Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Wednesdays with Words :: Elder Paisios

Linking up with Cindy at Ordo Amoris for Wednesdays with Words. 

The person that is struggling to the best of his abilities, who has no desire to live a disorderly life, but who - in the course of the struggle for faith and life - falls and rises again and again, God will never abandon. And if he has the slightest will not to grieve God, he will go to Paradise with his shoes on. The Benevolent God will, surprisingly, push him into Paradise. God will insure that he takes him at his best,  in repentance. He may have to struggle all his life, but God will not abandon him; He will take him at the best possible time. 
~Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain 

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Desiring the Kingdom :: What the child learns the adult does not abandon

(For the next several months I will be participating in this book club on Desiring the Kingdom , hosted by Mystie at Simply Convivial. If you missed my earlier posts you can find them here)

Last week was all about the human person as a lover, who is a desiring creature. This last section of Chapter 1 takes a look at how persons as lovers behave and why.

Smith begins by talking about what he calls the social imaginary. This refers to what lies under the surface of what we think about and/or believe. The social imaginary is the way people imagine their social surroundings and these imaginings are conveyed through stories, songs, legends and images. Because the social imaginary paints a picture of the "good life" the understanding that each person has of it is below the consciousness on a gut level. It's a non-cognitive, or even pre-cognitive understanding of the image of the life we desire. We could describe it as the background of our knowledge in that it is an inarticulate understanding of one's whole situation.

What strikes me is that this imaginary is necessarily social. Stories, pictures, legends are all passed down from person to person and all have elements of relationship in them. They paint a picture of how "I" stand in relation to the world. Reminds me of Charlotte Mason when she says that "education is the science of relations" .

Smith says,

Discipleship and formation are less about erecting an edifice of Christian knowledge than they are a matter of developing a Christian know-how that intuitively "understands" the world in the light of the fullness of the gospel.  

This is such an important point being made. It seems to me that if we want to raise children who are Christians and who will choose to live Christian lives then we need to begin from the beginning. When a baby is born we don't immediately begin by teaching him to speak or to be self sufficient. The very idea sounds absurd. No, we begin with a baby by holding him, kissing him, smiling at him and talking to him. Gentle touch, soft sounds, meeting his every need. We let him get used to and begin to understand his surroundings in an instinctual way. It is non-cognitive and is absorbed by the child effortlessly. He gradually begins to understand who his parents are and becomes comfortable in his home. Little by little he begins to understand that he can control his arms and legs and begins to use them consciously. He imitates his parents' actions and speech and eventually makes them his own. This is all done prior to even speaking his first word. It is instinctual and intuitive.

My belief, and it seems to correlate with what Smith is saying, is that we should approach a child's faith in the same way: begin with actions first. We Orthodox teach children to make the sign of the cross, to kiss the icons, to sing in church, to bow and kneel and prostrate. They learn willingly and are happy to imitate their parents. We teach them to memorize prayers and scripture even before they can understand what they are actually saying, and their souls are shaped by the very act of speaking the words. [Fr. Tom Hopko says that when we go to church, we are not there to pray about what is on our minds, but we need to put our minds where our mouths are; we need to think about what it is that we are already saying. The prayers are given to us. We need to bring ourselves to pray them. As we sing in the Cherubic Hymn right before the Great Entrance in the Divine Liturgy: "now let us lay aside all earthly cares".] They can live and breathe the Christian life before they are even aware of any rational explanation or understanding.

Doctrines are the cognitive, theoretical articulation of what we "understand" when we pray. 

Our children can understand in their hearts long before they will ever be able to put their understanding into words. We as parents and teachers should take advantage of this and use the time we have with them right from the beginning. It is up to us to model and help them form the habits that will define them as Christian persons.

Those of us who have young children can see this clearly. When one of my children offends ones of his or her siblings, we ask him or her to apologize. A two or three year old may not fully understand what he is saying when he says "I'm sorry", but that certainly doesn't mean that we have to wait until he understands before we teach him to apologize. We teach our children to do before we expect them to understand. It is our responsibility, our duty, to teach our children how to act as Christians.

As Shinichi Suzuki says in his book Nurtured by Love,

The habit of action - this, I think, is the most important thing we must acquire. Life's success or failure actually depends on this one thing. So what should we do? We should get so that it is second nature to put our thoughts into action. 
If we are successful in teaching them how a Christian ought to behave then they have a bit of a head start as they come to a more rational understanding of the Christian life.

One more point to be made here is this: if we want to have a Christian culture, we need to have practices in place that help us to learn how to relate to each other. That's really what culture is - a way of relating with the others around us that is acceptable to all involved. We are formed by the culture around us and we also form the culture ourselves. There is a powerful connection between what we do and what we intend and what culture tells us to do and what the culture intends. What's wonderful is that as Orthodox we don't have to make up our own Christian cultural practices from scratch. The Church, which has existed for 2000+ years, has kept that culture in tact for us. There have been those who have deviated and walked away from the Church's teachings, but the Church herself has retained what it had from its very inception. We only have to conform ourselves to what has already been established as the Christian way of relating to God and to others and to the world. By conforming ourselves, we then preserve and perpetuate that culture and so are able to pass it on to our children.

 book club

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Weekends with Chesterton :: The Christian Ideal

Linking up with Sarah at Amongst Lovely Things for Weekends with Chesterton.

...the great ideals of the past failed not by being outlived (which must mean over-lived), but by not being lived enough.  
The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried. 

From  What's Wrong with the World

Friday, January 24, 2014

Lay aside all earthly cares

This is a recording of the Cherubic Hymn which is sung at every Divine Liturgy just before the Great Entrance. In the video the words are very long and drawn out, so it's sometimes hard to understand what is being said. Here are the words for those who are not familiar with this hymn:

Let us who mystically represent the Cherubim
And sing to the Life-giving Trinity the Thrice Holy Hymn
Now lay aside all earthly cares

That we may receive the King of all
Who comes invisibly up-borne by the angelic hosts.
Alelluia! Alelluia! Alelluia!

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Book Club :: Desiring the Kingdom :: Chapter 1 part 2

 book club

(For the next several months I will be participating in this book club on Desiring the Kingdom , hosted by Mystie at Simply Convivial. If you missed my earlier posts you can find them here)

Last week we looked at the first part of chapter 1 in Desiring the Kingdom and the discussion focused on how we are creatures made with physical bodies, not just thinkers or just believers. As Smith puts it,

...the way we inhabit the world is not primarily as thinkers, or even believers, but as more affective, embodied creatures who make our way in the world more by feeling our way around it. 

He goes on to say that because we live in this world - in time and space - we have a physical, dynamic relationship with it, in that we live our lives with intention. In other words, we reach out with our hearts and our hands for... something. What do we reach out for? That is the question that each person has to answer for himself.

We are essentially and ultimately desiring animals, which is to say that we are essentially and ultimately lovers. To be human is to love, and it is what we love that defines who we are. 

We aim for what we love. We reach out for that which we desire and that desire shapes our actions and our thoughts and our beliefs. The question before us is what do we ultimately desire? What is it, that above all else, we desire from the very core of our being?

We were created to love and ultimately desire God. Another way of saying it is that we were created to worship God. This is not to say that God created us because He wanted our worship, or that He needed us to worship Him. He definitely did not need us or our worship. But He created us because He is love itself, and love by definition pours itself out on and desires the other. The Holy Trinity is a communion of love between Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and that love is poured out on creation. We were created with a capacity to love as well and the natural and right thing is for us to aim our love toward our Creator. Our love and our desire has its proper place when it is aimed at God.

What happens though, is that because God loves us so much, and has poured out His love upon us, He has given us the choice to love Him in return; and more often than not, our choice aims our desire at something that is not God. Our arrow has missed the mark, and the result is sin.

What do we choose instead, and how do we end up making choices that pull us away from God rather than toward Him? Or, if we do choose Him, what is it that brings us to that decision?

[W]hat we love is a vision of the good life, and implicit picture of what we think human flourishing looks like. 

Our ultimate love is oriented by and to a picture of what we think it looks like for us to live well, and that picture then governs, shapes and motivates our decisions and actions.  

Smith emphasizes here that this orientation is to a picture. Pictures tend to be concrete and tangible. We can imagine a picture and how it would take up physical space and time. Pictures of the "good life" can be found in stories, songs, myths, legends, etc. Words can be potent and powerful, no doubt about that, but perhaps words are powerful only insofar as they can paint for us a compelling, continual vision that can be embodied in our actions and habits. After all Jesus Himself is the Word incarnate; embodied; taking  on physical shape. "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us."


This picture of the good life is what drives us to behave as we do. We are motivated to pursue and take hold of this vision with our actions.

Thus we become certain kinds of people; we begin to emulate, mimic, and mirror the particular vision that we desire. Attracted by it and moved toward it, we being to live into this vision of the good life and start to look like citizens who inhabit the world that we picture as the good life. 

...our desire for the kingdom is inscribed in our dispositions and habits and functions quite apart from our conscious reflection. 

What is being said here is that our own actions, most especially our unconscious actions or habits, are what drive this vision of the good life. One way to our hearts is through the senses, and our bodily rituals, which repeat day after day, train our hearts and aim us toward our idea of the kingdom - whether it be the True Kingdom or not. Every ritual already has a particular aim embedded in it. Once again there is no neutral ground here. The things that we do, big and small, matter because they physically orient us toward or away from God. Many times, once habits are established, this orientation takes place without our even being aware. Physical habits form our souls and shape who we are. Maybe it's time we started paying attention to what we do.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Weekends with Chesterton :: the future and the past

Linking up with Sarah at Amongst Lovely Things for Weekends with Chesterton. invent new ideals because they dare not attempt old ideals. They look forward with enthusiasm, because they are afraid to look back.
Among the many things that leave me doubtful about the modern habit of fixing eyes on the future, none is stronger than this: that all the men in history who have really done anything with the future have had their eyes fixed upon the past.  

I keep thinking that maybe when I post my Chesterton quotes for the week that I might like to add some commentary. But when read them again I always come away with the conclusion that he has already said it just fine. There's nothing for me to add!

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Habits: A First Step in the Right Direction

Matthew 12:35-36 says,

A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good things, and an evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth evil things.
How does the treasure of the heart, good or evil, get there? How does one build up good treasure in his heart? The answer, at least in part, is that he builds up treasure through his way of relating to the world. If a person relates to the world as God asks, he will build up good treasure. If he does not, then the treasure of his heart becomes evil. This way of relating to the world is exactly what habits are all about: the way we move about and interact with others, both physically and mentally. Habits of the mind can be just as powerful as habits of the body, but they are still learned behaviors that have physically shaped our brains and help us to behave in certain ways. And even habits of the mind and heart begin with the body.

This point was really brought home to me just the other day. I was standing at the kitchen sink, washing dishes and thinking about all this and praying, when my 3 year old came up behind me and startled me by grabbing my legs and making me lose my balance a little. My first reaction was not a kind, "Watch out, honey, please don't knock me over", rather it was "M, stop that right now! You can't grab onto me like that!" said in a pretty mean tone of voice. Now my mind had just right then been in beautiful places and thinking beautiful thoughts - trying to pray even, but when the interruption came I immediately lashed out and acted on my annoyance at being disturbed because that is my habitual response to annoyance. My trained habit to lash out when someone gets in my way overrode my thoughts about how habits affect us!

This incident really brought clarity to the conviction that I have that it is so important to teach children ways of relating to others that are godly. It doesn't matter if they understand right now. What matters more is that they acquire the habits of godly people so that when they are ready to understand, the Christian life is that much easier for them to pursue. Charlotte Mason put it this way:
The child who starts in life with say, twenty good habits, begins with a certain capital which he will lay out to endless profit as the years go on. 
Of course none of us is perfect and my children will have their struggles and imperfections just like others, but that is no reason to forgo the purposeful and careful cultivation of good habits now, while they are young, in order that they might continue in that way when they are grown.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Wednesdays with Words :: Milton

 ordo amoris

Linking up with Cindy at Ordo Amoris for Wednesdays with Words.

Here are some more excerpts from Paradise Lost, Book II:

Beelzebub, speaking to the other fallen angels:
...for he [God], be sure
In height or depth, still first and last will reign
Sole king, and of his kingdom lose no part
By our revolt, but over hell extend
His empire, and with iron sceptre rule
Us here, as with his golden those in heaven.

O shame to men! Devil with devil damned
Firm concord hold, men only disagree
Of creatures rational, though under hope 
Of heavenly grace: and God proclaiming peace,
Yet live in hatred, enmity, and strife
Among themselves, and levy cruel wars,
Wasting the earth, each other to destroy:
As if (which might induce us to accord)
Man had not hellish foes enough besides,
That day and night for his destruction wait. 

Strange alteration! Sin and Death amain
Following his [Satan's] track, such was the will of heaven,
Paved after him a broad and beaten way
Over the dark abyss, whose boiling gulf
Tamely endured a bridge of wondrous length
From hell continued reaching to utmost orb
Of this frail world;...

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Book Club :: Desiring the Kingdom :: Chapter 1 part 1

 book club

(For the next several months I will be participating in this book club on Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Cultural Liturgies), hosted by Mystie at Simply Convivial. If you missed my earlier posts you can find them here)

In chapter 1 Smith begins by exploring the question of the relationship between education and the Christian life. If education is supposed to form our students, why does it often fail to form them as persons who embody their beliefs in Jesus Christ? Part of his answer for this is the idea that our educational model is based on a faulty understanding of what human beings essentially are. He elaborates quite a bit on the types of pedagogy that result when we look at the human person as merely a thinker or the human person as merely a believer. His point is that emphasis on thinking or believing alone is just not enough. His solution is to understand the human person as a lover:

...human persons are not primarily or for the most part thinkers, or even believers. Instead, human persons are - fundamentally and primordially - lovers. (p.41)

We are what we love, and our love is shaped, primed, and aimed by liturgical practices that take hold of our gut and aim our heart to certain ends. 

...we are liturgical animals - embodied, practicing creatures whose love/desire is aimed at something ultimate.  (p.40)

I will write about the idea of human persons as lovers in the next post, but for now I want to focus on the idea that we are "embodied, practicing creatures". We cannot be reduced to mere thoughts, or mere beliefs because our God created us with physical bodies to live in a physical world. We are not abstract beings like the angels - we are concrete creatures whose bodies are as much a part of our makeup as our hearts and souls. We were not made to be separated from our bodies. Separation of the soul from the body is the result of sin and that result is death, plain and simple. It is not some kind of liberation or freedom that we should strive for.

Our thoughts and beliefs and our bodies are so intimately bound up in each other that separation would, in fact, be very difficult. Our thoughts influence our beliefs, our beliefs determine our actions and our actions in turn make us who we are.

I once heard a priest give a sermon in which he included a great picture of how these things are bound together. He gave the example of our belief in gravity as an idea which influences our actions. When we wake up in the morning, and get out of bed, we swing our legs over the edge of the bed (or drag them over as the case may be) and put our feet on the floor, fully expecting to stay on the ground when we do so. We believe that gravity will keep our feet on the floor and we act based on that belief. We would not have that belief unless we had experienced the effects of gravity again and again over the course of our lives. First came the action, then the belief, which strengthened the action and made it into a habit. Our action influenced that belief, our rational thought has confirmed it and our belief continues to further that specific action.

Believing is good. Thinking is good. Action is good. But they need to be bound together and action seems to be the one that drives the other two and gives them their potency (or lack thereof). Our actions bring our beliefs and our thoughts together and give them life. As parents and educators we need to be aware of what our own actions say about what we believe and what we think. Our children will become what they behold - and what can they behold better than that which they have living, breathing, sensory, physical contact with?

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Weekends with Chesterton :: What's Wrong with the World

Linking up with Sarah at Amongst Lovely Things for Weekends with Chesterton. The following is from What's Wrong with the World:

Public abuses are so prominent and pestilent that they sweep all generous people into a sort of fictitious unanimity. We forget that, while we agree about the abuses of things, we should differ very much about the uses of them. 

What is wrong [with the world] is that we do not ask what is right. 

This is exactly why it's so important to expose ourselves and our children to the True, the Good and the Beautiful: if they don't have a standard to measure themselves against then everything becomes relative and anything goes.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Wednesdays with Words :: Milton

Linking up with Cindy at Ordo Amoris for Wednesdays with Words. 

I am currently reading Paradise Lost with my brother. He and I take turns choosing a book to read and then discuss. So far we've been through quite a few. This time was his turn to choose and he chose Milton. I have to say I really love it. My brother has already finished, but I'm still only on Book III. Of course as a homeschooling mom of four I have every reason to be slow in my reading, but my busy-ness is most definitely not what is slowing me down this time. I am the type of person who can read entire books in a day, even with kids and house to manage. I usually devour books.

This book is different. This is probably one of the first books that I've ever read and have felt a need to read slowly. I want to savor every bit of it. I read Book I twice before I even began Book II. I keep finding myself going back to re-read underlined passages and be still with the words floating about in my head. This is an entirely new experience for me, and I have to say that I love it. Here are some of my favorite excerpts so far:

If thou beest he [Satan]; but O how fallen! how changed
From him, who in the happy realms of light
Clothed with transcendent brightness did outshine
Myriads though bright

Satan speaking:
To do aught good never will be our task,
But ever to do ill our sole delight,
As being the contrary to his high will 
Whom we resist. If then his providence
Our of our evil seek to bring forth good,
Our labour must ever be to pervert that end,
And out of good still to find means of evil;

narrator speaking of Satan:
Thrice he essayed, and thrice in spite of scorn,
Tears such as angels weep burst forth

Left him at large to his own dark designs,
That with reiterated crimes he might 
Heap on himself damnation, while he sought 
Evil to others, and enraged might see
How all his malice served but to bring forth 
Infinite goodness, grace and mercy shown
On man by him seduced, but on himself
Treble confusion, wrath and vengeance poured. 

The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven. 

Here we may reign secure, and in my choice
To reign is worth ambition though in hell:
Better to reign in hell, than to serve in heaven. 

...for whence,
But from the author of all ill could spring
So deep a malice, to confound the race 
Of mankind in one root, and earth with hell
To mingle and involve, done all to spite
The great creator? But their spite still serves 
His glory to augment. 

Book Club :: Desiring the Kingdom :: (Intro - Part 2)

 book club

I had to write two separate posts about the intro to this book because it was starting to get too long! So much to think about! Here is the second part of my thoughts on the intro. 

One more point that I took from this introduction (and boy, if the introduction was so jam-packed I wonder what the actual body of the book will be like!), and that is this: 

There is no neutral, nonformative education; in short, there is no such thing as a "secular" education. 

That brings to mind Charlotte Mason who says, 

We do not merely give a religious education, a secular education for example. But we hold that all education is divine, that every good gift of knowledge and insight comes from above, that the Lord the Holy Spirit is the supreme educator of mankind, and that the culmination of all education (which may at the same time be reached by a little child) is that personal knowledge of and intimacy with God in which our being finds its fullest perfection.(Italics mine)

All of the things that we study with our students are subjects which each shed a little more light on who God is and what He is like. Each subject - math, writing, music, science, all of it - comes from God Himself and the things that we pass on to the next generation have been revealed to former generations by the Holy Spirit. It is not disembodied knowledge that is unrelated to God. It is part of Him and we can become closer to Him through these studies. 

But only if our heart is in the right place. Because we can also go ahead and study all these things without the intent of becoming more Christ-like and while the factual knowledge will still be there, and can even be practically useful, the heart remains untouched and our souls remain unchanged because there has been no encounter with the Ultimate Cause of it all. As Smith states,

...our identity is shaped by what we ultimately love or what we love as ultimate.

We must keep our minds on Christ and learn, through the tools that have already been given to us, how to love Him first and foremost. We must love Him as the Ultimate Beginning and the Ultimate End of all things. 

One last quote from the intro: 

Being a disciple of Jesus is not primarily a matter of getting the right ideas and doctrines and beliefs into your head in order to guarantee proper behavior; rather, it's a matter of being the kind of person who loves rightly - who loves God and neighbor and is oriented to the world by the primacy of that love. 

Book Club :: Desiring the Kingdom :: (Intro - Part 1)

 book club

A big thank you to Mystie for hosting this discussion! I have wanted to read Desiring the Kingdom for quite awhile now and I'm glad to have others to discuss it with as I go through it. I may not have a post for every week, but I will do what I can. 

First off, the intro. The author of the book, James K. A. Smith, begins right away by challenging the basic assumption that most people have about what education is. I think most of us have that basic assumption operating at some level: that education is about ideas and facts and about the things that we know and not so much about who we are or what we do. It's very easy to fall into a mindset that values quantity and acquisition of words and facts which can be assessed via testing and other concrete methods. We want to know how much we have gained and how much we have yet to gain. We want to check off the boxes and show people that we've got it done. We want a starting point and an ending point and a straight line in between. 

But what Smith is saying from the start is that maybe we've got it all wrong. Or at least partly wrong. Perhaps education is about more than just ideas. He says,

What if education wasn't first and foremost about what we know, but about what we love? 

What if education... is not primarily about the absorption of ideas and information, but about the formation of hearts and desires? 

Formation. Being formed into something that we are not. Potter and clay. Changed by what we know; changed by the things that we do. If this is the case then our actions matter, and they matter deeply. 

He goes on to describe the way a shopping mall is set up and how it uses rituals and physical objects and space to inform our desires with regards to the "good life".  He calls the pedagogy of the mall 

...a pedagogy of desire that gets hold of us through the body.

His point is that this a physical, concrete reality that is purposely designed to shape and form our desires. The things that we do affect the persons we are

He then describes how he uses the term liturgy to encompass actions or rituals which are repeated again and again and which shape our desires. He says,

Liturgies aim our love to different ends precisely by training our hearts through our bodies. 

An education, then, is a constellation of practices, rituals, and routines that inculcates a particular vision of the good life by inscribing or infusing that vision into the heart (the gut) by means of material, embodied practices. 

God knows this about us. After all He created us to be this way. He designed us as beings with both a body and a soul and did not purpose the two to be separated. If we look closely we can see that He set up the laws for His people in the Old Testament and established the Church (His Body) with everything present that we would need to be formed and shaped and changed into the image-bearers that we were meant to be. 

If we look at the way worship has been handed down to us over the past two thousand years (and even longer since the Church really is the Old Testament fulfilled) it's easy to see that this is so. Everything we do during our worship is physical. We cross ourselves, we bow, we see rich colors and beautiful images of Christ and His saints, we kiss these icons, we sing, we smell the incense, we hear songs and beautiful hymns, we taste His Body and Blood. All the five senses are used and we do these things again and again. Our Orthodox Divine Liturgy is filled from beginning to end with these little liturgies of ritual that shape our desires. 

When we leave the church building and return to our homes we can continue with these little liturgies throughout the week. We can say our prayers - still with all the physical actions of crossing, bowing, kissing, etc. We can fast and give alms. We can build up a culture of love in our families whose day to day actions continue to form and shape our affections. Our habits become the overriding factor and it takes a huge effort to change those things that we have repeated so often. 

This is why it is not enough to merely teach our students about Christianity and about Christ. They have to be shown how to live it:  they must be shown how to be little Christs - imitators of God's Anointed One. The ideas are food for the mind, but if the body is not nourished as well the mind cannot carry the burden alone; and indeed the body is the vessel that carries out the ideas living in the mind. We act based on what we believe to be true, and what we believe is formed and shaped by what we have physically lived

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Weekends with Chesterton :: missing the mark

Linking up with Sarah at Amongst Lovely Things for Weekends with Chesterton. I have been wanting to read more Chesterton and just keep putting it off, so this is a great chance for me to purposefully pursue that.  

Here's my first quote from The Man Who Was Thursday:

The rare, strange thing is to hit the mark; the gross, obvious thing is to miss it. 

This is definitely something to ponder especially when you consider the fact that the Greek word for sin (ἁμαρτία) means to miss the mark.