Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Divine Liturgy according to Monty Python

          Fans of the British satirical series “Monty Python” and their movie The Meaning of Life will perhaps remember their portrayal of Christian liturgy.  A man in cassock, surplice, and academic hood, looking every inch a stuffy Church of England cleric comes forward in chapel and begins a prayer to God with these words:  “O Lord, ooh You are so big, so absolutely huge, gosh, we’re all really impressed down here, I can tell You.  Forgive us, O Lord, for this our dreadful toadying, but You’re so strong and well, so super.  Amen.”  It is of a piece with the cultural nihilism for which the Pythons are so famous, and reflects how many people saw the established Church of England and perhaps religion in general.  Unfair characterization?  Absolutely.  Deep resonance with the public?  Absolutely.  That’s why the satire works.
            Could the Pythons have a point?  We don’t say anything quite so crass, but it might seem to some that our Liturgy does indulge in some toadying.  Take for example part of the Anaphora from the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom:  “You are God, ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible, ever-existing and eternally the same, You and Your only-begotten Son and Your Holy Spirit”.  Why say this to God?  Doesn’t He already know that He is ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible, ever-existing and eternally the same?  Why tell Him every Sunday?  Then is this not dreadful toadying and fatuous flattery?  What’s all this about?  Why keep on praising Him?
            The answer can be found in, of all places, the Song of Solomon.  There we also find page after page of praising.  “Behold, you are beautiful, my love, behold, you are beautiful.  You eyes are doves behind your veil.  Your hair is like a flock of goats, moving down the slopes of Gilead.  Your lips are like a scarlet thread and your mouth is lovely.  Your cheeks are like halves of a pomegranate.  Your two breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle.”  There is more, but you get the idea, and it goes on and on.  Even when reading it across a cultural divide (goats? Gilead? fawns?) the mutual delight and sensuousness comes through clearly enough.  Presumably not even a nihilistic Python would accuse the person uttering such words of toadying or flattery.  The person uttering these words was clearly in love, and utterly captivated by the beloved.
            It is not just in the Song of Solomon that we can find such sentiments.  Shakespeare has them too.  When youthful Romeo sees his true love Juliet appear at a window, he utters these famous words:  “What light through yonder window breaks?  It is the east and Juliet is the sun! Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon, who is already sick and pale with grief that thou her maid art far more fair than she.  It is my lady, O, it is my love! O that she knew she were! What if her eyes were there?   The brightness of her cheek would shame those stars, as daylight doth a lamp.  Her eyes in heaven would through the airy region stream so bright that birds would sing and think it were not night.”
          I defy even a Python to satirize this as “dreadful toadying”.  Like the voices in the Song of Solomon, this is the voice of a heart consumed by love and longing.  Shakespeare of course expresses it superlatively well, but everyone who has been in love can relate to this and felt such things.
            And what does the lover long for?  Here one must be careful, and keep cynical bits of Freud and his gang well away.  Remember your past; remember the time when you were in love, and smitten with your beloved.  What did you want most of all when thinking of her?  As usual C.S. Lewis has the answer.  In his book The Four Loves, he speaks of a man who is in love as experiencing “a delighted pre-occupation with the Beloved—a general unspecified pre-occupation with her in totality…If you asked him what he wanted, the true reply would often be, ‘To go on thinking of her.’  He is love’s contemplative.”
            This is also what the Church wants and says in its Liturgy.  The Church is the Bride of Christ, and longs for her heavenly Bridegroom.  It is surely significant that at the end of the Bible the Church we find the Church as the Bride, ready for her divine Husband and waiting for their wedding supper (Rev. 19:7, 21:2f).  Like the mutual delight we find in the Song of Solomon, the Church longs for Christ, and pours out words of praise:  Behold, you are beautiful, my love, behold, you are beautiful.  You are God, ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible, ever-existing and eternally the same, You and Your only-begotten Son and Your Holy Spirit”.  This is not toadying; it is love, delight, spiritual infatuation.  It is the voice of the Bride, longing for her Bridegroom.  All she wants is Him:  to behold Him, to praise Him, to think of Him.  And to go on thinking of Him.
            One day this will come true, and they will live happily ever after, and the Bride will go on thinking of Him and praising Him.  St. Augustine knew this, and ended his massive City of God with that happy ending:  “There we shall be still and see; we shall see and we shall love; we shall love and we shall praise.  Behold what will be in the end, without end!  For what is our end but to reach that Kingdom which has no end?”  Here all nihilism is swallowed up in truth, and cynicism dies before an invincible and deathless love.  Our liturgy even now gives us a taste of that deathless love.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Sunday Morning Outpouring

          What do you expect will happen at Liturgy on a Sunday morning?  Why do you rouse yourself from your comfy bed, pile into the car (possibly with sleepy and unruly kids), drive to church, and stand there for an hour or so?  What do you hope to experience?
            For some, the gain comes in terms of ethnic identity and a sense of belonging to one’s ancestral people—especially in the Liturgy is conducted in a language not now understood.  Even though the meaning is not grasped, still one enjoys the music, the icons, the entire atmosphere of holy transcendence, and comes away feeling a greater cultural connection with one’s past.  For others, one comes to Liturgy to satisfy one’s spiritual needs, and to find an oasis of prayer and peace.  One enjoys (or perhaps merely endures) the homily.  One may receive Holy Communion, and draw near to God, receiving strength through the sacrament.  Obviously, people’s motivations and expectations are complex and layered, and people may come with both of these motivations, or with other ones.
            It is instructive to read in the earliest extant sermon how one preacher characterized the Sunday morning experience.  The preacher was St. Clement of Rome, and his “sermon” was his letter to the Corinthians, written in the late first or early second century, and known to scholars as “1 Clement”.  Clement wrote to the Corinthians as a concerned neighbour from Rome, rebuking them for unjustly ousting presbyters from their office in a kind of ecclesiastical palace coup.  In the opening part of his letter, he contrasts their present lamentable condition with their former laudable one.  He writes, “You were all distinguished by humility…Content with the provision which God had made for you, and carefully attending to His words, you were inwardly filled with His doctrine, and His sufferings were before your eyes.  Thus a profound and abundant peace was given to you all, and you had an insatiable desire for doing good…”   
This is, I suggest, a picture of their Sunday morning worship:  they came to Liturgy in humility and with spiritual hunger; they all carefully attended to God’s words in the Scripture readings and in the sermon, and all partook of the Eucharist, after the Anaphora had been said wherein “His sufferings were before their eyes”.  Then Clement added the words:  “…while a full outpouring of the Holy Spirit was upon you all”.   It was during their time of Sunday worship that the Holy Spirit was abundantly poured out upon them.  Clement writes as if this outpouring were the crown and goal of their worship.  I think Clement was right.  St. Seraphim of Sarov, writing much later, would have agreed.  He said that the whole goal of the Christian life was acquisition of the Holy Spirit, and if it is the goal of the Christian life, then surely it is also the goal of attendance at the Eucharist, for the Eucharist is the sacramental source of our Christian life.
            We Orthodox are more Pentecostal than we may have thought.  Ever since Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia wrote his classic The Orthodox Church in 1963 (he was Timothy Ware back then), we have known that the Church was “a continued Pentecost”.  It is this aspect of our traditional faith that we need to recover once more, especially if our church-going seems to be a chore.  We do not merely go to Liturgy to light candles, or listen to three-point sermons, or even to receive our individual Holy Communion.  We go because all these things are parts of a spiritual outpouring which gives us life, and binds us into one.  It is at the Liturgy that a full outpouring of the Holy Spirit is abundantly and freely available.  All we need to do is to come with expectation, and open up our hearts to that outpouring.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Legacy of Robin Williams: Seize the Day

 Like millions of others, I was stunned to learn of the tragic death of Robin Williams, who took his own life after a long and unsuccessful struggle with depression.  My own children grew up watching and rejoicing in Robin’s many movies, such as “Good Morning, Viet Nam”, “Good Will Hunting”, and “Mrs. Doubtfire”.  I will not attempt here to list his many professional accomplishments.  That lengthy and happy task I leave to others better equipped than I, though I will suggest that we will not soon his like again.  Here I would like to focus on the legacy he has left us.
            That legacy may be summed up in two words:  carpe diem, seize the day.  In a now particularly bittersweet scene from his film “Dead Poets Society”, Williams plays Mr. Keating, an English teacher at a prestigious boys’ prep school.  He wants the boys to be inspired by poetry, to think for themselves, to avoid the snares of rigid formalism which pressed upon them all around.  On the first day of classes, he troops his boys from his classroom into the school’s main hall.  He has them read the poetic lines, “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may; Old Time is still a-flying; And this same flower that smiles today, Tomorrow will be dying.”  The Latin for this sentiment, he tells them, is carpe diem, seize the day.  Why?  “Because we are food for worms, lads,” he tells them.  “Because believe it or not, each and every one of us in this room will one day stop breathing, turn cold, and die.”  He then bids them look closely at the display cases containing old photos of students from years long past, and to hear what these now long-dead students are whispering to them.  Carpecarpecarpe diem!  Seize the days, boys.  Make your lives extraordinary.”
            The same message sounded from another of Robin’s films, “Hook”.  Here he plays Peter Banning, a father of two young children who has forgotten that he is also Peter Pan.  It is a tale of redemption, since Peter Banning has abandoned his inner child and become a driven executive whose obsession with work is costing him the love of his wife and his two young children.  His sojourn in Neverland becomes a journey of salvation, as he rediscovers his true self and saves his children from Captain Hook.  The final scene is now also poignantly bittersweet:  it shows the reborn Peter Banning standing at an open window, surrounded by his loving family.  An aged Wendy murmurs ruefully, “So your adventures are over.”  “Oh no,” he replies.  “To live—to live would be an awfully big adventure.”  The movie ends with his childhood friend Tootles, having been sprinkled with fairy dust, flying with joy into the sky.  And Tootles’ words as he flew through the open window?  “Seize the day!”
            This counsel not only comes to us through the joyful art of Robin Williams.  It also comes through the exhortations of the Gospel.  “Behold,” says St. Paul, “now is the acceptable time.  Behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2).  We must seize the day, and use each one of its hours to glorify the Lord and walk in His will.  We believers shouldn’t need Mr. Keating to remind us that one day we will turn cold and die and stand before the dread judgment seat of Christ.  We who are called to be saints do not need to belong to the Dead Poet Society to learn that we should use the time given us by God to make our lives extraordinary.  And we who follow the Lord to the cross and beyond surely don’t need Peter Pan to teach us that life is an awfully big adventure.  The Church never ceases to remind us of these truths and to impress them upon our hearts.
            But not everyone enjoys the advantage of listening to the Gospel call to become extraordinary.  Some may never enter the doors of the Church to hear its summons to the adventure that is Christian discipleship.  But they might sit in a movie theatre or before a television screen and watch the art of Robin Williams.  They might be moved to seize the day and reach out to try to become something more than mere masses of dying mediocrity.  It might just be the first step to making their lives extraordinary, and maybe even the first steps back to our extraordinary Lord.
            One final thing:  as we remember with gratitude the art of Robin Williams, let us spare a moment to remember his soul also.  It seems that at the end, he was not able to take his own advice, and to continue the awfully big adventure.  All the more reason to commend him to God, the lover of mankind.  O Captain, my Captain, divine Judge of the souls of all men, have mercy upon him, and upon us all.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Blessed Father Herman of Alaska: the Significance of the Saint

          In 1970, when our church first received its autocephaly from the Russian Church, it immediately did two things.  First, it changed its name from the somewhat unwieldy “the Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church of America” to the snappier and now more accurate “the Orthodox Church in America”.  Secondly, it canonized Herman of Alaska.  This latter task was then ours to do:  the rule says that whichever church possesses the relics of a saint is the church charged with the task and privilege of canonization.  Thus, for example, although St. Tikhon was the ruling bishop of the American diocese, he died on Russian soil and therefore the Russian church which retains his relics was the church which got to canonize him, regardless of any connection St. Tikhon might have had with the American church.  Bishop Tikhon may have had a special love for his American children and left his heart in San Francisco, but he left his relics in Moscow, and whoever retains the relics, retains the joyful task of canonization.  Thus in like manner, after 1970 the Blessed Father Herman of Alaska was ours to canonize.
            It is significant that the first saint of North America was a simple missionary, one who continued to embrace humility all the days of his life, even to the point of shunning ordination.  He lived and died as a simple missionary to this land, and it is as a missionary that he points the way forward for us today.  For we Orthodox in North America are very different than our Orthodox older brothers in other lands.
            Take Russia, for example.  Orthodoxy was planted there before Russia was Russia, and before the words “Russia” or “Ukraine” had any national meaning.  In 988, it was simply the land of the Rus, and the land’s nationhood post-dated the planting of the Orthodox church there.  Orthodoxy thus grew up with the nation, and became part of the country’s DNA.  The Orthodox Church is thus now firmly ensconced in Russia, to the point where it is hard to imagine that country without also seeing it standing under the three-barred cross of Orthodoxy.
            Or take Greece, for another example.  The Gospel was planted in Hellenistic soil long before those living on the soil became the nation of Greece.  When Paul brought the Church there, he found Macedonia in the north and Achaia in the south; the unified country of Greece came much much later.  Even in Byzantine times the term “Greek” did not mean “inhabitants of the former Macedonia and Achaia” but rather “pagan”.  Once again we see the Church predating the nation so that the nation evolves and grows up with ecclesiastical blood flowing through its veins.  The Church is thus ensconced in Greece as it is in Russia, and it is not surprising if its bishops swagger just a bit.  After all this time, they are somewhat entitled.
            It is otherwise here in North America.  Here the nations of America and Canada have existed before Herman and the other missionaries ever arrived.  And, praise-worthy evangelistic enthusiasm notwithstanding, it seems unlikely that Orthodoxy will ever convert North America in the way that it once converted  those in the land of the Rus or those in Macedonia and Achaia.  Orthodoxy became ensconced there; it will not become similarly ensconced here, so that our bishops should not plan on swaggering culturally here anytime soon.  We will never be the ones in charge, as we are in Russia and Greece.  We will remain missionaries.
            The example of St. Herman of Alaska reveals that this is perfectly fine.  Becoming ensconced or culturally dominant is not our goal; faithful proclamation of the Gospel is.  Obviously we have to aim at converting absolutely everyone, since God loves absolutely everyone.  But our evangelistic zeal should not blind us to the real situation.  The reality is that the cultural tide is now flowing against us, and in a few generations America will not be a Christian country in any sense that St. Herman (or St. Paul) would recognize.  Indeed, in Canada this has already happened.  Radical secularization continues apace throughout the continent, and the Land of the Free seems determined to become the Land of the Secular.  And in this land, missionaries will be needed.  Perhaps it is providential therefore that the first saint of the land was just such a missionary.  We need the example of the simple missionary Herman of Alaska now more than ever.