Tuesday, June 25, 2002

I would like to welcome another Orthodox blogger, James Ferrenberg, a convert from pentecostal protestantism, who maintains the thoughtful Paradosis site.

Sunday, June 23, 2002

Susan laughs at me for my frequent checks of the stats for this site. Perhaps it is a sign of excessive vanity on my part. I am curious though, when I launch these messages in a bottle out onto the cyber-sea, to know what shores they have washed up on. I can understand the three hits from Bulgaria because of the Orthodox connection, but the hits from Singapore, Brazil and Japan leave me at a loss. I wonder what they were looking for, and what they thought of what they found here?

Saturday, June 22, 2002

This Sunday is the feast of Pentecost in the Orthodox calendar. For a meditation on the hymns from Vespers for the feast, go here to David Melling's consistently edifying Arimathea site.

Thursday, June 20, 2002

While packing some clothes for a short trip tonight, I found a ticket stub to a production of The Fantasticks at Wayside Theatre in Middletown. Susan and I saw it together in April on a much overdue night out. We met in 1988 when we were amateur actors together in a Front Royal Little Theatre production of the show. In what was a clear case of casting against type, I played "El Gallo", a mysterious and romantic figure. If I resembled anyone in the play in real life, it was Matt, an earnest character, young, love-struck and a little ridiculous. The love-struck part happened shortly after Susan walked into rehearsals. Matt, the serious twenty year old, says in his opening speech,

I'm grown up, stable,
Willing to conform.
I'm beyond such foolish notions.
And yet -- in spite of my knowledge --
There is this girl.

She makes me young again!
And foolish.

At what I thought of then as the mature age of 33, I laughed with the script at the follies of young love. Thirteen years later at 46, I have to laugh at the foolish young lover I was. Nonetheless, I still watch Susan when she doesn't know I am looking, and think, how undeserved a grace love is, how lucky I am, and say, like Matt, "There is this girl. She makes me young again! And foolish".

Tuesday, June 18, 2002

From the troparia of Matins for the Sunday of the Fathers of Nicea:

Creation, seeing God crucified in the flesh, was dissolving in fear; but it was firmly held together by the sustaining hand of the one who was crucified for our sake.

Coward death, destroyed by death, lies lifeless; for unable to endure the divine assault of life, the strong one is put to death and resurrection is bestowed on all.

(Translation by Archimandrite Ephraim)
I have changed the blog description you see on the left, new wording courtesy of David Yeago.

Monday, June 17, 2002

Susan and I were up just after sunrise this morning, together with her father, loading wool bags onto the truck. Five bags packed full, towering ceiling high, plus one partial bag. Just over eight hundred pounds of wool altogether, or so say the scales for the Mid-States Wool Growers Cooperative Association. The local pool ships our clip out to the mid-west for bulk sale. Wool used to be packed in jute bags, like giant burlap sacks. Now we are required to use clear plastic. It makes sense for the buyers, letting them see what they are getting. Looks odd though, to see the fleeces from some 140 sheep going out looking like Brobdingnagian sausages. We should clear somwhere around $80.00 if we are lucky. The wool market has not been good, and our Hampshires produce a short, coarse fleece in any event. Truth be told, we are happy just to have someone take it off our hands. It does tend to take up space. Susan had a conversation once with a fellow at a shepherd's seminar who didn't bother selling his. "Well, what do you do with it all?" "It makes a pretty good garden mulch. As for the rest, it'll burn pretty good if you put enough diesel on it."
My family tolerates (barely) my love for Country music. I look at it as the last vestige of popular verse in America. The kinds of sentiments you used to read in poetry in newspapers are now found only on the radio dial. Sure there are some songwriters who can't get past the usual cliches, but they are cliches because they capture certain home truths in a simple way. Here is a Country song in the making; the story of a woman with a heartache so bad it burned down Colorado.

Saturday, June 15, 2002

At dusk coming from up from the barn, I see the crescent moon and below, to the right, Venus. But what's that floating between them? Firefly!
The nuns of the Protection of the Holy Virgin Monastery in Colorado are requesting prayer, as wildfires draw closer. See the latest report at OCA - News Headlines

Friday, June 14, 2002

You can find a useful article on the Jesus Prayer at the St. Vladimir's Seminary website. It says much of what I have said, only better, and includes a good bibliography at the end.
The Suburban Ascetic

Further Notes on the Jesus Prayer

Here is some wisdom from Bishop Kallistos Ware: Being so very short and simple, the Jesus Payer can be recited at any time and in any place. It can be said in bus queues, when working in the garden or kitchen, when dressing or walking, when suffering from insomnia, at moments of distress or mental strain when other forms of prayer are impossible: from this point of view, it is a prayer particularly well adapted to the tensions of the modern world. It is a prayer specially recommended to the monk, who is given a rosary as part of the habit at his profession; but it is equally a prayer for lay people, whatever their occupation in the world. It is a prayer for the hermit and recluse, but at the same time a prayer for those engaged in active social work, nursing, teaching, visiting in prisons. It is a prayer that fits every stage in the spiritual life, from the most elementary to the most advanced. (From the introduction to The Art of Prayer, An Orthodox Anthology)

The best use of the prayer for the beginner is just what Bishop Kallistos has illustrated above. It is the perfect prayer to bring yourself back to what is truly important in the midst of the daily crisis. What does the prayer tell you? First, that Jesus is Lord. This seems trite, but unpacking that statement is the work of a lifetime. To acknowledge that there is a Lord is to say against the sentimental nihilism that is the spirit of our age that life has meaning and purpose, that the solipsist is a fool, and that the world is not governed by our desires. To say that this Lord is Jesus, and that he is the Son of God, is to proclaim that the meaning and purpose behind the world is love, and that this love is stronger than death. To call out for mercy is to proclaim that death and futility are not the final answers in your own life. It is to acknowledge that grace exists, and that it comes to the humble, that is, to sinners like yourself. Quite a lot to handle while passing time on hold, or waiting for your turn at the register.

Many Orthodox find that a set time to pray the Jesus Prayer is useful and make it part of their daily devotions. It is customary to use a prayer rope (the "rosary" referred to by Bishop Kallistos) to aid in keeping focused on the prayer and to return you to it when the inevitable distractions arise. The quiet repetition of the prayer has its own fruits, but is only the first step towards that deeper prayer that the Fathers call "prayer of the heart." That takes us beyond my own experience and I can do no more than point you to the writings of those who have been there.

(Coming soon; fasting, and a basic bibliography on prayer)

Tuesday, June 11, 2002

Those who are interested in reading more about the Jesus Prayer may want to sample Monachos.net's collection of resources on the subject. I will be posting a further list of resources and suggested readings in the near future.
The Suburban Ascetic

Notes on the Jesus Prayer

Anyone who studies the Orthodox spiritual tradition will eventually run across that wonderfully odd little book, The Way of a Pilgrim. Whatever you call it, memoir or spiritual novel, parable or spiritual instruction, the heart of the book is the practice of unceasing prayer by repeating "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner." The humble figure of the Pilgrim has inspired Orthodox Christians for the past century. The Pilgrim and his Way may seem alien to us westerners, although perhaps he (and it) should not. The heart of the prayer should be familiar to anyone who has attended an evangelical rally or service complete with altar call. The following was taken from the Billy Graham organization web site:

Dear Lord Jesus,
I know that I am a sinner and need Your forgiveness. I believe that You died for my sins. I want to turn from my sins. I now invite You to come into my heart and life. I want to trust and follow You as Lord and Savior.
In Jesus' name. Amen

As you can see, the "sinner's prayer" of American Evangelicalism is, at heart, the same prayer as the Pilgrim's. The difference comes in the function of the prayer. In classic Evangelicalism, the ideal is to pray the "sinner's prayer" as a once-in-a-lifetime event. This one experience should give you the grace, energy and momentum to go forward through life as a Christian, strong in the Lord. It is not unlike being shot out of a cannon. The problem comes when the momentum runs out and the convert hits ground. Typically there are a number of different responses. Reload the cannon (I'm rededicating my life to the Lord!). Get a bigger cannon (You need to get baptized in the Holy Ghost and speak in tongues!). Study cannon design (For the intellectually inclined). The most common response may be to simply ignore the impact and pretend (at least on Sunday) that you are still sailing through the air. This is obviously a caricature, and not fair to the many mature and faithful Evangelicals out there. The point is that repentance is not a one time only affair.

The Orthodox ideal is not to say the Jesus prayer once, but to say it with every breath and every heartbeat. The goal is to live in a place of repentance, continually conscious of God's grace and your need for it. The Jesus prayer is news that always stays news. You cannot, by definition, out grow it. Is He still Lord? Are you still a sinner? If so, then the prayer outlines the place where you live. This is what distinguishes the Jesus Prayer from the "mantra" of Eastern religions. In a mantra, the sound and the repetition are key to its effects. Content is less important. In the Jesus prayer, the content always stays with you. It is a prayer, addressed from a person to a particular person we recognize as Lord.

The Pilgrim was given special instructions by his elder on reciting the prayer repeatedly and combining it with his breathing. The tradition states that while these techniques can be useful, they should be used only under the supervision of an experienced elder. Saint Gregory of Sinai says in the Philokalia, "Thus, if you hear about or are taught this discipline, and want to practice it, but are not under spiritual direction, you will experience one of two things: you will either force yourself to persist, in which case you fall into delusion and will fail to attain healing; or you will grow negligent, in which case you will never make any progress during your whole life." (Gregory of Sinai: On Stillness, The Philokalia Volume Four, page 269) In short; kids, don't try this at home.

(Coming soon, some thoughts on appropriate use of the prayer by layfolk not blessed with a local elder.)

Monday, June 10, 2002

Blogger seems to be letting me make template changes again. I have added a search function. Give it a try and let me know how it works! If everything stays stable, I will start posting again in earnest.

Sunday, June 09, 2002

Blogger has been having troubles today. I have some site maintainance to do before any long posts, so it may be a day or two before things pick up again.

Thursday, June 06, 2002

Wayne Olsen notes that he is reading Metropolitan Anthony Bloom's excellent Beginning to Pray. That is one of the few books I keep multiple copies of to be able to loan out or give away. (If you check the archives for April 20th, there is a link to a web site devoted to his work.) Metropolitan Anthony has the gift of explaining the basics of Orthodox sprituality in a way that is deep, but not so deep that the beginner like myself is in danger of drowning. I love The Philokalia, the anthology of Orthodox spiritual writing compiled by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and St. Makarios of Corinth (four volumes in the English translation, with at least one still to go), but feel a constant need to transpose the wisdom there into a key I can actually reach a few of the notes in. Orthodox spirituality has been transmitted mainly through monastic writers. Their work is indispensible, even for us lay folk. The question is, how do you walk that path while living a life with jobs, kids, sex and laughter? God willing, I plan on starting a regular feature here to work out some thoughts on this. I've been mulling over titles. I've already considered and rejected Orthodoxy With Training Wheels. The current leader is Suburban Ascetics; Orthodox Life in a Consumer Culture. Or I might just steal a suggestion from my friend David Yeago (playing off the title of David Brook's popular book) and call it Bobos in Byzantium. By whatever title, I plan on posting the first installment this weekend, talking about the Jesus Prayer.
We have had daily thunderstorms for the past week. Dark clouds and blue skies alternating in a crazy quilt pattern. Sudden downpours leaving pools and streams everywhere. Here is a haiku from the Japanese poet Issa:

in every pool of water--
spring sunlight

(Translation, Stephen Addis)

We took thirteen of the lambs off for sale yesterday. Susan, Stuart, John Richard and I slipping in the wet barnyard as we caught, ear-tagged and put them on the truck. Susan drove them off while I changed from boots and muddy denim to a coat and tie. The rest of the lambs were separated from the mothers and put in a fenced off section of pasture to grow a little more. Some we will keep, some will be sold at auction, some sold as breeding stock. The ewes seemed relieved. It was past time for weaning for most anyhow. It seems odd to look out in the yard and not see the usual dozen lambs that have squeezed under the fence to graze on the lawn and eat Susan's roses.

Tuesday, June 04, 2002

Canadian editorialist David Warren is always worth reading. From his Sunday column: It is probably silly to write in a daily newspaper about such grand things as the rise and fall of civilizations. And yet the core questions of what we are, and therefore what we must do, are questions that arise every day, and govern our judgements on minor events.

Monday, June 03, 2002

The old cat came to the door with a young cottontail in his mouth, still living. Perhaps I have grown too soft, perhaps I am just tired of arguing with the cat about bringing dinner inside still kicking. I got the rabbit loose and freed it over the wire fence into a tangle of honeysuckle. Beast, the cat, followed me down to the barn, hoping I still had the rabbit hidden up my sleeve somewhere.
Tomorrow is the thirteenth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Eve Tushnet has a post on attending a vigil outside the Chinese Embassy on Saturday; a small but valiant attempt to keep alive the memory of those brief hope-filled days. Long time readers of this site (are any of you out there?) may have noticed that I occasionally post a fragment of Chinese or Japanese poetry. The abundance of good translations of classical Chinese and Japanese verse is one of the few fortunate aspects of our current literary culture. It is a great gift to be able to listen in on this interlinked web of conversations on the human condition, conducted at the highest artistic levels for over two thousand years. It is the antithesis of our contemporary "youth culture."

Thinking of Tiananmen reminds me of some lines from the T'ang Dynasty poet Tu Fu, meditating on another time of loss and change in China: "The nation shattered, mountains and rivers remain." A melancholy poem, which nonetheless takes some small comfort in the continuities of nature and landscape. One wonders what the poet would have thought of the Three Gorges Dam project. Today, the State survives, but mountains and rivers are shattered. Submerging and forever altering some of the most beautiful places in China, the only way we westerners can comprehend the impact of the project would be to imagine an Anglo-American initiative to simultaneously flood the Grand Canyon and pave over Wordsworth's Lake District.

Martin Roth also notes the Tiananmen anniversary and adds an article noting the conversion of many of the dissidents to Christianity.

Saturday, June 01, 2002

Here is Peggy Noonan's take on the post 9/11 FBI scandal. After fifteen years as a prosecutor working in local law enforcement, I am not surprised by any of this. Colleen Rowley's statement that "Certain facts . . . have . . . been omitted, downplayed, glossed over and/or mis-characterized in an effort to avoid or minimize personal and/or institutional embarrassment on the part of the FBI and/or perhaps even for improper political reasons." unfortunately does not describe an isolated incident so much as an institutional culture. Despite the efforts of many fine individual agents, the Bureau is legendary in the law enforcement community for its arrogance, and all too often, its incompetence.