Thursday, July 24, 2014

A Poem from Rockaway

Every summer Matushka and I go to join other writers for Orthodox Writers Week at Rockaway Beach.  We spend the days writing, and then sharing with each other in the evenings what we have written during the day.  I spend much of the day reading Bible commentaries and writing notes in the margins of my Bible, which of course means I have little to share each evening.  By way of compensation, I usually produce a poem to share with the group.  This year's poem is appended below. I hope you like it.

Rockaway Baby

Rock-a-bye baby in the tree-top.
When the wind blows, the cradle will rock.
When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall.
and down will come baby, cradle and all.

Rock away, baby, whether in tree-top or by sea-side,
rock away in your cradle and dream
and read and write and in your gentle rhythms dance
with elegant long limbs; taste poetry like salt stinging your tongue;
sing and make words float in the air around you like blown soap-bubbles,
glistening until they burst and fall and soak your face with its laughter.
Rock away and dream, never thinking for a moment of breaking boughs.
Dance and sing and write your lines in beach-sand, never thinking
of the coming tide, the water,
the water,
the softly-rising water, inexorably growing
like a baby in a womb, water to wash away all beach-words, water
to carry off all whirling dancers and poets and singers to the sea,
the cold, wide sea.
Why whisper winged words for the wind to carry them all away?
Why trace lines in the sand to be washed clean into oblivion?
The One who rocks the cradle bids us write, and dream, and dance,
and leave to Him the rising tide.
His breath nudges the cradle to make it swing; He will catch us when it falls.
He likes it when we dream, and the words we write by the sea-side.
He reads them all.


Friday, July 11, 2014

Of Angels and Demons

          We Orthodox confess that we are amphibians—that is, that we are part animal, part angelic, that we simultaneously inhabit both the visible and the invisible world, the realms of both men and spirits.  We have prayers in our daily prayer rule to our guardian angel, and we ask for help against the attacks of demonic spirits.  For most of us, this bi-partite existence remains mostly theoretical, in that while we acknowledge the reality of the invisible and spiritual world of angels and demons, we have little personal experience of it.  But once in a while, we learn of people whose experience of this world is more direct.
            I have learned of such a person.  A pious person in my parish is in touch with an old friend of his in Russia, and this latter has experienced many things from the invisible world of the spirit that we all acknowledge, experiencing both the attacks of demons and the help of the angels.  He was a brave and confident person, athletic, skilled in martial arts.  He came from a hard and difficult life, a sinful life of violence.  In this violent world he went deeply into the evil darkness that always lies open to the sons of men.  At length he began to seek God.  His seeking did not go unchallenged by the dark forces which once dominated his life, and so he has experienced things which most of us have not.  His friend, my parishioner, knows him well as a man of integrity and sanity, as someone who is neither crazy nor duplicitous, and he has shared his story with me.  In what follows I offer several examples from his long testimony to show that the unseen realm that we Orthodox confess in our Creeds is truly a contemporary reality.
            When this man first began to seek a life of righteousness in the Church, he experienced demonic attacks which frightened him.  Being sensible, he went to a monastery and sought the prayers and counsel of the monastic Fathers there.  One night, as he returned from the monastery, he parked his car and began walking to his home, and the demons began to attack him.  He was filled with fear as began seeing dark silhouettes appearing in the trees about him, and was consumed with an inner horror.  He continued walking, and saying the prayer, “Rejoice Virgin Theotokos”.  Nonetheless, a fear and panic grew within him which soon became unbearable.  Though the street was empty, he heard a loud metallic roar, as if from an unearthly lion, and he thought his heart would stop.  He then felt the angelic presence with him, as if an angel stood behind him, covering him beneath its wings.  He felt the angel said to him, “It is useless to run; they are bodiless.”  He continued to rest in the love and peace that seemed to flow from his protector, until the horror coming from the shadows receded.  A minute after this, he felt the angelic presence also depart.
            On other occasions, he would see the angels.  He reported that their faces are full of innocence, like the faces of young children, free of all taint of sin and guilt.  They seem to glow, like beings transparent to the light of the Kingdom, exuding a kind of warmth and kindness and love and peace, and they resembled young men.  (I note that this is consistent with the descriptions of angels in the New Testament:  compare St. Mark’s description of the angel appearing to the myrrh-bearing women after Christ’s Resurrection as “a young man” in Mark 16:5.)
            My parishioner’s friend in Russia shared many other experiences, relating things which he had seen with his own eyes and heard with his own ears.  I offer this small taste of his testimony because it confirms for me the reality that we confess without seeing with our own eyes and hearing with our own ears.  I believe in the reality of the unseen world, not because of stories like this, but because of the witness of the Scriptures and the Fathers.  But it is good nonetheless to receive the witness of others of our generation who have experienced the same sort of realities.  I will think of my parishioner’s friend whenever I say the Creed:  “I believe in one God, maker of heaven of earth and all of things, both visible and invisible.”

Friday, July 4, 2014

Orthodox Worship and the Old Testament Cultus

Recently I read in a blog a spirited defence of Orthodox worship, which the author promoted as more Biblical than the worship of contemporary praise services such as those offered at the famous Willow Creek church (pictured above).  I appreciated his zeal for the home team, as well as the fact that he did not denounce “contemporary worship” (an odd phrase; isn’t all worship today contemporary by definition?) as if it was heretically damnable or unclean.  But in the course of his long defense of Orthodox worship he tried to justify our praxis by drawing direct lines from the worship pattern of the Old Testament to that of the contemporary Orthodox Divine Liturgy.  He said, for example, that “worship in the Orthodox Church is patterned after the Old Testament Temple.  Typically, an Orthodox church has three main areas: the narthex (entry hall), the nave (the central part), and the altar area.  This is similar to the Old Testament Tabernacle which consisted of the Outer Court, the Holy Place, and the Most Holy Place”.  He also said, that the “vestments worn by Orthodox priests are patterned after the Old Testament”.  The result of all this was that “ Orthodox Christian worship is based upon a radical continuity.  As the Jewish Messiah Jesus Christ took the Jewish forms of worship and filled them with new content and meanings.  Orthodox worship took the Jewish synagogue and Temple worship and made them Christocentric.”
            Reading this, I could not suppress a grimace, for these claims are historically untrue.  As a matter of fact, the architectural lay-out of a modern Orthodox church is not based on the Jewish shrine, even if both structures do have a three-fold lay-out.  In the Mosaic shrine, the Outer Court was the place where worshipper and priest met and offered the sacrifice, and the Holy Place was where the priest went to burn incense privately twice a day, in the evening and the morning.  No one went into the Most Holy Place except the high priest, and even he only went there once a year on the Day of Atonement.  If the Orthodox worship were really based on the Old Testament model of Moses’ shrine, most of the worship would take place in the narthex, with the clergy nipping in to the nave once in a while (for Vespers and Matins?), and the bishop would enter the altar only once a year (for the beginning of Lent?)  Any reading of church history will reveal that the Christian church buildings were not based on the Jewish Temple or on any temple or religious building in the ancient world, but on the secular meeting hall, the basilica, so-named because it was the public court building of the basileus or king, and the first secular basilicas had no religious function at all.  A temple was a building meant to house a deity; its worshippers, Jewish or pagan, met and worshipped under the open sky.  A basilica was meant to house people, and to keep the weather off their heads.  The Christians could have structured their meeting places after a religious temple, but they chose not to.  Their buildings were clearly secular in design and lay-out.
            It was the same with the vestments of the clergy.  Historians tell us that the clergy officiated in their normal street clothes even in the fourth century and later, though of course all the Christians would wear their best street clothes when they came to public worship.  What we today regard as special “church vestments” were simply the normal secular attire for the gentleman of the day.  Pagan priests wore special clothes when they officiated at their public sacrifices, as did Jewish priests, but the Christian clergy did not.  As time went on, fashions changed, but the church (ever conservative) clung to the style of clothes their clergy had always worn.  They fancied those clothes up a bit, making them more gorgeous and with more brocade (as it were), but the clothes were never regarded in the early years as special religious garments, much less as having any connection with the priestly vestments of the Old Testament.  As with architecture, so with clothing—the Church remained resolutely non-religious in its approach.  It is natural for Orthodox Christians, especially if they come from Protestant traditions determined to find a Bible-verse for everything, to look for patterns of Orthodox worship in the Bible.  But historical facts are stubborn things, even when they prove inconvenient to one’s argument.  And the fact is that historical Christian worship owes precious little to Old Testament patterns.
            What does this all mean?  What connection then do we have with the Old Testament?  And why did the Church decide to follow a secular approach to buildings and clerical clothing rather than a religious one?  (Please note that I am not suggesting that we today should worship in secular halls or that clergy should cease wearing special clerical vestments when they serve Liturgy.)
            The Church does have a connection with the Old Testament, but it is mediated through Christ.  That is, our direct connection is not with the Old Testament tabernacle, shrine, sacrifices, and priests, but with Jesus.  All the Old Testament realities find their fulfillment in Him.  He is the new tabernacle, the new Temple, the new dwelling place of God.  His execution on the Cross is the new sacrifice.  The priesthood of the Old Testament find its fulfillment not in the Christian clergy, but in Christ’s high-priesthood in heaven.  A priest by definition is one who offers a sacrifice (i.e. presides over an actual death, usually the death of an animal), and so technically there is only one priest in the Church, and that is Jesus, who offered His actual death to God on the cross.  The term “priest” is applied to the Christian liturgist (originally the bishop, and only later applied to the presbyters) by a kind of poetic metaphor, since the clergyman does not actually immolate an animal.  Rather, the bishop was the one who presided at the church’s worship, making anamnesis of Christ’s one and only sacrifice, and so sacrificial language came to be applied to this liturgical memorial.  But all the Old Testament liturgical practices pointed not directly to Christian worship, but to Christ. 
            Thus Orthodox Christian worship is based upon a radical discontinuity with the Old Testament.  It did not take the Jewish Temple worship and make it Christocentric.  It did not take the Temple worship at all.  It took Christ.  Christ fulfilled these old realities and transcended them, and Christian worship is heir to this fulfillment and transcendence.   Jewish worship, like pagan worship, was essentially religious.  That is, it consisted of what Paul called stoichea, the building blocks and elemental concepts found in all religions—things like the distinction between clean and unclean, holy day and secular day, consecrated ground and secular space, priest and layman (see Galatians 4:9-10, Colossians 2:20-22).  All these principles, all religion, were both fulfilled in Christ and transcended.  As Fr. Alexander Schmemann famously said, Christ is therefore the end of religion, and such religious concepts bind us no longer.  We now belong no longer to the world with its stoichea, but to the Kingdom of God.  That is why the church chose the secular basilica as the model for its buildings, and why its clergy chose to dress in normal, non-religious attire.  Christians no longer need religion.  We have something far better:  we have Christ, and in Him, we have all the realities of Israel’s sacred history.  That not only beats the Jewish temple and its priesthood.  It also beats the passing fads of places like Willow Creek.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Dark Ages: Who Turned Out the Lights?

Among the literature of those who make it their main business to vilify the Christians, perhaps no concept has served a more useful purpose than the idea of “the Dark Ages”.  The Dark Ages, according to this reading of history, were those centuries in which the Church was culturally ascendant, with the inevitable result that civilization sunk into superstition, ignorance, obscurantism, and moral decadence.  Here everything that was bad about the world is laid at the Church’s door, especially the decline of Science (with a capital “S”), which apparently had been going great guns until the Church took over.  As evidence of the Church’s war against Science, enlightenment, tolerance, and reason in general, the name of Galileo is usually bandied about, along with the notion that everyone in the Dark Ages thought that the world was flat.  It was from this ecclesiastical abyss that Science eventually pulled us all out, saving the world from the Church and restoring civilization.  But as we talk about the Dark Ages, it is worth asking how the Roman Empire of the west came to be so dark in the first place?  (Of the Roman Empire in the east, usually known as Byzantium, the vilifiers seem to know precious little.  Their world is a western world.)  In other words, who turned out the lights in the west?
            Your average person who delights in blaming the Church for the Dark Ages presumably thinks that it was the Church which was responsible for turning out the lights.  It is hard to argue with the sort of person who knows only this sort of history.  C.S. Lewis in his day lamented that for this sort of person, “History” was “that vague, composite picture of the past which floats, rather hazily, in the mind of the ordinary educated man…a land of shadows, the home of wraiths like Primitive Man or the Renaissance or the Ancient-Greeks-and-Romans” (from his essay Historicism).  Things have not changed much since Lewis’ time, and for your average person today, “History” is often what you get from popular talk around the water-cooler, or perhaps from watching Monty Python and the Holy Grail.    
Polemicists who comment on blogs often blame the Church for the Dark Ages.  Actual historians know that the Dark Ages, insofar as they were dark, were darkened by the barbarian invasions that inundated the western Roman Empire, and that it was only in the Church (and in its monasteries in particular) that any light was preserved.  It might be a bit of a stretch to suggest (as Thomas Cahill did in his book of similar name) that “the Irish (i.e. the Irish monks) saved civilization”, but it is certain that whatever vestiges of earlier Roman civilization managed to be saved were saved by the Church.  It was the pagan Gothic tribes sweeping down from the north and east that submerged classical Roman and Christian culture in a sea of barbarism.  It was the Church that tried to preserve what learning it could, and which strove valiantly to convert them.  After centuries of work it did a passable job, and it was only thanks to this that classic learning was preserved to become the foundation for later progress.  On that foundation the west has built many things, including modern democracy, modern science, and the concept of human rights.  But the foundation upon which they were built was a Christian one, one laid painfully and laboriously by the Church in the so-called Dark Ages.  In short:  it was the pagans who turned out the lights.  It was the Church who kept a lamp burning, and eventually turned the lights back on again.
            It is difficult and perhaps fruitless (unless one is paid by the word) to argue the case point by point, but a couple of examples may serve to illustrate the project as a whole.  Concerning the view that Christians in the Dark Ages thought that the world was flat, and that everyone remained a prisoner of this delusion until Christopher Columbus discovered America and proved that it was round:  as a matter of historical fact, thinkers in the Dark Ages knew that the world was round.  All the writers of the high Middle Ages agreed that the earth was a sphere.  Vincent of Beauvais (born 1190) wrote that that if a hole were somehow drilled through the globe of earth so that a stone dropping down could pass freely from one sky to the other, it could come to rest at the center.  In other words, all thinking men knew well before our modern age that the earth was round.  The denial of this historical fact may be dated from the seventeenth century as part of the campaign of Protestants against Catholicism, a denial which gained currency in the nineteenth century.  (See Jeffrey Russell’s book Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians.)
            Concerning the struggle of Galileo, supposedly the lone and lonely champion of Science in its valiant struggle against the Church’s dogmatism and blind ignorance:  Galileo himself was actually championed by a churchman, the Cardinal Maffeo Barberini, who later became Pope Urban VIII.  Galileo got himself into trouble not by advocating his scientific theory, but because he antagonized his former supporters by his polemics (his book A Dialogue Concerning the Two Great World Systems, featured a debate between a Copernican of overwhelming learning and an all but moronic Aristotelian, named “Simplicio” (i.e. “simpleton”).  His crude and rude polemics were real problem, not his scientific theory.  Christians in his day stood on both sides of the debate.  But why let the facts get in the way of a good story?  Myths like this are too useful, and hard to come by.
            In all these debates about the Church and the Dark Ages, the real disagreement is not between the Church and the secularists, but between real scholars and ignoramuses who just love to blog.  Real historical scholars know that the concept of “the Dark Ages” is an historical construct of fairly recent vintage, and that the Church of that period was the defender of learning and the arts.  In every age there have been true scholars, and people who care little for learning.  The two have often tangled and argued.  Blogs with their comment sections prove that this continues to be true today.