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Archive for February, 2011

Sadly, at the end of tomorrow, we’ll begin to sing the blues. So here is my homage to Beef. It’s what was for dinner.

[You'll know the tune, with sincere apologies to the Everly Brothers]

Bye, bye, beef
Bye, bye, bacon strips
Hello, veggie dogs
I think I’m gonna cry

Bye, bye, beef
Bye, bye, barbeque
Hello, ol’ tofu
I feel like I could die
Bye, bye, sirloin, goodbye

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We often approach the task of discerning God’s will quite dialectically: either this, or that. If we have free will–as I believe we do–we use that will to take one or another course, each of which is in opposition to the other. Some in fact predicate the concept of free will precisely on this dialectic of opposition. For about five years now, I have come to see that free will is not necessitated on such a dialectic, and comments from my priest yesterday gave me an opportunity to think through this less philosophically and more pragmatically.

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The Geometry of the Heart

Make known Your ways to me, O Lord, and teach me Your paths (Psalm 24 [25 in Hebrew])

This noontime prayer is a noble one, and one of whose effects we largely pray in ignorance. And thank God for that ignorance. We do not pray these words and expect then to follow them with “Count it all joy, my brethren, when you fall into various trials” (James 1:2). And yet, unless I am greatly mistaken, this is the methodology by which we learn God’s ways.

This is so because the knowledge for which we pray is not the knowledge of reason. God is not an accumulation of a number of angles subject to geometric proof. God is a Person–Three Persons, actually–and thus is known by that organ which knows persons, the heart. The heart is that mysterious place in the human body and soul in which is centered the will, the emotions, the desires, and, yes, the intellect. And the knowledge it acquires and promotes is not that of the syllogism or the scale.

Because God is a Person, by asking to know his ways, we are asking to come into deeper engagement with Someone who is at once familiar and utterly unfamiliar; whom we recognize and the stranger who terrifies. He is the Lover of the Soul, as in the Song of Solomon, and the Warrior King of the Exodus. He is the Potter of Jeremiah, and the abandoned Wife of Hosea. God is spoken of throughout Scripture by way of poetry and metaphor, because these are the ways language connects our hearts together, the pathways that open knowledge of one another to one another. These are the heart-syllogisms by which we collect knowledge of God.

But God is not bereft of other methods to make known to us his ways. The way of testing and discipline demonstrates his love for us, as the writer to the Hebrews makes clear. Our Lord himself, having just been called the Father’s beloved Son, in whom the Father was well-pleased, was driven by the Holy Spirit into the desert. There, weakened by fasting, alone, he was tested by the Accuser. “Oh, really? God’s beloved Son, eh? Bet you’re hungry.” And on the Cross, the Accuser taunts him again by way of willing accomplices, “Oh, really? God’s Son, are you? Why don’t you come on down and prove it?”

That we will suffer pain and abandonment is unbearably hard to accept. That such an experience is the signal of God’s love is at times impossible to comprehend. What angle is there that will give us the leverage of understanding here? What principle is there that we may stake down to give us purchase to climb the mystery further? We are holding on by one hand, dangling out over the abyss. Eli, eli, lama sabachthani?

We are left with nothing else than the geometry of the heart. The child in the medical office, who feels now the pain she did not expect, looks wide-eyed and tearful into the eyes of her father and seeks there the answer to this puzzle. And then the embrace, the cries, the tears, but knowing this: in her father’s arms is the place she wants to be. And so our Lord bows his head, “Into Thy hands I commend my spirit” and breathes his last.

None of this computes. Reason takes offense. This does not fit the grid. It is a non sequitur. And yet it is knowledge as sure and as certain as any deduction.

The heart knows in fits and starts. It knows by meandering. Our lives do not unfold before us like a glove compartment map. We each explore our uncharted West, plotting our geometrical heart patterns as we go. We may be blessed by being able to take a sighting and head in a direction from that sighting for days. In the gale, our light extinguished, we may only feel our way along step by slippery step. We will take wrong turns, and have to double back. But this is the way of the heart. And this is how his way is made known to us. We must keep our hearts open and humble. The chances of chasing a mirage are great. And yet, deep calls to deep, and God knows our hearts. And he will make known to us his ways.

“Keep your heart with all watchfulness” (Proverbs 4:22).

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I have been having a friendly discussion (not a debate, thank God) on whether or not the Orthodox teaching on theosis is just another way of talking about the Roman Catholic dogma of purgatory. It is sometimes attributed to “Byzantine”/Eastern Rite Catholics that differences on these things are a question of semantics. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The problem here is that there are at least two radically fundamental differences with which to begin discussing this topic: the nature of God and, concomitantly, the nature of salvation. Apart from some understanding on what’s at stake with these differences one cannot really begin to address whether or not St Mark of Ephesus’ answer to the Florentine prelates does or does not address whether Orthodox believe in purgatory as Roman Catholics believe in purgatory. Of course, individual persons and scholars will nuance this or that aspect of these concepts, but in general the differences play out along these general lines.

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Message in a Bottle

Earlier this evening, I went downstairs to look for and to go through my file boxes. I was on a mission of sorts. I wanted to find the remnants of the writings I’d done (in some cases nearly 28 years ago), and had somehow, almost miraculously, kept. I first found my old football practice uniform, my football game day sweater, and my letter jackets from junior and senior high. But in short order I found my file boxes and my writings.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that all of the poems I’d written as far back as 1983 were there, many with cryptic and allusive notes about their origins. I was also surprised that for none of them did I need notes to recall the circumstances in which they were written. Words and metaphors called to mind specific relationships, geographies, seasons about and in which the poems were written. The memories of them were stark, crisp, clear and distinct. I could see, hear, touch, taste and smell again the myriad events in which were their individual creations. Many things that had been long forgotten came back to mind with a startling clarity.

I was disappointed to see that none of the essays and only the tiniest of fractions of the stories I’d written remained, and these latter much more recent. I had written tens of thousands of words from the early to late 80s; and from poor guidance and blinkered ignorance I’d destroyed them all. I had hoped that some might have remained. But that was simply not the case.

Going back through these writings was overwhelming, not the least from the visceral revisiting of years that had disappeared from memory for close to two decades. The sheer accumulation of these creative acts was overwhelming. In my lap, spread from manilla files and from hundreds of white pages, beamed worlds of living and struggle, of joy and darkness, of love and solitary night watches under the starlight. A friend and I had stopped at the falls in our college town during a storm, the wind tugging at our hair, the water at our feet. I marked the experience down on paper, and tonight it lived again in my memory as though I were standing in the swirling elements. She had even given me some of her own poetry which was interwoven amidst the pages of my own in these files. I had captured in brief words a heart’s moment in Indiana, and the verbal snapshot glowed with color for me. I reached back nearly three decades to a small Kansas town, and, nearer in time, to a solitary spot on the side of the road near Quincy, Illinois, where I contemplated what Mrs. Enoch might have thought when her husband did not return home one day.

Now, those writings are tucked safely back in their files. But not really. For they are once more swirling in my consciousness as I remember each and every one, and contemplate their existence and their purpose, which may well be my own.

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