Monday, August 29, 2016

Hidden angels

“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”  Hebrews 13:2

Frank[1] drank his coffee strong and black, and he liked bacon hot from the pan.  He was indifferent when it came to fried eggs and couldn’t quite see the point of buttered toast. 
I learned the menu well for Frank’s annual visit when I was the rector in Cooperstown, New York.  In Cooperstown, we had what we called “the August people,” who head out from New York and Boston to escape the late summer heat beside our shimmering lake.  Frank was one of them, coming every year for a day or two when August turns into September.  Unlike those other August people, who spent the night between the fine linen sheets of the Otesaga Hotel, Frank bedded down on the couch in Saint Agnes Chapel.
Frank, you see, was a hobo. 

Monday, August 22, 2016

Ponder: "we live as hedonists and die like Platonists"

"No longer seeing death, our focus is now ever more on the body.  We exercise and look after our body more than any previous generation, and we might do so under a veneer of Christian theology, arguing that ours is an 'incarnational faith' in which the body is the temple of the Spirit.  But then at death, when the coils of the mortal flesh are discarded, we think of the 'person' as liberated from the limitations of the body.  Today we live as hedonists and die as Platonists!
In a very real sense, we no longer see death today.  We don't live with it as an ever-present reality as has every generation of human beings before us.  To put it most extremely: today we must be killed in order to die.  What we call 'life' is capable of being sustained indefinitely by machines in an ICU; they must be switched off for the patient to die.  One cannot help but recall the warning in the final book of Scripture: 'And in those days, they will seek death and will not find it; they will long to die and death will fly away from them.'"
John Behr, The Joy of Life

Ponder: "receptivity over activity"

Eudaimonia, then, is not joy. It is not “the summit of integral well-being.” It does not fulfill all desire. For we can intelligibly desire what we cannot intelligibly intend, what we cannot bring about through our agency. One of the ways in which Christianity upended pagan thought was in elevating receptivity over activity; if God is our final good, that good is not, contra standard pagan thought “something we can achieve for ourselves.” God is the ultimate, if imperfectly known, object of desire. What we desire is not simply that we be properly responsive to God in and through our agency. More than this, we desire fellowship with God, a participation in perfected relationship with God, one aspect of which is its fruition: the enjoyment of God. Joy is not simply a matter of objective relations; it is intrinsically experiential, an experience of fellowship, of finding fulfillment in God."
Jennifer Herdt, The Task and Gift of Life

Ponder: praise, the "appointed consummation"

"I think that we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation.  It is not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are; the delight is incomplete until it is expressed.  It is frustrating to have discovered a new author and not to be able to tell anyone how good he is; to come suddenly, at the turn of the road, upon some mountain valley of unexpected grandeur and then to have to keep silent because the people with you care for it no more than for a tin can in the ditch; to hear a good joke and find no one to share it with (the perfect hearer died a year ago).  This is so even when our expressions are inadequate, as of course they usually are."

C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Ponder: Joy in the "middle voice"

"Because it is so supremely intimate to oneself yet also intimately related to an other, joy is a reality best understood in the “middle voice”— that is, a reality that is not purely passive, happening to us, nor simply active, something we do; but partaking of both receptivity and dynamism. Other, equally significant phenomena in Christian life are also framed in the middle voice; the Koine word for feeling compassion is σπλαγχνίζοµαι (splagchnizomai), which is another crucial “action” that is in the middle voice; and a similar thing can be said of ελθών (elthon) “to arrive” or “to come”, which is used for the Prodigal Son’s recognition, amidst the swine, of the reality to which his life has come (of longing for the quality of life of pigs).  Hence human agency may be implicated in the achievement of joy in a slightly less indirect way than it can be in the attainment of happiness, which may be why St. Paul repeatedly exhorts people to be joyful (not happy)—e.g. Philippians 4:4 “Rejoice in the Lord always; and I say again, rejoice.")
Thus understood as an excess rapture, catching us up into a reality in the “middle voice,” joy is a sort of sacramental state: in Creation yet prompted ultimately by something beyond and before Creation, a reality simultaneously speaking of immediacy and transcendence, something done to you yet something you manifest, express, realize and participate in. Here and there, now and not yet, you and another, creation and Creator—joy can serve as a synechdoche of the Christian life as a whole.

Charles Mathewes, "Toward a Theology of Joy" (2014).

Ponder: The Debt that Must be Paid

"The loss of joy has many causes, but chief among them is a certain impotence in us, which derives from of our inability to shed the guilt that plagues us, to discharge the debt we bear (whether we know it or not, and we mostly do not) on our hearts, an incapacity that has arisen precisely because we have become too “advanced” in our power and knowledge to know what to do about the hard and immutable truths regarding sin, guilt, and atonement. It is a cruel but common illusion for us to think that joy is our natural state, and automatically results from the banishment of those alien and inhuman concepts of sin and guilt. Something closer to the opposite is true. Sin is the debt that must be paid. Our moral nature demands it. Which is why only the frank and humble acknowledgment of guilt, and a full embrace of the means available for our cleansing of it, can open us to the possibility of joy. That may be the one possibility that our secular age is unprepared, and unwilling, to admit."

Wilfred McClay, "Some Reflections on Joy, Happiness...and Guilt" (2014)

For Meditation: "let the doors of glory be unlocked"

"Let the gate of light be opened and the doors of glory unlocked and the curtain before the face of the Father be withdrawn, and let the Lamb of God descend and sit on this holy table prepared before me, thy servant.  Let 'Melos' the fearful sword of fire [the Holy Spirit] be sent and appear over this bread and cup to fulfil this offering."

Epiklesis, (Ethiopian) Anaphora of St. Jacob of Serug, qtd. in Brian Spinks, "Do This in Remembrance of Me," (2013) 180.

Ponder: The Unbought Grace of Life

It was with the advent of modernity, and of what we call “the Enlightenment,” that a decisive change comes, creating the idea of happiness that dominates our own time— an idea which envisions happiness as something that all human beings can rightly aspire to, in the here and now, without resort to world-denying asceticism, as a natural expression of their natural human endowment... What does this suggest about joy, and about what makes joy so dramatically different? To begin with, it suggest that joy is something radically different precisely in that it is free from the self-mastering, self-engineered, and self-referential character of happiness. Joy is perhaps a little bit more akin to ecstasy in that regard, that it places a much lesser emphasis on self-consciousness and self-direction, and a greater emphasis on self-yielding, on emptying the ego of its compulsion to direct and manage all things, and reveling in the world as it presents itself to us. It is less about action than passion, less about possessing and more about being possessed, less about human ingenuity and more about what Edmund Burke called “the unbought grace of life.”

Wilfred McClay, "Some Reflections on Joy, Happiness...and Guilt" (2014)

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Ponder: "a welcome look away from self-focus"

"This dynamic of being watched, of having a sense of always being on display, is a significant "block" to joy since joy is found in an experience of losing oneself, of being caught up in something bigger, something beyond.  Such experiences of joy do not require the dissolution of consciousness, but they do seem to require a release from self-consciousness.  Joy is a mode of receptivity wherein one is most aware of others, of an Other, even a Giver.  It might include awareness of the "blessings" one enjoys, of a reality that one re-appreciates.  But that recognition and awareness seems linked with a welcome look away from self-focus and narcissistic fixation.  Insofar as our society seems bent on fostering (if not fomenting) the latter, it seems we shouldn't be surprised by the absence of the former, i.e. joy."
James K. A. Smith, Diagnosing our Joylessness: Some Hypotheses," (2014).

For Meditation: Farewell, O Holy and divine Altar

"Farewell, O Holy and divine altar of the Lord.  Henceforth I know not whether I shall return to Thee or not.  May the Lord make me worthy to see Thee in the Church of the Firstborn which is in heaven, and in this covenant do I trust.  Farewell, O holy and atoning altar.  May the Holy Body and the atoning Blood that I have received from Thee be for me the remission of debts and for the forgiveness of sins and for confidence before the awful judgment-seat of our Lord and our God, forever.  Farewell, O Holy Altar-Table of Life and entreat our Lord Jesus Christ that my remembrance may not cease from Thee henceforth and forever, world without end, Amen.

Priest's Private Prayer of Farewell to the Altar, Syrian Orthodox rite, qtd. in Bryan Spinks, Do This in Remembrance of Me, 158.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Only One Lord

“They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented—of whom the world was not worthy.”  Hebrews 11:37-38

They stared out from the frescoes on the walls that faced toward the large baptismal font, their eyes determined, confident, serene. The bodies of the saints, wrapped in the vestments of archbishops and abbots, were static and grand, timeless like the figures in most Orthodox ikons.  But there was something unusual in their faces—an unexpected wrinkle here, a drooping eyelid there.  Was that the mark of a scar? 

I asked the guide about them.  They were, in fact, portraits, he said.  Father Cyprian, the master iconographer, had known these men.  He’d done the faces himself.  The saints were leaders of his own time.  Some had been his friends.  Perhaps he’d served alongside some of them at the Divine Liturgy, or they’d sat in the shade to share a glass together on a summer’s afternoon, back before the awful civil war and the ransacking of the monasteries, back when mother Russia was a land of monks and holy men. 

They were the modern martyrs, the guide said, they’d given their lives for the Gospel in that bloodiest of centuries, the twentieth.  The Communists had sent them to glory with the machine gun and the hand-grenade.  Father Cyprian had escaped, and along with the scattered remnants of several other religious houses, he’d helped to found this monastery, Holy Trinity, in the wilds of central New York State.