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Archive for the ‘Orthodoxy’ Category

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.

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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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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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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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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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