Fr. Stephen snippets

A Prayer to Our Lord Jesus Christ

My most merciful and all-merciful God, O Lord Jesus Christ! In Thy great love, Thou didst come down and become flesh in order to save all. Again, I pray Thee, save me by Grace! If Thou shouldst save me because of my deeds, it would not be a gift, but merely a duty. Truly, Thou aboundest in graciousness and art inexpressibly merciful! Thou hast said, O my Christ: “He who believes in me shall live and never see death.” If faith in Thee saves the desperate, behold: I believe! Save me, for Thou art my God and my Maker. May my faith replace my deeds, O my God, for Thou wilt find no deeds to justify me. May my faith be sufficient for all. May it answer for me; may it justify me; may it make me a partaker of Thine eternal glory; and may Satan not seize me, O Word, and boast that He has torn me from Thy hand and fold. O Christ my Savior: save me whether I want it or not! Come quickly, hurry, for I perish! Thou art my God from my mother’s womb. Grant, O Lord, that I may now love Thee as once I loved sin, and that I may labor for Thee without laziness as once I labored for Satan the deceiver. Even more, I will labor for Thee, my Lord and God Jesus Christ, all the days of my life, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.

From the Morning Prayers

I hear the heart’s cry in the prayer quoted above. The depth of its honesty provokes the hearts of those who read it. It recognizes the truth of our will and echoes St. Paul’s observations:

For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand….Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? (Romans 7:18-21; 24)

There is, I think, an abiding temptation towards Pelagianism (the belief that we can will our own salvation). In Orthodoxy, the teaching of “synergy” often runs in that direction. We indeed “cooperate” with God in our salvation (“cooperate” is the Latinized equivalent of “synergy”). But our cooperation is best illustrated in the prayer above. It is the cry for help from the lips of the helpless. This is not nothing – it is synergistic. But it is not the imagined synergy that some profess. We are saved by our weakness, not by our excellence.

(May 2, 2018)

Sin is a movement away from being, well-being, and eternal being. It is a distorted direction (hamartia: “missing the mark”). It is equally the refusal of Beauty and Goodness, without participation in the Truth. 

When someone asks: “Is it a sin to withhold help from someone in need?” The answer is yes – but not in a merely legal sense. It is a sin – a movement towards non-existence – a movement away from the proper direction of our lives.

[A]ll of this should shed much light on the importance of beauty in Orthodox liturgy and Churches, iconography, etc. It is essential – not a decoration or an afterthought. Much of the modern world sees beauty as a luxury (which it so rarely affords). I grieve deeply when I hear the modern sentiment directed towards a beautiful Church “that money should have been given to the poor.” These are the words of Judas. And those who say such things rarely give anything themselves. Beauty is not a contradiction of generosity. The movement towards Beauty is a movement towards Goodness (which contains generosity at its core). 

The apprehension of Beauty is at the very heart of the preaching of the gospel. It is that which first touches the heart and draws us towards Truth. In our over-rationalized world we tend to think that it is reasoning and arguments that draw people to Christ. But this is something that comes much later. First the heart must be drawn – and this happens primarily through Beauty in its broadest sense.

(May 4, 2018)

Could a liturgy be served without vestments? Of course, though a priest would, even in extreme circumstances, try to cobble something together. The vestments themselves are not mere decorations. Can a liturgy be served without icons? Of course, though it would be wrong to do so unless under extreme duress. There was once a liturgy celebrated in the confines of the prison of Pitesti in Romania. The canons require that the liturgy be celebrated in the presence of a martyr’s relic (all altars have such a relic). It was decided to celebrate the service on the body of a deceased prisoner, the only martyr present. Such things are not extraneous. The liturgy should not be subjected to reductionism.

The givenness of the liturgy, in all its aspects, is a proper subject of theoria – contemplation and understanding. It is a mystery that yields itself to the heart. It is not, however, one more cultural artifact to be manipulated in the interests of consumer capitalism and its deformation of humanity. We are fast losing the memory of who and what we are. It is the confusion of Babel.

(May 11, 2018)

Jesus healed the sick, cleansed the lepers, and gave sight to the blind. Such actions are incorrectly described as the “relief of suffering.” In many other cases Jesus specifically asks people to suffer: give away your possessions; forgive your enemies; take up your Cross; turn the other cheek; give without expecting in return. Again, there is no authentic Christian voice that does not demand suffering on the part of its adherents.

More important than this, is the fact that this voluntary self-denial, a willingly embraced suffering for the sake of others, is not a diminishment of our humanity, but a necessity of its fulfillment. It is this reality that modernity, in its truncated account of existence, fails to understand or to describe. The most popular ethic within the modern world entails the relief of suffering. In the name of that ethic, people are put to death. It cannot ask us to suffer without guilt. But if suffering is inherent to our existence, then only that which encompasses suffering is sufficient as an account of being human.

To be truly human is to be conformed to the image of Christ. And not just to the image of Christ, but Christ crucified. Anything less would make a mockery of our existence and a diminishment of the fullness to which we are called.

(May 15, 2018)

I have seen, more than once, the favorable outcome of a soul whose deepest hunger has, in an unguarded moment, been exposed to the light of the gospel. I know the case of a woman who found God when a priest called her by name unexpectedly. Just her name. The mercy of God is wonderfully opportunistic. I have often thought, “Give Him an inch and He’ll take your life!”

(May 19, 2018)

As I finished up, deciding what “categories” to assign to today’s blog, the quote “Sin is a movement away from being, well-being, and eternal being” struck me as an instance of nominalism versus realism, so I applied that category. One characteristic tendency of nominalism was to see sin as sinful because it transgressed an essentially arbitrary divine decree. The consequence of sin was not non-being (spiritual death), but punishment by God. In this sense, the Orthodox understanding of sin is realist rather than nominalist.

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

(Philip K. Dick)

Place. Limits. Liberty.

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Where I glean stuff.

So nervous, so happy

R.R. Reno comments on the dual character of adoption, as noted in Meilaender’s Not by Nature but by Grace: Forming Families through Adoption:

On one hand, it transcends the limitations of genetic kinship and serves as a sign of our life in Christ, which is rooted in God’s grace, not in the logic of flesh and blood. On the other hand, the fact that adoption is necessary reveals the brokenness of our fallen world. Adoption can bring extraordinary blessings. Yet it is almost always haunted by loss.

I was eating lunch on the patio of a fast-food restaurant near my home in Omaha, Nebraska. It was a hot day. Nobody else was outside. I was looking forward to reading the book I had brought with me. But an agitated, middle-aged woman sat down in a chair close to mine. She lit a cigarette. “I’m so nervous,” she said in a way meant to elicit my attention. I complied, and she told me that she had driven that morning from Ames, Iowa, to meet her daughter for the first time. She had given her up for adoption at birth. “It was hard, but it was the right thing to do.” Recently, her daughter found her on Facebook. They corresponded, but her daughter didn’t want to meet—until now. She looked at her watch. “She’s not coming until one, but I didn’t want to be late.” She was proud. “She’s a registered nurse.” And frightened. “What will she think of me?” “I’m so nervous,” she said again, lighting another cigarette, fighting back tears. And then she said, “I can’t wait. I’m so happy.”

I couldn’t not share that.

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We develop heart and mind in parallel, that the mind will protect us from the wolfs, and the heart will keep us from becoming wolves ourselves. (Attributed to Serbian Patriarch Pavle)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Where I glean stuff.

Thursday, 11/9/17

  1. The voice of the Mother of God
  2. What’s “conservative”?
  3. Remedial Civics for The Donald
  4. I’ll believe in Trumpism when …
  5. Being the better Trump
  6. Is diversity overrated?
  7. Soft Targets
  8. My Opioid Adventure
  9. Excess of Enthusiasm
  10. How very American: Ketosis without ascesis

Continue reading “Thursday, 11/9/17”

Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen has died. WSJ. NYT (which is fascinating and calls him “the master of erotic despair”).

When he was young and fresh, I was too busy with other things, and as yet insufficiently attuned to poetry, to take note of his artistry. Maybe that’s why he was starving in 1971. I came to appreciate him within the last decade or so.

Catchy, upbeat and danceable he wasn’t. Neither am I. He was deep, somber, insightful.

Everyone praises “Hallelujah,” but my co-favorite (along with Suzanne, which Judy Collins made gorgeous) is Anthem, if only for the refrain:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

I care not a whit that the world is without Michael Jackson, David Bowie and Prince. But I’ll miss Leonard Cohen. I bought his latest album immediately upon learning of his death.

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“The remarks made in this essay do not represent scholarly research. They are intended as topical stimulations for conversation among intelligent and informed people.” (Gerhart Niemeyer)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

The deep purpose of discussion

This weekend brings And Then They Came for Me to my hometown’s Civic Youth Theater. With that evocative title, I hope I don’t need to tell you what the general topic of the play is.

But just in case, here goes the versified version:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Martin Niemöller (1892–1984). The subtitle of the Civic Youth Theater production is “Remembering the World of Anne Frank.”

If you still don’t get it, stop. Nothing to see here. Move along now.

Then a week later, the local Bach Chorale Singers perform the powerful Annalies, a 14-part work for soprano, chorus and small ensemble based on the Diary of Anne Frank. 

The juxtaposition was coincidental/serendipitous/providential. Seizing the moment, friends of the arts have arranged a panel discussion, open to the Public: When they came for me.

I hope to get to the Civic Theater production, and I’ll definitely be there when the Bach Chorale performs.

The panel discussion? Maybe. Out of a sense of duty. With my guard up. And a full shaker, not just a grain, of salt.

On some topics, it seems to me, discussion has hit a dead end. The more earnest the discussion, the deader the end. The Holocaust strikes me as one of those topics.

A young woman of my acquaintance was delighted beyond all expectation a few year ago when I quipped, in response to some seemingly interminable, definitely earnest discussion in our Church, that I just wasn’t getting what the other side was getting at, and that I wondered if they might instead rhyme, dance, paint, sing or film it. Anything but more words, words, words. (Her delight was why I still vaguely remember the episode.)

Bach Chorale’s theme for this, its 51st, season is “Music and the human spirit: making the world a better place one note at a time.” Maybe that’s a little preachy, but I’ll take it.

My greatest hope for the panel discussion is that perhaps the Niemöller poem, the play and the impending choral performance, will liberate imaginations and free tongues from banality, or that the panel will at least truly focus on how the arts can so liberate (if focusing on that in prose isn’t oxymoronic).

My greatest fear for the discussion is that it will tame and domesticate the imagination again after its liberation by art.

Isn’t taming the imagination the deep purpose of most of our discussions?

* * * * *

(Yes, as a matter of fact, I do own a mirror. And I am getting tired of recidivist prose blogging — even suspicious of my motives for doing it. And the utility of it. That too. Thanks for asking. And if I polish this one more time, I’m going to puke.)

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“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)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Things that cheer me up

It’s no secret that in many ways I’m less than sanguine about the direction of the country and the world. As a guy who by long habit (I’ll not make a virtue of the habit) sees the glass half empty, it probably behooves me to mention things that cheer me up. Although I open with an explicitly religious one, they’re not all religious by any means. One of them may even have anti-religious undertones. And not even one is political; where’s the good news in that wasteland?

  1. Romans 8:38-39.
  2. People voting with their feet.
  3. Beauty.
  4. Steven Pinker.
  5. Front Porch Republic.
  6. Craftsmanship.
  7. Continue reading “Things that cheer me up”