- Around the Corner
- The Truth of Mary
- Math, Reason and Civilization
- A Gifted Existence
- The Poetry of God
- Human Tradition in a Modern World
- Excuse Me, You Are Not Rational
- Atheism and the Imagination
- About Fairy Tales
- Making It Up in America
- A Faerie Apocalypse
- The Elves Have Left the Building
- Theology and Faerie – The Modern Tragedy
I have fallen far behind on Fr. Stephen Freeman’s blog by a full baker’s dozen. Laid low by laryngitis, I have caught up. Here’s an uncommonly long Sunday Banquet in addition to my earlier offering. (Note the many tags and few categories; Fr. Stephen thinks outside my box.)
Some years back when our parish was just beginning, we occupied a storefront location next to a dime store. The space where I parked my car was hidden by a head-high bush. One morning, coming in to the parish, I could hear a young girl playing on the other side of the bush. Based on her fantasy monologue, I could hear that she was somewhere in a Harry Potter novel. As I stepped around the bush, she turned and saw me. I was wearing a gray cassock, was bearded, and even wore a pony-tail at the time. Her mouth opened wide and her eyes wider as she stared at me. I smiled.
“You…you’re beautiful!” she stammered.
I have never been more delighted to be an object of wonder. It was a reaction far removed from the fairly frequent looks of consternation on the faces of adults who are clearly disturbed that something so strange should be walking freely about their city.
The child’s reaction is not a mark of immaturity – but a mark of a human being still capable of belief.
Even more surprising is the recent case of Sam Harris (a noted atheist and writer) describing an experience he had by the Sea of Galilee. In his book, Waking Up, he relates:
As I gazed at the surrounding hills, a feeling of peace came over me. It soon grew to a blissful stillness that silenced my thoughts. In an instant, the sense of being a separate self — an ‘I’ or a ‘me’ — vanished.
Harris does not come to the conclusions of a believer, but he recognizes experiences that point towards something often overlooked.
My personal reflection is that Harris sold the experience short and could have gone further (deeper) ….
(Around the Corner, September 7)
It is frequently the case that Orthodox (and Catholics) in the contemporary world are made to feel that their devotion to Mary and the saints has added something extra and unnecessary to the faith. Some complain that we have substituted them for God Himself.
But it is in the world of contemporary Christianity that the great apostasy is taking place. The Trinity is abandoned for abstractions; the sacraments ignored for entertainment; Jesus becomes a slogan for bumper-stickers and t-shirts. Believers not only do not believe the classical doctrines of the faith, they do not even know them. Orthodox Christians sing them and breathe them, paint them on their walls and write them in their hearts.
Truth is a person. All truth. Christ has so given us the truth that at every point, we may see it embodied in persons. The whole of the Church’s life and doctrine, is a true icon of the reality of heaven itself. There we will not think so much as sing – and fall down in the presence of the Truth.
(The Truth of Mary, September 7)
[T]oday, reason itself has become suspect. There has been a shift in popular consciousness in which the will has triumphed over reason (something that was inevitable). Today, what is true is what we want to be true. It is the final victory for consumers. Not only are we able to choose anything we want, but we are also able to will what is.
Justice Anthony Kennedy articulated this with great succinctness in 1992 in the opinion he wrote for Planned Parenthood vs. Casey:
At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.
That “liberty” now justifies fundamental realities such as the relations between male and female to be subject to change, because some want it. Reality has become plastic and subject to redefinition. This is an anti-science and an anti-math, just as it is anti-reason.
The mathematical reasonableness of creation is an important feature of creation, recognized both by the fathers as well as modern science. In that sense, true science is in no way the enemy of the Christian faith. It has its limits, and must stand respectfully silent before the quintessence of existence. Reason and Math have classically been limited by reality itself. The will, however, seems to know no limit. With its triumphant rise, civilization has passed over into barbarism.
(Math, Reason and Civilization, September 11)
You cannot give thanks for what has not been given to you.
We learn in the Eucharist itself that the giving of thanks is the primary means of communion with God. Communion with God is the ground of all being …
From the moment of our conception we are living a gift. Our biology represents an inheritance that reaches to the very beginning of life. It comes as the fruit of every story that participated in that miraculous chain. Our culture comes as inheritance. The words of our language are themselves similar to our biology. They carry a linguistic DNA that extends to the very first word ever spoken.
The Church has a simple word for this gifting: tradition. Tradition does not mean “the way things have always been done.” Rather, it means “that which has been handed down.” Existence is itself a tradition, and the most precious. We must understand that tradition is not a choice; it is a given. Indeed, it is THE given. All existence is a tradition. There can only be the grateful acceptance of the gift or the refusal to acknowledge it. But we cannot forego the gift.
(A Gifted Existence, October 14)
In the history of the Church, a number of the greatest theologians have also been poets. St. Gregory the Theologian, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. John of Damascus, St. Isaac of Syria, St. Ephrem of Edessa – the list goes on and on – all joined theology to poetic endeavor. When we include the fact that the bulk of Orthodox theology is to be found in the hymns of the Church, we have to admit that the heart of the poet and the heart of the theologian are much the same thing …:
…nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility: whose texture
compels me with the color of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing
(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens;only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands
(from e.e. cummings, “somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond”)
“I love you,” would state the simple facts. “…rendering death and forever with each breathing…,” wins the smile.
The lover speaking to the beloved is seeking words for what cannot be spoken. The very inexpressible quality of thought and emotion demands words in the irony that is poetic expression.
Theology easily transcends the boundaries of romance – rightly expressed, theology always speaks the unspeakable.
With the heart of a poet St. Gregory of Nyssa asserts, “Only wonder understands anything.”
(The Poetry of God, October 15)
Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony. – Monty Python and the Holy Grail
The comic genius of Monty Python often shows it face when interjecting the present into the past. The charming Arthurian legend of the transmission of Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake is demolished with the prosaic treatment of modern rationalism.
Traditional societies are extremely messy. They do things in a manner that evolved for a great variety of reasons. An “inch,” a “foot” and a “yard” varied over a single Kingdom. A “foot” was, literally, more or less the length of a man’s foot. A traditional society was quite comfortable with measurements that were “more or less.” Efficiency and accuracy were not paramount. But just as measurements varied even within a single country, so institutions varied. Local courts and customs, even local laws might vary. The effect was a deep decentralization of life. To live in a village was quite distinctly to live in a particular village and not in a village in general. Place mattered. People mattered. History mattered.
Obviously such complete decentralization made efficiencies impossible. The great exemplar of modernity in the 18th century was the state of Prussia (in modern Germany). It was the first state to successfully make centralization and standardization a dominant feature in its life …
The rationality of the modern project did not stop with armies. It gradually came into almost every area of life, including the Churches. One manifestation of this standardization was the production of catechisms. The Reformers wrote small tracts with detailed organization of doctrine, capable of memorization and rapid reproduction. They were extremely effective and efficient tools for the instruction of the population. The Catholic Church responded with its first Catechism after the Council of Trent. The Orthodox eventually developed one of their own as well. (I personally feel that the Catechisms represent a low-point in the “Western Captivity” of Orthodoxy).
These developments might seem to be innocuous or even as real improvements. But they represent a shift in the center of gravity for human life. Traditional ways of thinking, living and interacting are organic rather than purely rational. Just as the standardization of human size and shape would actually diminish humanity and human experience, so the rationalization of every area of life does the same. A catechism tends to state succinctly things that should be stated at great length, or not even stated at all. They produce a form of knowledge, but not the form that is called Tradition. We do not learn Tradition; we are formed in Tradition. In the West, generations of children were drilled in their catechisms. Completion of the catechism was then greeted with the sacrament of Confirmation. The result was a rational Christian. The unintended result was a dull, moralistic, overly rational Church (sermons became dry treatises that often lasted two hours).
(Human Tradition in a Modern World, October 16)
Human beings are miserable and confused in our present world because they are not “rational” in the modern sense of the word, and they do not like being forced into that mold. We regularly rebel against its consequences but don’t know why. Our true humanity resists reduction – a fact not unrelated to our salvation itself.
The rationalized gardens of the Enlightenment have a wonderful beauty. Symmetry has an appeal to the human eye. But such gardens are also icons of human arrogance. Landscapes are forced into “unnatural” forms and shapes – things achievable only through violence and constant management. Growing things become the enemies that must be controlled. Such gardens are not about plants. The plants themselves disappear and become only a paint on the palette of modernity.
Far worse are the results we have seen in architecture. I offer the winner of the prestigious Mies Van der Pohe (sic) Prise, the “home for the elderly” in Portugal. One can only pray that no real elderly have been confined to this antiseptic whiteness. It is so devoid of nature that death will doubtless come as a relief to its inmates. It is, in the gushing writings that accompany its description, something that is “peaceful.” It is indeed peaceful, like death is “peaceful.” It is also profoundly anti-human.
No one denies the desirability of technology. Curing diseases and producing clean water have been an object of human interest throughout our history. But the success of such efforts do not justify a philosophy that falsely claims to be their progenitor. The curing of disease is not worth the cost of living in an antiseptic environment of sterile white lines and angles. It amounts to little more than swapping an organic disease for madness.
I recently stood with a group of believers at the edge of the French Broad River in the mountains of North Carolina. It was early morning and we were singing the Akathist hymn, “Glory to God for All Things.” There were rapids in the river that roared as we sang. The juxtaposition of the two made for a noeticevent (if you knew how to listen). We sang, and the river sang. I do not say, “It was as though the river sang.” No. The river sang and this can be noetically perceived. It is the same sense by which we know Christ’s Body and Blood in the sacrament. The whole world is sacrament, and is noetically perceived.
One of the most devastating effects of the modern project has been to reduce human beings to a very narrow and selected set of experiences. Nothing actually stands between saying, “The river sang,” and “It was as if the river sang,” other than a set of rigid rules that forbids the former from being more than a metaphor. The result is a denial of fundamental human experience.
(Excuse Me, You Are Not Rational, October 19; illustrations in original)
The difference between a truly great physicist and a merely good physicist will not be found primarily in their IQ, but in the ability to push their imaginations past what has previously been thought.
With this in mind, it occurs to me that modern Atheism is largely a lack of imagination …
Imagination is another word for wonder. St. Gregory of Nyssa said, “Only wonder understands anything.”
(Atheism and the Imagination, October 26)
If you want to teach a child not to do something, then clear directions and consistent discipline will generally do the trick. However, if you want to teach a child not to do a certain kind of thing, something completely different is called for. Most likely, you will have to resort to stories …
The stories have to ring true. This doesn’t mean that they actually have to be true on the level of a factual account, but if they do not have the character of truth, they will be short lived, having been of little use. They also need to work on a deep level …
A commenter recently described religion as a “fairy tale.” Many fairy tales are religious, but all religious stories are not fairy tales. A child who is robbed of fairy tales (or stories we take to be fairy tales) will be impoverished, perhaps bereft of important characters. But the similarity between Christianity and fairy tales is not an indictment of fraud. It is only what we would expect to be true if ever there were such a thing as a transcendent-Truth-become-fact.
(About Fairy Tales, October 28)
Despite all of our vaunted individualism, modern people still enjoy having shared stories and stories told to them. Quite often, however, those stories lack transcendent meaning. The sports fan can derive a deep sense of belonging and a story of shared sacrifice, victory or defeat. He may experience a deep catharsis when his team wins a championship. But as a story that gives meaning, sports are simply banal and empty. “Heroes” who are paid multi-millions to “sacrifice themselves” stretch the meaning of “heroic.”
We consume stories, or rather we approach stories like consumers. And like most consumer choices, the larger part of the “decision” is unconscious. And like a child at the dinner table, we rarely choose what is, in fact, good for us …
Being human is not a task for amateurs. Throughout history, stories have been handed down; they are traditioned to us. The reasons the stories survive and continue to be told is that they work. Of course, some stories that are traditioned have a darkness within them, and the corrective of time and experience alters or eliminates them. But there are some stories that, rightly told, are transformative, both of people and of whole civilizations.
The story of Christ (which has the benefit of having actually taken place) changed the world. The notion of human dignity, individual worth, forgiveness and redemption, the solidarity of the human race are rooted in that story …
The greatest and truest fairy tales are those that “rhyme” with the story of Christ and His saving Pascha. For this is the primal story, told before the foundation of the world. It is the origin of all happy endings, including “happily ever after.” You can’t make up stories like this.
(Making It Up in America, October 31)
Somewhere in the late 60’s (my teen years), I found myself home recuperating from an appendectomy. In those days they actually recommended a period of convalescence before returning to normal activities (today’s medical advice, written in insurance offices, deems recuperation to be a needless bit of a money-drain). But I suddenly had extra time on my hands with little to do. I searched the bookshelves for something unread, or even worth re-reading. And there sat a small set of 4 books that had been a Christmas present from my aunt (at some previous Christmas). And since they were given to me by an aunt, I had assumed they were more for improvement than pleasure, so I had ignored them. But this was just the sort of convalescence that could make you at least skim such things.
The small set of books turned out to be Tolkein’s Hobbit and Lord of the Rings Trilogy. I had never heard of them and neither had anyone I knew (except my aunt). I started with the Hobbit. My convalescence stretched into a full week. I read the whole set without interruption. It was an introduction to something for which I had no words ….
(Introduction to A Faerie Apocalypse, November 1)
The modern world is the most literal of all times. Theories of objectivity have so focused the attention of the average person that the unusual and the strange are largely banished from our observations …
Modern dismissals make much of the term “superstition,” but even this word is quite revealing. At its root, “superstition” means to “stand over.” This either refers to “standing over something in awe,” or to something that is itself “standing over or beside us.” It is, in essence, the assertion that there is more to the world than meets the eye.
Christ points to mercy and forgiveness and a generosity of life that understands self-sacrifice and self-emptying to be the true path to fullness of being. Such assertions can only be true if the world is other than we see it. Christ does not teach that we should lay our lives down for others because it is “nice” to do so. He teaches that this behavior is actually consistent with things as they truly are. That we do not see this as obvious is due to our blindness – not to the nature of the world itself. The truth of the world is summed up in the term “Kingdom of God.” What is coming into the world is not something new, but a revealing of things as they truly are. What is now largely hidden is being made known. The greatest revelation of this reality is Christ’s own resurrection from the dead. Pascha is the truth of the world.
(The Elves Have Left the Building, November 3)
[A]s Christianity began the journey away from its classical roots and into the world as imagined by modernity, what was required was a version of Christian theology that itself was disenchanted and devoid of mystery. The allegory of creation was replaced by a literalist view of the world, and all solutions were pressed into a psychological mode. Metaphysics became metapsychology – nothing more than our thoughts about the world and God’s thoughts about the world. Ideas and sentiment became the new faerie.
In classical thought, our modern construct of reality is known as Nominalism. Things are just things. What matters about them is what we think. John Locke expressed it: “There is nothing in general, except for names.” In this worldview, sacraments can only be “outward signs” of ideas. I make a choice, a decision for Christ. This is what is considered important. The Baptism that may follow is only a token of the idea or choice. The sentiment is the thing – not the water. The same understanding is applied to Holy Communion. We think of the bread and wine as Body and Blood (or less). But it is only bread and wine and can only be bread and wine. The sentiment is the thing.
This has become problematic in contemporary discussions of marriage. If the idea of marriage is what matters, then why can’t any two people of any gender not be allowed to entertain the idea? The union of a man and a woman is simply a “name,” an idea, or sentiment. Everything you think is possible, because you can think it.
The disenchanted world of contemporary thought (including contemporary Christianity) has managed to chase the faeries, goblins, and ghosts out of the world. They have taken with them every spiritual reality other than our thoughts …
Tragically, the modern heart cannot simply turn back to its earlier naiveté. Having banished superstition, it never really believes it again. The cure can only be found through the torturous work of prayer and repentance – all of the easier routes have been closed.
When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth? (Luke 18:8)
(Theology and Faerie – The Modern Tragedy, November 4)
* * * * *
“In learning as in traveling and, of course, in lovemaking, all the charm lies in not coming too quickly to the point, but in meandering around for a while.” (Eva Brann)