Sunday, September 27, 2015

Niqab or Icon?

I spent a lot of the Divine Liturgy this last Sunday looking at a woman’s face.  The woman was St. Elizabeth the New Martyr, (at left) and I was looking at her face because one of the faithful had brought her icon to church for me to bless, and after the customary blessing it remained on the altar for the duration of the Liturgy.  As I stared into those luminous eyes, set into a face swathed with the usual monastic apostolnik, I thought how she would look if she were not a Christian nun but a Muslim woman, and instead of the apostolnik wore a niqab, the veil that completely covers the face, leaving only a slit for the eyes to peer through.  My first thought was that it would completely negate the point of the icon, which allows one to come face to face with the saints and to look steadfastly into a holy countenance.  Indeed, if all the Christian female saints took their cue from Islam, all might be clothed in the niqab, and we might never see them in any sense worth discussing.  A row of such saints would present us with the pointless spectacle of a row of faceless women, interchangeable and anonymous apart from the labelling names on their icons.  The row would not say, “Here are St. Elizabeth, St. Macrina, St. Anna, St. Thekla”, but rather, “Here are a bunch of holy women”.  That is, their personhood and their individual holy traits would be completely submerged and eclipsed by their gender. 
            The icon therefore represents the great divide between Christianity and Islam.  Every icon is an icon of someone’s face, and in authentic icons that face is turned toward us for a holy encounter, not turned away or even turned slightly in profile.  Islam (at least in some of its forms) separates women from society at large by insisting that they be veiled and their faces hidden when appearing in public.  Some women consider such a veiling to be empowering.  It is certainly divisive, for it divides the person doing the beholding from the person being beheld, and even more importantly, divides men from women.  A woman in a niqab ceases to be a name or an individual woman, one with a different face than others.  She comes simply Woman, a female, one whose face may not be seen.  Her gender becomes the most important thing about her.
            This is not unrelated to contemporary issues, at least in Canada.  The true north strong and free is currently debating a government rule which says that a woman must have her face bared when being sworn in as a new citizen in Canada.  Some Muslim women, accustomed to wearing the niqab when in public, have contested the rule, and the higher courts are poised to agree with them and strike down this rule as unconstitutional.  Politicians are (what else?) playing politics with the whole issue, using it to stake their various claims to being more pro-women, pro-Muslim, and pro-tolerance than their rivals, painting those who object to the wearing of the niqab when being sworn in as a bunch of intolerant neanderthals.  At least some of the debate revolves around the question of identity (wondering if someone else might take their place at the swearing in ceremony), and so some have suggested that as long as the woman removes the niqab at some point to be identified, everything will be okay.  I suggest in turn that this misses the real issue, which is not identity, but the cultural norms set for the next generation regarding personhood and gender.  My concern is not that we might swear in Fatima when we meant to swear in Aleyah.  My concern is that if the cultural value expressed by wearing the niqab takes root in Canadian society something important will be lost—namely, the greater importance of individuality and personhood over gender.  In Canada as in the West generally, we believe that one’s individual name, traits, and personhood are more important than one’s gender, and that men and women may relate to one another safely on open and equal footing.  This openness and equality of encounter is expressed by the open face.  It is just this equality and openness which is threatened by the insistence on wearing the niqab.
            In cultures which insist on the niqab, we find a conviction (sometimes stated, but usually assumed), that women are primarily sexual, and so to allow their faces to be seen would be too tempting for the men.  In these societies women wear the niqab because they feel that without it they would appear immodest and indecent.  Someone from outside such a culture might well ask why St. Elizabeth the New Martyr, clothed head to toe and her face swathed in an apostolnik, could be considered immodestly attired simply because we can see her face.
            There is much more at stake in this current Canadian debate than the rights of Muslim women to express their religion by wearing the niqab in public, for ultimately it is not about their rights, but about the understanding of gender, modesty, sexuality, and equality in society at large in the years to come.  If you doubt this, look at the icon of St. Elizabeth the New Martyr, or indeed at any icon.  And if you really think that St. Elizabeth is immodestly attired in her icon, try saying that to her face.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Byzantine Pomp and the Glory of the Cross

          Beginning with the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross September 14 and continuing throughout the week following, a flower-bedecked Cross will remain in the center of our churches, there to be kissed and venerated with love.  The feast has its roots in the Constantinian revolution in the fourth century.  Prior to this revolution, the Church was hunted and persecuted, hiding and crouching fearfully in the catacombs.  (Well, the metaphorical catacombs.  We never did actually worship in the catacombs, which were cramped places for burial.)  With the coming of Constantine, the persecution ended, and we were free to come out of relative hiding, blinking in the unaccustomed sunlight of honour with which the Church was now held.  The Christian Faith had not yet become the state religion, but there was no denying it now had favoured status.  Constantine made no secret of his support of the Christians, and he demonstrated this support by funding the building of large churches.
            Three of these were in the Holy Land, in Bethlehem, on the Mount of Olives, and over the site of Christ’s crucifixion and burial.  This latter church, called “the Church of the Resurrection” (later under the Crusaders, “the Church of the Holy Sepulchre”) was particularly wonderful.  The local Christians there retained the memory of the site, even though a pagan shrine had been built over it in the early centuries.  Constantine’s builders demolished the shrine and cleared away the rubble and found the original site underneath.  They began to build a beautiful basilica, with a space adjacent containing the hill of Golgotha (reduced in size to fit the building programme) and the original tomb of Christ (chipped away from the other tombs to stand alone).  And in an old cistern, the workers found the wood of the Cross.  Christ’s cross could be distinguished from the other two crosses there because the relic proved to be wonderworking and a source of healing.  According to the story, the bishop of Jerusalem, finding the cross, took it in his trembling hands and lifted it up (i.e. elevated it) as everyone around him cried over and over again, “Lord have mercy!”  It is this event which gave our feast its name.
            The feast is therefore a celebration of Byzantium.  Just as the Cross once lay hidden in the dark cistern waiting to be found by Constantine, so Christians once hid in the dark catacombs, waiting for their royal date with destiny.  And just as Cross was brought out into the light and honoured, so the Christians emerged into public prominence and were honoured.  It is fitting that the tropar for the feast has a royal ring to it (at least in its original form):  “O Lord, save Thy people and bless Thine inheritance.  Grant victory to the Orthodox kings over the barbarians!”  The song functioned as a kind of Byzantine national anthem.
            As anyone can see, all the Orthodox kings have gone.  (Sadly, the barbarians seemed to have remained.)  Byzantium’s glory with which it once adorned the Cross has long departed, and the Church is once again being forced into the cultural catacombs.  But the true glory of the Cross remains.  Constantine did well to honour Christ’s people and His Cross, but the imperial glory which he shone upon the Cross was always doomed to fade, like the glory of every earthly empire.  The true and undimmed divine glory is that which comes from the Holy Spirit, resting upon those who suffer for their Master.  The Cross is not simply a wooden relic which can be lost to history.  It is a disciple’s determination to serve the Lord even at the cost of suffering, blood, and death.  When reproached for the bearing the name “Christian”, Christ’s disciples rejoice and count themselves blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon them (1 Peter 4:14).  This is the true glory of the Cross.  The flowered crosses standing silently in the midst of our churches this week proclaim that abiding and martyric glory.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Chastity and Abstinence

Our present culture, speaking through a thousand movies, magazine articles, and television shows, takes it for granted that people will be sexually active, and that sexual activity has little or nothing to do with marriage.  This activity is called “hooking up”, and there is apparently a kind of behavioural code governing it—for example, one is required to check back with one’s sexual partner after a day or two to see how they are.  People not sexually active by the time they are twenty are regarded as abnormal, and as slightly comic, which is why “The Forty-Year-Old Virgin” is the subject and title of a comedy.  Avoiding sex before marriage is no longer regarded as required by all in respectable society, but as at least quixotic, and perhaps as slightly pathological.  What was once the virtue of chastity and self-control is now derided as evidence of retarded development, for all adults are sexual active, by definition.  Abstinence is not regarded as a laudable but impossible goal (like running a three-minute mile), but as a kind of defect or disorder (like an inability to see colour or experience taste).  She’s never ever had sex and she just turned twenty-one?  Poor thing.   Who can we fix her up with?
The mores of present culture notwithstanding, the Church continues to insist that self-control is a virtue, that this virtue is attainable by anyone who really wants it, and that sexual activity is best experienced when confined to marriage.  As C.S. Lewis once observed (in his book Mere Christianity), this is so difficult and so contrary to our instincts that obviously either Christianity is wrong or our sexual instinct as it now is has gone wrong.   In our day, all our impulses, instincts, and desires are declared to be “natural”, and therefore good.  We “naturally” want to have sex, and so therefore we should.  We use the word “natural” as a term of unqualified approval—“natural” food is better than artificial food, and “natural” ways of getting exercise are preferred to artificial ones.  If something therefore is “natural” it by definition cannot be wrong.
This argument however must be used with care, for not all our instincts and desires are good.  For example, we “naturally” want to overeat, but this desire, if continually indulged, will result in obesity, heart disease, and possibly early death.  Some people “naturally” find themselves drawn to sexual perversion (such as bestiality), even though many will still say that such a desire is not a good one.   Apparently by “a natural desire”, our culture means nothing more than “a desire we happen to have”—which constitutes no great commendation of it.  It is possible to have a natural desire to overeat, to lay around and get no exercise, and to view pornography every day, but the fact that we have these innate desires does not justify overeating, being a couch potato, or an addiction to porn.  We therefore need to challenge the use of the term “natural” as a synonym for “innate”.  We have innate desires for all kinds of harmful things, but this does not make them natural desires.  A natural desire, according to Christianity, is a desire which God implanted in us as a part of our nature and as part of how we were meant to function, but it is possible for these natural desires to become inflamed or diseased.  The natural desire for eating food, for example, can be inflamed so as to lead to gluttony, overeating, and obesity.  Why cannot the natural desire for sex become similarly inflamed?  In fact, the Church says, that is precisely what has happened to it.  The desire for sex is natural, but like the desire for food, it must be limited and contained if it is not to do us harm.  People have no trouble with acknowledging that we must exercise self-control when it comes to food; why the cultural hysteria when the Church counsels the same self-control when it comes to sex?
So, it is possible that even though sexual desire is natural, it need not be indulged every time it presents itself.  But it still needs arguing that the Church is wise and correct in counselling such chastity and abstinence.  To put it bluntly, what’s wrong with fornication (or “hooking up” as it is often called)?  If two consenting adults want to have sex, what’s the problem?
            The answer is that the Church forbids fornication because fornication gets in the way of one of the main purposes of authentic human sexuality, frustrating the first intended goal of sex, and diluting it.  Note that I deliberately use the phrase, “authentic human sexuality” to differentiate it from animal sexuality.  Obviously, “hooking up” presents no moral problems for animals.  Cats and dogs regularly “hook up”, and that is pretty much the beginning and end of it.  All things being equal, lots of feline and canine hooking up produces lots of kittens and puppies, but apart from the release of the moment and the eventual birth of offspring, nothing more is involved.  Cats and dogs do not feel the necessity to exchange phone numbers afterward, or to call in a few days to see how the other is doing.  There is no emotional baggage, and no psychological or spiritual connection.  In other words, there is no possibility for love, self-transcendence, sacrifice, or growth.  After the moment is concluded, Fido and Mitzi go their separate ways, and that’s about it.
            Looking at the limited components of animal sexuality (or “mating”, as most people call it), gives us an opportunity to better understand the components and possibilities and goals of authentic human sexuality.  The tragedy and glory of being human, of course, is that nothing is automatic with us, as it mostly is for the animals.  We are not compelled by our human natures to grow, or to become holy, or even to become nice.  We can become self-sacrificing and loving, or we can refuse and become self-indulgent and selfish.  We can use our sexuality as a vehicle to grow in authenticity, or we can choose otherwise.  Animals have no choice.  Moral choice (and with it, the possibility of sin) is peculiar to humanity.  We can treat our sexuality as a part of what separates us from the animal kingdom, or we can simply “hook up”.  But God invented sex as a pathway to human growth, and merely hooking up does not set us upon this path to authenticity.  People tend to forget that the Church teaches that God is the One who invented sex, and that He thought it was a good idea.  Read Genesis, and the Song of Solomon.  The Church is not “down on sex”, merely down on its misuse.
            The reality is that sex involves what was once called “becoming one flesh”.  This mingling and unity occurs whether one is married or not, and whether one intends it or not.  Presumably those deciding to casually hook up have no intention of becoming one flesh with the partner, or of having any real long-term relationship.  But becoming one flesh (or “one organism”, to use more modern language) occurs anyway, even if the hooking up is simply with a paid prostitute.  St. Paul informs us that this is the case in 1 Cor. 6:16:  “Do you not know that the one who joins himself to a prostitute [Greek pornÄ“] becomes one body with her?  For He says, ‘The two will become one flesh’.”   
One can deny St. Paul’s assertion all one likes, but the heart and the emotions know differently.  “Casual sex” is a contradiction in terms.  All sexual union involves opening up parts of one’s innermost self to another at a tremendously intimate and vulnerable level.  That is why one instinctively seeks to “get a room” for privacy.  That is why one feels the obligation afterward to say, “I’ll call you”, even when there is no real intention of doing so.  Our secular culture does its best to deny this, and bombards us with movies, celebrity examples, books, and magazines which insist that casual sex is possible, and that no such inner connections are established by the sexual act.  The secret inner history of young people, however, tells a different story, one of heartbreak, misunderstanding, and longing.  In this as in so many other areas, our secular culture is lying.  Any sexual act unites on a basic and lasting level.
            As said above, nothing is automatic for human beings.  The sexual act establishes an inner emotional connection with the partner, but one is not forced to nurture it.  One can choose to instantly sever the connection, to pretend that it was never established and does not exist, and so to go cheerfully from partner to partner.  But there is a cost attached to such pretending, and by this I do not refer to the possibility of unwanted pregnancy or sexually-transmitted disease, though these should not be discounted.  I refer to the secret cost to the inner ability to make connections, to the creeping insensibility to the other, and the denied possibilities for growth.  We see this insensibility in an advanced degree in those suffering from sexual addiction to pornography—for such persons, sex is no longer about love.  It is no longer even about the other person with whom one is having sex.  Sex has become distorted and diluted to such an extent that it is simply about having an orgasm.  One such sufferer who had become addicted to pornographic fantasy described such sex with one’s partner as simply masturbating with another person.  In such extreme cases the divinely-intended purpose of sex has been entirely overthrown.  Sex was always meant to be about love and to nurture human connections. 
When it is used the way God intended, repeated sexual union opens up the possibility of mutual long-term enrichment.  By having sex with one’s marital partner, one has the possibility of investing in the other person, so that each is strengthened by the other, moulded by the other, given deeper identity by the other.  Of course this is not automatic, and can be thwarted by selfishness and sin.  But the possibility remains, and this is the goal of sexual union.  (Having children is of course another goal, but I am speaking now merely the unitive power of sexuality, not its ultimate fruitfulness in creating other persons.)  Even our culture recognizes this to some degree, in its fascination for couples who have been married to each other for many years and retain their love for each other.   
            Casual sex, therefore, involves sundering the act from the relationship and from love.  Love is almost completely misunderstood in our culture.  We define it as a feeling, an emotion, and speak of infatuation as “being in love”.  In fact, love is not an emotion, but an action.  We love the other not by feeling strong emotions of attachment, delight and infatuation (lovely as these emotions are), but by serving them and meeting their needs.  If we love someone, we refuse to abandon them, but will stay with them despite the cost.  This is the definition of marriage—to commit oneself to another in service and self-sacrifice, “for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, for richer or for poorer”.  This commitment provides the framework and the possibility for love to endure.  Love says, “Even if you become old, and sick, and wrinkled, and poor, I will not abandon you.  Nothing but death will drive me from your side.”  Since we may become poor, and certainly will become old and sick and wrinkled, this assurance and the promise are necessary if love is to endure.  Sex is meant to serve this love, and to bring the two lovers closer in a continually-reinforced emotional bond.  That is why the Church insists that sex be reserved for marriage, for sex was created to lead the couple to this lasting fulfillment.  Fornication short-circuits the real purpose of sex.

            One last word about sex:  the center of Christian morality is not here.  Fornication is a sin, since it takes sexuality and wastes it on lesser things, and lessens our capacity for lasting joy.  (That is partly what St. Paul means when he says in 1 Cor. 6:18 that the fornicator sins against his own body.)  But there are worse sins than the sexual ones, and these involve the spirit and its temptations to pride more than they involve the body.  To quote C.S. Lewis once again, “a cold, self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute.  But of course,” he says, “it is better to be neither.”

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Dying Like a Disciple

Every year on August 15 the Church bids us come to the final bedside of the Theotokos and learn how to die.  It is an important lesson, and all the more important because our secular culture offers us no clue.  Indeed, our culture seems intent on denying the reality of death.  In earlier and saner ages, everyone mostly died at home, surrounded by loved ones who would pray with them in their final hours and wash and attend to the body after death had occurred.  Even young children knew what corpses looked like and had contact with them.  The phrase from the old Latin hymn Media vita in morte sumus, “in the midst of life we are in death” resonated for everyone, whether they had heard the old hymn sung or not. 
            Now all has changed.  Most people do not die at home but in the hospital, surrounded by professionals and strangers.  After death they are whisked from the hospital room to the hospital morgue and from there, all too often, to the crematorium.  In many funerals the corpse is not present, only a photo of the deceased taken while they were alive.  And the final rites are not even necessarily called “funerals”, for the word is thought to savour too much of death.  The rite is now called “a celebration of life”—one might imagine that the title indicated not the rites of death, but a birthday party.   In short, our culture has created the funeral industry, whose main function seemingly is to sanitize death and save the survivors from its horror and trauma.  The room where the casket may be found (if there is a casket) is called “the slumber room”, though no one ever sleeps there.  And no one ever uses the verb “die”.  No one now ever dies.  They pass on.  In every funeral chapel I have entered, soothing music is played in the background, often sentimental renditions of Protestant hymns that no one has sung in most Protestant churches for at least a generation.  The function of the music is not liturgical, but anaesthetic.  Not surprisingly in such a death-denying culture, no one knows how to die.  That is perhaps why most people don’t want to talk about death, though the certainty of death hangs over them all.  They have no clue.
            But the Mother of God has a clue, and she knew exactly how to die:  surrendering up her soul to her Son, surrounded by His Church.  In this her final act on earth she gives us a lesson for eternity.  This lesson consists of four parts.
            First of all, dying for the disciple of Jesus consists of turning from this world with all its glory and heartbreak, with all its beauty and betrayal, to face the Lord.  Of course we rejoice and find comfort in the love of friends and family that surround us in our final hours.  But dying means that at the end we say goodbye to them all, and turn from them to face the Saviour, the eternal Fountain.  Every day we have followed in the footsteps of the Theotokos and have said, “Behold, I am the handmaid (or servant) of the Lord”.  On our final day we remain His servant, and we commit our soul to His hands one last time.  We die as we have lived, looking to Jesus.
            Secondly, for a disciple of Christ dying means dying in love and charity with all men.  St. Paul tells us of the folly of letting the sun go down on our anger (Ephesians 4:26); how much more foolish is it to end our whole life in anger?  The Lord is crystal clear:  if we do not forgive men their trespasses, God will not forgive ours.  We say this each time we pray the Lord’s Prayer, and this truth must guide us at the end.  Before death silences are voice and stops our heart, we must freely and fully forgive anyone who has ever hurt us or sinned against us. 
            Thirdly, dying as a disciple of Christ means that we receive the Eucharistic Gifts one last time before embarking on our journey to eternal life.  A wise person will not wait until after their Christian friend has died to call the priest, but will call for the priest while there is still time for their friend to receive Holy Communion one last time.  That is the point of the petition asking God for “a good defense before the dread judgment seat of Christ”, for our good defense comes from this final sacramental bestowal of forgiveness.  We step through the dark door of death as those freshly pardoned and at peace.
            Finally, the death of the Theotokos teaches us that Christian death should come as the culmination  of a Christian life.  There is no sense living like a worldling, intending to repent before the end comes in what some have called “an eleventh hour repentance”.  For one thing, we have no guarantee that we will not die at 10.30.  But more than that, the decision to delay repentance and faith brings its own dangers to the human heart.  If we spend year after year saying no to Christ and pushing away His daily offer of grace, our heart does not remain unchanged by such denials and apostasies.  Denying Christ makes the heart colder and harder, and at the end we may find ourselves incapable of turning to Him—which is the ultimate and eternal catastrophe.  There was never a moment when humble maiden of Nazareth turned from God and rejected Him.  With each breath she said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord”, and that was why she could die in peace and triumph.  Taught by her death, we can one day die in peace and triumph too.