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Archive for January, 2006

The Boondocks

This little ditty has been running through my brain of late, due to my hearing it on the radio as I travel to and from my teaching gigs.

I feel no shame
I’m proud of where I came from
I was born and raised in the boondocks
One thing I know
No matter where I go
I keep my heart and soul in the boondocks
(more…)

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The Awakening to Salvation

It’s late (getting close to midnight) and I should be going to bed, but I’m up feeling overwhelmed to the point of tears by God’s goodness to me in my wife and daughters. I’ve been saved three times over, and thrice more every day.

Words fail me to speak of the mystery of God’s love in the love of my wife. It was just a bit more than a dozen years ago when I, a single young man new out of college, feeling his singleness and loneliness, knelt in a church to pray. It was silent all around me as I expressed briefly and simply my need to God. In his mercy he brought me to the Lord’s prayer, “Nevertheless . . .” and I yielded whatever was left of my dreams for my own family and home to him with whom they could only be safe. I could not have known, nor did I, that a week later I would quite by chance, and certainly in the face of human efforts aimed at another end, meet my wife.

Thirteen years ago, I did not know that I had met the one God would use to work my salvation. And truth be known, even now, in the heat of quarrel or the exhaustion of the night, I too often fail to remember. But the quarrels pass, and the anger, the stress of shaping a home abates for a moment, and my memory is renewed, and, too, the love in this heart.

And could it have been already more than two years ago that Sofie was sent to us? If the mystery of Anna’s love is great, great too is the mystery of the love of my daughter. We had grown accustomed to looking elsewhere when news of her impending arrival first reached us. And that news brought a rush of confusing feelings. But, too, it brought ever more to our attention the great mystery of prayer, the intercessions of the Mother of God, and the life and witness of the Church. A month and a half before we learned of Sofie’s advent, which news came to us in the Advent of the year, I had knelt and prayed in a monastery chapel, before a statue of the Virgin, and relinquished again my hopes and aspirations for the future. I wanted only one thing: ever greater union with my wife in God and in his Church.

And then Sofie arrived, bringing with her greater wisdom than I had yet known, opening my eyes to the reality of love, that it grows ever larger the more that it is given wholly away. I learned that the giving of love to a daughter only increases the love for one’s wife and the mother of that daugther. I learned that parenting is an askesis, a plowing of the soul, in which God churns up furrows in one’s chest, painfully loosening up the soil of a heart grown hard, readying it for irrigation and planting. I marvelled at the faith in God that lives in the heart of a child of Christian parents, and I thrilled at tiny fingers clumsily making the sign of the Cross.

And then, yes, and then love increased yet more. Delaina was born, and I held her, still damp and wrinkled, in my arms. What can I tell of the joy of becoming a father twice over? Who could ever deserve one daughter, let alone two? But it is not that I deserve such love, rather it is that I need it if I am ever going to be saved. I arrive home from work and am greeted by the joyous cry of “Daddy!” and the impact of a two-foot toddler throwing herself against me, wrapping her arms around one leg and saying, with emphasis, “My daddy!” Then I look over at my wife, and there is our six-month-old, held aright in my wife’s lap, bouncing up and down and holding her arms out to me. Me! My daughters want me, their daddy.

What kind of man could I be and this would not melt the stone of my heart? And yet there are moments my stony heart fails to remember the soft kisses of my wife, does not call to mind the ferocious hugs of a girl named Wisdom, and for a moment does not recollect the light of a daughter’s eyes which are just like mine. It is horrible that this happens, and when I come to myself I know the shame and regret. But those moments of amnesia, brought on by a wife’s exhausted rebuke, by one daughter’s tantrum or by another daughter’s inarticulate upset, is remedied precisely by these very occasions themselves, and it is in the midst of these moments that the salvation for which I long can be found. I must dive foursquare into the seeming darkness if I would know the light of love.

It is easy, too easy, to fail to remember these things.

But in moments like this, when it is quiet in the home, when I am tired from the day, but cannot yet unwind, I am given a chance to reflect while she sleeps, and my daughters rest too, watched over by unseen essences of fire who do His bidding. And in these moments, I am graced to see more clearly than before, but not yet as clearly as I will one day see it, that in the love of these three, my God loves me and saves me.

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Zacchaeus Sunday

I don’t know why it is but this year, like last year, and the last couple of years, this particular Sunday takes me by surprise. I’m going along, minding my own business, then bam Zacchaeus jumps out from behind the sycamore tree and says: “Great and Holy Lent is around the corner.” Next week, the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee, begins the Lenten Triodion, the three-week “ramp up” to Forgiveness Vespers and Great Lent. Gradually, the Church will wean herself of dairy products, olive oil, wine, and meat and eggs. We will be confronted with our hypocritical judgmentalism in the Pharisee and our need for humble repentance in the tax collector. We will be forced to let go the rigidity of the elder son, and own up to our own sinful wanderings in the prodigal son. We will face the last Judgment and our deeds to the least of these in whom Christ is present. And we will seek, give and receive the forgiveness of all in our local parish, and among our family and friends, even our enemies.

With such a preparation, we are then ready to face the testing of Great Lent, and to find in that testing and its culmination, Zacchaeus’ desire, our heart’s desire: to see Christ himself. This desire is awakened in us today. May we fan it to flame in the coming days.

Luke 19:1-10

And Jesus entered and passed through Jericho. And, behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus, which was the chief among the publicans, and he was rich. And he sought to see Jesus who he was; and could not for the press, because he was little of stature. And he ran before, and climbed up into a sycomore tree to see him: for he was to pass that way. And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up, and saw him, and said unto him, Zacchaeus, make haste, and come down; for to day I must abide at thy house. And he made haste, and came down, and received him joyfully. And when they saw it, they all murmured, saying, That he was gone to be guest with a man that is a sinner. And Zacchaeus stood, and said unto the Lord: Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have taken any thing from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold. And Jesus said unto him, This day is salvation come to this house, forsomuch as he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost.

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Papal Encyclical: Deus Caritas Est

His Holiness, Pope Benedict XVI’s newest encyclical has been promulgated: Deus Caritas Est (here’s the Latin).

From the excerpts I’ve read, it is fully emblematic of Pope Benedict’s keen mind and pious heart.

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In “Reading Over the Shoulders of the Fathers”—A Call for an Orthodox Approach to Scripture (pdf file), Fr. Lawrence Farley writes:

The much needed ‘return to the Fathers’, Fr. Alexander Schmemann said, “means, above all, the recovery of their spirit, of the secret inspiration which made them true witnesses of the Church” (quoted in Liturgy and Tradition, p. 84f). That is, what is needed is a return to the mind-set, the inner attitude and spiritual world-view of the Fathers.

This return to the Fathers is nowhere needed more than in a return to their view and veneration of the Divine Scriptures. The Church is now suffering from a low and deficient view of the Scriptures, one gained from the liberal world of western Academia, one which feels itself free to dissent from the received meaning and interpretation of the Scriptures in favour of more modern and politically-correct views.

In the writing of ostensibly Orthodox authors, in casual conversations with some clergy, in letters to the editor in our Orthodox journals, one can often find evidence of this alienation from the attitude of the Fathers. In one article, supporting references to the Scriptures are pilloried as “biblical literalism”, in another, Pauline use of the Old Testament is discounted as “rabbinic exegesis”, in yet another, one is warned against “the hazards of appealing too quickly to patristic testimony”. Anyone who is a convert from liberal protestantism, can easily identify the common disease which produced all the above citations: a low view of the Scriptures in which they are praised as sources and authorities but ultimately discounted as products of their age rather than as living oracles of Truth.

When one steeps oneself in the literature of the Fathers, one is aware of entering a different world, of breathing a different air. For the Fathers, the Scriptures spoke with the voice of God and an apt citation of a Scriptural text (read and interpreted, of course, through the Tradition of the Church) was seen as bringing all godly controversy to an end. This was not “proof-texting” (which involves the use of Scripture separated from Holy Tradition). Rather, it was an awareness of Scripture as a locus and carrier of that Holy Tradition and therefore as a reliable arbiter in all Christian disputes.

A casual reading of the Fathers will confirm that this was their approach. Consider the words of St. Clement of Rome: “You well know that nothing unjust or fraudulent is written in the Scriptures”. Or the words of St. Irenaeus: “the Scriptures of certain[t]y perfect, since they were spoken by the Word of God and by His Spirit”. Or the words of St. Hippolytus: “those who [do] not believe that the Holy Scriptures were spoken by the Holy Spirit…are unbelievers”. Or Origen: “With complete and utter precision the Holy Spirit supplied the very words of Scripture through His subordinate authors…according to which the wisdom of God pervades every divinely-inspired writing, reach[es] out to each single letter”. The Fathers did not adhere to a view of dictation, which would reduce the human authors of Scripture to merely passive conduits of the Divine Word. They knew full well that these were human documents, subject to the normal human variants of style and didactic purpose. Nonetheless, they were also very aware that these same human documents were vehicles for the Spirit of God, containing, as Divine Oracles, God’s timeless and transcendent Truth, and thus not subject to error.

According to the Fathers, how should we read the Scriptures today? I would point out two components of an Orthodox and patristic approach to the Divine Scriptures.

We should read the Scriptures in the Church. That is, we should interpret the Scriptures guided by our Holy Tradition as preserved in the interpretations of the Fathers. As Origen expresses it, “That alone is to be believed as the truth which is in no way at variance with ecclesiastical and apostolic Tradition”. This does not mean a rejection of all the fruit of modern commentary and criticism. It does mean a selective use of such modern work. The plumb-line of Tradition is to be hung against new work: only such as is consistent with Tradition is be accepted.

We should read the Scriptures on our knees. That is, we should come to the Scriptures as humble learners to be taught, not as judges to teach and correct. Humility is the pre-condition for everything in the Christian life, especially in our reading of the Scriptures. In this as in all things, “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6).

We are often exhorted to be diligent in reading the Scriptures. This is a valuable exhortation—but one that must be supplemented with another: read the Scriptures as the Fathers read them. We must open our Bibles as opening the oracles of God—reading, as it were, over the shoulders of the Fathers. Only then can we gain true and eternal benefit for our souls.

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From my other blog, Wisdom!: Readings from the Fathers of the Church:

The mystery hidden from the ages (Col 1:26) and from the nations is now revealed through the true and perfect incarnation of the Son and God. For he united our nature to himself in a single hypostasis, without division and without confusion, and joined us to himself as a kind of first fruits. This holy flesh with its intellectual and rational soul came from us and is ours. He deemed us worthy to be one and the same with himself according to his humanity. For we were predestined before the ages (cf Eph 1:11-12) to be in him as members of his body. He adapted us to himself and knitted us together in the Spirit as a soul to a body and brought us to the measure of spiritual maturity derived from his fullness. For this we were created; this was God’s good purpose for us before the ages. But this renewal did not come about through the normal course of things, it was only realized when a wholly new way of being human appeared. God had made us like himself and allowed us to participate in the very things that are most characteristic of his goodness. Before the ages he had intended that man’s end was to live in him, and to reach this blessed end he bestowed on us the good gift of our natural powers. But by misusing our natural powers we willingly rejected the way God had provided and we became estranged from God. For this reason another way was introduced, more marvelous and more befitting of God than the first, and as different from the former as what is above nature is different from what is according to nature. And this, as we all believe, is the mystery of the mystical sojourn of God with men. For if, says the divine apostle, the first covenant had been blameless, there would have been no occasion for a second (Heb 8:7). It is clear to all that the mystery accomplished in Christ at the end of the age (Heb 9:26) shows indisputably that the sin of our forefather Adam at the beginning of the age has run its course.

(in Paul M. Blowers and Robert Louis Wilken, trs., On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ, pp 70-71)

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The Joy of Discovery

Back in late spring of 2003, I was reading a translation of Aristotle’s De Anima, specifically III.4-5 on human thinking, and ran across a footnote that tied DA III.5 to the Metaphysics XII.7, 9. That is to say, human thinking episodically thinks the same thing as divine thinking (when each is thinking the form of a thing).

Which seems straightforward enough. But III.5 is terribly obscure, for it talks about imperishable thinking, and of course thinking is an activity of the soul, and yet in DA Bk I, Aristotle clearly notes that when a body dies the soul ceases to be. So how could imperishable thinking cease to be on the death of the body? Or, conversely, how could imperishable thinking not cease to be on the death of the body? And if it ceased to be, how could it be imperishable?

That is only one of the troubling questions. For DA III.5 is also the notorious “active intellect” (or as some call it the “maker mind”) passage. Is the active intellect that brings potential intellect into full being-at-work (i.e., “actuality”) an aspect of the human intellect, and therefore of the human soul? Or is it external to the human soul (is it, say, the divine intellect)?

And finally there is the vexing question of the relationship between theoria, which is the most divine of human intellectual activity and is a thinking of the forms, and phronesis, which is the sort of human intellectual activity that enables one to choose to act virtuously. And as Aristotle notes, eudaimonia, happiness, comes about through a life of virtue in accordance with reason (intellect).

But Aristotle tease out a seemingly contentious relationship between theoria and the life of virtue in Nicomachean Ethics X, which would seem to split human intellectual activity between the divine (theoria) and the mundane (the life of virtue). One could have the best, divine contemplation, but one usually and most often has to settle for the second best, the life of virtue, since we are inescapably social-communal animals.

And in fact EN VI seems to present a sharp distinction, even an apparent separation, between intellect (nous) and practical judgment (phronesis), the former having to do with universals–which can found true knowledge, the latter having to do with particulars and choices–upon which knowledge is impossible to found. (Very Ur-Kantian!)

But I had had an intuition that I should try (precisely because of EN X) to see if there weren’t an ethical dimension to thinking the forms. I just could not come up with any sort of reconciliation.

But then I was reading an article for my dissertation proposal and came across an almost throw-away comment by the author, about how in EN VI is another passage which unites intellect and practical judgment in the activity of the intellect which derives out of practical judgment’s ultimate particular the very universal thing one needs to know (a la the practical syllogism of EN VII) to make a deliberate and voluntary choice to act virtuously in a specific instance.

This opens up further investigation.

Ah, the joy of serendipitous discovery.

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The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (those folks ECUSA’s Executive Council are ga-ga over) has a link on its home page titled “If you are pregnant.” Once you get to the page, the title becomes “Considering Abortion? Clarifying What You Believe

Their opening paragraphs runs thusly (see if you can follow the disappearing baby):

There is no doubt that a welcomed, loved child is a gift from God and a blessing to a joyful family. Yet, not every pregnancy is welcomed. Women and their families who are dealing with unwelcome or problem pregnancies often have religious, spiritual, and theological questions. If you are pregnant or think you are facing an unintended pregnancy and have spiritual concerns you want to address as you consider your options, please consider reading the following: . . .

That was pretty fast. You may have missed it.

Sentence 1:
“There is no doubt that a welcomed, loved child is a gift from God and a blessing to a joyful family.”

Now watch carefully as the baby disappears.

Sentence 2:
“Yet, not every pregnancy is welcomed.”

Whoops. There she went. And the baby never returns.

Sentence 3:
“Women and their families who are dealing with unwelcome or problem pregnancies often have religious, spiritual, and theological questions.”

Sentence 4:
“If you are pregnant or think you are facing an unintended pregnancy and have spiritual concerns you want to address as you consider your options, please consider reading the following: . . .”

How to make a baby disappear in the space of a sentence.

Amazing.

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My friend, and fellow gadfly over at the GCM boards, David, sent the following link to me via email and suggested it was something that ought to be posted.

I agreed. Take a look . . . if you dare!

You Might Be Emerging If…

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Memoirs of a Catechumen has a great post up (from last Nov) You know you’re Orthodox if…:

  • On Wednesdays and Fridays you eat Japanese food.

  • You are more comfortable standing in church than sitting.
  • You can suck/vacuum up the crumbs of bread out of your hand without coughing.
  • You can sing ison to any song (and you know what an ison is… LoL).
  • Lent to you means peanut butter, tofu, soy, lots and lots of pita bread and hummus, and services at least five times a week.
  • You’re used to skipping breakfast on Sundays.
  • On your first encounter with long words, you pronounce them stressing the ‘next to the next to last’ syllable.
  • You wonder why the Pope crosses himself backwards when you see him on TV.
  • You wear comfortable shoes to church, because you know you’ll be standing a long, long time.
  • To you, a ‘topless’ gal is one without a headscarf.
  • You get great deals on Easter candy.
  • You spend time figuring out the best way to remove smoke stains from your ceiling and wax from your walls.
  • When you see a shopping-mall Santa, your first instinct is to hold out your hands to get his blessing.
  • Before you pray, you say a prayer.
  • You don’t flinch when someone throws water at you.
  • When you first tell people who ask what religion you are, at first they think you’re Jewish. Oy!
  • You’re experienced at removing wax from clothing.
  • The service routinely starts at least 15 minutes late and lasts 2 ½ hours — and nobody around you complains.
  • You consider any service two hours or under short/regular.
  • You know you’re in an Orthodox church when the priest says, “Let us complete our prayer to the Lord”, and there’s still half an hour to go.
  • At the end of Holy Week, you have rug burns on your forehead.
  • Your Easter isn’t Easter without an all-night party (featuring 10 dishes of sausage with cheese).
  • Your priest is married.
  • You have seen all members of clergy in purple robes.
  • You can differentiate between the eight different chanting tones.
  • You typically celebrate a feast day by observing strict fasting.
  • You celebrate feast days the night before.
  • You can say “Lord have mercy” 40 times without making a mistake.

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