Fr. Stephen snippets

It is … difficult for those in the middle-class to understand the reason Christ would have pointed to the poor (with their seeming lack of virtue) so approvingly. Why should the entrance into the Kingdom be easier for them? The question has certainly dogged me for many years. My conclusion is fairly straightforward: their virtue is their lack of virtue.

My mind goes to the speech of the drunkard, Marmeladov, in Crime and Punishment. He is a sad character whose daughter has been driven into prostitution to support the family that his alcoholic addiction has failed. He describes his vision of the end of the world, and declares that he knows that Christ will forgive his daughter’s sins. He adds:

And He [Christ] will judge and forgive all, the good and the wicked, the wise and the humble … And when He has finished with everyone, then He will say unto us, too, ‘You, too, come forth!’ He will say. ‘Come forth, my drunk ones, my weak ones, my shameless ones!’ And we will all come forth, without being ashamed, and stand there. And He will say, ‘Swine you are! Of the image of the beast and of his seal; but come, you, too!’ And the wise and the reasonable will say unto Him, ‘Lord, why do you receive such as these?’ And He will say, ‘I receive them, my wise and reasonable ones, forasmuch as not one of them considered himself worthy of this thing …’ And He will stretch out His arms to us, and we will fall at His feet … and weep … and understand everything!

There are echoes in his speech of the Paschal sermon of St. John Chrysostom read in every parish across the world on the night of Pascha.

You rich and poor together, hold high festival. You sober and you heedless, honor the day. Rejoice today, both you who have fasted and you who have disregarded the fast. The table is full-laden; feast ye all sumptuously. The calf is fatted; let no one go hungry away.

In the parable of the Prodigal Son, echoed in Chrysostom’s homily, it is the older brother, the well-behaved and faithful son, who refuses to come to the feast. He thought his brother unworthy.

(Can the Middle-Class Be Saved?, 3/29/18)

The Church’s liturgical actions are never memorials. They are a mystical participation in the ever-present reality of the events that they celebrate. In Holy Week, we are raised with Lazarus. We greet Christ with palms. We endure the cleansing of the Temple. With the Harlot, we bathe His feet with our tears. We partake of His Body and Blood. We betray Him and deny Him. We judge Him and condemn Him. In Him we are also betrayed and denied, judged and condemned. With Him we are mocked and scourged. We crucify Him and are crucified with Him. With the thief we find paradise in a single moment. We grieve with Mary and John and bury Christ’s most pure body alongside Joseph of Arimathea. We bury Him and are buried with Him. We descend into Hades and take our place with Adam and all those who through the ages have been imprisoned in death. We are raised from the dead with Christ as He takes captivity captive.

All of this is participation and coinherence ….

(The Mystery of Holy Week and Pascha, 4/2/18)

Reasoning is … something we largely do “after the fact.” Indeed, this psychological reality has itself been the subject of study and has been shown to be largely true. Reason is one of the sounds we make after the fact of the heart. It is a symptom of something else and we do one another a deep injustice when we reduce faith and unbelief to something they are not.

I believe that the death and resurrection of Christ are utterly universal in their reality. They are not isolated events, significant only within the Christian belief system. I believe they are the singular moments within space and time (and outside space and time) that reveal the truth of all things, of all people, and of the heart and nature of the God who created all things and sustains them. I believe this is true whether I or anyone else believes it. The death and resurrection of Christ are the most fundamental and foundational facts of reality.

I believe that Christians make a serious mistake when we begin to speak first about God rather than first about Christ and His death on the Cross and resurrection from the dead. It is a mistake because it presumes we know something about God that is somehow “prior” to those events. We do not, or, if we think we do, we are mistaken. The death and resurrection of Christ are the alpha and the omega of God’s self-revelation to the world. Nothing in all of creation is extraneous or irrelevant to those events.

When we stand before the Cross of Christ, or kneel before it and honor it, we honor as well everything that is contained within it. We honor the unbelief of atheists, the anger and bitterness of the wounded, the shame of those who dare not look at themselves. For Christ has not distanced Himself from such things. The Cross is God’s single point of ingathering, where “all things are gathered together into one in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 1:10). Unbelief is a wound of the human heart, a disease of perception, a noetic blindness. The Cross is not a stranger to cruelty or every form of mockery and perverted delight. All such things were and are present in that single moment.

(Unbelief and Good Friday, 4/5/18)

The secular historicization of the faith has distorted Christian believing. We treat the death and resurrection of Christ as past events and imagine that our accepting them as historically true is the nature of faith. But they are not merely historical in the secular sense. They are present and real now. As the beginning and the end, they are also always present. By historicizing them, we dismiss them and relegate them to the collection of historical “facts” (things done). They are rather present tense “facientes” (“things being done”). Our present tense actions, done in union with that present tense reality, alone constitute faith. We do not live in the past or because of the past. We live only in and by the death and resurrection of Christ. Because of these things, the commandments of Christ not only make sense, they alone constitute a sane course of behavior.

Christ says:

…If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. (Jn. 8:31-32 )

The truth of Christ’s word, His commandments, is only revealed as we abide in them (keep them). When that truth is known, then we will then (and only then) see the freedom that is ours in Him. We are not the creatures of history, but of Christ.

(Bookends and the Resurrection, 4/12/18) This reflection also includes perspective on the interpretation of the creation narratives of Genesis.

When someone says that they “believe” in God, I’m not always sure what they mean. It is entirely possible (and even often the case) that they mean something quite different than what I would mean by the same statement. There is the acceptance of God as a theoretical construct, a mental assent, even a trusting mental assent to the existence of a higher being who loves, creates and provides for creation. That trusting assent may have a significant amount of content: the “God of the Bible,” or the “God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” etc. In many cases (even most), however, trusting assent to the existence of such a God does not alter the shape or nature of creation itself: it remains the same neutral, secular world. This is the situation I have described as a “two-storey universe.”

[T]he content of the “superior being” in the two-storey universe is relatively beside the point. Such a God, regardless of content, is not the God and Father of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ: it is a lightly Christianized version of the ancient sky gods. And in the cultural perception of modern, secularized nature, it is an endangered species. Few attacks on the Christian faith sound as silly as those of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Their inaccuracies and caricatures are rivaled only by the rants of the adherents whose god they despise.

But Christians would do well to listen to their critique – for the god they don’t believe in was taught them by someone or the culture at large. To say, “I believe in the god described by Dawkins, only my reasons are very good,” is actually inadequate. What Dawkins, Hitchens and company reveal is an obstacle to faith. If the universe itself is the one they perceive – if it is truly inert, self-existing, self-referential and spiritually neutral, then the case against the God taught and made known in Jesus Christ is strong indeed. Positing a sky-god above and outside such a world is perhaps interesting, but it is not persuasive and, more to the point, not Christianity ….

(Obstacles to Faith in the Modern World, 4/14/18)

Among the dark little corners of the Orthodox world, particularly in its ethnic homelands, is a left-over trace of witchcraft (I don’t know what else to call it). It consists of a collection of superstitions, often mixed with semi-Orthodox notions. There are concerns about the “evil-eye,” “curses,” “spells,” and such. These things are “left-overs” in that they likely predate Christianity, having never disappeared from Europe’s earlier pagan past. These are not practices associated with dark powers, but simply folk practices rooted in bad theology.

It’s not just the Orthodox. My ancestors, Scots-Irish (certainly with a Protestant pedigree) were no stranger to such things. My mother’s mother was said to be able to “talk fire out of a burn,” and to “stop blood.” I was told that these little practices were based in the Scriptures, but they had a slightly occult feel about them. My great-grandfather could “remove warts” in the same manner. The hills here in Appalachia are home to many such things.

There are, however, more popular, modern versions of all this, cleaned up and mainstreamed. Much of it goes under the heading of “positive thought” and “successful living.” All of it is about exercising power over the world around us. It is contrary to the Christian faith ….

(The Power in Thought — It’s Not What You Think, 4/16/18)

[T]he narrative that is the story of modernity is fictional. It’s power and strength come from repetition. Modernity did not end war; human suffering has changed but not disappeared; prosperity has come to some but very unevenly; democracy has created universal suffrage to little or no effect; human dignity is a popular slogan, but largely without content. Has the world truly left behind superstition and ignorance in an ageless march towards a consumer paradise?

Modernity is only a story: it is a narrative disguised as history. The emptiness and pointlessness of the modern narrative begs for questions. I suspect it’s why our hearts ache from time to time and dream of Hobbits. The narrative of Middle Earth, though fictional, has a transcendent meaning and purpose, something that calls for the deepest courage and makes every sacrifice to be significant. That Mordor and Isengard both embody elements of the industrial revolution, endangering even the Shire, are not accidental. They intentionally represent the flaws of modernity. Tolkien’s mythology imagines that such forces can be defeated.

In Tolkien’s world, the characters of Sauron and Saruman make it easy to discern the dark and evil hand behind the engines of change. The diffuse and hidden character of modern powers, masked by the institutions that claim legitimacy, presents only the face of propaganda, the relentless cry of freedom, human liberation and prosperity. There is no spiritual center. Modernity offers freedom for an unknown purpose, liberation for the latest popular cause and a prosperity whose banality mocks the public welfare. The very same mantra has also given the world weapons of mass destruction and placed them in the hands of madmen (including our own). War has become a ceaseless business unlike anything in human history.

The most insidious part of the modern world order is its claim to normalcy …

The genius of Tolkien’s Shire was its ability to live as though the larger world need not trouble their way of life …

The technological consumerism of modernity is not the stuff of paradise, even though it advertises itself as such. The Shire is much closer to a proper ideal. Life is not made for managing but for living. It is this tender reality that whispers to the hearts of modern folk when they pick up Tolkien. It is not a demand that there be no technology, but that the spiritual center of the world be restored. We do not need to become Hobbits. We do need, however, to return to being human.

(Do You Ever Think About Being a Hobbit? 4/24/18)

* * * * *

Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.

(Philip K. Dick)

The waters are out and no human force can turn them back, but I do not see why as we go with the stream we need sing Hallelujah to the river god.

(Sir James Fitzjames Stephen)

Place. Limits. Liberty.

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Where I glean stuff.