Monday, February 28, 2011


We drove past a large sign posted in front of a church near us. There was no time to read it all, but the first lines, after the name of the church, read:

Lenten fun, foods, games, crafts

Some sort of local Mardi Gras? Some pre-Lent carnival?



Spent part of yesterday and all day today with my mother and sister. Tonight the retirement community had a jokes evening, which we all attended. Here's my favorite, of the ones told:

A 50-year-old married couple was eating at a fancy restaurant when a tiny fairy appeared on their table and said, "I will grant each of you one wish."

The wife said, "I'd like a cruise around the whole world, stopping anywhere I like, with all the luxuries included."

"Granted," said the fairy, and poof! - the tickets appeared in her hand.

The husband said, "I'm sorry, my dear, to tell you this, but this is a once in a lifetime opportunity, and what I really want is a wife half my age."

"Granted," said the fairy, and poof! - he turned 100.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Greatly to be Feared

It has finally dawned upon me, clear as the rising sun, why people on their very deathbeds sometimes find repentance impossible.  You'd think a person staring death in the face would hasten to repent as thoroughly as he could, but some, astonishingly, don't.  "It's too late," they say, and you want to tell them no, it's never too late until your last breath; hurry up and be reconciled with God! 

But you know what?  They're right.  It is too late for them, because it's no good asking God for forgiveness when you know in your heart you lived the way you wanted to and, given the chance, would make the same choices all over again.  Such people know what they did was wrong, but they cannot feel sorry; they tell themselves, by heaven, I am still glad I did it, because look how miserable (or perhaps just how dull) my life would otherwise have been!  Look at the pleasures I would have missed.

So they die still enslaved to the god Pleasure, who now, in their hour of need, not only cannot help them, but to their bitter resentment has already abandoned them - permanently.

Kyrie, eleison!  Have mercy upon us and deliver us from such a fate.

Friday, February 25, 2011

First Time I Ever met Drew

Drew is another of Laura's two older brothers, and this is how I met him.  I hope he doesn't remember it, but I can never forget.

A stupid or desperate pair of sparrows had built their nest in a shrub just outside the window of our family room, within easy reach of any cat or raccoon or other predator.  I had been keeping a sharp eye on it for weeks, to keep the hatchlings safe, when one afternoon I heard a huge commotion coming from the shrub.  I glanced out the window and there was Zeffie, a solid black cat from next door, sitting on the window sill, gazing deeply at the nest.  The nest was empty.

I raced outside, screaming at Zeffie and I have to tell you, the volley of obscenities that flew out of my mouth would have done a politician proud.  I was stretching my arm out to knock that cat down from the windowsill when a small, soft voice behind me said, "I'm sorry if my cat has been bothering you..."  and whirling around, I saw Drew, four years old, licking a popsicle.

"Well, I suppose it isn't really Zeffie's fault," I said, trying to calm down.  "I'm sorry.  She was only doing what cats do.   It's just - just - well, I wonder if your mom could keep her inside for a few days."

Something in my peripheral vision moved, and when I looked, it was one of the baby birds.  Drew and I hastened toward it to pick up this lone survivor and put it back in the nest or else I would raise it myself; but as I approached, it took flight and went all the way up to the top of a tall tree.  And turning our necks upward to where it sat, we noticed that all three of its siblings were up there, too.

Zeffie hadn't gotten a single one of them.  In fact, she hadn't caused the commotion at all.  She had simply been attracted to the scene by the ruckus the fledglings themselves had made, venturing out into the world for the first time.  Zeffie had only been a fascinated but innocent onlooker.

When he became a teenager, Drew used to mow and trim our lawn.  He's in college now, his mom tells us, where he is something of a football star.

Zeffie, having lived into old age, is buried out in the back yard.  There was a cross marking her grave until the house went up for sale.  I don't suppose the family living there now are aware of it.

We love you and miss you, Drew!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Hitting the Jackpot!

It begins with a story I may or may not have told here before, but need to tell again.

I was home alone one day, doing something on my computer upstairs, when I heard the front door open. At first I thought perhaps it had blown open somehow, but then I heard tentative footsteps in the front hall. I knew I should probably hide or maybe call 911, but my curiosity overcame fear, and I began tiptoeing toward the stairs to see who was in my house. I had almost reached the stairs, heart pounding, when I heard a small voice: "I brought you a carrot!" And I realized it was Laura, the four-year-old from next door, come to see my new baby rabbit.

She had been invited several times before, but this day, she came all uninvited, and knowing she was always welcome, had just let herself in.

Miss Maybelline, the rabbit we so named because of the very narrow rings of black fur around the eyes, making them look enormous -- Miss Maybelline was why Laura first started visiting us.  (We later had to re-name this rabbit Mr. Mascara, but the new name never stuck.)

Later, the visits grew longer because we added tea parties to them. For years, we'd have "tea", really hot chocolate at first, and cookies or finger sandwiches, and we'd practice good table manners and conversation and pouring and being careful with the antique china. It was a doll's set of very fine China. It had real gold rims, and in all the years we had tea parties together, Laura never damaged a single piece - and she always insisted upon carrying it all to the sink afterward.

Eventually, she began bringing her girlfriends around, and they'd be included in the tea parties, too.

Later still, we did other fun things together, like going to amusement parks and the children's museum and doing crafts at home.

Every time she would come over, the first thing I'd ask was, "Does your Mom know you're here?" because often, she didn't, so we'd have to rectify that immediately. I remember one time when I asked the question, Laura replied, "Well, she's up in her room with the door locked, which means one of two things. Either she has headache or else she has stress." So we didn't call her that day.

We learned to ride bikes together. I hadn't ridden one in 30 years, and it is NOT true you can just get back up on one and know how to do it. I was wobbly and uncertain. I once asked Laura, "Do you feel a little scared about going around corners? Because I do."

"Oh, no, not at all!" she said, "Because see my bike? It says, 'Hot Stuff' all over it."

On 9/11, I spent the day with her mother, Michaux, in their living room, because neither of us felt like being alone that day (nobody did). So I was there when Laura came home from school, and her mother sat down with her and tried to explain, briefly, what had happened. Laura only had two questions, both of which, like everything else about that day, are burned into my memory: "Are they going to attack Richmond?" and "Is New York far, far away?"

The summer Laura was 9 years old, she became my wildlife rehabbing assistant. She became an expert in feeding baby squirrels and songbirds and took excellent care of several mallard ducklings.

Laura's favorite female relative was her Aunt Beth. One day when we were walking her back home, she said to me, "I love coming to your house, because I always have fun and I always learn something! It's like I have another --"

Another aunt, surely?

"Another grandmother, except right next door!" I think that was the first time I ever felt old.

In 2004, Laura's family moved to another neighborhood, and we just never recovered from the loss. We have only kept in touch very sporadically but have missed them every day. When we got back from Greece this year there was a two-month-old note in our mailbox from Laura, saying she had found a kitten and could I help find it a home, and it was signed, "Your granddaughter, Laura." I tried a couple of times to get her by phone, but no luck, and then, well, life gets busy, and sometimes complicated.

Tonight we went to the Outback to satisfy Demetrios' craving for a good steak (while we still may!) and suddenly, beside our table, were two beautiful blondes, who said, "Do you know us?"

It took a long moment, during which my mind was racing; who could these be? And then I squealed, "LAURA!" and then, "Michaux!"  I nearly cried. They had already finished their meal, but they did stay there at our table and talk for 20 minutes or so. Ben was there, too, one of Laura's two older brothers. He works there as a server. He's tall and handsome and attending a community college here.

Laura is 17 now, a senior in high school, has a boyfriend, looks very much the same as always except mature and even more lovely, has kept her faith, has remained as sweet and kind as ever, and still has that antique doll tea set, which I gave her the Christmas a year after she moved.

I told Demetrios, afterward, that it felt as if we'd been reunited with someone back from the dead.  He said no, not quite like that.  Okay, then, it's like winning the lottery or hitting the jackpot, only better!

When we got home, I rummaged around on my computer to find the note I wrote to go with the tea set, and here it is:

Christmas, 2005

Dear Laura,

These are not just toys; they are real, bone china. They are very fine china, so fine that they are translucent.  If you hold them up to the light, you can see the shadows of your fingers right through the dishes. You hardly ever find anything that delicate, even in the finest china shops.

They are probably antiques, as well. They were given to me by an old lady when I was your age. At any rate, it seemed to me she was old, but maybe she wasn’t; I’m not sure now. Anyway, she had had them since SHE was a little girl. So that makes them about ninety years old, at the very least, and maybe quite a bit older!

I don’t know why she chose me to give them to. But I do know why I’m choosing you. I was saving these, as special treasures, for my oldest granddaughter. But then when I began to think about it, she doesn’t have any memories of them; she hasn’t had the good times with them that you and I have. They wouldn’t mean anything to her. And besides, in a way you are my oldest granddaughter! I remember you saying it seemed to you as if I was another grandmother to you, who lived right next door, and it does feel like that to me, too. I also remember that you always handled them gently and took good care of them.

So I hope you’ll continue to take excellent care of them, so you can enjoy them all your life and still have them when you are an old lady. And when that time comes, I hope some wonderful little girl comes once in a while to have tea with you and add joy to your day, as you have added joy to so many of mine.

Merry Christmas!

and heaps of love,
Miss Anastasia

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

"Who are You to Tell me How to Live my Life?"

When I was in England, I was told this is an attitude common among Englishmen toward their clergy.

One readily sees it’s a valid question, and the implied answer has some validity, too; since even God leaves me free to obey Him or not, who dares dictate to me? To anybody who would try, I’d ask the same question: Who do you think you are?

But Christian obedience is not supposed to work as an authoritarian system. It isn’t a case of the preacher telling me what to do and I do it precisely because he has told me and he is backed by God’s own authority. That latter bit may or may not be true, but to say that’s the reason we obey would be, for the Orthodox Christian at least, a bit of a distortion.

To see why, let’s first recall how “authority” works among Orthodox Christians. There is what I would call “formal” authority, vested in a person by virtue of his office. And then there is informal authority, which we freely accord to certain persons among us, clerical or lay, male or female. “Authority” in this sense denotes the deference we give to people who by walking the Orthodox Christian path, have come very closely to resemble Christ, people in whose flesh and blood Christ is recognizably living. These are people who embody all our theology, people who make our hearts sing and our eyes weep for joy, people who more or less already are the Person we all want to become. To such radiant souls we give heed. We beseech them, “Give us a word!” The Holy Spirit in our hearts leaps when they speak, and with joy we recognize the soul-liberating Truth in their words. We take their advice to heart because in effect, they are telling us how they came to be who they are, who we all want to be. We take joy in serving them, too, as they take greater joy in serving us. Who are they to tell us how to live our lives? They are Christ with skin on, and they do not tell us how to live our lives unless we ask, and even then, they only tell us as much as they perceive we are ready to hear. And they are advising, emphatically not dictating. They are not controlling us, but the very opposite, teaching us how to be free.

And they are bearing witness to why we ought to live a certain way: because it’s good for us! Because there’s a certain way of life that (as we can see and experience for ourselves by being around such people) approximates heaven on earth. Because this is the way of peace, of wholeness, of joy, of love, of genuine fulfillment at every level of our being.

Imagine what would happen if there were no Ten Commandments, if it were perfectly acceptable to steal and lie and commit adultery and murder and dishonor parents. Well, no need to imagine! We see it all around us, our society falling apart as these basic rules fall into disuse. If the Commandments seem restrictive, it is only our madness they are restricting, our tendency to self-destruct.

There is no commandment given by God just to please Himself. He does not simply decide for no reason that He likes this behavior or dislikes that one and we’d better obey or else – even though that is the way it sometimes sounds in Scripture. Instead, He who is all-knowing and all-wise knows what will promote our well-being, body and spirit, here and in the ages to come. In the end, we obey as much for our own sake as for the love of God.

Since Christ was obedient at all times to His Father, even to the point of accepting His cross, then obedience cannot be beneath us. But it isn’t because we are brow-beaten or spiritually or socially or emotionally blackmailed into it. Obedience is always offered in freedom. Nobody can dictate to us how to live our lives.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Religion of Suffering?

There is a widespread misunderstanding among the heterodox, in which suffering is considered to be some sort of antidote or counterweight to sin. One suffers in order to make up for ones past sins or those of others. "Voluntary expiatory suffering", by Christ and/or by us in union with Him, is thought somehow to be pleasing to God, as if it were the opposite of sin, helping to even up the celestial ledger.

This notion is illustrated in something a Roman Catholic saint wrote, quoted in this entry in a Catholic blog entitled, "Joining God in penance and suffering".

When someone desires to suffer, it is not merely a pious reminder of the suffering of the Lord. Voluntary expiatory suffering is what truly and really unites one to the Lord intimately. When it arises, it comes from an already existing relationship with Christ. For, by nature, a person flees from suffering. And the mania for suffering caused by a perverse lust for pain differs completely from the desire to suffer in expiation. Such lust is not a spiritual striving, but a sensory longing, no better than other sensory desires, in fact worse, because it is contrary to nature. Only someone whose spiritual eyes have been opened to the supernatural correlations of worldly events can desire suffering in expiation…

Only those who are saved, only children of grace, can in fact be bearers of Christ’s cross. Only in union with the divine Head does human suffering take on expiatory power.


It's actually a slur upon God's kindness, compassion, and love, to think He is pleased to see us suffer. He is pleased to see us love and obey, even if that brings suffering, but the suffering itself is not the point.  The love is, together with the obedience love brings.  Obedient love, not suffering, is the real opposite of sin. 

Good News:   God's forgiveness - freely offered, not in return for for anything else, especially suffering! - is what truly expiates (undoes) our guilt.  And it's Christ's Resurrection that expiates our death. 

Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling down death by death
And upon those in the tombs bestowing Life!

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Stethoscope

Rosemary shared this on Facebook, and I thought I should pass it on. Enjoy!

Friday, February 18, 2011

...and Not by Faith, Either

God does not save us by our works, and most of us are reasonably clear about that.

Well, God doesn't save us by our faith, either.

He doesn't save us because our works please Him and He doesn't save us because our faith pleases Him.  He doesn't save us because we are pleasing to Him in any way whatsoever.   He saves us because that is His will, and that is His will because He loves us, unconditionally and infinitely,  period. 

He doesn't save us BECAUSE we have faith; that's not the reason salvation apart from faith is impossible. The reason is, faith is the interface between God and us, without which there is no pathway of communication, let alone communion, and salvation = communion in God's life and glory and blessedness.

So it's through faith, but it's by grace, pure grace, all grace.

New E-mail Address

As of right now, my new e-mail address is:


The only difference between this and the previous address is that "verizon" now appears where "comcast" was.

We switched because Verizon, unlike Comcast, will FREEZE our account while we are away and charge us nothing.  That will be a huge savings.

Our monthly billing for the bundle is also a bit less.

AND, unexpected bonus, a fiber optic router just when my Linksys router had given out, and the equivalent of a TVO - ability to record programs, starting from the beginning even if  you forget to record it until well into the show, or record whole series, pause and restart live TV, play it in slow motion, see your computer on your TV screen, check local weather with two clicks, and much more. 

We don't watch much TV, so don't know whether we will use many of these cool new features, but WAY COOL is what they are!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Golden Years

The "golden years" are those after you retire and before your health fails.  And they are precious few.

What I say is:  Retire as soon as you reasonably can.  Don't wait to accumnulate a big hoard, just enough to be sufficiently provided for with a little left over, if you can, to have a some fun while you can and compensate for modest cost-of-living increases after that.

Too many people make the mistake of waiting too long; they retire one day and have a heart attack the next.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

On Finding A Parish Home

"Church-shopping" is something I suppose all of us probably do. I know that when we're in England, if we had any other feasible, realistic choice, we wouldn't go to the parish we do. It's quite a closed club.

And if you have two or three or more Orthodox parishes within a reasonable distance from you, it's good to find one where you feel comfortable. For example, you might not like one whose liturgy is all in Greek or Arabic.

But there is a mistake analogous to the ones my friends made (and no, I'm not saying they made this one; it's just that I was reminded of it) and that is to seek a parish worthy of my attendance. Or even a jurisdiction pure enough for me to join. How can I possibly imagine being under the auspices of that cigar-smoking metropolitan, or that archbishop who has been involved in such scandal, or that slack organization?

It's like several of those old jokes:

"Father, the reason I don't come to church is, the people there are all hypocrites."

"My son, there's always room for one more!"

And, "If I ever found a perfect church they wouldn't let me join."

And I recall a time, in my Episcopalian days, when I at last informed the rector, "I'm ready now to join your parish," and he said, "Let me look to see if there are any openings."    !

There has never been a perfect parish on earth and never will be this side of heaven, for the simple reason that we are all imperfect human beings. The Church of Corinth was a total mess even in St. Paul's day - in spite of the great advantage of having had the Apostle himself to found it, to preach to the Corinthian Christians and teach them. Would you have refused to join it?

We bear one another's burdens, put up with one another's faults. Because hard as it is to believe, the day is surely coming, if it hasn't already, when we shall be very grateful the others are bearing with ours.

On Finding a Spiritual Father

One of the mistakes my friends made, which I am able to pass on to you, was to seek out somebody worthy of being their spiritual father, worthy of giving them advice.

Now besides that quest requiring us to be judgmental, the reality is, all any of us needs is a spiritual father or mother who is a little ahead of us in the journey. And the further reality is, that's a great many people. Yes, each of us is unique and infinitely special, but we (Orthodox) are all on the same path, after all. The traps, the pitfalls, the dangers along the way are well known and have been signposted by wise Christians for 2,000 years. The average parish priest is quite competent to hear our confessions (which are FAR from unique!) and to offer us the usual, handed-down, but personalized, tailored-just-for-me wisdom we need. We do not need to find somebody who walks on water.

But my friends were looking for that saint. They say part of what motivated them was pride but another part of it was a desire to duck responsibility, not to have to make decisions any more, but leave it all in someone else's hands, whom they would blindly and absolutely obey, no matter what. You can't, of course, give full control of your body and soul over to just anybody.

My friends had good motives, too, mixed in with these, more good motives than bad; but it's the bad ones need our attention, lest we meet a similar fate.

Back to reality for a moment. Every human being who ever existed was born with a conscience. Christ is the Light enlightening every man coming into the world, according to St. John. Moreover, we Orthodox have been chrismated, given the Holy Spirit. As St. Paul wrote, "We have the mind of Christ." There is no need to have someone else do all our thinking for us. In fact, it's a terrible thing to resign our conscience, to give up the use of that mind of Christ He has given us, to relinquish "the glorious liberty of the children of God." Archbishop Puhalo reminds us that God doesn't want us to become dependent, spiritual cripples, but to exercise responsibility and serve God in freedom.

The worst danger of all for the person seeking a saint to guide him is if he should find one - or think he has. "It can slip too easily into idolatry," my friend told me.

A normal, good spiritual father or mother will never, ever allow this to happen. He will give you advice and you will fully obey, but in complete freedom and with the full approval of your own mind, your own heart, and your own conscience, and not in conflict with these.

But should the seeker fall into the wrong hands, that's a differnt story. A spiritual father or mother suffering from pride, or intoxicated by control over people, or someone deluded about his own role and his own holiness, that man or woman might let it happen. He may even encourage us to put him, in effect, in that place Christ alone should hold, and may describe any resistance to this as thoughts from the devil.

To protect ourselves, let us think of it this way: Who am I to need a worthier spiritual father than anybody else? If the parish priest is good enough for most of his flock, why shouldn't he be good enough for me?

The temptation is to reply to ourselves: Because he's a slacker. I need someone who will guide me in properly strict, TRUE Orthodoxy.

No, we don't. Orthodoxy as usually practiced is plenty strict enough. Try to do an even more demanding version of it and most likely we will fail spiritually, either because we couldn't do all that stuff, or else because we could. That's why there's this beautiful irony that if we DID actually find a saint to guide us, he or she would have us start out in baby steps anyway, doing even less than all those "slackers" we so judgmentally think we perceive out there. And then we might judge him another slackard!

The safeguard seems to be
to get over ourselves
to get real.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Three More Warning Signs

I don’t yet know enough about what's going on to list for you all the warning signs that you may have encountered a cult, but I have been made vividly and painfully aware of a few.

* While you are confessing your sins, the priest asks too many, too intimate questions or leads you on to discuss sexual matters too much AND/OR lays shame upon you, as if you were the scum of the earth, AND/OR excludes you from Holy Communion for a time that seems disproportionate. Such a person is trying to manipulate you by guilt - and/or getting his vicarious sexual jollies in this way.

* You are advised that you and your spouse need to live as brother and sister from now on. St. Paul says no, you aren’t to do that.

* You are told that blind obedience to your spiritual father is necessary. Obedience is good, but blind obedience is very dangerous. Even (especially!) when your spiritual father is very charming and you have complete confidence in him. There’s a good reason “con artist” is short for “confidence artist”.

* The Orthodox Christian Faith is all about God's Love, and about having faith in God's Love, all about taking great joy in His Love, all about having peace in His Love. All the rest is props. If any group takes away these things, leading you to doubt God will save you unless you do everything exactly as they tell you, they are definitely working for the wrong side. And it is absolutely certain that any group that values the props more than the person (you) is not representing the Lord Christ.


Beware a priest or other spiritual advisor who tells you you must not have sex with your spouse except to procreate, and even then must take care to avoid having any pleasure in it. This is more puritannical than the Puritans.

Beware the one who tells you that if you have sex with your spouse, you must wait 40 days afterward to receive Holy Communion. And if you haven't done that up to now, you have committed the further sin of receiving the sacrament unworthily.

FLEE from such. Flee first and ask questions later. This drivel has nothing to do with Holy Orthodoxy.

Alert for Friends and Family: Change of E-mail Address

We are switching internet providers, which means my/our e-mail address will change.  We do not yet know for sure what it will be, but it will become effective the evening of Friday, the 18th.  I will try to post the new address here and on Facebook by Saturday morning at the latest.

And I'm going to see if we can't set up a permanent e-mail address this time, that won't change every time we switch providers (which for some reason, seems to be every couple of years). 

Meanwhile, through Thursday night, the 17th, the current e-mail address will still be valid.


With outrage in my heart and tears in my eyes, allow me to proclaim something terribly important:  No human being can save his own soul.  I can't save mine, you can't save yours, and we certainly can't save anybody else's.

Yes, I know the New Testament language about saving one's spouse or saving many, but that doesn't mean paying off what they owe God so He will save them in spite of themselves.  It means helping someone along the path to salvation, moving their hearts toward God, inspiring, instructing them perhaps, and praying for them.

Only God can save a human being.  God, period.  God alone.  Yes, we have to cooperate as best we can, but we don't have to succeed, just be willing to try.  We do not have to succeed!  You don't have to do anything but repent, which means decide to try to live in communion with God, renouncing wicked ways. 

I think it was Martin Luther said a person cannot be saved by "monkery" and he was not one bit wrong here.  Remember that when you are reading the works of the Orthodox ascetics.   Your efforts can be good and holy and God will honor them, but He doesn't save you on account of them.  He saves you because He loves you and wants to.  Your baptism was your betrothal to Christ, and He will honor it and keep it; only you can break the engagement, and even then, only willfully.

So why my outrage, why my tears?  Because of something that happened to some people I hold dear. 

If anybody tells you, and I do mean anybody, even if he or she seems to be a saint or an angel of light, if ANYBODY tells you that by embracing a monastic lifestyle you will gain the salvation not only of yourself, but of your whole family up to seven generations back and seven generations to come, this is nonsense and worse than nonsense; this is spiritual blackmail.  And it happens also to be one of the pick-up lines of a cult posing as Orthodox.  RUN, DO NOT WALK, in the opposite direction.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Pharisee, Publican

("Publican" in this parable does not mean, as it does in England, the owner/keeper of a pub!  In Jesus' day, it meant a Jew who collected taxes on behalf of the Roman Empire and was therefore seen as a collaborator and traitor.  He also made his living, plus some a lot more, by cheating, over-charging, and extortion.  He was therefore a social outcast.)

We have seen the true Light,
We have received the Heavenly Spirit,
We have found the true Faith,
Worshipping the Undivided Trinity,
Who has saved us.

We Orthodox are always thankful, and ought to be, for Holy Orthodoxy.  We thank God that we are not floundering in the mire of strange "liturgies", that we do not suffer from doctrinal confusion, that we are not overrun with hard-core feminism, that so many things that are issues for other faiths simply are non-issues for us. 

The Pharisee thanked God, too, that he was not as other men.

When does this hymn, meant to be sung with tears of gratitude, become smug?  When does our joy in true Christianity become triumphalism?  Why does it sometimes turn ugly instead of beautiful?

Well, in me it happens the moment I stop repenting,  immediately I lose sight of my own deplorable inner condition.  A person can't repent and gloat at the same time. 

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Now Here's Creativity for You!

Clown Mass (Episcopalian, I'm Told)

Rock Mass

"Liturgical Dance" in Poland

Magic Mass

Friday, February 11, 2011

Another Obstacle to Unity

Receiving Communion from Pope, Papua, New Guinea, May 8, 1984

Reading the Epistle, Papua New Guinea, May 8, 1984

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Cat Obedience?

So we were sitting in our sun room with a friend when we noticed a lovely cat sitting in the corner of our yard.  "Oh, look at that!" exclaimed Demetrios. 

"What a gorgeous cat!"  I said.  She was white with a lot of black markings, very symmetrical.  Her fur was long, tail huge in circumference.  She had black eye rims and a pink nose. 

The cat looked in our direction, and I said, "Okay, cat, it's been nice seeing you, but we have a bird feeder, so you can skadoodle now."

The cat moved near the back fence and began walking.  When she hesitated, I called out, "No, don't stop!  Keep on going!"

The cat did.

"Now leave!"  said Demetrios as she neared the corner of the yard. "Up you go."

The cat jumped to the top of the fence.

"Look before you leap!"  I called.  "Look left!"

The cat looked left.

"And right!"  I said.

The cat looked right.

"And straight ahead..."

And the cat looked straight ahead.

"Okay, good!  Now jump!'

The cat leapt off the fence into the neighboring yard and was gone.

Demetrios and I looked at each other and smiled.

It only took Allison a few moments to figure it out.  We've watched this cat come here every day for months and her routine never varies.

Latest Photo of My Newest Grandson

His once nearly perpetual frown has softened into an open, happy look. His skin still has that beautiful ruddy glow like polished mahogany.  And you could still drown in the pools of his eyes.

I'm planning another visit to him and all my grandchildren at the end of the month, together with Mom and Wendy, my younger sister whose 5th grandson, on his way soon, will put me permanently out of contention in the Grandmotherhood Stakes - barring the unforeseeable, of course.  Must find some graceful way to concede victory...!

How to Choose a Good Wife

From our friend, John, a retired restauranteur, who knows everything there could possibly be to know about food and the food industry.  He can tell you why some fish taste "fishy" and others don't ("The ones that taste fishy aren't fresh enough!"), can tell you how to make a hamburger taste better by how the ketchup and pickles are arranged, and he can describe how calves are raised in a way that will curl your hair and turn you into a vegetarian.

And John can tell you, if you ask him, how to choose a good wife:  "Have her prepare potatoes," he says.  "If she takes off too much of the peel, she's wasteful.  If she fails to cut out the eyes, she's lazy.  If she doesn't cut the pieces evenly, she's sloppy.  And if she eats some of the potato, nice and warm, right from the pan, she's a glutton."

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Innocence and Holiness

Adam and Eve were created innocent. This means they had not (yet) transgressed any commandment. More precisely, the commandment, as there was only one, and a very easy one. They were created guiltless. They had what you might call "original innocence."

But we have to be very cautious about saying they were created holy or had "original holiness".

Holiness is, in a word, Christlikeness. And it's true that they were created in His image, as everyone is, without our all being holy. Holiness, moreover, means communion with/in the Holy Spirit. And it's true God breathed His Spirit into them to be their Life; the Holy Spirit is everywhere and fills everything.

But holiness also implies spiritual maturity, being accomplished in spiritual warfare, adept at fending off the assaults of the devil, forgiving and deeply loving every single person, and not putting anything ahead of God.

If our first parents had been created holy, they never would have believed the serpent. They would not have eaten of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil until God should give them permission. Holiness implies knowing good and evil and clinging to the good. Had they been holy, they would have repented after having fallen.

So as far as I can tell, a holy person is not necessarily entirely innocent (and will be the first to tell you he is not, though he strives to be), and an innocent person (a baby) is not necessarily holy.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Tax Time!

I can't believe it: our state and federal income tax returns aren't due until April 15 and they're all finished and ready to sign and send in. In fact, it's too early to file electronically; the feds won't accept it until February 15!

I can remember several years in a row when we joined the long lines of cars at the post office late on the night of April 15. The police would cordon off the area and direct traffic. Post Office employees would be standing outside to sell you stamps and check that your envelope was in good order. One year, the Post Office even served pizza. There was a kind of Procrastinators' Brotherhood.

It was kind of fun, being so late. Weird, to be so early.

Monday, February 7, 2011

On Christian Initiation

Due to things I've read around the Internet recently, I want to make a few very short remarks on the rites by which one (normally) becomes an Orthodox Christian. It’s by the mystery we call Holy Baptism, but it includes the mystery of Holy Chrismation (Confirmation) as well.

The proceedings begin with a triple exorcism. Exorcism! Whatever can that mean? Well, if you no longer believe in the devil, of course it has no meaning whatever and one must be invented or the exorcism dropped. But we Orthodox do still believe in satan, for the very good reason that as we attempt to live the Christian life, we bump up against him at every turn, especially (if we are converts) as we prepare to enter the Holy Orthodox Church. Inquirers who decide to become Orthodox Christians often don’t believe you when you tell them they are now going to need a lot of extra prayer and a lot of friends rallying ‘round, because now satan and his demons are going to get very serious with them. The nearer they draw to Holy Baptism (or Holy Chrismation, if they are converts received by this rite alone), the more they believe it. They say, ruefully, “You warned me! You told me this would happen, and it’s happening!”

So the solemn triple exorcism is to drive the forces of evil out of the person. It doesn’t mean he becomes invulnerable to satan but it does mean that henceforth, the devil can only tempt him from outside himself, not from within the safety of his victim’s own heart.

Later comes the blessing of the waters. We invoke the Holy Spirit, asking Him Who fills all things to come down into the waters in a special way and sanctify them so they in turn have the power to sanctify him who is immersed in them, or to speak in imagery, so the waters can wash away more than bodily dirt. We take care that every square centimeter of the person is washed.

To explore all the symbolism and rich meanings of Holy Baptism would require a whole book, but the major point of it is to graft a person into Christ. In Holy Baptism we are all gathered into one Body, Christ’s own glorified body, capable now of being shared by many persons.

To say we are now one body does not mean one organization having certain practices, beliefs, or causes in common. Nor does it mean we are merely an intentional community; that is, that we consider ourselves one. No, this oneness is a communion of being, is an actual, lived experience of being members of a single, living organism; namely, Jesus Christ.

Just before His crucifixion, Jesus prayed (John 17:20-24):

...that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me.

If we are to be one as Christ and His Father are one, per this prayer, then it will need to be a reciprocal indwelling: “You in me and I in you.” In Holy Baptism we are assimilated into Him. But now there must also be the sharing of the Spirit that animates this Body, the “I in you” part. It’s in Holy Chrismation the Holy Spirit comes to dwell within each of us, now that the evil spirit has been cast out. Baptism brings us into Christ in a gathering movement, and Chrismation transmits the Holy Spirit into each person’s inmost core in a diversifying movement that keeps us from losing our own identities even as we acquire Christ’s. (To the contrary, each person’s unique self is affirmed as precious by the Holy Spirit’s consenting to live in him.)

It is not that people who have never been Chrismated don’t know the Holy Spirit; some most certainly do. Some are even on intimate terms with him, the Old Testament prophets being prime examples. But before Chrismation, those who know the Holy Spirit still know Him as external to themselves. Chrismation is when He comes to reside inside each of us, as Heart of our hearts and Life of our life.

You can see why Holy Baptism and Holy Chrismation are administered one right after the other. The one completes what the other had begun. Holy Communion, too, is usually offered the new Christian either immediately or the next day. In this way, the new cell in Christ’s Body is made to share with the rest the same Flesh, the same Blood, the same Life/Spirit – Christ’s.

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all. (Ephesians 4:4-6)

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Genesis as Icon, Part VII: Lessons from Noah (Humor)

Everything I need to know about life, I learned from Noah's Ark

One : Don't miss the boat.

Two: Remember that we are all in the same boat.

Three: Plan ahead. It wasn't raining when Noah built the Ark.

Four: Stay fit. Someone may ask you to do something really big.

Five : Have the courage of your convictions. Don't listen to detractors; just get on with the job that needs to be done.

Six: Build your future on high ground.

Seven : For safety's sake, travel in pairs.

Eight: Speed isn't always an advantage. The snails were on board with the cheetahs.

Nine: When you're stressed, float a while.

Ten: Remember, the Ark was built by amateurs; the Titanic by professionals.

Eleven: No matter the storm, when you are with God, there's always a rainbow waiting...

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Genesis as Icon, Part VI: An Icon of What Else Ails Us

In the previous post, we considered death and the icon of how we acquired mortality. But the problem of the human race doesn't stop there; it only begins there. Here, let us look at several implications of the death residing in us.

Corruptibility & Vulnerability

Perhaps there were floods and fires and hurricanes from the beginning, but none of these could harm us if we were immortal. Immortality implies one never decays and is never vulnerable to disaster. Man, however, having acquired mortality, acquired with it vulnerability to everything from mosquitoes to earthquakes to smallpox. In rejecting God and separating themselves from Him, our first parents removed themselves from the protection implicit that communion. They made themselves prey to every evil satan could inflict.

Just as no decree or law was necessary to render Adam and Eve corruptible once they had renounced God (because that very rejection itself had done that), neither can any decree or law suffice to remove the corruptibility, vulnerability, and the dying. Even if they had repented, they were by now incompatible with Him upon other grounds than merely moral; they had contracted not only moral but also bodily corruptibility and death, while God is Life and is incorrupt. “Had it been a case of trespass only, and not of a subsequent corruption, repentance would have been well enough,” says St. Athanasius, but due to the ontological corruption in Adam and Eve, "…no, repentance could not meet the case.”

Human Relationships Poisoned

Clark Carlton observes,

Once man had made the world into an object of his desires it did not take long for him to turn against his fellow men and use them as tools to accomplish his purposes. It is not accident that the story of the Fall in chapter 3 of Genesis is immediately followed by the story of Cain and Abel — the first murder — in chapter 4.

“It did not take long” is an understatement; as we have seen, Adam turned upon Eve immediately, implying God should never have made her; and perhaps the only remarkable thing about the first murder victim is that it wasn’t Adam.

No longer are human beings regarded as infinitely precious images of God or as other selves; no longer does man find his life in that of his fellow man, but competes with him and uses him and sees himself in contrast to himself, viz., as an individual instead of a person. As Carlton puts it:

We were created in the image of God to live in a perfect communion of love with God, with one another, and with the entire created order. Yet in our own self-centeredness we have abandoned the only source of live and love. We have sealed ourselves off from one another within the impregnable fortresses of our own egos. And we have turned a garden of delight into a toxic waste dump.

Garments of Skin

Adam and Eve now became aware and ashamed of their nakedness (for by now lust had entered the world, lust as distinct from innocent desire for total communion). They improvised for themselves clothing of fig leaves. God, however, replaced those with clothes He made for them, “garments of skin”. The Fathers interpret this phrase as a reference to all the changes in the human being as a result of the fall. These changes have a two-fold and paradoxical nature. On the one hand, they are tragic and for our chastisement. On the other hand, they are a mercy from God, because God re-engineered the human body, mind, and soul to enable us to survive in a now hostile world.

  • Man’s body, we are told, became more grossly material. (Compare with the body of the risen Jesus, which can appear and disappear, change appearances, enter locked rooms.)

  • Man acquired a whole new set of emotions and drives, such as fear, hatred, anger. These have survival value. Anger, for example, ought to be directed against satan. Fear, too, has a proper use; we ought to fear sin. Aggression is a survival tool if we come face to face with, say, a tiger in the wild. Such emotions are only perverted when we mis-direct them, usually against one another. (Drives and emotions, when they are disorderd, are called “passions” in Orthodoxy.)

  • Man’s mind became darkened. Cut off from the things of God, the human mind must try to make sense of the world which makes no sense except as headed by God and infused with Him.

All these and more are comprehended under the patristic understanding of “garments of skin.”

Enslavement of Our Spirit

As man was created, his spirit (that is, the Holy Spirit he had been given) was to rule his mind; his mind was to rule his body; and with his body, man was supposed to rule his world. That is the natural order of things; but when man is estranged from God, the order becomes inverted. The Holy Spirit is not to be found. The mind seeks consolation from bodily things; it values pleasure instead of true joy, relaxation where it cannot find peace, attraction where true love eludes it, feeling good instead of becoming holy, and so forth. The body, in turn, seeks these things through its senses; in other words, from the external, material world. Thus, the material world controls the body; the body with its demands largely rules Man’s mind, and man’s spirit capitulates and fades into the background to such an extent that most of us, most of the time, are hardly aware, any more, that it exists. Thus, everything is topsy-turvy.

St. Paul expresses this when he says that we were “dead in sins”. (cf. Ephesians 2:1,5; Colossians 2:13) We were not yet annihilated, since, as we have seen, God mercifully slowed down the dying process until the time should come for Him to abolish death. That we were not yet dead in that full sense is obvious from the fact that men were still walking around in their bodies; a body cannot live without its soul to sustain it, nor can the soul live without the Holy Spirit every moment sustaining it, albeit from outside the man. Nevertheless, we were spiritually dysfunctional or inactive, having succumbed to material life instead.

Fear & Survival

There is a scene in the movie, Moonstruck, in which the mother, Rose, is dining with a man she has just met. Rose is distressed because her husband is cheating on her. She is trying to figure out why. “Can I ask you a question?” she says to the stranger.

“Go ahead,” he replies.

“Why do men chase women?”

He answers, “Nerves.”

But after a moment’s reflection, Rose gives her own answer: “I think it's because they fear death.”

The line draws laughter from the audience. How did she ever come up with that for a wacky explanation? But in fact, there is much truth in Rose’s observation, although the reasons for it are not immediately obvious. Rose’s husband actually confirms it later. After he has agreed not to see his mistress any more and to go to confession, the very next thing he says is, “A man understands one day that his life is built on nothing. And that's a bad, crazy day.”

“Your life is not built on nothing!” Rose retorts.

But if everything is to end in death, then yes, life is indeed built on nothing.

Fr. John Romanides explains in detail how the fear of death causes us to sin.

In the first place, the deprivation of divine grace impairs the mental powers of the newborn infant; thus, the mind of man has a tendency toward evil from the beginning. This tendency grows strong when the ruling force of corruption becomes perceptible in the body ... Satan manipulates man’s fear and his desire for self-satisfaction, raising up sin in him, in other words, transgression against the divine will regarding unselfish love, and provoking man to stray from his original destiny ...

Because of death, man must first attend to the necessities of life in order to stay alive. In this struggle, self-interests are unavoidable. Thus, man is unable to live in accordance with his original destiny of unselfish love. This state of subjection under the reign of death is the root of man’s weaknesses in which he becomes entangled in sin at the urging of the demons and by his own consent. Resting in the hands of the devil, the power of the fear of death is the root from which self-aggrandizement, egotism, hatred, envy, and other similar passions spring up. In addition to the fact that man “subjects himself to anything in order to avoid dying,” he constantly fears that his life is without meaning. Thus, he strives to demonstrate to himself and to others that it has worth. He loves flatterers and hates his detractors. He seeks his own and envies the success of others. He loves those who love him and hates those who hate him. He seeks security and happiness in wealth, glory, bodily pleasures…

Sin is a progressive disorder.

Sin, unless checked and remedied, grows progressively worse, both in humanity as a whole and within each person. St. Athanasius writes,

Man, who was created in God’s image and in his possession of reason reflected the very Word Himself, was disappearing, and the work of God was being undone. The law of death, which followed from the Transgression, prevailed upon us, and from it there was no escape. The thing that was happening was in truth both monstrous and unfitting.

In the individual, sin gradually degrades our minds, bodies, and intellects. Unchecked, it eventually destroys us. It leads man’s spirit further and further from God and from life; it culminates first in spiritual death, and then in physical. Everyone is “dead in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1, Colossians 2:13) meaning disconnected from the Holy Spirit and therefore spiritually inactive.

Yet by God’s grace, we retain the ability to embrace Christ, Who re-vivifies us. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.” (Revelation 3:20)

Ultimate and definitive spiritual death comes when we have ignored that knocking so often and for so long that we no longer even hear it. Our hearts become so hardened, our selfishness so impenetrable, that we are no longer able to repent, no longer open to the possibility of love. We value others, even God, only insofar as they may be able to give us the “fleshly” pleasure we seek and we hate whoever interferes with our pleasure; and this condition has become irreversible.

“Now is the accepted time,” writes St. Paul, “and today is the day of salvation.” (2 Corinthians 6:2))

“Today if you will hear His voice, harden not your heart.“ (Psalm 95:7-8)

Friday, February 4, 2011

Jacob - Israel

This afternoon I watched a television program ("Ancient Almanac" on the History International channel) in which rabbis and other Jewish scholars expounded the story of Jacob. I love hearing rabbis' perspectives on these things; it's so eye-opening.

And the one story that baffles them all, but hearing them tell it suddenly no longer baffles me, is the one of Jacob's wrestling all night with a mysterious man.

The setting is, Jacob had cheated his twin brother, Esau, out of his inheritance. (The story is told in Genesis 27.) Esau had decided to kill Jacob, so their mother has sent Jacob away to live with her brother. En route, he makes an astonishingly arrogant deal with God: "And Jacob vowed a vow, saying, If the Lord God will be with me, and guard me throughout on this journey, on which I am going, and give me bread to eat, and raiment to put on, and bring me back in safety to the house of my father, then shall the Lord be for a God to me." (Genesis 28:21-22)

So far, God has done all this. Now, twenty years later, Jacob, having become a very rich man, is returning to the land of his father. He isn't sure how his brother Esau will receive him, but he gets word that Esau is approaching, with 400 men. He sends gifts for Esau in the form of cattle and sheep and goats and camels and donkeys. He divides his camp into two companies, reasoning that if Esau attacks one, the other may get away. He sends his two wives, two concubines, and sons across the river and a very frightened Jacob prays a humble prayer this time before bedtime.  From Genesis 32 (Septuagint):

24. And Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him till the morning.

25. And he [the man] saw that he prevailed not against him; and he touched the broad part of his [Jacob's] thigh, and the broad part of Jacob's thigh was benumbed in his wrestling with him.

26. And he [the mysterious stranger] said to him, Let me go, for the day has dawned; but he [Jacob] said, I will not let you go, unless you bless me.

27. And he said to him, What is your name? and he answered, Jacob.

28. And he said to him, You name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel shall be your name; for you have prevailed with God, and shall be mighty with men.

29. And Jacob asked and said, Tell me your name; and he said, Why do you ask after my name? and he blessed him there.

30. And Jacob called the name of that place, the Face of God; for, said he, I have seen God face to face, and my life was preserved.

31. And the sun rose upon him, when he passed the Face of God; and he limped upon his thigh.

32. Therefore the children of Israel will by no means eat the muscle which was numbed, which is on the broad part of the thigh, until this day, because the angel touched the broad part of the thigh of Jacob -- even the muscle which was numbed.

So the first signal flag here is this: that although we are specifically told it was a man against whom Jacob wrestled, Jacob himself recognizes that he has wrestled with God! How can this be?

The second alert comes when the man numbs a muscle in Jacob's thigh. The mysterious man cannot prevail in the wrestling match yet has the power to deaden Jacob's muscle with a mere touch? Is this not a clue that the man could very easily have prevailed, but was letting Jacob win, perhaps to teach him something?

"Your name will be 'Israel', he says. And the rabbi explained that 'Israel' means 'He who struggles with God' and furthermore the Chosen People, says the rabbi with a shrug, have always been like that, beginning with Abraham, bargaining with God, challenging Him, confronting Him, questioning Him. An interesting name, isn't it, for a people who have rejected their Messiah?

You, Jacob, struggled with God, but in the end you humbled yourself, and - all without His losing! - you won. God wins when you do.

The third alert is that the stranger will not tell his name, calling to our minds the later time when God would not tell Moses His name, saying only, "I am Who I am."

And the fourth alert is that Jacob will not disengage from the struggle until he has received a blessing.  The winner, asking a blessing from the loser? Rather, not the loser, just the one who chose not to prevail. Why should his blessing be desirable?

Again, as with Abraham when he received three men who, we are told, were God, Jacob encounters a man who is God. God in both stories is humble: He receives hospitality from Abraham, He graciously condescends not to prevail against Jacob. It seems so obvious, doesn't it? Both incidents signify in advance the God-Man Jesus. Our gracious God did not fail, at every turn, to prepare His people for the time when He would take human flesh and walk among us.

Well, you already knew this, but I have been deaf, dumb, and blind most of the time, and this, today, struck me like a thunderbolt so I had to write about it.

Medical Update: Inconclusive

So, tired of waitng for my results, I phoned the doctor today and got them. Bone density test, "fine". X-ray and blood test show "arthritis."

"But the question," I said to the nurse, "was whether it was rheumatoid arthritis."

"It doesn't say rheumatoid here," she said. And then, before I knew it, I was transferred to the front desk to verify my mailing address, since they had mailed me my results on January 15.

Demetrios says the test would have specified "rheumatoid" if that's what it had been. So it isn't. But he remains convinced it isn't osteoarthritis, either.

So now he wants me to consult a rheumatologist to find out exactly what it IS. UGH.

Photos With Stories, III

This is Linda, in my back yard in the summer of 1968. Linda was an inner-city child who had signed up to spend a week during the summer on a farm, probably as part of Lyndon Johnson’s Pilot City projects. Well, the program ran out of farms. So somehow they found our names and asked us, although we didn’t live in the country but only in the suburbs, whether we would be willing to take one of the left-out children and of course we said yes. We were practically newlyweds then, with no children of our own yet, although Mark was on his way.

Linda was ten years old and one of 10 children of an impoverished family, and she was perhaps the least spoiled child I have ever met, and one of the most delightful.

Her first day with us, I asked her what was her usual bedtime, and she said, “Oh, right around midnight or so.” So we said fine; that was our bedtime, too.

It was about 9:30 when she began yawning, and glancing at a clock, exclaimed, “Golly, look how late it is!” So, with a smile, I told her it was okay, she didn’t HAVE to stay up until midnight if she didn’t want to.

After that, she was usually in bed by eight.

We took her to a pow-wow on Saturday night. Where we lived, in Minneapolis, there were many Native Americans, and my then husband was doing social work among them, so we were always invited.

“Indians!” Linda exclaimed as we approached the drummers. “Real Indians?” (The term, “Native Americans” had not yet swum over history’s horizon.)


We were well within earshot of our Indian friends when she next asked, in a loudly incredulous voice, “Do they kill you with tomahawks and scalp you like all other Indians?”

I don’t remember exactly what we said, only how we cringed as we explained that these were our good friends.

Thus emboldened, she went straight up to the drummers and wanted to bang on their drums. They of course didn’t give her that opportunity, but she did pick up the chant and began singing that with them until we stopped her: “HI –ya–ya–ya,” something like that. She also wanted to join the dance circle, but we explained that white people couldn’t unless invited, and we weren’t going to be invited because we weren’t in native dress.

That was a Saturday night, and we were worried about Sunday afternoon, because the Little People (dwarves and midgets) had invited us to their picnic.

Sunday morning came a fortunate event. The Gospel reading was the story of Zacchaeus, and we sang a song with a catchy tune:

There was a man in Jericho called Zacchaeus.
There was a man in Jericho called Zacchaeus.
Now the Hebrews, they were tall, but Zacchaeus, he was small,
Yet the Lord loved Zacchaeus, better than them all.

1. The Lord went walking one day through Jericho town,
And the people began to gather from miles around.
But Zacchaeus, he couldn't see, so he climbed a Sycamore tree,
And the Lord looked up and said, "Zacchaeus, come down."

2. The Lord said, "Zacchaeus, I am dining with you today.
Zacchaeus, I come to your house, come lead the way."
Then, Zacchaeus, he gave a cheer, but the people began to sneer,
"This man is a sinner, does the Lord seek lodging here?"

3. Now Zacchaeus was small of stature, but he could show,
That a man who is stout of heart can grow and grow.
"If I have cheated young and old, I restore the goods
And salvation came that day to his whole household.

(No, it wasn’t an Orthodox church! Orthodoxy wasn’t even on my radar screen at the time. It was a Catholic mass.)

We sang it again in the car on the way home from mass, and Linda asked, “How come Jesus loved him better than all the rest of us?” and I said I thought perhaps the song just meant that even though Jesus gives each person all the love he could ever want, maybe small Zacchaeus needed even more love than some people. (I know, pretty lame!)

We took her to the Little People’s picnic and she just fitted right in, never hesitating to play with the other children and having a ball. She never embarrassed us once.

This photo is the only keepsake I have of Linda. She must be in her fifties now, and I wish there were some way to find out how her life has been. I hope she remained as charming an adult as she was a ten-year-old.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Wolf-Dog

Mark with Half-grown Anoka
  Here's the second in a proposed series of sharing with you old photos I've come upon that have stories to go with them.

My son Mark may hate me for publishing this picture from the early 80s but it really isn't for teasing him, but for showing you our pet, Anoka.

Her mother, whom I met, was an 80-pound Alaskan sled dog and her father, whom I also met when I went to pick up this warm ball-of-fur puppy, was a 90 pound Timberwolf.  But as you can see, she didn't bear much physical resemblance to her mother.  Most people took her to be all wolf.

She was an extremely sweet creature, most affectionate, and gentle as a kitten.

She did have one or two serious shortcomings as a pet, though.  When you'd come home, if she were indoors, she would come and greet you with such delight that she'd lose control and pee all over your shoes.  She never was housebroken; eventually we gave up and Anoka had to live outdoors in a kennel. 

Not only was she not house trained, you couldn't train her, period.  No "Sit!", no "Stay!" and most importantly, no "Come!"  That's why Mark is holding her by her collar.

And that's why I should never have let her off the leash that evening when Erin and I, and my Cousin Ruthie, went walking. Cousin Ruthie had her dog, Brandy, and we were strolling in the pleasant early evening on the campus of Wake Forest University, after Anoka was fully grown.  When we came to the Quad, Ruthie let Brandy off the leash, and she couldn't stand to see Anoka still unfree.  So she begged and I gave in and unsnapped the leash.

It was a fine, warm, spring evening, and across the Quad, a set of French doors was wide open, giving onto a raised, stone patio.  Up the stairs to that patio Anoka ran, following her nose, and through the French doors, straight into the student dining room. 

By the time we arrived, she was standing on the nearest table, literally wolfing down everybody's suppers, while they shrank back in terror.

I was absolutely too embarrassed to go in there and get her.  I made Ruthie do it.  And with a heavy sigh, I confess I didn't so much as show my face, much less offer to reimburse anybody for his or her meal.  We just fled. 

There was only one other time Anoka got away.  Her leash broke while I was walking her and she bolted into the road, right into the path of a monster truck.  I'm happy to report she did not suffer, and sorry to report how relieved I was.

Erin with Anoka, Still a Puppy

Genesis as Verbal Icon, Part V: Icon of Sin and Death

We’ve seen how the first things God did after Adam and Eve had sinned were: to curse their enemy and ours, to promise salvation through the woman, and to apply some instructive chastisements for their edification.

The next thing God did for our first parents was to slow down the death they died that day. Had God not intervened, they would physically have dropped dead on the spot with the taste of the fruit still on their tongues. They didn't. Yet God is no liar; they indeed died that day.

So what does that mean? What is this death our ancestors incurred the moment they tasted of that fruit? Death, described as it was before the Vanquisher of Death arrived, is a two-fold reality. The spirit dies by separation from the Holy Spirit, its only source of Life, while the body dies from separation from our own spirit. The body begins to die because the spirit sustaining it is sick; it dies finally by separation from the spirit. The body decays, while the spirit, also “decaying”, lingers much longer, continuing to waste away in a shadowy sort of disembodied existence the Greeks called Hades. God mercifully protracts the process, delaying complete death (annihilation) until Christ should come to revivify the human race.

And we see an icon of that merciful slowing-down right from the beginning, with Adam and Eve. They detached themselves from their own life support system that day and began the dying process. They severed themselves from the Spirit of God; which is to say, from immortal Life, spurning Him. They were now like cut flowers or fish out of water or astronauts in an irreparably damaged spacecraft: alive for the time being, but already doomed, already beginning to die. That Adam, body and soul decaying all the while, lived 930 years (Genesis 5:5) is an icon for us of how greatly God, in His never-ending kindness, slowed the process.

If Adam and Eve had been created possessing immortality in their own right, then by definition, they would have been invulnerable to death. Nothing and nobody could have taken away their lives, with the single, possible exception of God (provided, that to do so would not be an oxymoron), because He is almighty. This is what some people do think happened, but it is not the original Christian, the orthodox, or the Orthodox teaching. God did not inflict death as a punishment for the transgression, at least not literally. To suppose so would be to suppose Him the creator of evil. Instead, God had lifted our first parents from non-being and kept them in being by communion with Him, but when they ended that communion, they relapsed into the non-being from which they had come, began the descent back to inanimate dust.

For if, out of a former normal state of non-existence, they were called into being by the Presence and loving-kindness of the Word, it followed naturally that when men were bereft of the knowledge of God and were turned back to what was not (for what is evil is not, but what is good is), they should, since they derive their being from God who IS, be everlastingly bereft even of being; in other words, that they should be disintegrated and abide in death and corruption. For man is by nature mortal, inasmuch as he is made out of what is not; but by reason of his likeness to Him that is (and if he still preserved this likeness by keeping Him in his knowledge) he would stay his natural corruption, and remain incorrupt ...” (St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 4)

God is the Author of Life; in fact, as we have seen, God is life. (John 14:6, 11:25) The Author of Life is not the author of death, not the cause of death, not the one who supposedly instituted death in response to sin. Death is not from God; in fact, the very opposite: death is precisely the “absence” of God, meaning estrangement from Him. As darkness has no substance (there are no darkness particles or darkness waves) but is only the absence of light, so death is not a thing in itself, but only the absence of something, namely, Life.

Separation from God is death, separation from light is darkness... and it is not the light which brings upon them the punishment of blindness. (St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies 5. 27:2.)

Adam and Eve die for the same reason one dies after jumping from the top of a skyscraper: not because God is literally punishing them, but because that is the natural consequence of the unnatural deed. They die for a reason that goes into effect before we even get around to considering God’s reaction to their sin. Their deaths can be thought of as juridical, but they are at best only secondarily so. Fundamentally, their deaths are ontological instead. They die not because they have broken a rule, but because they have rejected Life (God). No decree or legislation is needed to cause them to die; they die with or without it.

To say sin causes death is like saying headache causes pain. Being cut off from God does not cause death; it quite literally already is death and the very definition of death. Put another way, God does not kill; instead, the very opposite is true: separation from Him kills, meaning sin kills (or rather, IS death) all by itself, unilaterally, with no “help” from God whatsoever. In fact, death is not God’s weapon at all, it is the devil's, as we read in the New Testament:

Since [His] children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage. (Hebrews 2:14-15)

God most emphatically did not inflict death upon the human race; however, as St. Basil teaches us, He did not stop it, either, and for more than one excellent reason.

For as much as [man] departed from life, by so much did he draw nearer to death. For God is Life, deprivation of life is death…God did not create death, but we brought it upon ourselves. Not at all, however, did He hinder the dissolution... so that He would not make the infirmity immortal in us. (St. Basil the Great, Homily on why God is not the cause of evils, PG 31, 345.)

Observe that Adam and Eve had not yet eaten of the Tree of Life. God drove them out of the garden precisely to prevent them from eating of it, for that would have made the tragedy infinitely worse: Adam and Eve’s sins would have lived in them forever. God continued to protect the universe from such a catastrophe by setting angels (Cherubim) “to guard the way to the Tree of Life.” Mankind was obviously not ready for immortality!

… He drove him out of Paradise, and removed him far from the tree of life, not because He envied him the tree of life, as some venture to assert, but because He pitied him, [and did not desire] that he should continue a sinner for ever, nor that the sin which surrounded him should be immortal, and evil interminable and irremediable. But He set a bound to his [state of] sin, by interposing death, and thus causing sin to cease, (Romans 6:7) putting an end to it by the dissolution of the flesh, which should take place in the earth, so that man, ceasing at length to live to sin, and dying to it, might begin to live to God. (St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3, XXIII, 6.)

Another reason God did not prevent their death was, once they had so thoroughly rejected Him, Who alone was their Life, there was actually no way He could have prevented them from dying. This is not merely because to have prevented their dying would have falsified His earlier word (that, too!), but much more fundamentally because it would be an oxymoron, a logical absurdity, like cold heat. You cannot prevent someone from committing suicide who has already done it.

Nor could He, within His overall plan, have restored them to Himself afterward against their will. First, you cannot force someone to be free, nor can force him to love. Union with God is by love, and if you make someone into an automaton by removing his free will, he cannot love. Even if God had wanted to override their freedom and reunite them to Himself by decree, it was still impossible, because the evil and death now in them was absolutely incompatible with His Goodness and Holiness and Life. Even repentance and forgiveness, though they could indeed remove guilt, could not remove death, because death is no mere legal sentence; it is a sickness, a pervsion in which man’s very being is wasting away.

By its very definition, sin is automatically self-punishing, because sin and death are two words for, and two faces of, the very same reality: separation from God.

“The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 6:23) Observe the two contrasts here. Death is what we have earned, is wages; eternal life is what we have not earned, is a gift. Sin (not God!) pays out our wages, death; God, by contrast, gives the gift, everlasting life.

Man’s withdrawal from god unto his own death, like the freedom of human will, is outside of God’s jurisdiction. And it is outside of His jurisdiction by His own will. The fact that God desires the salvation of all does not mean that all are saved. God saves only through love and freedom. (Romanides, The Ancestral Sin, pp. 31-32.)

Adam and Eve were now no longer living, but merely surviving; and that, temporarily. And this sorry picture truly depicts all of us ever since; we all stand in desperate need of a Savior.

Transmission of Sin and Death

… through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death passed to all men, because of which all have sinned-- (For until the [giving of the Mosaic] Law, sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no Law. Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those who had not sinned according to the likeness of the transgression of Adam…) (Romans 5:12-14)

Adam’s essence, the “determining element” of man, as Bishop Kallistos put it, had been God in his inmost core, as man’s crowning glory. In rejecting God, Adam mutilated his own nature, gutted it or decapitated it. Now his nature was incompatible with God and hence with immortality.

We inherit this mutilated humanity (which in theological jargon goes by the name of “sin”, in the singular) from our first parents the same way we inherit some personality traits from them, or dimples, or freckles, and gender and race and so much else. Death, together with all it implies, is in our genes.

Everyone dies, as St. Paul says above, even if God is not counting his sins against him — in other words, he dies not for legal reasons. Between the time of Adam, who had been given one commandment, and the time of the prophet Moses, who was given ten (plus some six hundred more to supplement those), there was no divinely given law. Therefore, although there was indeed sin (transgression of God’s will), there was no transgression of any law. (There was nothing “according to the likeness of the transgression of Adam” in other words.) Where there is no law, God does not reckon sin against a man. Yet all men died. They died because sin itself kills, whether or not any legal considerations exist. God counted Abraham as righteous on account of his faith (Genesis 15:6, Romans 4:3,9), yet he died. So did many other people whom God deemed righteous, such as Abel (Matthew 23:35, Hebrews 11:4), Job (Job 1:1,8), and Noah (Genesis 7:1).

The Orthodox Church does not teach that we inherit Adam’s guilt. God is not unjust, that He should hold us accountable for what Adam and Eve did and deprive us of life as a result. Rather, we are born with a human nature lacking the communion with God for which it was fashioned and thereby crippled, maimed, diseased, and dying.

Yes, Adam indeed fell and, having ignored the divine commandment, was condemned to corruptibility and death. But how did many become sinners because of him? What are his missteps to us? How could all of us who were not yet born be condemned together with him, even though God said, “Neither the fathers shall be put to death because of their children nor the children because of their fathers, but the soul which sins shall be put to death?” (Deuteronomy 24:18) Surely, the soul that sins shall die. Well, we became sinners through Adam’s disobedience in such a manner as this. He was created for incorruption and life, and the manner of existence he had in the garden of delight was proper to holiness. His whole mind was continuously seeing God while his body was tranquil and calm, and all base pleasures were still. For there was no tumult of alien disturbances in it. But since he fell under sin and slipped into corruptibility, pleasures and filthiness assaulted the nature of the flesh, and in our members was unveiled a savage law. Our nature thus became diseased by sin through the disobedience of one, that is, of Adam. Thus all were made sinners, not as co-transgressors with Adam, which they never were, but being of his nature, they fell under the law of sin…In Adam, human nature fell ill and became subject to corruptibility through disobedience, and, therefore, the passions entered in.” (St. Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, P.G. 74, 788-789.)

But if it is unjust for God to hold other people guilty for their first parents’ sin, is it any more just that people (between Adam and Moses) who transgressed no law should die? No. It was not right that people like Abraham or Noah should die, whom God reckoned as righteous. Neither was it justice that satan should seize control of what rightfully belonged to God or destroy any of God’s handiwork, even when his victims deserved what they got. The devil, “the prince of this world” is a usurper, holding God’s beloved people captive, who are the bearers of His image. It is not right for them to remain under his dominion when they are meant to be gods. It is not right that the glorious destiny God had planned for them should be aborted.

That is part of the injustice Jesus, in the fullness of time, came to rectify.

“I am come,” says the Lord, “that they [My sheep] might have Life, and that they might have it more abundantly. “ (John 10:10)

* * *

The next and, God willing, final post in this series will look at yet more aspects of the catastrophe that ocurred in Eden.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

St. Peter Relics for Sale!

It's Steven Robinson, of course, selling them.

A couple of the comments are amost as hilarious as the catalogue.

Here is one shadow that will brighten your day!

Genesis as Icon, Part IV: An Icon of God's Loving Response to Sin

The woman said, "The serpent deceived me, and I ate."

So the Lord God said to the serpent: "Because you have done this, you are cursed more than all cattle, and more than every beast of the field; on your belly you shall go, and you shall eat dust all the days of your life. And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel."

Did you catch that? Because it’s breathtaking. God’s very first concern after the ancestral sin was our salvation! For her sake, whom God loved and the serpent had tricked, the devil, God says, will henceforth live in disgrace and eventually be crushed by the woman's Descendant, Note, her Descendant, not Adam’s, namely Jesus, born of a virgin. Satan will “bruise His heel”; that is, will succeed in crucifying Him (satan will do this, not God!) but He will trample down the devil. Already God, in his unfailing kindness, promises the Savior and curses the enemy. Alice Linsley, an Orthodox scholar one of whose fields of expertise is focused upon the first book of the Bible, says this message is in fact the main point of the whole book of Genesis; the entire work, she tells us, is fundamentally an account of the origins of messianic expectations.

Let us pay special attention to what and whom God cursed – NOT Adam and Eve, as is commonly supposed and too often preached.

Time Out!

Satan? Isn’t he a just piece of antiquated mythology?

We simply cannot get around satan (with a small “s” to avoid showing any respect) and maintain any intellectual or moral integrity, since he is not merely an item of Christian belief, but of the experience of millions of people over thousands of years. Both the Old and the New Testaments bear witness to this experience (otherwise known as God’s revelation in history), and so do all the Fathers of the Church, and the saints and ascetics down to the present day. The witness is unanimous, of prophets, patriarchs, apostles, martyrs, and saints, and of Christ Himself.

But if anyone cannot bring himself to believe in satan, let him go forth to wage spiritual warfare himself. Struggle to learn never to judge anyone. Try weaning yourself from enslavement to all the various bodily pleasures and comforts. Strive for sexual purity. Learn to forgive and deeply love your enemies. Try taming your tongue. Do these things (or even just one of them) not for a few days or a few weeks, but for many months, stretching into years. Then come back and tell us whether you can find any better description of what you have found yourself up against than “satan”. The more you struggle to cultivate your spirit, the more accurate you will find “satan” as a portrayal of your opponent in the fight.

Put another way, if there is no satan (and if there are no demons), there may as well be! In effect, there are. Only those without experience in spiritual struggle have not learned this.
Although God had permitted the serpent to tempt Adam and Eve, that by resisting him they should win their first spiritual victory, nevertheless it was wicked for the serpent to have lured them into disobedience; he had not, in other words, been acting on God’s behalf. Contrary to what many imply, God does not ever employ the evil one! He regularly turns the tables on satan, so that his wiles ultimately work in our favor, but that is not the same thing as saying He and the devil work together or for a common purpose. The devil is always, always the enemy.

Adam and Eve certainly do not escape blame for their sin, but in the Genesis account, the blame is shared with satan, in fact, rests primarily upon satan. Therefore, we are to regard Adam and Eve with compassion, not only as perpetrators of the sin, but also as victims of the devil. That we should have compassion for them is all the more appropriate since they are icons of ourselves, who continue willfully to accept the serpent’s deceptions.

Nevertheless, chastisement (not a curse) is now placed upon Eve: her childbearing will be painful, yet she will still desire her husband. She is now placed in subjection to Adam, “the figure of Him who was to come” (Romans 5:14), who was not deceived as she was. In being placed under Adam, she typifies the Church’s subjection to Christ. Henceforth, her childbearing will become physically painful, mirroring the tragedy that death, now infecting her very genes, will be transmitted to all her progeny. (The death itself is not from God's hand, as we shall see in the next post; but the reminder of it, in every birth, is.)

As the serpent was cursed for Eve’s sake, the ground was next cursed for Adam’s sake. Even the ground would no longer bear enough food for him by itself. He would henceforth have to work and sweat for his survival.

Man had been created as the priest of creation, and with the falling away of Adam and Eve, the whole creation fell, because it had lost its priest and mediator.

For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now. (Romans 8:20-22)

Creation’s crowning glory, man, had reverted almost to the level of a mere animal, and in some ways, to a worse level, for animals do not sin. The animals, having been created for Adam, and having come to him to be named, became afraid of people. In Adam and Eve, the whole universe suffered captivity to satan.

[The forbidden tree], not given, not blessed by God … was food whose eating was condemned to be communion with itself alone, and not with God. It is the image of the world loved for itself, and eating it is the image of life understood as an end in itself. (Schmemann, Fr. Alexander, For the Life of the World (Crestwood, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1995), p. 16)

When we see the world as an end in itself, everything becomes itself a value and consequently loses all value, because only in God is found the meaning (value) of everything, and the world is meaningful only when it is the “sacrament” of God’s presence. Things treated merely as things in themselves destroy themselves because only in God have they any life. The world of nature, cut off from the source of life, is a dying world. (ibid., p. 17.)

This cursing of the ground and beginning of hard labor was meant to teach and correct Adam, to show him the whole world’s utter dependence upon God, and his own, personal dependence upon Him, as well.

These chastisements were given, says St. Irenaeus, lest Adam and Eve, “by remaining unreprimanded, should be led to despise God.” (St. Ireneaus, op. cit., 3, XXIII, 3.)

There is no biblical record of Adam and Eve repenting as a result of these lessons, but the icon of Pascha (Easter) depicts Adam and Eve as the first ones Christ raises from the dead. St. Irenaeus argues emphatically that Adam was indeed saved. (St. Ireneaus, Against Heresies, 3, XXIII.) And legend has it that Christ’s life-giving cross was erected directly over Adam’s grave, so that the holy blood fell upon his remains.

The Risen Christ Raises Eve, then Adam, From Their Graves

The calamity that happened in Eden is multi-faceted. We have barely begun to describe all the aspects of it. The next post will be devoted to one, to how death entered the picture, not as a reaction of God, for He did not inflict it, but as a natural consequence of our first parents’ unnatural act.