michael Filmore of the Antiochian Christian Orthodox Church to honor this new saint of the Church. New saint of the Church? Well, yes. Though the process of declaring someone a ‘saint’ has its protocol, it is the people who usually jump start it. In the case of Chiune Sugihara, we have a unique situation. He is a ‘saint’ both to the Jews and to the Orthodox Christians. That has to be a pleasant surprise to God—no, sorry! I think He knows already who Chiune Sugihara is, since He made him, called him, sanctified him, and accepted his sacrifices.

I just wanted to remember this saint as we head toward the Sunday of Πεντηκοστή (pen-dee-koss-TEE), Pentecost, when by the descent and gift of the Holy Spirit, not only was the Church born, but every member of it given the grace to follow Jesus, who says,

I tell you most solemnly, whoever believes in me will perform the same works as I do myself, he will perform even greater works, because I am going to the Father.
John 14:12 Jerusalem Bible

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Bless my enemies

Bless my enemies, O Lord.
Even I bless them and do not curse them.
Enemies have driven me into your embrace more than friends have.
Friends have bound me to earth, enemies have loosed me from earth and have demolished all my aspirations in the world.
Enemies have made me a stranger in worldly realms and an extraneous inhabitant of the world.
Just as a hunted animal finds safer shelter than an un-hunted animal does, so have I, persecuted by enemies, found the safest sanctuary, having ensconced myself beneath Your tabernacle, where neither friends nor enemies can slay my soul.

Bless my enemies, O Lord.
Even I bless them and do not curse them.
They, rather than I, have confessed my sins before the world.
They have punished me, whenever I have hesitated to punish myself.
They have tormented me, whenever I have tried to flee torments.
They have scolded me, whenever I have flattered myself.
They have spat upon me, whenever I have filled myself with arrogance.

Bless my enemies, O Lord.
Even I bless them and do not curse them.
Whenever I have made myself wise, they have called me foolish.
Whenever I have made myself mighty, they have mocked me as though I were a dwarf. Whenever I have wanted to lead people, they have shoved me into the background.
WheneverI have rushed to enrich myself, they have prevented me with an iron hand.
Whenever I thought that I would sleep peacefully, they have wakened me from sleep.
Whenever I have tried to build a home for a long and tranquil life, they have demolished it and driven me out.
Truly, enemies have cut me loose from the world and have stretched out my hands to the hem of your garment.

Bless my enemies, O Lord.
Even I bless them and do not curse them.
Bless them and multiply them;
multiply them and make them even more bitterly against me:
so that my fleeing to You may have no return;
so that all hope in men may be scattered like cobwebs;
so that absolute serenity may begin to reign in my soul;
so that my heart may become the grave of my two evil twins: arrogance and anger;
so that I might amass all my treasure in heaven; ah, so that I may for once be freed from self-deception, which has entangled me in the dreadful web of illusory life.

Enemies have taught me to know what hardly anyone knows,
that a person has no enemies in the world except himself.
One hates his enemies only when he fails to realize that they are not enemies, but cruel friends.
It is truly difficult for me to say who has done me more good
and who has done me more evil in the world:
friends or enemies.

Therefore bless, O Lord, both my friends and my enemies.
A slave curses enemies, for he does not understand.
But a son blesses them, for he understands.
For a son knows that his enemies cannot touch his life.
Therefore he freely steps among them and prays to God for them.

Bless my enemies, O Lord.
Even I bless them and do not curse them.

To be unmade, and remade

Orthodoxy, and I mean real Orthodoxy (not the kind that can be sold either ideologically or culturally), is a strange ‘something,’ that you seem to be able to see more clearly as you approach it from afar, but when you get closer, it almost seems to dissipate, as you realise that what it looked like from the outside and could be given a name,
‘Orthodoxy,’ yields to something that is too close to us to be able to extract, throw on the table and examine.

And Jesus Christ, who once seemed a Being great, mighty, loving, faithful—whatever it is we experienced of Him—and which we wanted somehow to ‘tabernacle’ as Peter wanted to tabernacle Him on the mount of the Transfiguration, is no longer something or Someone we can glibly think or speak about. He too has become too close.

A song I love, runsWe were so close, there was no room. We bled inside each other’s wounds. We all had caught the same disease, and we all sang the songs of peace.’ Even that song had a different meaning before than it has now. Before, I could explain its meaning, now, I can less so, I almost can’t, because as soon as I try, I break into tears. This is how it is with real Orthodoxy and with Jesus Christ who lives among us.

Truly, Christ is in our midst; He is and ever shall be. But what do these words really mean, what can they mean, for us, for today?

Prepare to meet your Maker, and more than that, to be unmade, and remade in an image both strange and beautiful, but to which you will be forever blinded, as you will be standing in the Light Uncreated that shone, that shines, on Tabor.

Expose yourself to the Word

‘Adam!’ the Voice cried out, ‘Where are you?’

Since the beginning, since Paradise, God has been calling us, seeking us, and yet we hide ourselves from Him. ‘I was naked,’ we say when we finally come out of hiding, ‘and so I hid myself.’ And we hear that fearful question, ‘Who told you that you were naked?’

Why am I always harping on this single topic, ‘Read your Bible’? Why do I think this is so important? Who is it I am trying to convince? Well, brethren, it is myself that I am trying to convince, not you. It is myself that I have to keep reminding. It’s just that I don’t want to be the only one who must be reminded, and so I pass on to you what it is I am hearing. I hope that you are past reminder; I know I am not.
It’s just that I feel safer as part of a crowd,
even when I’m hiding from God.

‘My sheep know My voice.’

How can we know the voice of Jesus, if we don’t hear it every day? How can we recognize His voice speaking to us in the world amidst so many other voices clamoring for our attention? First, we have to go where His voice is the only voice, and then stay as long as possible, listening to Him. The more we hear His voice as it is recorded in scripture, the more we will hear it in the world outside. In the Bible, it’s true, He is talking to others, to His disciples, to the curious, and to those who hated Him, and many say, ‘Well, what He said was for them, but not for us!’

Right, and… wrong. Jesus in the Gospels does speak to specific people, and we cannot put ourselves forcibly into the narrative and by our own will decide to be this or that bible character, following exactly what Jesus told him or her to do. Yet, His words are spoken to us even now, sometimes the same as the bible records, sometimes different. It is by knowing His voice in the scriptures, that we recognize it when He speaks to us today. How can He speak to us today? I cannot tell you how, only that He does, and when you do hear His voice, you are given the same opportunity to follow His call as His first disciples were.

‘Follow Me.’

How can we follow Jesus if we believe in Him only as some character in the pages of the bible? Yes, we say we believe He is the Son of God, and that He saves us from death and hell, and even that He is risen, truly risen. ‘But where is He then, so that we can follow Him? Isn’t He in heaven at the right hand of the Father?’

Again, I point to the scriptures. Just as we read His words in the Gospels and through hearing them every day come to know His voice, so also we see Him working in the Gospels and through watching what He does there every day, we come to see Him working here in the world of today. That has to be true. How else can we say ‘Just follow Jesus,’ or ‘Keep your eyes on Jesus’ if it weren’t true? This is the proof of His resurrection and victory over death, that He is here among us. It is by seeing Him every day in the scriptures that we can see Him every day in the world. He says to us, ‘My Father goes on working, and so do I,’ and seeing Him at work in the world, and hearing His voice, we can follow Him.

It is very common to have a book of scriptures that is small and portable, containing just the New Testament and the Psalms. The bible has been reduced for everyday use by everyone in every place, so no one can say, ‘Where should I start? The bible is so vast; I don’t know where to begin.’

The Psalms are there to teach us not only to pray, but to recognize the voice of God speaking personally to us. Just as we recognize the voice of Jesus in the world by hearing it in the Gospels, so we also recognize the voice of the Holy Triad—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—when He speaks to us in daily life.

The Psalms are like a revolving door to Paradise. By reading and praying the Psalms every day, we make our petitions known to God, and He responds to us both in the words that we read, and also in the world. Again, we are doing no more than learning God’s language, coming to recognize His voice, learning to distinguish His ways from those of the world. ‘Thus is your servant formed by them; observance brings great reward’ (Psalm 19, Jerusalem Bible).

So listen, my soul. Expose yourself by day and by night to the Word of God, that you may hear His voice calling your name in every place, every time, that after this earthly pilgrimage, you will recognize that same voice saying, ‘Come, faithful servant, into that Paradise prepared for you before the foundation of this world.’

Monday, May 28, 2012

Into the time that remains

I cannot add anything to Aunt Melanie's wonderful, though sobering, essay on the ramifications of ‘getting old’ except to give it a new title as I repost it here on my blog: Into the time that remains. Yes, that's what I'd call it, because that is where her beautiful meditation is heading. Perhaps the theme is not exactly relevant to Memorial Day, or maybe it is. After all, some of us one day soon will join those whom we remember today. You can read Aunt Melanie's essay at her excellent blog Repentance and Ascent.

It is not only senior citizens who are getting old. Everyone ages from the day they are born, but seniors feel the aging process with a greater urgency. Many people seem not to plan for old age, however, until the latter half of their life. I began thinking about retirement when I was in my 40s, and I wish I had started when I was in my 20s. I used to take care of everyone except myself and, honestly, money did not matter much to me. But, as the aging process began subtracting years from my lifespan, I realized that I had to assume more responsibility for my own health and welfare.

Nobody was going to take care of me. I do not expect anyone to take care of me—but I am trying to emphasize the reality of age, how quickly you can lose everything, and how difficult it would be to recover those losses in the senior years. There are illnesses, accidents, stresses, inflation, natural disasters, crime, bad investments, and miscalculations of various kinds. There are homeless people who never expected to become homeless—people like you and me.

Senior citizens are not going to get younger. Each birthday brings us closer to death. Each Christmas could be our last. Most people in the world are younger than us. Perhaps worse than death, worse than poverty or isolation, would be a dependence on the medical profession. It is precisely that prospect that motivates me to learn to depend on God. Pills, operations, botched operations, special diets, rehabilitation facilities, walkers, wheelchairs, oxygen tanks. I am not saying that people who need these things do not depend on God or that I am better than they are. I just mean that the prospect acts as a stimulus to deepen my spiritual life.

Whatever happens to me, I will trust in God that His will is sufficient for me. Whether medications or miracles, whether another day or another 30 years, whether forgotten or remembered. Ultimately, health does not matter—just as money did not matter to me when I was young. What matters is to go forward
into the time that remains, following Christ with every step and praying with every breath.

Healing rain

I awoke in the dark night, the cool air drifting into my room through two wide opened windows, the soft sounds of a gently falling rain soothing to my mind and soul. Healing rain, the heavens liquefying to lay down on hard, unyielding pavements and dry, thirsty soil a moist blanket of peace in the night, peace after a day satisfied with its work, peace and stillness.

Always welcome to me, rain by night or by day invites me to pause, to return to my inner home. I would curl up in a cushioned chair in a corner between two windows, maybe a light blanket over me, and read a good book, or the Good Book, or even just the book of my memories. Taking pause, the selah of the psalms, after words or work, to stop and consider, it is enough.

This night the rain remembered another day when it healed the earth and those that live upon it and are buried in it. That bright day many years ago when, after a week of my wife’s family reunion at Buffalo Lake, Alberta, some of us turned aside to a graveyard in Camrose to commit to the soil the ashes of one of its own, my father-in-law James Raymond Mabbott.

He had come home from Australia to die. After a stormy marriage that produced five children in short order, he had disappeared, leaving his wife and oldest daughter to manage a fatherless family. Canadian farm boy of good stock, he was descended from Christian people from England’s smallest county, Rutlandshire, that came to settle in Wisconsin before the Civil War.

That family fanning out over the great plains, always west and north, to the Dakotah Territory, then spilling over to fill the prairie provinces, to Saskatchewan, to Alberta, leaving sturdy sons and swarthy but fair daughters to build homesteads, first from sod houses, at last produced the generation that was cast into the fiery furnace of the second world war, turning farm boys into killers.

After that war, wishing to forget, one took to alcohol and riotous living, but obligations to kith and kin must still be met. A young man took a wife, daughter of Ukrainian settlers who wished to become ‘white’ as quickly as possible. To be like other Canadians, my wife’s grandmother Domka, daughter of Father Theodosius Taschuk of the Russian Orthodox mission, became Doris.

She sent her children to the Protestant school and church, never spoke the ancestral tongue, the better to make Canadians out of them. When my mother-in-law was six, the old country reappeared in Father Theodosius coming to the settlement, rounding up all the children who hadn’t been baptised, and giving them the triple dunk in a large washbasin. Nancy became Anastasia in a hidden moment.

Then, back to Nancy as she grew up, a nice ‘white’ girl like all the other Smiths and Gordons and MacDearmids, when she became ripe for wedding, the young school mistress became the missus Mabbott, and started bearing children for her gallant young man. But the war had left large scars on his soul, and Christian though he was, what little faith he had was traded for drink.

Before long, the inevitable happened. Paper Christianity doesn’t have much holding power, and the young family was torn in two. As usual the children weighted down their mother’s boat, almost capsizing it. And the father, clinging to his piece of driftwood, was finally lost at sea. They never saw him again for a decade, hearing only rumors that he, like many others, had gone down under.

When he finally returned, it was to come home to die. The family was mostly grown. His oldest daughter had just become my wife. He went about trying to gather his sons and daughters together, and to make amends, tried to give them what he thought they needed, but money can’t atone for missing years. Before long he couldn’t hide his throat cancer any more. He had to pay the piper.

I knew him very little, but I could see what sort of man he must have been, and could have been. He was no stranger to virtue, but even loaded with virtues, a man can still be felled by one carefully aimed vice. Not wanting to ‘be buried in the cold earth’ he requested, and was granted, to have his remains cremated, so his bones would not feel the frozen clay, but his ashes had no resting place.

Not even an urn, just a cardboard box contained him, or what was left of him, as we opened the trunk of my car parked at the roadside. His oldest son was angry, was outraged that his father had nothing to show for him but a box of ashes. It was a bright day, its sharp outlines blunted by the steady drizzle that drenched the ground and muddied our boots as we walked into the cemetery.

There was a grave opened and ready to receive his ashes. I don’t remember how they were interred, but someone took charge of them. My part was to perform the memorial service. James, my father-in-law, was not a religious man, but he was a Christian, not a victorious one, but a crushed one. He was a man who had to go through a dark wood by night and was attacked, robbed and killed by a brigand.

No one else in the family knew what to do, and the church affiliations of those present at the interment were sketchy, so it fell to us, to my wife and me, to ‘do something’ for a memorial. What we did was the Greek Orthodox memorial service, singing parts of it in Greek for that little crowd of pious but undiscipled Christian relatives. ‘Meta pnevmaton dikaion teteleiomenon…’

I had printed out the memorial service and the few parts that were in Greek I translated, but no one holding a copy in their hands was looking at it. Something I learned early about the rain: you can cry in it and not be ashamed, because no one can tell the tears from the raindrops on your face, unless they look very closely. One of my wife’s sisters joined in as we sang ‘Aionia i mnimi…’

That simple melody, Aionia i mnimi, ‘Eternal be his memory,’ still hung in the air as we slowly parted from each other and returned to our cars. Some of the family had stayed in their cars because they were afraid of the rain. It made me wonder at the time, and even now, what people think is important, and why. Me, I am as much an Indian as I can be, bare-chested I love to go out in the rain.

As I sit here by my open window, that beautiful, constant sound of water plays music on the dark hardness outside, finding echoes within me, and I hope that when the sun rises in about an hour, the rain will continue. The world and I both need healing right now, and we cannot heal ourselves. Our memories cannot heal us, our doctrines and covenants cannot heal us, only the rain.

The rain, no, not the water falling that I love to run in or sit quietly under cover and listen to, not that rain, though it can be the harbinger. No, the real rain, that which God sends to water the earth, to water the heart, that is the rain I am talking about. We know the name of that red rain that washes away all stain of sin and the sting of pain. It is blood. It is grace. Healing rain.

Aionía i mními - Eternal be their memory

At their first meeting, Reginald Fleming Johnston, the British tutor of the last emperor of China, Aisingioro Pu Yi, the young prince asks him, ‘Where are your ancestors buried?’ Comes the reply, ‘In Scotland, Your Majesty.’ This was the emperor’s first personal question to his new tutor, after which the conversation quickly moved on to other things, but it demonstrates how important it was to know where one’s ancestors are buried.

When we think of East Asian culture, one of its features that comes to mind is the idea and practice of ‘ancestor worship.’

When I go to an Asian store, anything from a humble grocery to a full-fledged shopping mall, there I always see a shelf or an entire aisle or two devoted to merchandise necessary to the cult of ancestors: statues of Chinese gods, memorial tablets, incense pots and vases, joss sticks (incense) by the bundle, ‘hell money’ in bank notes and gold foil ingots, and joss (burnable) versions of everyday articles and clothing, consumables for the afterlife.

But it isn’t only the East Asians that have this concern for their ancestors. This is intrinsic to many cultures, in my own in fact as an Orthodox Christian, except in my case, and for many Americans and others living a mobile lifestyle, I don’t know where most of my ancestors are buried, and even when I do, there is little or no possibility that I will ever visit their graves in my entire lifetime. Yet, in my childhood I remember visiting graves with my parents, and leaving flowers.

Cemeteries. In theory I love them, and whenever I drive past one, something in me always pauses and I feel like my heart is on the edge waiting for something, waiting for a voice to speak, or for faces to appear: There are people buried there under those stones, hundreds of people, hidden under that vast blanket of comforting grass.

A child said
What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child?
I do not know what it is any more than he.

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition,
out of hopeful green stuff woven.
Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropt,
Bearing the owner's name someway in the corners,
that we may see and remark, and say Whose?

Or I guess the grass is itself a child,
the produced babe of the vegetation.
Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
And it means,
Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,
Growing among black folks as among white,
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff,
I give them the same,
I receive them the same.

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.
Tenderly will I use you curling grass,
It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them,
It may be you are from old people,
or from offspring taken soon out of their mothers' laps,
And here you are the mothers' laps.

This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old mothers,
Darker than the colorless beards of old men,
Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.
O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues,
And I perceive they do not come
from the roofs of mouths for nothing.

I wish I could translate the hints
about the dead young men and women,
And the hints about old men and mothers,
and the offspring taken soon out of their laps.

What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?

They are alive and well somewhere,
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life,
and does not wait at the end to arrest it,
And ceas'd the moment life appear'd.

All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.

(Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, Book 3, ‘Song of Myself,’ Canto 6)

The nature god lover and praiser Uncle Walt’s words come to mind because they announce so well what I feel inside me, though my rational mind rebels against this as mere sentiment, rebuking my heart’s hopes while envying it for them. Like the rest of the sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve, I want to believe that my life and their lives are not, were not, all for nothing, that the universe is tamed and given meaning by love, that all that goodness doesn’t just run to waste.

If there is a God—and I do not doubt this—He must have made provision for us. He too must not want all this goodness to just run to waste and disappear. Those corpses in the graveyard once were men and women and children. That’s what they were once, and that they will be again, but now? What are they but objects waiting to be revivified? Is there any real connexion between those endless iterations of decay prevented by vaults and boxes from returning to feed the earth, and the living beings they once were?

‘I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the age to come.’ With every new translation of the original Greek προσδοκώ, proz-dho-KOH, ‘I expect, I anticipate,’ comes a new muddling of the real meaning. ‘I look for’ is about as weak a translation as I can imagine. It implies that something has been misplaced, or lost in the shuffle, but maybe in fact something has been lost: whatever it is that, beyond all appearances trimmed to visible size by time, really joins us to one another and to our ancestors.

C. S. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity,

Human beings look separate because you see them walking about separately. But then we are so made that we can see only the present moment. If we could see the past, then of course it would look different. For there was a time when every man was part of his mother, and (earlier still) part of his father as well, and when they were part of his grandparents. If you could see humanity spread out in time, as God sees it, it would look like one single growing thing—rather like a very complicated tree. Every individual would appear connected with every other.

Every year Memorial Day comes round, at least here in North America, a ready-made ‘holy day’ piled on top of other memorial days that have migrated with every culture that has ever come home to these shores. I live two thousand miles away from the graves of any of my recent ancestors and have never gone to visit their graves. It puzzles me and mystifies me, the feelings some of my ethnic neighbors have for the actual sites and contents of their ancestors’ resting places.

I envy even those of my own ethnic heritage whose little walled graves in church yards, some even surmounted with stone tables for memorial suppers, still understand what it means, still feel it, still feel them, the ancestors, alive and hidden in their own living flesh, and can therefore truly stand firm and confident in their προσδοκώ, in their expectation of the resurrection of not only the dead, but of their dead, their loved ones, who now live only by being carried in the memory of God.

Yes, Αιωνία η μνήμη, aionía i mními, ‘eternal [be] the memory,’ of all my pious and God-fearing ancestors, and yours, and all those who have cried out to Christ, ‘Remember me, Lord, in Your Kingdom.’

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Επικρανθη! Epikránthi!

The commandments of Jesus, if obeyed, absolutely turn the world ‘as it is’ upside down. We don't have to understand why He gives us these commandments. We just have to fulfill them. They aren't many, either. In fact He Himself reduced them down to just two basics. ‘Love the Lord your God, and your neighbor as yourself.’ These commandments are both the easiest and the hardest, just as the yoke of Jesus is both the easiest (as He tells us) and the hardest. Easiest, when we decide to follow them, and do. Hardest, when we inwardly reject them, but try to do them for whatever other reason; in other words, when we resist.

A specific commandment of Jesus? Pray for those who persecute you and willfully abuse you. In other words, pray for your enemies. Your enemies, mind you, not His. At least, there is no one that He makes His enemy, though people make Him their Enemy. We do too, when we resist Him by holding back from following His commandments. But pray for your enemies. A radical thought, from the perspective of the world. But if followed, that world is brought to its knees. Interesting. We bring ourselves to our knees for the world our enemy that persecutes and abuses us, and that brings the world to its knees.
How so?
Because it is vexed. 

Epikránthi! It was vexed! The word we shout at the end of the liturgy of the Resurrection, the night of Pascha, many times, as the sermon of John the Golden-Mouthed is read to us. We shout it at the service after the midnight hour, yet in the daylight, we often cannot see how we are to achieve this vexation of the world that afflicted Hades when Christ descended. Yet, it is only by following Him there in our world day by day, praying for our enemies just as He emptied Hell of His, even after they put Him to death. What we shout in the night, by following the commandments of Jesus, we can live in the day.
‘Come, let us drink of that new river…’

Saturday, May 26, 2012

More than a lifetime

Then I saw another angel flying in midair, and he had the eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth, to every nation, tribe, language and people. 
Revelation 14:6

If you look carefully at the language actually used in scripture, you will find that it is very flexible in application, so much so, that every age adapts it to its mentality and culture. It is conservatism inherent in the religious mindset that perpetuates the images of one age in another, making scriptural truth appear unpalatable, and hence unbelievable, in successive, more sophisticated ages. Yet that truth is meant to be universal and eternal.

Imagery associated with the judgment, for example, is drawn almost exclusively from Christ's description of the separation of the sheep and goats, adding to it elements of other biblical passages. We think this blending of texts is the way the Bible should be interpreted, sometimes even at the cost of reversing the literal meaning, yet this can divert us from eternal truths meant to be applicable, and credible, to every age and culture.

Yes, there is a day of judgment. It is a singular event, yet it is not one day, does not consist of twenty-four hours, cannot be located on a map or chart in space or time.

Yes, there is a judge, and a throne of judgment as well as mercy, yet neither He who sits on it, nor the seat itself, are what our human minds conceive or our mortal eyes envision.

Scripture is admittedly a testimony for mankind in our language. Christ alludes to this when He tells the Jews that it is not He who will judge them for their unbelief, but rather the words He has spoken; they will be their judge. How can this be? What has become of our creedal profession that ‘He shall come again with glory to judge the quick and the dead’? Again, He says, ‘these words are spirit and life,’ unhinging thus our dependence on what language and imagery alone can convey.

The moment of judgment for us is, as Christ says, both inaugurated and accomplished by our hearing the words that He speaks. How can it be otherwise? How can we be guilty of the sin of ‘law-breaking’ if we are not even aware of the content or existence of the law? True, the apostle Paul says we are judged guilty of sin even without knowing the content of the law, and as the Psalm declares, ‘in sins my mother conceived me.’

For everyone, not just the Pharisees of Christ's time, His word holds true, ‘Blind? If you were you would not be guilty, but since you say ‘we see,’ your guilt remains.’

Sin and righteousness, hell and heaven, the significance of all our thoughts, words and deeds in the light of holy and divine scripture—none of these are wholly encompassed within the meagre scope of our understanding. We are on a learning curve whose length we are loathe to admit. It is just too long.

Yes, ‘the best truths take a lifetime to set in’ [*], and even more than a lifetime, at least in earthly terms. What we have here is only the foundation, but what a foundation!

He is the living stone, rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to Him; set yourselves close to Him, so that you too, the holy priesthood that offers the spiritual sacrifices which Jesus Christ has made acceptable to God, may be living stones making a spiritual house. As scripture says, ‘See how I lay in Zion a precious cornerstone that I have chosen’ and ‘the man who rests his trust on It will not be disappointed.’
1 Peter 2:4-6

Not by us

Not by us, Yahweh, not by us, by You alone is glory deserved.

Yes, not by us, not by me,
but what is it we do deserve?
What is it?

This morning, though the sun be bright,
is one of those days when everything I do
and am seems dark to me.

On my own, I affirm, I can do nothing.
Without Him, I confess, I am nothing.
It seems believable,
everything my enemies say about me,
if I have any friends,
and I understand in the depths of my bones
that there is no truth in me. 

Because the truth hurts.
The truth stings.
Even if it is not
the whole truth and nothing but the truth,
even if it is only a part.

Well does the devil know this,
as he spends his nights showing to each
the sins and faults of others,
their shortcomings,
their imperfections,
their willful selfishness,
while concealing one’s own.

So he laughs us to scorn,
using our lust for glory as his trump card,
breaking us at the very moment
we think we have achieved victory
over others.

On the way to work,
I pass in full, unashamed view the glory of mankind
on a street that claims its fame
from the prostitutes that ply their trade there.
In the morning
one sometimes sees an unfortunate,
having been scooted out of the bed of a one night stand
onto the street
without having had time to tidy herself up,
but not this morning.

I pass a group of four or five handsome youth,
seniors probably,
walking their way together to the high school up ahead.
They are all so happy,
friendliness for each other streaming from glad hearts,
oblivious of what lies ahead.

Innocent in his glory,
the nearest catches my eye,
a tall, slender youth,
his mocha face trimmed in scanty, light brown whiskers,
modly bespectacled—qué guapo!
—my soul rejoices to see him
and speaks a blessing on him and his friends,
that their day be bright.

Not by us, Yahweh, not by us, by You alone is glory deserved.

Aching inwardly,
I feel I could write out my complaint in my own blood,
if I had a pen,
but I am humbled when I remember that
One has written in His own blood
not His complaint against us,
but the whole history of the universe from beginning to end,
and what is my cry against when faced with His,
‘My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?’

I can only continue in seeming despair,
‘How far from saving me the words I groan!’

He has covered all, even me,
with His own vanquished despair and death,
and left me the fruits of a peace
I did nothing to earn.

Along with others, I torment myself
thinking that He has abandoned His friendship for us,
because we sin,
even because we fail,
even when we only think the thoughts
and not do the things that convict us.

But He is nothing like what we think.

Far from punishing,
He stands ready to catch us.

By Your love and Your faithfulness, by Your love and Your faithfulness.
Not by us, Yahweh, not by us, by You alone is glory deserved.

— Romanós

Spiritual fathers and mothers

Abba Silouan of Athos
Great power lies in the prayers of a spiritual father. For my pride I suffered much from devils but the Lord humbled and had mercy on me because of my spiritual father’s prayers, and now the Lord has revealed to me that the Holy Spirit dwells in our father-confessors, wherefore I hold them in deep respect. Because of their prayers we receive the grace of the Holy Spirit, and joy in the Lord, Who loves us and has given us all things needful for our salvation.

In the modern world that most of us inhabit, it is difficult to find what some Christians call ‘spiritual fathers’ to guide them in their lives. True, if you are an Orthodox or a Roman Catholic, the priest to whom you make your confession might fulfill that role. You might also find an elder or eldress at a monastery as a spiritual friend. But for most of us, this is how it works: ‘To read the teachings of the fathers, and to form peer friendships and journey together as far as possible.’ This has been my experience. For me, only one of these has been my parish priest, but only for a time: he was transferred elsewhere where his talents were more needed.

Yet, for those who are at the right place at the right time, real spiritual fathers and mothers do appear. When they do, they are still very humble, and do not force on us anything, just as the Lord does not force. They love us, affirm us, gently teach and guide us, bless us, pray for us, and guard our lives, taking upon themselves even our personal sins. I have known one or two, two or three, like this, and have benefited from their eldership, and still do. Without pretending to a grace I do not own, this is how I also want to be a spiritual father, and I think that at times, God allowing and arranging, I have fulfilled this role for a handful of people, and perhaps still do.

What is really necessary here, is the mentor who is willing to lay down his or her life for the disciple and even being a disciple themselves, and a disciple who wants to please Christ and receive the Holy Spirit so much, that he or she is willing to trust the untrustable (the mentor) to prove on the battlefield of their own body that they trust the Lord. When this rare conjunction occurs, it is as a miracle, an unearthly tryst of Divine and human natures, meeting in space and time as two mortals whom the Holy Triad is transforming into immortals, by welcoming them into Himself.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The inevitable step

The ascension of the Christ.
Yes, this is the inevitable step in the progression of mankind
into the new reality of the sons of God.

The first new Man has appeared.
He walked the earth in full humanity
cloaking His full Divinity for a mere thirty-three years.

Then, delivering Himself up, to both sorrow and certainty,
He let Himself be taken for a common criminal,
though not at all common,
for kings and prefects do not bother themselves
with the crimes of common men,
nor do noble ladies dream dreams about them.

What no one has ever seen before occurred.
No one could visualize it then or even now.
It is surely incomprehensible,
because we have no eyes for it, not yet.

Still, what men fear most happened in time,
and happens now and ever,
every day till the end of time,
inevitable death has been rolled away from a tomb
then, now, and forever void of the dead.

No, it is not death that men fear most, but life,
unending, beginningless life,
that which they were made for,
but which they cannot bring themselves to accept.

What is worse than being sentenced to death? 
To be sentenced for life,
to be condemned to live forever,
beginningless, endless, without respite,
before the face of Him who creates, loves and preserves all beings.

This is the eternal fire that enlightens those who love Him
and burns those who hate Him.

Hate Him? 
How can they hate the only-lover of mankind?

God is mercy to those who run to Him,
and judgment to those who run away.

Yes, the inevitable step.
Pierced feet fly upwards.
We follow them with our eyes, ignoring angels who tell us,
He returns in exactly the same manner that He departs.

Yes, the inevitable step.
He has taken it.
Now it is our turn, as it has always been.
Die in order to live.
Rise in order to receive what cannot be taken away.
Ascend in order to be present everywhere, to fill the earth.

‘Greater works than these are to be done by you,’ He says,
‘because I am going to the Father.’
He has taken the inevitable step, calling us to follow.

‘Why do you stand there gazing into the sky?’
Do not follow His feet only with your eyes.
Run after Him.
He comes again, in clouds, as we follow Him.
‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 
Therefore go and make disciples of all nations…’ 

He has taken the inevitable step.
There is no going back, for Him or for us.
Yes, the inevitable step.
— Romanós

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Let God arise

National song of triumph
For the choirmaster, of David, psalm, song.

Let God arise, let His enemies be scattered,
let those who hate Him flee before Him!
As smoke disperses, they disperse;
as wax melts when near the fire,
so the wicked perish when God approaches.

But at God's approach the virtuous rejoice,
exulting and singing for joy.
Sing to Yahweh, play music to His name,
build a road for the Rider of the clouds,
rejoice in Yahweh, exult at His coming!

Father of orphans, defender of widows,
such is God in His holy dwelling;
God gives the lonely a permanent home,
makes prisoners happy by setting them free,
but rebels must live in an arid land.

God, when You set out at the head of Your people,
and marched across the desert, the earth rocked, selah,
the heavens deluged at God's coming,
at the coming of God, the God of Israel.

God, You rained a downpour of blessings,
when Your heritage was faint You gave it strength;
Your family found a home, where You
in Your goodness, God, provided for the needy.

The Lord gives His couriers the news,
‘Shaddai has scattered a huge army.’
Kings are in flight, armies in flight,
the women at home take their pick of the loot.

Meanwhile you others were lolling in the sheepfolds.
There were dove wings covered with silver,
on their pinions the sheen of green gold;
jewels were there like snow on Dark Mountain.

That peak of Bashan, a mountain of God?
Rather, a mountain of pride, that peak of Bashan!
Peaks of pride, have you the right to look down on
a mountain where God has chosen to live,
where Yahweh is going to live for ever?

With thousands of myriads of divine chariots
the Lord has left Sinai for His sanctuary.
God, You have ascended to the height,
and captured prisoners,
You have taken men as tribute,
yes, taken rebels to Your dwelling, Yahweh!

Blessed be the Lord, day after day,
the God who saves us and bears our burdens!

This God of ours is a God who saves,
to the Lord Yahweh belong the ways of escape from death;
but God will smash the heads of His enemies,
the hairy skull of the man who parades his guilt.

The Lord has promised,
‘I will bring them back from Bashan,
I will bring them back from the bottom of the sea,
for your feet to wade in blood,
for the tongues of your dogs
to lap up their share of the enemy.’

God, Your procession can be seen,
my God's, my King's procession to the sanctuary,
with cantors marching in front, musicians behind,
and between them, maidens playing tambourines.

Bless God in your choirs,
bless the Lord, you who spring from Israel!

Benjamin, the youngest, is there in the lead,
the princes of Judah in brocaded robes,
the princes of Zebulun, the princes of Naphtali.

Take command, God, as befits Your power,
that power, God, You have wielded on our behalf
from Your Temple high above Jerusalem!
Kings will come to You, bringing presents.

Rebuke the beast of the reeds,
that herd of bulls, those calves, that people,
until, humbled, they bring gold and silver.
Scatter those warmongering pagans!

Ambassadors will come from Egypt,
Ethiopia will stretch out her hands to God.

Sing to God, you kingdoms of the earth,
play for the Rider of the heavens,
the ancient heavens, selah.
Listen to Him shouting, to His thundering,
and acknowledge the power of God!

Over Israel His splendor,
in the clouds His power,
God in His sanctuary is greatly to be feared,
He, the God of Israel,
gives power and strength to His people.

Blessed be God.

Anger and forgiveness

I have been angry—at myself, at other people, at situations—and sometimes I have acted out the anger in emotional outbursts, foolish words, hurtful words. Strangely, I have never experienced what I have heard from others, anger at God. Maybe it’s because of my upbringing—I don’t know—but He could never be an object of my anger, because He always ends up being the only comforting bosom to which I can flee when everyone and all else fails me.

What has angered me most in the past was false accusation, whether it was explicit or concealed under sarcasm directed against me, such as being made to feel inferior or stupid by someone whom I really care about, when I’m only trying to help them. The other person may have a weakness in a certain area, so you usually skirt by and stay clear of such situations to avoid displays of this weakness. Sometimes you have to take a risk, though, and see if they’ve learned to overcome it, or if they at least can show some patience with you. You take the risk, but sometimes you lose. You know that they were just tired, frustrated, or unhappy with things, as anyone can be, and so you just withdraw without any reaction. You still feel hurt, but then reason kicks in and reminds you that they meant you no harm. You know that the incident, and all the pain, will be swallowed up by just saying “Yes” to whatever the Lord asks you to do next.

Apologizing for expressions of anger, whether they arose out of righteous indignation or emotional weakness, is a given; yet, you may find yourself having to live with people who still have not learned how to say “excuse me” honestly.

I thought, in my family life for example, that by always being ready to apologize, not just for anger, but for anything for which an apology might be due, and by actually apologizing, even when I believed I was “in the right” in order to defuse a situation—I thought this example would have a good effect. I was wrong. My way of dealing with confrontation was seen as a form of cowardice and weakness. That disappointed me because, again, it was a kind of false accusation against me, and I thought ‘my behavior all these years has been misinterpreted.’ When I found out what they actually thought about me, I was hurt, and even angry, but there was nothing to be gained by resentment. It’s still always better to forgive than to deceive.

So I still believe that to apologize for oneself and for others comes not from weakness, but from strength, and also from love. It doesn’t matter what other people, even our loved ones, think of us, because we know that we answer to a higher Authority.

“Anyone who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and any one who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me…” (Matthew 10:37)

I could not have done, nor can I do anything, different from what I did and continue to do, to always be ready to make peace and admit my fault, even to cover up another person’s sin, and if I do become angry, to lay that anger at the feet of the One whom I follow, not out of a sense of duty, but out of love and gratitude for His forgiveness.

There is no better word than to always follow Jesus and imitate Him to the best of your ability at every age and in every situation, and if it pleases God that your friends and family members respect you for it, and even follow your example, then praise God; and if they misinterpret your motives and your actions, and even if they reject you, then praise God, and do not stop following the Master. He is always there for us, always faithful to welcome us into His presence and, ultimately, into His Kingdom.

“O taste and see that the Lord is good.”


May those who hate me read this and say to themselves, ‘Ah yes, how conniving he is! How he has fooled everyone!’

I used to be very afraid of being falsely accused, falsely judged and put to death by those to whom I have only tried to be a friend.
‘Falsely?’ they would say. ‘Oh no, you are guilty. We know it with absolute certainty. We don't need any evidence to condemn you, and all the evidence you think you have, even though you don't push it at us, it’s all fake anyway. You're living in denial.’

There is one very dear friend, with whom I once shared a very special friendship. No need to recount what happened, but we were divided by the devil. Yes, I put it that simply. But Christ never allows him the final victory, and as long as we live, the book of our history is still open and being written. May God forgive us and reunite us, but…
and I really mean this… only if He wants to.

About human relationships, whether in or out of Christ, I know nothing. I no longer enter into them intentionally. I just simply do what I see the Lord Jesus doing as I follow right behind Him, and I accept whatever happens. He sends people to me and me to people.
I do what He indicates. I never say ‘No’ to Him, but always ‘Yes.’ Someone will cry out, ‘Liar! Hypocrite! You don’t always say Yes! and I can prove it!’

Strange to tell, but saying ‘Yes’ to God does not always mean saying ‘Yes’ to people.

Friendship and flocking. Sure, sometimes people can be of a very similar mindset, but it is not necessarily in the details, which is where people intent on forming friendships often go wrong. When they start out that way, no matter whatever else happens, in the end they fall to nitpicking each other to death in hopeless pursuit of a sameness that is unreachable.

Just as there is only One God, we, who are made in His image, are each the only one of us there is. We are all completely custom made, and the Lord in His unfathomable kindness has created a world and time in which such creatures as He made us, in every way unique universes, copies of Himself in a minor key, can actually meet, converse, enrich one another, because of the common room into which He has placed us. This thought is never far from my daily working consciousness. Everyone we meet is vaster than the physical universe we find ourselves in.

As C. S. Lewis most truly says, ‘the inside is bigger than the outside.’ This seems to be the consistent principle evident in what God has brought into being.

Not necessarily in the details, which is like saying, we don’t like and own all the same ‘things’, but rather in the action of heart and mind. Two runners pace each other in preparation for their big race, where they will not ever compete against another, but against themselves. They enjoy running together: that’s the unity of the action of their hearts and minds. They don’t care a fig what each other is wearing, what color their eyes or hair are, what they had for breakfast that morning, or where they will sleep tonight. It’s running that brings them together. Yet that doesn’t make their relationship any less real.

‘You raise the horns of the virtuous, and cut off all the horns of the wicked’ (Psalm 75).

Yes, in one case, the horn a musical instrument, in the other a biological augment for protection, or are both the same somehow? and isn’t it clear that when we serve the Lord, when we run the race He sets before us, alone or together (though we are made to run side by side, at least with Him), it is not ourselves we preach, but Jesus Christ, not our own horns we toot, but the shofar of the Lord, who has given it to us for exactly that purpose?

Humbled, humbled by the reality that presses down on us, as we are sifted, pressed through, leaving behind the chaff, collecting the fine flour, so that the Baker can form us into loaves for the brethren to share. Like Amma Pelagía, the desert mother who ran into the Temple, looking for good bishop Nonnus, ‘nobody,’ so he could receive her and make her Christ’s bride, she who was formerly lost in the sins of the theatre…

                    Bare head and shoulders and legs she ran
                    right into the bakery to look for a man.
                    Pushing aside the grandmothers who swept,
                    she found holy feet, hung on them, and wept.
                    Oh, what a damaging love to display,
                    scandal to snobbery, death to dismay.
                    There nobody loved her but gave her away
                    in a font to her husband through the spray.
                    Though everyone saw her, nobody looked,
                    as she rode among them, her whole body booked
                    decked out in pearls, the wages of fame,
                    rage of the girls, her stage wasn’t tame,
                    flaunting her curls, PELAGIA her name.

Humbled, humbled by the reality of friendship.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Always free choice

For all that people will do to manipulate and twist the biblical texts to fit their own ideas, the comfort is that the Bible is, was, and always will be, exactly what it is, mean what it says, and keep being a home for the homeless, a comfort for the comfortless, and food for the hungry. Why? Because it is the door behind which Jesus Christ Himself stands waiting for us to either open and welcome Him or open and crucify Him. Which will it be? He will not force us to open the door. He will not force us to welcome Him. And He does not defend Himself to us any more than He defended Himself to those who crucified Him the first time. It is always free choice. The Bible tells us more about ourselves than it tells us about God, but at least it tells us as much as we need to know about Him, so we can decide what we will do. It’s always a matter of choice. Our choice.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Good as it ripens

C. S. Lewis writes in his book The Great Divorce,

We are not living in a world where all roads are radii of a circle and where all, if followed long enough, will therefore draw gradually nearer and finally meet at the center: rather in a world where every road, after a few miles, forks into two and each of those into two again, and at each fork you must make a decision. Even on the biological level life is not like a pool but like a tree. It does not move towards unity but away from it and the creatures grow further apart as they increase in perfection. Good, as it ripens, becomes continually more different not only from evil but from other good.

Yes, each of us is in the image of God, and as there is only one of Him, there's only one of each of us.

Yes, I know the Divine Nature is a Triad, but then, we are too. In fact, the deeper our experience of God becomes, the more we know ourselves, and see how we are potentially perfect copies of His nature—that is, when we allow Him to finish creating us, with our cooperation—that is synergy in its theological meaning. That's why the same rules simply do not apply to all or in every situation.

Law is a placeholder for love until love appears, and then love can be trusted to be our guide, and ceases being a feeling, a sentiment, an ideal—it becomes... a Person!

Yes, He!

Yes, the Living God who in Christ has joined us to Himself, and shown us how unique, and how loved, each of us is.

Scripture does not exaggerate when it calls all of us first-born sons and citizens of heaven’ (Hebrews 12:23 Jerusalem Bible). That means women as well as men, of course, because the writer of the letter to the Hebrews (some say it was the apostle Apollos) just wants us to know that each of us, regardless of our sex, age, race or any personal characteristic, is as important and loved by God as much as a first-born son is by his father and mother.

We are ‘the apple of His eye,’ and there are so many of us!

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Our first fore-mother Eve

‘A picture is worth a thousand words,’ or so they say. It is well-known that the Orthodox are distinct from the rest of Christendom by our icons. These pictures are painted, I mean, written by artists who are fasting and praying and working with God to reveal in paint what God is speaking in His Word, the Bible. That is the standard, though it is not always the case. Many icons are simply painted by artists—who knows whether they're fasting and praying or not. Fortunately, though, as long as these are following the models provided by true writers of icons, their work will not deviate. So, that being said, I just wanted to share with my friends the icon above. If you click on it, it will enlarge and let you see the details. What was handed over to me regarding icons is, if the event didn't happen, the icon would not have been written. To some, this may seem to be putting the cart before the horse, to say that an icon portrays something, therefore it must be true. But that's what we believe. Most icons portray Bible events from Old and New Testaments, or historical events from the first Christian century onwards.

What can we tell from this icon?

Well, first off, Jesus Christ is the one who put Adam to sleep, so that Eve could be taken from his side. Although God the Father is the ‘Creator of heaven and earth,’ as we have it in the Symbol of Nicaea, it is ‘through Him [the Son, the divine Logos or Word of God] that all things were made.’ That's why you will always see Jesus in icons of the creation, and in the Garden of Eden. As the Bible says, ‘No one has ever seen God; it is the Only Son, who is nearest to the Father's heart, who has made Him known’ (John 1:18, Jerusalem Bible).

In the exact center of the icon sits a naked man, Adam the First-Created. Notice, he looks just like Jesus! This is no coincidence. Adam was, before the fall, perfect Man, an undistorted image of the Father. (Notice the ray of light falling on him from the Father.) Since we have no other picture of what the Father looks like except Jesus (see John 14:9), iconographers (icon-writers) always paint Adam as they paint Jesus, who was and is perfect Man, though He is more than that, He is theánthropos, God-Man. It may seem a trivial detail to some, but to us, seeing Adam portrayed this way reminds us that as God created us, and as He wants us to be when we are restored to Him, is like Jesus. In the left panel of the icon, by the way, Adam is shown naming the creatures.
(Notice the raptor on the far left!)

On the far right sits Jesus Christ on a throne. I hope I don't have to explain that there are imaginative and symbolic elements in icons. I mean, we don't think that there really was a throne that He sat on while He operated on the sleeping Adam. There is much in the Bible that cannot be depicted visually, except by resorting to symbolism. The symbolism, however, cannot contradict the plain words of scripture or the broad view provided by Orthodox theology. An intentional deviation in writing an icon is almost as perverse as intentionally mis-translating or mis-quoting the Bible. Why? Because the Orthodox regard icons as visual scripture. Not exactly of the same authority as the Bible, but (as we might call it) a paraphrase for the eyes. Are there ‘bad’ icons? Well, yes, but I don't want to get into that right now, other than to say, a bad icon is simply not an icon at all.

What about our first fore-mother Eve?

Well, back to the saying ‘a picture is worth a thousand words.’ This subject, too, is one which transcends the ability of mankind to visualise factually. We can do no better than the Word of God does, we can only write in an icon what we find written in the Bible, ‘So Yahweh God made the man fall into a deep sleep. And while he slept, He took one of his ribs and enclosed it in flesh’ (Genesis 2:21 JB). Admittedly, the iconographer has ‘smoothed over’ the mechanical aspect of the operation, probably because it could not be shown that way. But if not factual, the icon portrays an actual truth—God took woman out of man. Beyond that we have no other knowledge.

This too belongs to the category we call the mystírion. And this is something not to be doubted, but accepted in simplicity. It is by our simple acceptance of the plain words of divine Scripture that we are instructed by the Holy Spirit in those matters that ‘no tongue can utter.’ We are allowed into the realm of the mystírion.

‘The way into the Holy Scriptures is low and humble, but inside the vault is high and veiled in mysteries’ (Saint Augustine, Confessions, Ch. 3).

By the way, where is this icon?

This icon is in Saint Basil's Greek Orthodox Church, Chicago, Illinois. It is literally wrapped around the curved front of the pulpit at the front of the sanctuary.
Saint Basil's is unusual in that it got its start in a synagogue. Built in 1911 as the Anshe Shalom Temple, it was originally a house of worship for Yiddish-speaking Polish Jews. In 1927 that congregation merged with another, and the Greek community purchased the building and consecrated it as an Orthodox Christian church. Though the iconography and furnishings are Orthodox Christian, there remain many reminders of its use as an Orthodox Jewish synagogue—the pews have seats that swing open to store prayer shawls and their ends are carved with replicas of the tablets of the Law, the balcony was constructed for the use of female worshippers (who worship separately from the males, as in some Orthodox Christian churches), and three hand-blown stained glass windows still adorn the balcony and are often visited by Orthodox Jews who want to see them. There are also the faint outlines of Hebrew inscriptions on the entablature below the central pediment. If you are in Chicago, go take a look!