Monday, July 30, 2012

In Praise of Powerlessness

       I am, I can cheerfully attest, kept far from the levers of power in the church. (My dear Matushka and others who love me can further attest that this is a good thing.) My situation can be described in the words of the old children's hymn written by Susan B. Werner and published in 1868: “Jesus bids us shine with a clear, pure light, like a little candle burning in the night; in this world of darkness, we must shine, you in your small corner, and I in mine.” That is, I live in my small little corner of the world, as you do in yours.
       While I sit in my little corner, however, I have access to the internet. That means that I can look far afield and find out what is happening in other little corners. I can learn about the resignation of Metropolitan Jonah, about what is happening in the Orthodox Midwest, about what is happening on Mount Athos, in Russia, and in other Orthodox jurisdictions. I can even learn about what is happening, if I become very bored, in American politics. All of this learning can give me the impression that I now know The Big Picture, and, since I am in fact the fountain and source of all wisdom, I can have an opinion about pretty much everything and pontificate about how everyone can fix their problems.
       This impression that I have The Big Picture would be erroneous though, since I am like the blind man in the story of the elephant. You probably recall the parable: there were several blind men, each standing beside an elephant. One blind man felt the elephant's leg and concluded that an elephant was like a tree. Another blind man felt the elephant's tail and concluded that an elephant was like a snake. You get the idea—because each blind man could only experience one part of the elephant, his conclusion was flawed because his experience was partial. His experience was true as far as it went, but needed to be supplemented by the different experiences of other blind men before it could be of any use. My internet research gives me access to facts and opinions, but these are only partial. To be of any real use, they would need to be supplemented by all the other facts and opinions of all of the other people involved. My researches on the internet, interesting as they are, cannot in fact supply me with The Big Picture.
       This is means, sad to relate, that I am not in a position to pontificate or fix everyone's problems. This does not mean that I cannot do anything. As the child's hymn reminds me, I can still “shine with a clear, pure light”. And part of this shining involves praying for all the problems I read about on the internet. I can pray for the Metropolitan. I can pray for the bishops. I can pray for Mount Athos and Russia and the other Orthodox jurisdictions. I can even pray for politicians and the regions they aspire to govern. Of course this is not as much fun as blogging and pontificating and wading into internet forums to offer my tremendously valuable wisdom. But given the partial nature of my wisdom, it is likely to be the more valuable contribution.
       In short, part of my shining with a clear pure light involves accepting my own powerlessness. I cannot really fix great problems by my words because I lack the wisdom to do so. I can add my voice and make my little contribution to ongoing debates which concern me (assuming that they really do concern me), but I must do so realizing that I lack The Big Picture. At the end of the day, I remained confined to my small corner, as you do to yours. But that is okay, and the realization of it can be liberating. For on the Last Day, the Lord will not demand of me why I did not weigh in on every single debate going and fix His world, but rather how clearly I shone, and how fervently I prayed.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Meditation on Fornication

Our present secular culture has fixed a great gap between people of my generation (i.e. those from the Jurassic period) and modern young people.  And this gap is most easily observed when looking at our divergent understandings of fornication.  Indeed, I remember once giving instruction to a young (chaste) catechumen, and casually mentioning that the Church opposed fornication.  The eyes of the young’un glazed over a bit before asking me what fornication was.  The person wasn’t asking for a more precise definition; rather, the person had no idea what the word meant.  The word had effectively vanished from modern vocabulary and could only be recovered by looking it up in the Oxford English Dictionary.  The current phrase used to describe the practice is, I am told, “hooking up”.
            So, the question remains, “Why does the Church oppose ‘hooking up’?”  Why does the Church insist that sexual congress (I told you I was from the Jurassic period) be reserved exclusively to married couples?  What’s the problem with having sex with someone to whom you are not married and have no intention of marrying?
            It will not do to simply quote Scripture, for its authority has long since ceased to function effectively as far as our secular culture is concerned.  If things in Scripture (like the commandments, “Love your neighbour” or “Take care of the poor”) find an echo and confirmation in secular culture, that is fine—and entirely coincidental.  But Scripture can no longer function to inform or correct our secular culture, and people who quote Scripture to worldlings as if the Scriptures were an effective authority are simply wasting their breath and blowing their credibility.  If I were to respond to the question “Why should I not hook up?”, by saying “You should not ‘hook up’ because Scripture forbids it”, they would simply respond in turn, “Why on earth does it forbid it?”  Young people are looking for inner rationale, and for a real and sensible reason, not for proof-texts.  And, given our present culture, they have a point.
            The answer is:  the Church forbids fornication because fornication gets in the way of one of the main purposes of authentic human sexuality.  It frustrates the first intended goal of sex, and is a dilution of it.  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.  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 reality is that sex involves what was once called “becoming one flesh”.  This mingling 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.  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, “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.”

Monday, July 16, 2012

College Days and Yesteryear

          I recently came across a description of a theological college which I know and love.  Because of my love for the college, I propose to withhold its name in these reflections.  A professor who had been with the college for many years was writing a piece in the college’s magazine comparing new and old days, and in particular the college’s transition from the old to the new.  He wrote that a certain person “moved into what we now call the Principal’s Lodge in 1975 just as [the college] was leaving behind a past where single men trained for the priesthood, and was entering its future as an inclusive theological community of clergy and lay, male and female, single and married, young and old…[The college] was quite unprepared for this new reality.  [The Principal’s] predecessor was a widower; the Dean of Students was a bachelor; and all the rhythms and regulations of college life were rooted in yesteryear”.  There is certainly no denying the accuracy of the professor’s observation about a change from “yesteryear”:  photos provided in the rest of the magazine showed a student body where many of the graduates were older than they were in my day, and at least half were female.  One photo of recently ordained clergy consisted of “Pam, Beth, Rachel, Pam, and Leslie”—all women.  This is indeed a change from yesteryear.  The church which this college serves, like the college itself, is an “inclusive theological community”.
            It is also a shrinking one.  There is one thing about the church of “yesteryear”—it was considerably fuller than the one now, and spent less of its time angsting over its identity.  Ironically, the first article in the magazine dealt with a conference organized to help repair crumbling unity and recover a common identity, saying, “What is an Anglican? This is a big question…Our church is changing, and so is its identity…”  The church or college of yesteryear, whatever its flaws, did not feel the need to hold conferences to try to answer questions of fundamental identity.  It knew what it was about, and got on with its job, aided by its widowed Principal, its bachelor Dean of Students, and its single men being trained for priesthood.
            The piece quoted above celebrating the change from the old form in yesteryear to the present bright form as an inclusive theological community struck me as all the more poignant in view of another piece I read the same day—namely, a piece written by Ross Douthat in the New York Times Sunday Review, entitled Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?  In this piece, Mr. Douthat quotes the statistics that the Anglican/ Episcopal Church church attendance figures dropped 23% in the past decade, and that no American Episcopal diocese saw churchgoing increase.  To quote Mr. Douthat:  “Both religious and secular liberals have been loath to recognize this crisis.  Leaders of liberal churches have alternated between a Monty Python-esque ‘it’s just a flesh wound!’ bravado and a weird self-righteousness about their looming extinction.”  
The transition and changes from yesteryear to today were doubtless undertaken to help the church become more “relevant” (that wonderful ‘60’s buzzword, now wonderfully dated, like the hoola-hoop).  It was expected that making the church more “inclusive” (our ‘90’s buzzword), would enable it to more effectively reach the unchurched population with the Gospel, so that untold multitudes would again darken the church door.  Our liberal inclusivism has not worked, as the depressing statistics reveal.  Douthat again: “Instead of attracting a younger, more open-minded demographic with these changes, the Episcopal Church’s dying has proceeded apace.”   It is almost as if the perceived solution for the raging fire consuming the church is to pour on more liberal gasoline. 
This should offer a cautionary tale for us Orthodox.  We are not immune to the same forces which currently afflict the liberal Protestant churches and threaten them with extinction in the decades or century to come.  Unfaithfulness to the Holy Tradition brings its own price.  Liberal Christians may rejoice in the changes and tell themselves that this is all for the better (the presiding bishop of the Episcopal church in a 2006 interview rejoiced in the low numbers of Episcopalians, saying that Episcopalians valued “the stewardship of the earth” too highly to reproduce themselves), but the prospect eventual self-extinction is not a cause for celebration, but for self-examination and penitence.  Ultimately, the slow extinction of a church reflects the judgment of God upon a community which has lost its way.  The word which Christ offered to the first-century church of Ephesus He offers to us as well:  “Remember from where you have fallen, and repent, and do the deeds you did at first; or else I am coming to you and will remove your lampstand from its place” (Rev. 2:5).  When we Orthodox are tempted to become “relevant” or “inclusive” or whatever will become the buzzword of the next decade, and abandon our Holy Tradition, we must remember this word of Christ.  We must remember “yesteryear” from where we have fallen, and do the deeds we did at first.  Otherwise we too may experience a disastrous decline.  We do not possess any immunity from God’s judgment.  Our North American lampstand can also be removed from its place.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Rockaway Beach: How I Spent My Summer Vacation

     Every year I return to the little Oregon town of Rockaway Beach for a week to walk up and down on the beach and read Bible commentaries, putting my research into the margins of my Bible. Sandy beaches, cold wine, colder ice-cream and stacks of Bible commentaries to go through—there is no better time to be had this side of the Kingdom. As well as writing comments into my Bible margins, I try also to produce a poem. This year, the poem reflects on the sound of the pounding surf, wonderfully audible through the open windows of the beach house at which I stay. The poem follows; I hope you like it.

On Rockaway Beach

I went down to the beach and listened
while the ocean roared at me.
It got my attention, so I sat on the sand
like a student at a classroomdesk.
At length I learned its language,
strange and sad.
It had seen me and my type before,
a thousand times, ten thousand times
ten thousand, times
past counting or caring. We all
ran to the beach, and cried,
and sang, and worried, and died, running
into its sunlit surf.
It had seen it all—that was why it spoke with the voice
of deathless despair. It had seen the first Leviathan born, struggling
with an infant’s defiance out of its egg. It had seen
the animals come, shuffling and blinking out of the forests.
It had seen
men arise, newcomers under the sky, tentative,
doomed. All of them, all, down
to the last, marching relentlessly, single file,
singing or silent, into
its cold, covering waves.
It had seen it all. The mute rocks
were its brothers, and the blind sky.
I listened to its pounding lessons and learned:
the noise was time’s loud lamentation,
its waters, the salty tears of God.

Monday, July 2, 2012

The Limits of Verbal Communication: Part of a Conversation

            I like words; they serve me as a preacher and teacher in the same way that tools serve the carpenter, and it is through words that I earn my living.  But words alone have their limits.  Words alone serve to reach the mind of another, but for total communication, one also needs a bodily presence.
            This is not to devalue words and their power to inform.  I remember in college being converted from pacifism to non-pacifism through reading the words of Martin Luther, in his tract Whether Soldiers Too Can Be Saved, written in 1527.  Luther’s mind reached across the centuries to touch mine, and his words succeeded in winning me over to his point of view.  Words retain their power to influence the mind of another, as mind meets mind.
            But for a more total communication, something more is needed than words alone.  That is why I prefer a phone call to an email, and a visit to a phone call.  Experts tell me that about 80% of communication is non-verbal, consisting of such things as tone of voice, body language, and speed of speech.  I’m not able to verify the percentage, but certainly most of truly effective communication is non-verbal.  I recall having to confess a person while visiting the church of another priest, and the person spoke no English.  (I remain tragically unilingual.)  The confession therefore was in a language foreign to me.  I could not, of course, offer the customary words of counsel afterward, but I did understand from the non-verbal parts of our encounter that this was a person who fervently repented of their sins, and who sought the mercy of God.  I was able therefore to offer sacramental absolution, even though I did not understand the words of the confession.  (I may add that such confessions are, and should be, a rarity.)
            The limits of verbal communication are also why written sermons which one reads in a book are less effective than sermons actually heard in church.  Preachers do not simply aim at the minds of their congregations, but also at their hearts; their aim is not only to impart data, but to transform life.  To succeed at such a task, one needs to communicate the Message at the deepest level, not only offering words, but also driving them home through the fervency of body language and dramatic rhetorical device.  The preacher knows (or should know) that he is not simply passing along information, like a person sharing a recipe, but striving for the souls of men.   One needs to look into the eyes of the one receiving the words, for it is through the eyes that one reaches the heart.  (That is also why preachers should avoid preaching from a manuscript, for one cannot simultaneously look at the notes and at the hearer.) 
            Words alone are wonderful, but for total communication such as is needed to communicate the Gospel, often they are not enough.  God knew this too.  That is why He not only sent words through the prophets, but embodied the Word in the Incarnation of His Son.  Bodily presence can transform words into a sacramental encounter, and it is this encounter which is the preacher’s goal.

For other voices in this conversation about words, see: