Ancient Answers

Guidance for Today from Scripture and Early Christianity


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Take hold of your life!

I woke up this morning with a song that I kept singing quietly all morning:

Κράτησα τη ζωή μου κράτησα τη ζωή μου ταξιδεύοντας

ανάμεσα στα κίτρινα δέντρα κατά το πλάγιασμα της βροχής

σε σιωπηλές πλαγιές φορτωμένες με τα φύλλα της οξιάς,

καμιά φωτιά στην κορυφή τους˙ βραδιάζει.

The poet George Seferis (1900-71)

The very first line is the hardest to translate, for me at least. Is it “I held my life”? Is it, “I held on to my life”? Is it, “I kept hold of my life”? Is it, “I took hold of my life”? Any of these translations is literally correct. But it makes a lot of difference which English translation I choose. Is my life something that I hold like a bag of groceries? Is my life something I protect and hold on to tightly? This second meaning is the one preferred by published translations, and probably comes closest to the original meaning and circumstances of the poet who wrote these words. Or is my life something I take hold of in a momentous decision to make it meaningful? That last is the translation I choose today. It is also what Lent teaches me: To grab hold of my life, to live it to the fullest, without fear and without protective covers, so that I may with boldness come to the night of Pascha and “receive the light from the light that never sets.”

The words are from the poem “Epiphany 1937” by George Seferis, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1963. It was set to music by the great Mikis Theodorakis, and was recorded in 1962.

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Here is my translation of the whole song, though I have trouble translating the full impact of the word πλάγιασμα. Is it “slanting” as in published translations, or is it something more like the “cover” of rain? Maybe someone could give me a better translation of that one word which seems to be important in the overall meaning of this song/poem.

I took hold of my life, I took hold of my life traveling

among yellow trees beneath the slanting rain

in silent slopes loaded with the leaves of beech trees

no fire on their peaks; it’s getting dark.

It is because it’s getting dark that we need to “take hold” of our lives. And it is because it’s getting dark that we “keep hold” of our lives! The mistake most of us make is that we keep hold before we take hold! We protect our lives before we have actually lived our lives. That indeed is a very profound problem.

 


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The Next American Orthodox Saint?

Saint-Olga-MichaelDid you know that there are American Orthodox saints? We already have quite a few that have been canonized by the Orthodox Church in America (OCA), and I pray that this simple Eskimo woman of Alaska will be the next one. She died in 1979, and there is a push for the OCA to officially declare her a saint. Her name is Matushka (Mother) Olga Michael. Already hymns have been composed in celebration of her life – this is normal practice for any new saint, and very often hymns are composed as part of the process of promoting the canonization process. Icons also have been written. One typical example is shown here (click to enlarge it). You can hear my own reflections on her life and the significance of her life in this audio file:

 

Although she was American Eskimo and not Canadian, one of the best places to read about her is this Canadian Orthodox website. Among the hymns that are composed for any new saint is an Akathist. Here are excerpts from the beginning of the Akathist that has been composed for Blessed Olga Michael of Alaska. The full text can be read in the above website.

Kontakion 1 (Tone 4)

The God who makes the moving curtain of the northern lights made you as a living light, shining in the far north and lighting up the desolate with His great beauty. Beholding this radiance, we your children lift up our voices and sing : Rejoice, Matushka Olga, healer of the abused and broken !

Ikos 1

You laboured in the far north as a new Tabitha, making clothes to shelter the poor from the cold and warming their souls with your love. We who endure the icy winds of this age also find shelter in your heavenly intercession and offer you these praises :

Rejoice, you that provided boots and parkas for the bodies of those in need !

Rejoice, you that still provide God’s grace for the souls of the afflicted !

Rejoice, strong consolation of peace for widows and orphans !

Rejoice, silent witness to the eternal Word !

Rejoice, Matushka Olga, healer of the abused and broken !

 


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Deep theology = Deep ecology

In Norman MacLean’s A River Runs Through It we read this fascinating bit of dialogue between a father and a son:

Then [my father] told me, “In the part I was reading it says the Word was in the beginning, and that’s right. I used to think water was first, but if you listen carefully you will hear that the words are underneath the water.”

“That’s because you are a preacher first and then a fisherman,” I told him. “If you ask Paul, he will tell you that the words are formed out of the water.”

“No,” my father said, “you are not listening carefully. The water runs over the words. Paul will tell you the same thing.”

I’ve seen the movie, but never read the actual book. The quote comes from a book which I’m currently reading, The Blue Sapphire of the Mind: Notes for a Contemplative Ecology, by Douglas E. Christie (Oxford University Press, 2013, page 223). After quoting the above passage, Christie goes on to ask:

Are we listening carefully enough? Can we discern this Word, older than the silence, deeper than the water, woven into both?

That is always the question, isn’t it? Are we listening carefully enough? Can we discern the Word, the Logos? “Logos, the Song of the World” is indeed the title of chapter 6 of Christie’s book. And my thoughts today are inspired by Christie’s chapter 6. He writes of faith in the following evocative and provocative way:

faith in the presence of a voice beckoning to us in and through the living world, and faith in power of “our own responses”— that is, our own poetic evocations of the living world— to bring this voice to clear and vivid expression. In its honest exploration of this rich and troubling ambiguity and in its careful attention to the intricate relationship between word and world, the contemporary literature and poetry of nature can help us recover a sense of the Word as incarnate in every living being— as creative, renewing presence in the world, as the source of all language, all storytelling, community, the cosmos itself.

This is incarnational theology at its best and deepest. This is where deep ecology meets deep theology. The connection between theology and ecology runs very deep, deep into common linguistic origins. Theology is theologia (θεολογία), the combination of two ancient Greek words: theos (god) and logos (word). So theology is logos about god. Likewise, ecology comes from two Greek words: oikos (dwelling, house, home) and logos (word). So ecology is logos about home, our home, our planet Earth. But oikos meant more than dwelling. The New Testament gave the Greek word many special meanings. For example:

1 Peter 2:5 “like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house” – οἶκος πνευματικός – the Christian community as the spiritual temple of God.

1 Timothy 3:15 “if I am delayed, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God”.

οἶκος Ἰσραήλ (house of Israel), οἶκος Ἰούδα (house of Judah), οἶκος Ἰακώβ (house of Jacob), etc. – a whole clan or tribe of people descended from a common ancestor – thus, nation.

And from the word οἶκος derived many other words which played crucial roles in how the message of Jesus Christ was communicated in the New Testament and in the early church. For example:

οἰκουμένη – from which we get ecumenical, etc. – the inhabited earth.

οἰκονομία – economy, management (of a household), and, most importantly, God’s plan of redemption = dispensation.

The early Christians interacted very easily with their surrounding culture and used all the tools of the Greek language to express their new message of salvation. Most Christian churches of our own time have lost the ability to do deep theology, and have thus lost the ability to interact with the best ecological and political thinking. So we retreat into the safety of sloganeering, traditionalism and tribalism. And there lies the problem with so much of modern Christianity. We no longer hear the Word; we sustain our place in society with marmoreal repetitions of formulaic worship and simplistic slogans of feel-good, superficial religion. Different churches have worked out different strategies to keep people in the pews, but even the most exuberant pentecostal churches and the most business-savvy mega-churches are only prolonging the dying process.

Christie quotes from another book, House Made of Dawn, by N. Scott Momaday – a passage which reimagines the Christian creation story in light of ancient Kiowa myth:

In the beginning was the Word … there was nothing. There was nothing! Darkness. There was no end to it … there was only the dark infinity in which nothing was. And something happened, and everything began. The Word did not come into being, but it was. It did not break upon the silence, but it was older than the silence and the silence was made of it.… And from that day the Word has belonged to us, who have heard it for what it is, who have lived in fear and awe of it. In the Word was the beginning; In the beginning was the Word.

This is an example of the theopoetic act. This word also comes from two Greek words: theos and poiema. Theos is the word for god; poiema is the Greek word that gave us the English word poem. But poiema goes deeper than poem or poetry: it means the act of creation, the product of creation. So I take theopoetic to mean creating the divine in words or art, or in life! We are all meant to be theopoetic beings! We are meant to give expression to the divine in our lives, since we are images, or icons, of the living God. Then and only then we might be able to hear the Word that lies underneath the water; underneath the soil; and underneath the concrete with which we cover the life-giving soil.

Christie had began chapter 6 of his book by mentally connecting an unknown artist painting figures on the stone of a canyon in Utah to John, thousands of miles away on Patmos, looking at the words drying on the parchment on which he wrote them – momentous words, “In the beginning was the Word…” He returns to those two images at the end of chapter 6 with a paragraph that touches deep ecological and theological truth.DSC_3563

I think of that unknown artist at the bottom of Barrier Canyon and of that old man on the island of Patmos. Did they know that deep, archaic silence woven into the very fabric of the world? Did they stand, trembling, in that silence, listening to the world, before finally giving voice, in word, in song, to what they had heard? Can we recover a sense of world so pregnant with Word, a sense of Word so intimately bound up with the very life of the world? Such attentive listening promises a deeper sense of relationship with the places we inhabit. It may also be necessary to the long-term survival of those places.

It seems to me this is the language that is missing in today’s churches: the “sense of world pregnant with Word.” If only we could hear the Word. It sounds mystical, and it is, but it would save us from the disasters we daily inflict on each other and on our planet. But I’m afraid I’m not making much sense. Probably because I also am too much a product of today’s church. I close with this beautiful picture of two friends at Cathedral Canyon in Arizona. Perhaps in a place like this it might be easier to sense the “world pregnant with Word.” (Click to enlarge it.)


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Solidarity and love

Excellent commentary in the Guardian newspaper in the aftermath of the Brussels terrorist attacks. The key paragraph is near the end:

The biggest nightmare for Isis was how some European countries, such as Germany, welcomed Syrian refugees with open arms. The solidarity shown by thousands of citizens from Greece to Sweden harmed Isis. It cannot repeat enough that Muslims should come to its “caliphate” because Europeans are racists and Islamophobes. By hosting Syrian refugees, we have shown that Isis is wrong.

What many Islamophobes and racists in Europe and in the United States don’t realize is that this is a war for the minds and hearts of millions, if not billions of people. This is a spiritual war – not in the sense of a military war in the name of god, a holy war or a crusade. No, it’s a spiritual war because the spirits of people are at stake. The writer of this article, and countless others who have voiced similar thoughts in recent months and years, sees how our hatred plays right into the aims of the so-called Islamic State. It may sound idealistic and naive, but Jesus would agree with the message of this commentary: We fight hate with love.

The writer singles out Germany and Greece as examples of the solidarity that is needed to defeat the self-proclaimed Islamic State. Military strikes may achieve some victories, but this is in the final analysis a war for minds and hearts. We can’t speak hatred and expect the Moslem world to cave in to our world-view. (And we should never expect anyone to cave in to our world-view on the presumption that our world-view is better!)

It’s a war for minds and hearts – but not only for the minds and hearts of Moslems; the minds and hearts of European and American non-Moslems also hang precariously in the balance. Will we give in to hatred, racism and religious self-centeredness, as some hate-mongering politicians on both sides of the Atlantic are telling us to do? If we do, our souls are in greater danger than the physical lives of those Syrian refugees that are drowning in the seas between Turkey and Greece. Think hard so-called Christian of the West: God will judge us too!

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#JeSuisBruxelles

This is the most used hashtag today in Twitter space, and it’s the title of this short blog post. The Guardian newspaper published a selection of artistic responses to today’s terrorist attack in Brussels. They all have one thing in common: lamentation. It is indeed a day to lament the divisive and destructive urge in human beings. We destroy each other, we destroy whole nations and groups of people, we destroy the earth and animal life. Brussels is only one example, the latest example of humanity’s inability to live in peace with ourselves, with each other, with the animal world, and with our planet. Oh, did I forget to mention God? Yeah, we can’t live in peace and harmony with God too – we distort God also, we hurl abuse at the goodness of God and we pervert that goodness to our own selfish, self-serving desires and prejudices. But I’ll let the images in the Guardian newspaper speak for the tears of many. Click on this link to access the Guardian article I’m referring to.

Tin tin weeps for Belgium


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The evils of rigidity

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As the world is once again shocked by another brutal terrorist attack – this time in Brussels – I want to quote some words written by the late, great French theologian and philosopher, Jacques Ellul (1912-94), in his book Living Faith. He wrote of the connection between rigidity and violence, and thus the two faces of violence – the violence of rigid religious fundamentalism and government’s response to it.

The more one is afraid, the harder one’s armor becomes, the more it turns into a part of one’s own body like a kind of carapace. Like fear rigidity manifests itself in every area of life. We find it in religious movements as a return to dogmatic narrowness, formalism, scriptural fundamentalism. We see rigidity in administrators and planners – a sure sign that dictatorial tendencies are reappearing. When fear sweeps over society, a security grid will have to be imposed upon it. And this will necessarily be some kind of fascism, whether of the Right or the Left, which, before bringing on the terror, will have people heaving a great sigh of relief, glad to think that at last they know where they’re going, that someone is protecting them. Rigidity in religion will be matched by rigidity in politics.

Ellul wrote this book in 1983, long before Islamist fundamentalism and terrorist movements and the West’s attempts to respond or deal with this phenomenon. Fundamentalism is rooted in fear. Religious fundamentalists invariably leads to violence on some scale. It can be on the scale of “Christian” fundamentalists who bomb abortion centers or kill abortion doctors; or it can be on the more global scale of the Islamist terrorists of recent decades. Either way, it is the same phenomenon: Fear of change and fear of women!

That’s right, you read that last line correct – fear of women! Islamists are afraid of women asserting their equality with men. I know I’m probably over-simplifying things as I usually do in big matters, but I have long believed that the primary fear that motivates Islamist terrorism is not the Israel-Palestine conflict – they use that as a cover – nor Western support of Arab dictators, but the fear that women in their societies will wake up… To whatever they wake up, it doesn’t matter.

And that fear is not only limited to Islamist fundamentalism. It undergirds much of Christian attitudes to women over the centuries and TODAY! Why do churches refuse to ordain women to any role other than cooks and servers of parish dinners and singers in the choir? Why does our Orthodox Church still maintain such strongly patriarchal language in its liturgical practice? Why do we always ask for the “prayers of our holy Fathers”? Why never our holy Mothers? Why even in the prayers of the Soul Saturdays with which we welcome Lent every year do we pray for the souls of our fathers and brothers and forefathers, etc. etc. – all male entities? Do our mothers and sisters not count? Or is it enough that we fill in their general absence with their specific names that we hand to the priest?

Why in the new Liturgy translation that the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America is printing for parish use has the English version of the Creed reverted to antiquated, gender-exclusive language – “for us men and for our salvation” – in willful, intentional, yes rigid, rejection of the changes that the English language has undergone in recent decades? When a woman has been hearing “for us and for our salvation” for the past thirty years in the previous translation now hears “for us men” is she supposed to think that she is now being excluded from salvation? Or is the expectation that she will mentally footnote this phrase and understand that “men” includes her too? Of course, most other Orthodox churches in the English-speaking world have been using “men” all along! Now the Greek Archdiocese of America has chosen to do likewise. Too bad, our loss.

There is a sickness in the world – the sickness of religious fundamentalism. Sometimes it leads to violence and death, as in Brussels today. More often it leads to the quiet despair of women in the pews of churches that refuse to recognize them as fully important human beings. (And there are other people and groups of people who also sit in quiet despair in our churches or simply drop away to escape the hatred and mistrust aimed at them!)

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We’re all in this together. Whether it’s death or quiet despair, the evil is the same. It flows from fear and rigidity. And the fear and rigidity of religious violence lead to a political response that usually results in the tyranny of the state. We see this trend growing in Europe and in North America; not to ignore Asia and elsewhere. In one brief paragraph, written over 30 years ago, Jacques Ellul brought to our attention both sides of rigidity and fear: the violence of religious fundamentalism and the violence of the state’s response to it. The future of life on our planet is looking pretty bleak right now. Sorry I can’t be more positive today on this, another black day of violence and hatred.


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Restoration every Sunday

 

Seventh_ecumenical_council_(Icon)Today, the first Sunday of Lent, is our annual commemoration of the Restoration of Icons in the year 843 after a century of iconoclasm in the Byzantine world. Once a year we commemorate this event. But every Sunday, at every Liturgy, we celebrate the restoration of the most important icon – namely every Christian man, woman and child. We are the icons of God, made in his image and likeness. St. Irenaeus of Lyon memorably said, The glory of God is a human being fully alive. Fully alive, but we all need restoration.

calling-of-philip-nathaniel-athanasios-clarkSunday is the day given to us to receive restoration and healing of our souls and bodies after a week of toil and stress and being constantly on the go. “Come and see” were the words that started the Christian movement (John 1:39 & 1:46). Not come and hear. Not come and read. Come and see. Better yet, today “taste and see” are the words that invite us to the meaning and blessing of our Liturgy. Sunday is the Lord’s Day. Come, Taste and See that the Lord is Good! (Psalm 34:8)