Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Wednesdays with Words :: Out of the Mouths of Babes

Words spoken by my seven-year-old after hearing the gospel reading of the Last Judgement

For some reason whenever I hear about the goats it makes me a little nervous.

Linking up with Cindy for Wedenesdays with Words.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Desiring the Kingdom :: The One Thing Needful

Over the past couple months or so I have been participating in Mystie's book club on James K. A. Smith's Desiring the Kingdom. I have really enjoyed reading and writing and interacting with the others who are reading along as well. But now that Lent is almost here, I have decided to step back from blogging a bit and put my focus where it needs to be: on aiming my desire toward Christ and actually doing all these things I've been thinking about. As fun as blogging is, it does not help me do that very well. Even though I don't blog that often, I still end up spending more time online than I have to spend and it creates tension and frustration with the other things that I am supposed to be doing at any given moment. Like oh,.. say... taking care of my kids! So today's post will be my last in the book club discussion, and I'd like to use it to share some final thoughts.

This book has really helped me step back and examine how the things that I do on a daily basis point me toward or away from God. The idea that the things we do shape who we are is simple when said, but very profound when one stops to think about all that the statement really means. It means that the things I say, the way I say them, the tasks that I do and those I choose to leave undone, the places I go, the books I read, the ways I spend my time, even the very thoughts that I allow myself to think, all point me either toward The Kingdom or away. It means that the person I will become is very much dependent on the choices I make in each moment of each day. God gives the grace, no doubt about it, but He leaves the choice in our hands.

With regards to education there is also a lot to think about. If education is formation, and if we desire to pursue Wisdom and Virtue then once again the things that we do and the choices that we make matter very much. It's not enough to aim to teach the basics and to get into a "good college". That can certainly be one of the results of a good education, but it should not be the goal. The pursuit of Wisdom and Virtue brings us to the feet of Christ. If we gaze upon Him He is gracious enough to help up to become more like Him. How do we behold Christ? By using the tools we have been given to open ourselves up to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Our studies can be tools that help us to open ourselves up to God. We can learn through our studies how to be attentive through practices such as narration and keeping notebooks; how to recognize The Truth through understanding absolute truths; how to understand where we've been and where we are going; how to use words in order to convey meaning and bring a unifying principle to what we say in order to point to the Unifying Principle, the Logos Himself. All of these things point us toward Christ, if we use them properly. But we must keep in mind that they are the tools, not the goal. Even with all the "right" books and methods at our disposal, what makes them profitable is not that we are using the "right" things, but rather how we are using them.

While education in the academic sense is important for functioning in the society that we currently find ourselves in, my view is that the subjects themselves are not ultimately necessary. The one thing that is necessary in any life is Jesus Christ. St. Seraphim of Sarov (pictured on the right) said that the goal of Christian life is to acquire the Holy Spirit. We can acquire the Holy Spirit through practices such as prayer without ever learning how to read a single word. We can learn to deny ourselves an take up our crosses and follow Him without ever once having to discipline ourselves through study. We can learn to love our neighbor as ourselves without any reference to an academic approach to science or history or art.

Now I am not saying that academics are a bad thing, or that we should stop bothering about it. But what I am saying is that academics should not be the first thing. I think the question we must ask is, "Does what I am doing point me toward Christ, or away from Him?" If we live the Christian life first and foremost and make sure that all our habits, practices and rituals point toward Christ, then academic education can become sanctified and it can become another avenue through which we can move closer to Him. We must build the Christian culture in our homes by our own desire first and that desire will become contagious and will be caught by those around us. St. Seraphim is famous for these words:
Acquire the Holy Spirit and thousands around you will be saved. 
 We must desire and then actively seek the Kingdom of God above all else and then "all these things will be added...". The emphasis on seeking translates into action. We have to do, and not just think about, those things which we are called to do in the present moment. Thinking is all well and good, but the thought must penetrate the heart in order to live through action and be fruitful.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Wednesdays with Words : Milton

I've been pondering the role of husband and wife quite a bit over the past few years, but especially recently after listening to this podcast. So when I came across these lines from Milton they stood out to me: 

Eve speaking to Adam:

God is thy law, thou mine: to know no more
Is woman's happiest knowledge and her praise. 

Here are some other lines, not related to the topic of husband/wife roles; I just think they are beautiful.

Adam to Eve after her dream from Satan:

Evil into the mind of god or man
May come and go, so unapproved, and leave
No spot or blame behind: which gives me hope
That what in sleep thou didst abhor to dream,
Waking thou never wilt consent to do.

When he sees Eve crying because of feeling bad about the dream:

Two other precious drops that ready stood,
Each in their crystal sluice, he ere they fell
Kissed as the gracious signs of sweet remorse
And pious awe, that feared to have offended. 

Adam to the Archangel Raphael, a wonderful example of true generosity:

Our heavenly stranger; well we may afford
Our givers their own gifts, and large bestow
From large bestowed, where nature multiplies
Her fertile growth, and by disburdening grows
More fruitful, which instructs us not to spare. 

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

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Desiring the Kingdom :: The Church Militant

(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, rather than really giving an overview of Smith's points in the first part of chapter 3, I gave a sort of overview of the vision of The Kingdom implicit in Orthodoxy. I am doing the same thing this week as I take a look at the Christian vision which counters the secular vision described and examined in the chapter.

In this next section of chapter three, Smith talks about the rituals connected with patriotism. He posits that things like standing for the national anthem and daily recitation of the pledge of allegiance should be approached with some trepidation by Christians whose allegiance ought to be to a heavenly country.

I'm honestly not really sure what I think of his assertions here.  I do understand his assertion that there are physical "liturgies" which point a citizen toward loyalty to his country. I can see how daily recitation of the pledge, or the act of standing during the national anthem can point one toward being a patriot, but I don't see it as a necessarily bad thing. And I don't think I can agree that these things are as formative as he argues that they are. And to the extent that they are formative I would say that loyalty to one's own homeland would be a stepping stone to point to the Heavenly Homeland. I think all Christians would agree that God's Kingdom requires our commitment above all other kingdoms and certainly that commitment ought to trump any others. So, in light of all that, I thought I'd use this week's post to focus a bit on the vision of the Kingdom implicit in the Orthodox Church; specifically the vision that views our lives here on earth as warfare and the idea that our loyalties lie with another Kingdom.

Smith emphasized in the last chapter that the vision of the good life is passed down to us in things like pictures, stories and songs. We have all of those things combining to put a glorious image of spiritual victory before us which can inspire and spur us on to greater efforts.

There are hymns of the Church that speak in military terms. The sign of the cross is referred to as a powerful weapon. We call the Theotokos (Mary, the God-bearer) our "Champion Leader", to whom "we dedicate a feast of victory" - victory over sin and the passions. We have stories of great saints like St. George, a military commander in the Roman army, who was so on fire with love for Christ, that he could not remain silent and fearlessly spoke out against the horrible persecution of the Christians to the Emperor Diocletian. His words led to his own martyrdom and death, to which he went joyfully. We call him the "deliverer of captives" and "defender of the poor"; the "champion of kings" and "victorious martyr".
Then there is St. Demetrios, another soldier whose allegiance to the Kingdom of God completely overshadowed his allegiance to Rome and led to his death.
 These two legendary heroes, along with many other great saints of the Church, stand as models for us of what victory in Christ looks like. They were actual soldiers who fought for earthly king and country and were loyal and obedient in doing so. But we can see that they gave up everything for love of God, including wealth, prestige and power. They were soldiers on earth, whose spiritual victories far outweighed their earthly ones. 
While we believe that Christ was victorious once and for all when He "trampled down death by death" and that the battle has been won, we also know that our participation in that victory is left up to us: we choose to accept or reject God's grace. Always He gives us the freedom to run to Him, or to run away.

The life of the baptized Christian is, from beginning to its earthly end, a constant struggle. From the very moment of baptism, when we defy the devil by blowing and spitting upon him, we acknowledge that we have taken up arms against all that would turn us away from Christ. We become soldiers who are going to war. This excerpt from one of the prayers at the baptism service (right after the newly baptized person has been chrismated) uses language that confirms this:

He that has put on You, O Christ, with us bows his head unto You; ever protect him a warrior invincible against them who vainly raise up enmity against him, or, as might be, against us; and by Your Crown of Incorruption at the last declare us all to be the victorious ones. 
The struggle for victory does not end in this lifetime. We must fight to the very moment of death so that we can overcome in Christ. And so the battle does not end with baptism and entrance into communion with the Church of Christ. Baptism is really just the beginning. We then have to show by our works that our faith is alive and that we are willing to fight tooth and nail to keep it. We are patriots of the Heavenly Country, the glory of which far outshines the glory of any kingdom here on earth. If we keep this vision in front of us then, when the time comes for us to declare our allegiance to our True Home over our temporary one, we will be prepared; prepared to choose death, in order to gain life. And this death might not always mean physical death or martyrdom. More often than not we must be prepared to die to self first. We must be willing to take up our cross in the face of immense opposition from our own passions and from the culture around us. We must be willing to say no to the cultural liturgies that turn us away from Christ, in order to move closer to Him.   

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Sunday of the Prodigal Son

Lord, I offer You the voice of the Prodigal Son:
I have sinned before Heaven and before You, Good Master!
I have squandered the fortune You gave me!
Receive me in repentance and save me! 

O Compassionate One, I come before You like the Prodigal Son:
For many years I have abandoned You, and now You are a stranger to me.
Restore to me the first love which I wasted, Lord;
Receive me in repentance and save me! 

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Weekends with Chesterton: The Most Poetical Thing

Sin is often referred to as a sickness, with the Church being called the hospital for those who suffer from the disease. So when I came across the following line I was moved by the profundity of the words:

...the most poetical thing, more poetical than the flowers, more poetical than the stars - the most poetical thing in the world is not being sick.  

~ from The Man Who Was Thursday, a nightmare

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

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Wednesdays with Words: The Principality of Mathematics

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

Since I began the work of educating my children I have become more and more interested in math. In fact, I think I can even dare to say that I have fallen in love with it. It is a living, breathing landscape full of wonderful, exciting truths and I have been taking so much joy in discovering them, bit by bit. Then I heard Chris Perrin say in one of his videos (I think it was this one) that music is math incarnate and I just about swooned! Ever since then I have been actively seeking out opportunities to dig deeper. I have been slowly working my way through Euclid's Geometry and every time I work through a proof I feel like I have had a nice deep breath of fresh air; it's as though I just finished an invigorating mental workout.

Just the other day I found the following passage in Charlotte Mason's 4th volume, Ourselves, which put a big smile on my face. She said,

The principality of Mathematics is a mountainous land, but the air is very fine and health-giving... you cannot lose your way, and... every step is taken on firm ground. People who seek their work or play in this principality find themselves braced by effort and satisfied with truth. 

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Desiring the Kingdom:: The Vision of the Good Life

(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)

To be honest as I thought about writing this week I really did not have much to say about the first part of this chapter (or even the rest of it for that matter). Chapter three is a closer examination by Smith of some of the practices that exist in our culture that he would classify as liturgies: practices aimed at shaping and forming the persons that we are.

In this week's section of the chapter he took a look at the practices which he described a bit in the introduction when he explored the culture of the shopping mall as a kind of liturgy which draws us in and has the capacity to turn our hearts toward something other than Christ. Maybe because I don't like malls, or because I consciously (try to) reject the ideas of consumerism and materialism I am left with little to say about this. I get it: the culture of "stuff" is a culture that has turned toward all that stuff (including the actions associated with the concrete products) for fulfillment, rather than toward Christ.

So, since I haven't anything of consequence to add to Mr. Smith's points in this chapter, I thought I'd like to take a look at how the vision of the Good Life implicit in the practices of the Orthodox Church presents itself and how it counters the liturgies of the mall and other non-Christian cultural practices. (I did read ahead a little bit and I see that a detailed discussion of Christian worship is coming up in chapter 5, so I'm focusing here on the vision as a whole rather than the details of the actions of worship.)

The first thing to understand about the Orthodox is that we like love physical, material things. We use the tools we have been given to point our hearts toward worship in spirit and truth. When one enters the nave of an Orthodox church there is a tangible shift in atmosphere. There are icons (images of Christ and His saints) everywhere - in the front, along the walls, in the back, on the ceiling. There is gold everywhere - the Gospel is covered in heavy gold covers, the candles are hung in gold lamps, the priest blesses the people with a gold cross, the censer is gold. There are candles burning, and incense as well. The actions of the faithful who enter also reflect this shift: the sign of the cross is made, icons* are venerated with bows and kisses, voices are raised in song singing of the glory of God and asking His mercy on His people.

All of these things have a purpose and they point our bodies, our minds and our hearts toward God. There is a union of heaven and earth that takes place. Fr. Alexander Schmemann, in his book The Eucharist, describes it as
...the gathering together of heaven and earth and all creation in Christ - which constitutes the essence and purpose of the Church. is an incarnation of the vision of the Church as sobor [a word which translates as both assembly and cathedral], as the union of the visible and invisible worlds, as the manifestation and presence of the new and transfigured creation.  
He describes it as an incarnation, the embodiment of the Church in heaven and the Church here on earth. What happens then, is that the material is used to point our desire toward the immaterial. Our gut is grabbed by physical sights, sounds, smells, actions and, most importantly, taste. This capturing of the senses then aims our desire toward Christ. This really is a vision - even more than a vision, an experience - of the kingdom of heaven. The Kingdom: the only kingdom that matters. The roots of our worship are in the Old Testament,* so this vision of heaven was made possible for us by the grace of God when He gave the law to the Israelites all those thousands of years ago.

The union of heaven and earth that I'm speaking of is not mere poetry or some kind of metaphor. What I am speaking of is a real, actual occurrence that happens when the Divine Liturgy is celebrated and the people are united by the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ in Holy Communion. We step outside of time into the eternal celebration of the presence of God where the angels and all the saints are continually singing "Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Sabaoth, Heaven and earth are full of Thy glory!" It's not just nice feelings or an ideal or some kind of representation of what will come in the future. It is here and now, in the present. It's hard to describe in words; experience is a better teacher here.

In Smith's book he talks about how the practices of consumerism and materialism end up breeding competition between people because we compare ourselves to each other. The standard set is "the person next to me". In contrast the standard in the Church is only ever Christ and His saints, who by living for Him have become like Him. The question then changes from "how can I be better than my brother?" to "how can I become more like my Lord?" This standard is set before us in images, words and actions, always pointing us toward Christ. Every single practice in the Orthodox Church has been carefully and lovingly preserved so that our hearts might be purposefully and deliberately aimed at pursuit of the Kingdom of Heaven. In God's kingdom all have life in Christ, and the life in Christ is the only life worth having.

 book club

*If you're interested in the Jewish roots of Christian worship you might like to listen to/watch this video.

*For those of my readers who are not Orthodox, and are unfamiliar with what we believe about icons, here is a short explanation, which was taken from this article: So what is an icon? Webster defines an icon as an image (Webster, 1966). In the Orthodox Church an icon is a sacred image, a window into heaven. An image of another reality, of a person, time and place that is more real than here and now. More than art, icons have an important spiritual role... an icon is “theology in imagery, the icon expresses through color what the Gospel proclaims in words”.
We venerate and honor icons as sacred, but we reserve our worship for God alone. 

Monday, February 10, 2014

Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee

We began the Pre-Lenten season yesterday, with the Sunday of the Pharisee and the Publican. If you have a  minute, listen to the recordings linked to the first two hymns. 

The pharisee went up to the temple with a proud and empty heart:
The publican bowed himself in repentance.
They both stood before You, O Master:
The one, through boasting, lost his reward,
But the other, with tears and sighs, won your blessing:
Strengthen me, O Christ our God, as I weep in your presence, 
Since you are the lover of mankind!

The pharisee was condemned by his pride, O Lord;
The publican was justified by his sighs, O Christ,
For You clearly see all things hidden in the hearts of men;
You spurn the arrogant, but never refuse a broken and contrite heart.
Therefore we fall down before You in repentance:
Grant us forgivness and great mercy!

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Wednesdays with Words :: The Two Towers

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

From The Two Towers, when Pippin tries to describe Treebeard's eyes:

One felt as if there was an enormous well behind them, filled up with ages of memory and long, slow, steady thinking; but their surface was sparkling with the present: like sun shimmering on the outer leaves of a vast tree, or on the ripples of a very deep lake. 

This is probably one of my favorite passages of all time!

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Desiring the Kingdom :: Sow a Habit, Reap a Character

(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)

This chapter expanded more on the idea that the things we do affect who we are. All of us have certain habits. We live our lives out through the things that we do. Some habits we have formed unconsciously, other habits we have acquired deliberately. Some habits we would classify as good, others as bad. There are physical habits and there are habits of the mind. All of them are important because in their entirety they make up who we are. The way that we act and the way that we think will either point us toward God, or point us away. There are no neutral habits.

All habits and practices are ultimately trying to make us into a certain kind of person. So one of the most important questions we need to ask is: Just what kind of person is this habit or practice trying to produce, and to what end is such a practice aimed? 

It is our responsibility, as parents and educators, to think carefully about this. We have to know what kind of persons we want our children to become, and we also have to identify the virtues that those people have. Once we have identified those virtues the question becomes: what kinds of habits do people with these virtues have? How does a godly person behave?

We do not have to look far for models to emulate. One has only to open any book about the lives of the saints to find examples of godly men and women, who desired The Kingdom so much that they gladly gave their very lives for the sake of gaining it. These men and women were able to make such great sacrifices precisely because of the way they lived their lives. The things that they did every day shaped and formed them into true Christians. Most of the time we hear of their great feats of asceticism and/or martyrdom, but I think sometimes we forget about the day to day lives that they lived before those stunning accomplishments. Every day they lived in such a way as to point their hearts toward Christ; they acquired the habits of godly people.

Examining the specific habits of godly people is beyond the scope of this post (although I will say that first to come to mind are prayer, fasting and almsgiving), but my point is that we need to be aware of these things and deliberately choose to help our children establish these kinds of habits in their own lives. In the book, Smith has this to say:

...the repetition and practice [of rituals] has the effect of making them more and more automatic such that they become part of the very fiber of our character, wired into our second nature. 

This is what I was trying to say here and also here. When our practices become so ingrained that they are instinctual and performed without any effort on our part then they have become a part of our very self. They are not just things that we do, but they become integral to who we are. Charlotte Mason puts it this way, is the words and actions which come from us without conscious thought which afford the true measure of what we are. 
'Sow a habit, reap a character'; that is, the formation of habits is one of the chief means whereby we modify the hereditary disposition of the child until it becomes the character of the man. 
The book goes on to differentiate between rituals, practices and liturgies. According to Smith practices are rituals which are performed over and over again until they become part of our very makeup. He then describes liturgies as

...rituals that are of ultimate concern: rituals that are formative for identity, that inculcate particular visions of the good life, and do so in a way that means to trump other ritual formations. 
If we take the above quote along with what Charlotte Mason says above we can see how very important habits and the ideas behind those habits are. In other words the character building that Miss Mason speaks of is able to function as such precisely because of the fact that the habits of a virtuous person are habits which point directly to the Kingdom. Purposeful cultivation of practices that conform to the standard that Christ has set for us, through His own example, will place one on the path to salvation. Intentional (or even unintentional) cultivation of practices contrary to that standard point one in the other direction. There is not a third option; we either move toward Christ, or away from Him.

(The images in this post are scenes from the life of Saint Juliana of Lazarevo; a wonderful example of a godly woman who lived out her life for Christ).

 book club

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Weekends with Chesterton :: Endurance

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

.... in everything worth having, even in every pleasure, there is a point of pain or tedium that must be survived, so that the pleasure may revive and endure. The joy of battle comes after the first fear of death; the joy of reading Virgil comes after the bore of learning him; the glow of the sea-bather comes after the icy shock of the sea bath; and the success of the marriage comes after the failure of the honeymoon.  
From What's Wrong with the World