Memory Eternal

It was early, before sunrise, the morning of Wilbur’s funeral, and Grandma was awake, moving about in the kitchen, in her pajamas and bathrobe. She asked me if I wanted come coffee, and from a fresh pot already made, she poured me a cup. I sat at the kitchen table, and she joined me with her own cup of coffee. For the next hour, Grandma told me stories of how she and Grandpa had met, of barn dances, farm life, young romance and hard times.

It was just the two of us. As she talked, I entered with her the stories of her life with Grandpa. Although Grandpa had died more than a decade before, my own memories of Grandpa combined with the stories Grandma was telling.

A few months after that conversation, I found some genealogy documents about the Healy family, and there hidden away in the details of marriages, births, deaths, and hundreds of names of parents, siblings, children, out of nowhere a name leapt to my attention: Clifton Dwight. The name, Clifton, quite literally, appeared out of nowhere among all names listed in the genealogy. Next came Clifton Arthur. Finally, there was Grandpa: Clifton Fitzroy. I knew the rest. My dad was next. I had always been told I was the fifth Clifton. Grandma and Great Aunt Bessie were good to remind me of this all through my childhood. Here, in my thirties, I discovered that chain of names.

Shortly after my father died a year ago, I began to pray the memorial prayers for the dead. These prayers end with chanting, “Memory eternal.” It is a prayer. A plea not simply for everlasting renown, but for everlasting well-being.

Stories and memory, these are the things that make us persons. We do not know who we are apart from stories, the memories of our own lives, and those memories we inherit through story from our parents, our grandparents, our larger families. We do not merely remember events and feelings. We weave those memories together in a narrative. We are the stories we tell ourselves.

The Gospel does not come to us in propositions and syllogisms. It is not a summa, it is a story. Indeed, it is the Story. That is to say, it is the Story that transforms all stories. Our lives are the same group of events, the same set of dramatis personae, but now the plot has changed. In the muddled Middle, there is a twist, a surprise. We see our story differently. It is now part of a larger Story, a subplot that has been woven into the whole. Our memories are reordered. We see things differently.

It is not simply that our own personal stories are reordered and retold. It is that our own stories change. Our plots go in a new directions. We, and all who are ours, become stories in a larger whole. We become part of a community, a community who has its Story. The Story of the Church, the community brought into God himself, the Holy Trinity, by grace. A Story whose beginning stretches from the foundation of the world into a future we do not now see, and a way of everlasting well-being in which our memories, and our stories, will never fade.

The Problem of Moralism, Politics and Art

These rough and undisciplined thoughts begin in politics, touch on art, but ultimately, I hope, plead for thoughtful engagement on persuasion to a more beautiful way of living. They have been catalyzed by the dismaying outcomes of the political processes of this election year. But they have been a realization that has been dawning for some time. Though I am going to attempt to be as charitable as I can in their expression, I doubt I can utterly diminish the deep frustration and irritation I feel at the state of the conservative movement and, relatedly, traditional, or small-o orthodox, conservative Christianity.

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The Body and Therapeutic Salvation

For an evangelical Christian (and many other Protestants), and even perhaps a Roman Catholic to some degree, coming to the Orthodox Church, it can be somewhat jarring to encounter the emphasis on the bodily dimension of an Orthodox way of life. The worship involves the bodily senses in major ways: the bright colors of the icons, the gold on the vestments and the instruments of worship (cup, paten, censer, candelabra); the strange tonic system of the Byzantine chant which fills the hearing; the rich smells of the incense and interwoven with honeyed nuances of the beeswax candles; the taste of Holy Communion and of the antidoron; the feel of the one’s body, bowing, prostrating, making the sign of the cross, embracing fellow worshippers and one’s family, even how one’s body feels while others are moving around during the service and while one stands. An evangelical is used to much more sitting and listening, perhaps standing and joining in during the praise music part of the service. There may well be bright colors and images in visual presentations and posting of hymn lyrics, perhaps some candles. Roman Catholics (and Anglicans) will be used to some kneeling, and occasional use of incense as well as the images of crucifixes and statues and paintings of saints, perhaps a few icons. But among all these, the Orthodox experience is, if I may dare to say it this way, very sensual.

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The Saint Maximos Factor

About eight years ago, I determined that I would no longer spend energies and time reading what I will call “academic” theology. By that I mean books and articles on theological topics written for intellectual, rational examination and evaluation, as well as dialogue and debate. There is definitely a need and a place for such things–we are called to test and examine the spirits to discern whether they are of God–but I discerned a need, for my spiritual well-being, to cease such activities indefinitely. Instead I focused on learning the ancient prayers of the Church, and praying them, practicing the asketical disciplines of the faith, and reading the lives of the saints (which is another way of reading theology). This week, partly through providence, partly through prayer, I determined that I would begin again wisely and with discernment to allow myself to return to reading “academic” theology. What changed my mind? This is the providential part: I was given a copy of Joseph Farrell’s Free Choice in St. Maximus the Confessor.

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Tougher, Yes, But Not in the Way One Might Think

Earlier this week, I came across a humorous graphic which expressed, in bumper-sticker-aphoristic irony: “Orthodoxy. Christianity. Only Tougher.” Many of us former Protestants who’ve been received in the Orthodox Church no doubt found the humor in the graphic (complete with three-barred Cross). But as it’s something of an “inside joke,” it may have miscommunicated an important truth to others. If Orthodoxy is, in fact, a “tougher” sort of Christianity, it is so precisely because the point is to come to grips with just how weak we are.

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Grace, Form and Essence

The grace of God is so overly abundant to us that Christians have always tended toward one of two extremes in their experience of it. On the one hand, they emphasize the unboundedness of God’s grace and disregard limitations and corrections on their experience. On the other, they emphasize the preciousness of God’s grace such that we must limit and correct our experiences so as rightly to receive it. For some we do not chain the whirlwind. For others we do not trample gold under muddy feet. Some Christians primarily seek experience. Some primarily seek rule-keeping. Both lack balance.

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In Defense of Religion

I have been listening to some excerpts from a recent book on the person of Jesus. Frequently, in the podcasts at any rate, the author inveighs against the “spirit of religion,” calling it a contagion which infects an otherwise healthy relationship with God. While I’ve not read the new book and so would not claim to have an adequate understanding of the author’s critique against, or definition of, religion, I do not think it is religion that is the problem, or at least there is no Christianity apart from some form of religion.

I have written elsewhere on this blog on an incarnational understanding of religion. But I want to take a little different pathway here.

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Holy and Great Martyr Catherine the All-Wise of Alexandria

Today is the feast day of St. Catherine, patron saint of philosophers.

For a little bit about her life and why some churches celebrate St. Catherine’s day on the 24th, read this piece from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese Online Chapel:

Saint Catherine, who was from Alexandria, was the daughter of Constas (or Cestus). She was an exceedingly beautiful maiden, most chaste, and illustrious in wealth, lineage, and learning. By her steadfast understanding, she utterly vanquished the passionate and unbridled soul of Maximinus, the tyrant of Alexandria; and by her eloquence, she stopped the mouths of the so-called philosophers who had been gathered to dispute with her. She was crowned with the crown of martyrdom in the year 305. Her holy relics were taken by Angels to the holy mountain of Sinai, where they were discovered many years later; the famous monastery of Saint Catherine was originally dedicated to the Holy Transfiguration of the Lord and the Burning Bush, but later was dedicated to Saint Catherine. According to the ancient usage, Saints Catherine and Mercurius were celebrated on the 24th of this month, whereas the holy Hieromartyrs Clement of Rome and Peter of Alexandria were celebrated on the 25th. The dates of the feasts of these Saints were interchanged at the request of the Church and Monastery of Mount Sinai, so that the festival of Saint Catherine, their patron, might be celebrated more festively together with the Apodosis of the Feast of the Entry of the Theotokos. The Slavic Churches, however, commemorate these Saints on their original dates.

A fuller account of her life can be found here.

Troparion of Great Martyr Katherine Tone 5
Let us praise Katherine, protectress of Sinai,
Bride of Christ and our helper.
With the sword of the Spirit she silenced the wisdom of the wicked.
She is crowned as a martyr and asks mercy for us all.

Kontakion of Great Martyr Katherine Tone 2
You lovers of martyrs raise a chorus now
in honour of wise Katherine.
She preached Christ in the stadium
and spat on the knowledge of philosophers.

Holy and Great Martyr, All-Wise Catherine, pray for us that we may take captive every thought to the obedience of Christ, and pray that we may be made worthy of the Kingdom of Heaven.

We Wrestle Not?

We are surrounded by a culture that requires us to be happy. All the time. We are also surrounded by a self-help culture which assures us that by following these five easy steps, or discovering that secret, we can eliminate struggle and pain from our lives. Some of this can be helpful. Most of it is dangerous. To the degree that we can move out of sad self-obsession into the freedom of joyful giving, to the degree that we can benefit from overcoming certain bad habits or achieving more order in our daily living, we can be thankful. But the danger inherent in the implicit promises made by these surrounding cultures is that having reached the end of whatever process or achieving the “enlightenment” of whatever gnosis that is being sold, we will enter a state wherein the struggle is over.

This is a lie.

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The Experience of Worship as a Protestant and as an Orthodox Christian

Protestants who are received into the Orthodox Church, particularly those from non-liturgical churches, not infrequently find the transition to Orthodox forms of worship challenging. The Orthodox do not use instruments, the music is different, the hymnography is alien. No praise bands, no soaring organs, no “How Great Thou Art.” But the differences between Orthodox worship and Protestant worship goes much deeper than these surface differences. For Protestants contemplating becoming Orthodox it can help to realize that the primary difference between Protestant worship and Orthodox worship is that for Orthodox, the personal experience of worship is primarily one of kenosis and askesis, of self-emptying and discipline.

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