Friday, November 13, 2009

Anita's Tea

For the past three days, a nor’easter has been converging, directly over us, with the surprisingly strong remnants of Hurricane Ida, and Richmonders have been hibernating. To say it has been a raging storm, or that the rains were torrential, would be an exaggeration, but not a huge one. The Appomattox River had already flooded as of yesterday morning, and the James was expected to today. And in the gloom and the cold, the wet and the wind, people just haven’t felt like going out. We even postponed our weekly dinner last night with Nick and Sharyn and George and Maria and Daphne and Dino.

It was a perfect afternoon for curling up on the couch, and that’s what I did, with a cup of hot tea and my knitting and the television remote nearby. I was happily ensconced, counting my stitches, when the telephone rang. Anita’s number came up on the Caller ID.

“Oh, no!” I moaned. “I forgot!”

“Come,” she said. “Just get in your car and come!”

Her friend Marianne was visiting from the Eastern Shore (Maryland) and Anita was giving a tea in her honor, as she has done before when Marianne visits. She puts on very good teas, too! So I said, “I’m on my way!” then rushed around 10 minutes, drying and combing my hair with one hand and putting on makeup with the other. (Yes!)

Julia was there, the woman whose husband Robert wrote that book I commented upon in 6 posts back in August (and early September). Becky was there, a retired lawyer, and of course Marianne, and our very dear friend Vada.

My place at the table was waiting, loaded up with a cucumber sandwich, banana bread with some marvelous topping Anita whipped up, and a slice of apple pie.

We were trading stories about animals and travel and other funny experiences, and laughing and feeling cozy, and sipping tea followed by sherry, when Vada startled us all by saying, “I’ve read a biography of Mohammed. He was a killer, you know. If you didn’t believe his way, he’d just kill you.”

There was silence around the table as the ladies contemplated their own religious traditions. Finally, Anita laughed and said, “Not unlike some other people in history!”

“Yes, look what Christians have done,” said someone.

That reminded Vada of another thing that has been bothering her. She said, “Here’s what I’ve really been wondering about Christianity. Now I believe Jesus rose, but not in the way most people think. I say He never really died. And there’s no such thing as a body that goes through walls or appears and disappears. God does not violate the laws of nature. But here’s my question: if there were such a body, which the disciples saw for 40 days – where did it go? Because I mean we don’t see Jesus around any more. So where is He? Where did He go?” and it was clear you weren’t going to get anywhere with her by saying something like, “A cloud came and carried Him away into the stratosphere.” No, you were going to have to tell her what that meant.

“Well, we don’t have to understand absolutely everything to believe,” said Anita. “Human beings are never going to know everything about God!”

“It’s taking a leap of faith,” added Becky.

“Sometimes, we just have to accept things,” said Julia.

“But that’s unintelligent and immature!” said Vada, to everybody.

Another long silence. Then it was pointed out to her, kindly, politely, that religion is something very personal, very intimate, and one had therefore to be very careful in discussing it, or better yet, not discuss it at all, lest somebody’s feelings be hurt. (Nobody’s were, in this case.) Somebody else mentioned, in so many words, that prejudice is also a kind of intellectual defect.

"Well, then, for me, it’s unintelligent and immature,” said Vada.

“There you go,” said Marianne. “For you.” The others agreed. You’re entitled to your opinion as long as you allow us to be entitled to ours without calling us unintelligent and immature.

I felt bad, because they’ve all had to choose between faith and reason, or to strike whatever compromise they could live with between the two. And there was no way I could think of, quickly enough, to say, “But it doesn’t have to be that way!” because the ladies were determined to change the subject as soon as possible. After two or three false starts, they finally succeeded. And everybody had a wonderful time.

I still don’t know how to answer Vada about where Jesus is now, in a way that will be meaningful to her.

* * *

Demetrios reminds me that there's really nothing you can SAY; there's only something one can invite another person to DO. And that's try to follow all the commandments; for example, try to forgive your enemies and refrain from judging anybody. Then tell God you're sorry when you fail to do these things and ask Him for His help in doing them going forward.

Anyone who attempts this will come face to face with two incontrovertible realities: the magnitude of his own evil and the infinitely greater magnitude of God's love and mercy.

That's the only way. "Christ is hidden in His commandments," as the Fathers teach us.

What makes the conflict between reason and faith possible is when faith is something else, when faith ceases to become the way you live and is reduced to a set of pious concepts. These can then be pitted against opposing concepts. Then and only then, a person has to choose between or among concepts. And "faith" is going to lose out a certain percentage of the time, and in the case of denominations with self-contradictory concepts, nearly all of the time among thinking people.

But live the Orthodox Christian life and you'll know firsthand why each thing is done, why each facet of it is necessary. You will experience for yourself how each factor contributes to the ultimate goal. You may not be able to articulate it, but you'll know. You may not be able to explain, for example, how Holy Commuion is tied up with forgiveness of sins, but you'll have encountered, in real life, the fact that it is. The more you live the authentic Christian life, the more you will know - in a way beyond words and beyond controversy.