Wednesday, December 2, 2009

celebrating St. John of Damascus

This coming weekend is a very full schedule, so I'm posting a bit early about Ian's nameday. So far, we haven't really done much to celebrate it. He was a bit young to get the point, and I wasn't sure how to make it stand out among the other festivities leading up to Christmas. (The reality of life, much as I would personally rather wait until Christmas actually gets here to start the celebration.) This year, he's working on his St. George medal for Cub Scouts, and one of the requirements in the book is to know about his patron saint and when his nameday is celebrated.

So I figure we ought to do something; the question is, what? I mean, how do you celebrate a monastic scholar meaningfully for a six-year-old? Here's what I've come up with so far:
  • Read the life of St. John. This one's pretty obvious, and since we'll be busy, we actually already did it last night.
  • Let Ian pick the meal Thursday evening. I'm just starting him on fasting, so for this season he's only restricted on Wednesdays and Fridays. He'll be able to pick anything he wants, including eating out. In the future, it will be a fasting meal, but it can still be something nice.
  • Listen to the eight funeral hymns. Not the most exciting stuff at his age, but I figure we can have it playing while we're doing something else.
  • Draw a red line around his wrist. For his writing against iconoclasm, the emperor framed St. John and got the caliph to cut off his hand (among other penalties). John prayed, and the hand was restored, but he retained a red scar as a reminder of the miracle.
  • Read some of St. John's hymns. Given the season, the second Nativity canon seems like a good choice. Also, Ian's been into poetry lately, so he might appreciate the poetic translations of selected hymns by John Mason Neale (1862).
  • Try some icon writing. At this point, I think we'll call it good enough to color a preprinted icon for his St. George medal requirement. As he gets older, we might try something requiring a little more skill.
  • Sing the troparion to St. John. Another no-brainer. We usually sing one to start off bedtime prayers anyway, and St. John has been in the rotation for quite a while.
  • Pray before bed. There's an evening prayer, "O Master, Lover of mankind, is this bed to be my coffin . . . ," that's attributed to St. John. It would be good to incorporate it Thursday evening.
  • Clean toilets. When St. John entered the monastery of St. Sava, he ended up with a very strict elder. He was supposed to do only what the elder told him to, but when one of the monks begged him to write for his deceased brother's funeral, he consented. His elder banished him, but was later persuaded to let him come back if he would fulfill a difficult task. The task was to clean all the chamber pots and latrines in the monastery with his bare hands. St. John completed it with joy and was restored. I don't know if I'll be able to get Ian excited about this one, but he might embrace it as something he's never done before. Plus, he's at that age where gross things are appealing, at least to talk about.
  • Wear his skeleton shirt. I was looking back to see if I'd ever written anything about Ian's patron saint on my old blog and came across a post about his beloved skeleton. Now he has a skeleton shirt, which might be a good link to the hymn cited there.
A couple of ideas for the future, since I didn't think of them in time to prepare:
  • Give him icons as gifts. Since St. John is well-known for his defense of icons, this would be an especially good occasion to give Ian an icon.
  • Write Christmas cards. St. John was framed for what he wrote against iconoclasm. He was charged with writing a letter to the emperor, conspiring against the caliph, for which his hand was cut off. When his hand was restored, the Theotokos exhorted him to continue writing. So I figure writing something by hand is a fitting way to honor his day. Since it is about that time anyway, writing Christmas cards would be a good way to do something useful.
When he gets older, we could also read some of St. John's theological writings, but I'm pretty sure they'd be over his head for now. Any other ideas?

Saturday, October 24, 2009

"Holy Scripture and the Church"

In its current issue, The Orthodox Word translates "Holy Scripture and the Church," by New Hieromartyr Hilarion, Archbishop of Verey. St Hilarion died in a Soviet gulag in 1929, but before the Revolution, he was Professor of Holy Scripture (New Testament) in the Moscow Theological Academy. Disillusionment with sola scriptura had a lot to do with my spiritual search that ended up in Orthodoxy, and I can't state the issues any better than he does here. (As an extra aid to my humility, he wrote almost a century ago, long before anyone cared about being post-modern.) It's best to read the whole article, but I'm including a few excerpts below.
. . . Furthermore, has the Church herself ever viewed her Founder [Christ] as one of the teachers of mankind? Has she ever considered His teachings as the essence of His work? No, with the utmost exertion of her theological strength, the Christian Church has defended as the greatest religious truth that Christ is the Only-begotten Son of God, One in essence with God the Father, Who became incarnate on earth. For that truth, the greatest Fathers of the Church labored to the point of blood. . . .

But was the Incarnation of the Only-begotten Son of God necessary only in order to write a book and entrust it to mankind? Was it absolutely essential for Him to be the Only-begotten Son of God just to write a book? If the Church insisted with such determination on the Divine dignity of her Founder, then obviously she did not regard writing to be the essence of His work. It was the Incarnation of the Son of God that was necessary for the salvation of mankind, and not a book. No book is able, nor could it ever have been able to save mankind. Christ is not the Teacher but precisely the Savior of mankind. . . .

Christ founded the Church. The Church existed even when there was not yet a single book of New Testament Scripture. . . . Thus, it would not be impertinent to say that it is not by Holy Scripture, as a book, that man is saved, but by the grace of the Holy Spirit, Who lives in the Church. The Church guides people to perfection. In the Church there are also other ways, other means to that effect, besides the books of Holy Scripture. . . .

It is possible to know the entire New Testament by heart, it is possible to know perfectly the entire teaching of the New Testament, and still be very, very far from salvation. For salvation it is necessary to be added to the Church, just as it is said in the Book of Acts that those who were being saved were added to the Church (cf. Acts 2:47; 5:13-14). This was when there were no Scriptures, but there was the Church, and there were those who were being saved. Why was it essential to be added to the Church? It is because special grace-bearing power is needed for salvation, and this power can only be possessed by those who participate in the life of the Church, in the life of the single and indivisible Body of Christ. The grace-filled power of the Holy Spirit acts in the Church in many different ways: in the Mysteries and rites of the Church, in common prayer and mutual love, in church services; and, as the divinely inspired Word of God, it also operates through the books of Holy Scripture. . . .

Thus, Holy Scripture is one of the manifestations of the common grace-filled life of the Church. Holy Scripture is the property of the Church, precious and priceless, but precisely the Church's property. Holy Scripture cannot be torn away from the overall life of the Church. Only the Church gives meaning to the existence of Scripture. . . .

Here St. John Chrysostom defends the necessity of studying Holy Scripture, but at the same time he says that if things were the way they should be, we would not need Holy Scripture; that with a pure life, instead of books, grace would serve the soul, and that this path of spiritual enlightenment is higher. God spoke with the patriarchs and the apostles without the assistance of Scripture. The need for Holy Scripture arose when some turned aside from true doctrine and others from purity of life. Scripture is then a second remedy. We even deserve reproach for being in need of Scripture. . . .

Perhaps the saddest thing in our times is the distortion of Christ and the Church. Christianity is seen not as the new life of saved humanity, united in the Church, but as the sum of certain theoretical and moral positions. They have begun now to talk too much and too often about Christian teachings and have begun to forget about Church life. . . .

If we have before us a teacher, then every word of his, every literary text in which his teaching is reflected in any way, must be accorded special significance. Something similar has happened with Holy Scripture. It was accorded special significance in itself and independently of the Church when the bright ideal of the Church grew dim. Holy Scripture has become the object of special attention and many-sided study since the time of the German Reformation, when the individual person was put in place of the Church and the door to rationalism was opened wide, thus deadening any authentic Church life. . . . Having lost the living Christ and authentic Church life, the Protestants began worshiping the book of the New Testament as if it were some sort of fetish. Go into a Protestant church of the extreme Protestant sects, and you will see rows of pews facing a pulpit with a Bible on it. In short, if you take the icon away from any classroom or auditorium, what you have is a Protestant church. For the Protestants it is as if the Gospel were the work of Christ the Teacher, which has to be studied in order to be a Christian. Thus, Protestantism tries to replace the entire deep river of grace-filled Church life with but a single current, taken separately and in isolation. Having rebelled against the pope (a man), the Protestants have made the Bible into a "paper pope," and the latter adulation is more bitter than the first.

. . . If the grace-filled aspect of Holy Scripture is obliterated outside the Church, then what remains? We are left with the Bible, books, a literary work, a literary memorial. In the Church Holy Scripture is not everything, but outside the Church there is no Holy Scripture, no Word of God at all; what remains of Holy Scripture is only the books. . . .

In defining the essence of Holy Scripture, we can now formulate the following proposition:

Holy Scripture is one of the aspects of the common grace-filled life of the Church, and outside the Church there cannot be any Holy Scripture in the true sense of the word. . . .

By living and being instructed within the Church, within which the Apostolic oral preaching is continued, a person is able to learn the dogmas of Christian Faith from the Ecumenical Church, and this is so not because the Church herself draws her dogmas from Scripture, but because she possesses them innately; if she, deliberating on a certain dogma, cites specific passages from the Bible, this is not done in order to deduce her dogmas, but solely for their confirmation. Therefore, whoever founds his faith upon Scripture alone, does not achieve the fullness of Faith and does not know its properties.

In complete accordance with this authoritative statement, we can reduce everything to faith in the Church. If a man believes in the Church, then for him the Holy Scripture receives its proper significance.

. . . Living within the Church means, first of all, to love, to live by love; and to live by love means to struggle against sinful self-love, from which people suffer a great deal. In particular, faith in the Church is a podvig [an ascetic feat, spiritual labor or, simply, Christian struggle] for the mind, because the Church demands its submission. To make one's reason submit to the Church is especially difficult, because this submission unfailingly affects one's whole life. With regard to the Church, the podvig of the mind is connected with the podvig of the will. Imagine for a moment that people completely submit to the Church. How many idols, how many gods and graven images must they cast down? Not only the Dnieper, but an entire sea would be needed to sink all those idols. And yet, not even one podvig of the mind comes easily to a man whose reason makes him proud. Bishop Theophan the Recluse says: "It is remarkable how Wisdom calls to herself the foolish: Whoso is foolish, let him turn aside to me (Prov. 9:4). Accordingly, the clever are barred from entering into the House of Wisdom, or the Holy Church. One must lay aside every kind of cleverness at the very entrance of this House. On the other hand, if all wisdom and knowledge are to be found within the House of Wisdom, then outside this House, outside the Holy Church, only foolishness, ignorance and blindness prevail. How wondrous is that which God has established! When you enter the Church, put aside your own mind, and you will become truly wise; cast away your self-centered activity, and you will become truly active; renounce your own self, and you will truly become master over yourself. Ah, if only the world could grasp this wisdom! But this is hidden from it. . . . "

The necessity of a Church approach to Scripture is revealed with particular clarity if we thoroughly examine the extreme lie inscribed on the banner of Protestantism, and then look at every kind of sectarianism and, generally speaking, human light-mindedness, in addition to freethinking, which is indissolubly connected to the latter. In principle Protestantism has rejected the necessity of Church standards in interpreting Scripture. I say "in principle," since in actual fact standards have been invented in the form of newly fabricated sectarian creeds. If Church standards are rejected, then man is left alone with Scripture, and in interpreting Scripture, each one is to be guided by his own so-called common sense, having put on his head beforehand the tiara of an infallible pope. . . .

Leave a man alone with Scripture, and Scripture loses any definite meaning and significance. There remains only one man, the whims and oddities of whose mind will be concealed by the authority of the Word of God. Without the Church and outside of the Church, he is inevitably in a state of hopeless wandering, even if he has in his hands the book of Holy Scripture. . . .

St. Irenaeus of Lyons calls Scripture the Tree of Paradise planted in the midst of the Church. For those expelled from Paradise, however, this tree can only be the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; and after partaking of it, they can be convinced only of the sad truth that they are naked. It is high time for all opponents of the Church to be persuaded of their shameful nakedness and ask the Church's forgiveness, just as the prodigal son asked his father's forgiveness! The absurd separation of Scripture from the Church has already produced its lethal fruit. . . .

Thus, the truth of the indissoluble bond between the Church and Holy Scripture is also affirmed in a negative way. A relationship with Scripture from outside the Church inevitably leads to absurdity and loss of Holy Scripture itself.

Without the Church, first of all, there is no undergirding whatsoever for the interpretation of Holy Scripture; it is not Scripture that teaches man, but on the contrary, man foists upon Scripture whatever content he desires.

Without the Church, secondly, every definite way to Christ and His teaching is lost, since Christ Himself never wrote anything and the Apostles can be suspected of inaccurately transmitting the teaching of Christ.

Without the Church, thirdly, the canon of Holy Books does not have any significance whatsoever, and all Protestants and sectarians faced with the question of why precisely these books are canonical can only be left with no answer or forced to restort to shameful words of craftiness, words of evil (Ps. 140:4). . . .

The truth we have sought to substantiate is not new, but it should be reiterated in the twentieth [!] century, because although it has been repeatedly verified by history, it is now quite often forgotten.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

remembrance of death

O Lord, grant me tears, and remembrance of death, and compunction.
--from St. John Chrysostom's 24 prayers for the hours of the day and night

Something else I don't remember often enough is death. Even more than the remembrance of God, it is easy to find discussion of this issue in the Fathers.

From the Ladder of Divine Ascent, in Step #6:
To be reminded of death each day is to die each day; to remember one's departure from life is to provoke tears by the hour. . . .

The remembrance of death brings labors and meditations, or rather, the sweetness of dishonor to those living in community, whereas for those living away from turbulence it produces freedom from daily worries and breeds constant prayer and guarding of the mind, virtues that are the cause and the effect of the thought of death. . . .

No one who knew in advance the hour of his death would accept baptism or join a monastery long before it, but instead would pass all his time in sin and would be baptized and do penance only on the day of his demise. Habit would make him a confirmed and quite incorrigible sinner. . . .

If your remembrance of death is clear and specific, you will cut down on your eating, and if, in your humility, you reduce the amount you eat, your passions will be correspondingly reduced. . . .

The Fathers assert that perfect love is sinless. And it seems to me that in the same way a perfect sense of death is free from fear. . . .

We may be sure that remembrance of death, like every other blessing, is a gift from God. How else can you explain the fact that often we can be dry-eyed and hard at a cemetery, yet full of compunction when we are nowhere near such a place?

The man who has died to all things remembers death, but whoever holds some ties with the world will not cease plotting against himself.
From St. Tikhon of Zadonsk's Journey to Heaven, in the section "remember death, judgment, hell and eternal life":
Remember death often, and the judgment of Christ, eternal torment, and eternal life, and inevitably the world with all its lusts and enticements will become abhorrent to you. You will not desire to become rich, to be glorified, or to make merry in this world. Your only care will be to please God, to have a blessed end, not to be put to shame in the judgment of Christ, to escape eternal torment, and to enter into the Kingdom of God. This is truly a great and powerful means by which a man may escape enticement by the vanity of this world and remain in true repentance and contrition of heart, which is absolutely necessary to every Christian. . . .
in the section "on death":
But how suddenly death overtakes him, and then all his dreams and plans perish. He who promised himself a long life quickly dies. He who wished to lay up treasures and become rich, leaves both the world and his body in the world. So our end is unknown to us. Christians! God, Who loves mankind, in caring for us has appointed for us our unknown end, that we may always be prepared for it and abide in true repentance. . . .

It is a wondrous thing that the saints weep when they look upon that hour, but sinners do not weep though they see their brothers dying every day. . . .
in the section "on perpetual repentance and the correction of life":
Death walks invisibly behind us, and the end will overtake us when we least expect it, and it will overtake us where we least expect it, and it will overtake us in a way that we least expect. Abide in perpetual repentance, then, and be prepared for departure at all times and in every place. The wise servant always watches and waits till his master calls him. You, too, should watch and wait till Christ your Lord calls you, for He calls everyone through death. Then always be in your life what you wish to be at death. Always live piously and work out your salvation with fear and trembling (cf. Philip. 2:12). Always and everywhere proceed with caution and guard yourself, lest you be deprived of eternal salvation, which Christ our Lord obtained for us with His Blood and death, and so shall we have a blessed end.
From the Arena, in Chap. 28 "on the remembrance of death":
Our mind is so darkened by the fall that unless we force ourselves to remember death we can completely forget about it. When we forget about death, then we begin to live on earth as if we were immortal, and we sacrifice all our activity to the world without concerning ourselves in the least either about the fearful transition to eternity or about our fate in eternity. Then we boldly and peremptorily override the commandments of Christ; then we commit all the vilest sins; then we abandon not only unceasing prayer but even the prayers appointed for definite times--we begin to scorn this essential and indispensable occupation as if it were an activity of little importance and little needed. Forgetful of physical death, we die a spiritual death.

On the other hand, he who often remembers death of the body rises from the dead in soul. He lives on earth like a stranger in an inn or like a prisoner in gaol, constantly expecting to be called out for trial or execution. Before his eyes the gates into eternity are always open. He continually looks in that direction with spiritual anxiety, with deep sorrow and reflection. He is constantly occupied with wondering what will justify him at Christ's terrible judgment and what his sentence will be. This sentence decides a person's fate for the whole of eternity. No earthly beauty, no earthly pleasure draws his attention or his love. He condemns no one, for he remembers that at the judgment of God such judgment will be passed on him as he passed here on his neighbours. . . .
From Monastic Wisdom: The Letters of Elder Joseph the Hesychast, in Letter #51:
Behold, another new year! Once again, wishes and hopes. But death is lurking somewhere, waiting for us, too. Some day or night will be the last one of our life. Wherefore, blessed is he who remembers his death day and night and prepares himself to meet it. For it has a habit of coming joyfully to those who wait for it, but it arrives unexpectedly, bitterly, and harshly for those who do not expect it. . . .
From Counsels from the Holy Mountain: Selected from the Letters and Homilies of Elder Ephraim, in the chapter "on Remembrance of Death, Hell, and Judgment":
22. When we remember death, we find an excellent guide that helps us discover the truth of things. Death says, "Why are you treasuring things up, why are you proud, why do you boast, O youth, O health, O science? When I come, I will render you your worth! When you are laid in the dark grave, you will know what the profit of earthly good things is!"

We are departing to the world that transcends the senses, my children. We do not stay in this world which is full of bitterness, distress, sin, and miseries. There in the unfading life, God will wipe away every tear from the eyes of the saved, and there will be no pain, grief, or sighing, but an eternal day, a life without end or death! This is the life, my children, that we should long for wholeheartedly and fervently, so that by God's grace we may acquire it and be delivered from painful hell.
Undoubtedly, these few quotes are but a drop in the bucket. (For the most part, they are already excerpted from much longer sections, and they reflect only what I happen to have in my small library.) But they suffice to show the significance of remembering death. It adjusts our perspective, so that our highest priority is to be ready. Our emphasis is on what is most important. All other cares in life are accordingly diminished.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

vigil lamp

Last year I spent some of my Christmas money on a hanging vigil lamp to replace the candle in my icon corner. I like the idea of leaving it lit all the time (or as much as possible, anyway), the labor involved with tending to it, etc. Also, from a practical standpoint, because I don't have a lot of space in my corner, it's nice to get the light part up off the shelf.

I had a hard time finding information online about how exactly to use a vigil lamp. One piece of advice I saw was that it works a lot like a regular kerosene lamp, but that wasn't much help since I hadn't used one of those either. I eventually did get enough input and try enough options myself to come up with what seems like a fairly effective way of doing things. It may be of some help to others if I write it up here online. (Though I would guess that it's always better if a parent or Godparent can show you in real life.)

  • hanging lamp - I got one of the less expensive lamps that I found online. It's pretty much your call. Since I've had only one lamp, I can't say much about different types. They all seem to work more or less the same way.
  • hook - The lamp probably won't come with its own hook to mount it. Anywhere that sells the lamps will probably also sell hooks. If you're more creative than I, you could probably also just rig something up yourself. I got a fairly short hook to conserve space. Obviously, it needs to be long enough so the lamp can hang freely and swing a bit without banging into the icons.
  • glass - Some lamps will include a glass or perhaps a choice of glasses. With others, you'll need to buy a glass separately. I was advised to make sure the glass could handle the heat of being lit all day, but I never got much sense of different types. Mine was pretty inexpensive and seems rather thin, but it appears to work fine.
  • float - There are actual cork floats that seem to be pretty popular--a cork ring with a metal cover and some kind of loop to hold the wick. I use an Old Believer "float" that consists of a hollow metal cylinder suspended in the middle of twisted wire. You bend it so the wire rests on the rim of the glass and the cylinder hangs down inside. The main difference between the two types is that the cork float rises and falls with the oil level, while the Old Believer style remains at the same height. There's also a trick to the Old Believer style that I missed initially.
  • wick - I use plain cotton wicking. You can buy it in long, three-ply strands. One ply fits just about right. There are also short, wax-covered wicks. I'm told they burn better than cotton, but I haven't tried them myself. The cotton seems to work fine, and you can cut off a long strand that will last you a couple of weeks.
  • oil - I've only used one type of oil so far. I read somewhere that you don't want extra virgin olive oil. Get the next grade down. It's supposed to burn better, and it's definitely cheaper. A five-quart jug from a warehouse club is pretty economical.
  • lighter - I use a regular disposable lighter because we happen to have a lot of them around. I assume it would work with matches or whatever your preferred method is.
  • container - You'll need somewhere to put the burnt ends that you trim off of the wick. I use a censer, but whatever is convenient for you (obviously, something that won't burn itself). Keep in mind that the ashes will tend to stick to your fingers. Sometimes you can drop them with a little light rubbing, but often I have to wipe my fingers across the edge.
  • rag - You'll get oil and ashes on your fingers, so keeping a rag handy for wiping them is useful. The oil will actually help get the ashes off if you do things in the right order.
Initial Setup

The best advice I can give about setting up the lamp is to study lamps at church. Pay attention to the height relative to the icons. With relatively small icons, you can't really avoid obscuring something; my basic rule is to minimize that as much as possible. For my eye-line and the angle from which I'm normally looking, the lamp blocks part of a larger Pentecost icon. Enough of the icon remains visible to get the general idea. Obviously, if the lamp hangs in front of an icon with a single figure, you don't want it blocking the face. Mounting the hook will probably be a simple job with a couple of included screws. Use common sense. Measure twice, cut once (so to speak).


Once the lamp is hung, the procedure is more or less the same as what you'll do routinely:
  1. Fill the glass with oil. Don't actually fill to the top! With the Old Believer float, you must make sure that the oil is up to at least the bottom of the metal cylinder; I would also make sure that it doesn't go higher than the wire support. (I don't know how much of a fire hazard there is if the flame gets too close to the surface, and I'd rather not find out.) The lamp will keep burning as the oil level descends, but it will not work if you try to light it with the oil too low. I don't understand exactly why this is--it has something to do with the flame drawing oil up the wick. I usually pull out the glass, set it on the floor (a table or shelf would be better, but I don't have one handy with enough room) and pour oil directly from the jug. If you're careful, spilling isn't much of a hazard.
  2. Prepare the wick. If it's a new piece of wick, wind it up and put it in the oil to soak for at least a few seconds. It shouldn't take long to saturate. Pull out one end and feed it up through the float. Holding the wick close to the end and twisting it between your fingers can help. The type that I use is twisted counterclockwise, so going in that direction will narrow it down to fit the end through the float. Once it comes out the top, you can grab it from there and pull it up about 1/4-1/2 inch. I would recommend twisting it a bit any time you do this, so the wick doesn't expand too much and fit too tightly. That seems to affect the strength of the flame. You'll learn through trial and error how much to have it extend out of the float. Too little, and you'll get a small flame. Too much, and it will tend to break as it burns. No big deal if that happens, but you'll end up with a small flame on whatever's left. If it's a used wick, the top will be charred from the previous use. You don't need to cut it. Just pinch it off with your fingers and discard in your container. No need to get all of the char either--a little bit on the end seems actually to help with lighting.
  3. Light the wick. The flame will slowly burn its way down to the float. If the wick was too long, it may break off above the float, but usually enough will be left for it to stay lit. If it burns all the way out, you're probably doing something wrong. This is what I had happen when I didn't add enough oil. If the flame is too small, sometimes you can pick up the float and feed through a little more wick.
There's not much to do while the lamp is burning. I haven't tried keeping it going continuously. Sometimes I'll let it burn all day without any real attention; sometimes, if everyone's leaving the house, I'll blow it out. I always blow it out before bed. Extinguishing the lamp is easy--just cup your hand behind it and blow.


I don't know exactly what's a normal amount of time between cleanings. I know some people do it weekly. If you make it part of your Sunday routine, it might be harder to forget. I just go by feel. Over time, you'll probably get oil drips and fingerprints on the glass. Also, ash will fall into the oil when you trim the wick or when it breaks. Once it starts looking a little scuzzy, I watch for a good opportunity. I find the easiest time to clean the lamp is when the wick runs out:
  • I pull out the last bit of unused wick and burn it in the censer. (Remember to treat it as you would anything holy. Burning it out is also a good idea since it's saturated with oil and flammable.) I would suggest burning it outside or in a garage or somewhere you won't mind a temporary burnt smell. Normally the oil burns, not the wick. You will smell a faint burnt odor after you blow out the lamp, but it's usually not too bad. Letting the last bit of wick burn itself out is another matter. It will smell pretty strong for a while. I burn it in the garage and try to pay enough attention that I catch it right after it goes out so I can close the lid on the censer.
  • I empty the oil through a strainer into a clean cup. If you have two glasses for your lamp, I suppose you can make this process easier by pouring through the strainer into the other glass. The strainer should filter out most of the small bits of ash that got into the oil.
  • I wash the glass and float in soapy water. The float will probably require some scrubbing. I find that my fingernail works fine to get off any stuck-on ash or residue. If there is ash caught in the wire, you might want to use an old toothbrush or a vegetable scrubber. Dry both gently.
  • I replace the oil in the glass and wash the cup and strainer. Add the float and a new piece of wick according to the instructions above, top off the oil, and put the glass back in the lamp. You're ready to go.
That's about everything I've accumulated. If anyone has corrections or other points to add, feel free. I doubt many people will run across these remarks, but if they do, I want them to be as useful as possible.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

remembrance of God

One of my constant areas of struggle is with remembrance of God. I too easily go through my day without giving God much thought, living like it's just me facing whatever comes my way. It's a common theme in ascetic writing, but two writers in particular come to mind (perhaps because their audience is ordinary laypersons).

From St. Tikhon of Zadonsk's Journey to Heaven, in the section "on the remembrance of God in every endeavor":
Everywhere and in every endeavor remember the Lord your God and His holy love for us. Everything that you may see in heaven and on earth and in your house awakens you to the remembrance of the Lord your God and His holy love. We are enveloped in God's love. Every creature of God bears witness to his love for us. When you see God's creation and make use of it, say to yourself thus: This is the work of the hands of the Lord my God, and it was created for my sake. These luminaries of the heavens . . . . This earth . . . . This water . . . . This cattle . . . . This house . . . . This food . . . . This garment . . . . And so on.

This icon is the image of Christ . . . . I worship His unspeakable love for man.

This icon is the image of the Theotokos . . . . Blessed among women is the Mother that bore God incarnate . . . .

This is the icon of the Forerunner . . . .

This is the icon of the apostle . . . .

This word, the Sacred Scripture which I hear . . . . O Lord, grant me ears to hear Thy holy word.

This holy house, the church in which I stand . . . .

This consecrated man, the bishop or priest . . . .

This brother of mine, every man . . . . In a word, every occasion and every thing can and must inspire you to a loving remembrance of the Lord your God, and must show you His love toward you, since even His chastisement comes from His love toward us. According to the Scripture, Whom the Lord loveth He chasteneth (Heb. 12:6). Remember, then, everywhere and on every occasion and in all things, the name of the Lord your God. Take care not to forget your Benefactor when you enjoy His benefactions, lest you appear ungrateful to Him; for forgetfulness of a benefactor is a clear sign of ingratitude.

And from St. Theophan the Recluse's The Spiritual Life, in Letter #48:
You write that you cannot manage your thoughts at all, they constantly wander off, your prayer is not going as you would like it, and you scarcely think about God as you go about your daily affairs and deal with other people. . . .
Letter #49:
We have a popular belief, fairly widespread, that holds that as soon as you occupy yourself with work around the house or at your place of business, you have already left the sphere of Godly things and things pleasing to God. . . . This is not the case at all. Life's everyday affairs, upon which the foundation of the home and society depend, are appointed by God, and carrying them out is not a desertion to the sphere of the ungodly, but a continuation of Godly affairs. . . .
Letter #50:
Remembrance of God is necessary. It is necessary to bring this to the point where the thought of God becomes intimately linked with and becomes one with the mind and heart and with our consciousness. . . .

When exerting yourself to maintain the thought on God, do not treat it as ordinary thought. Instead, combine it with every concept of God that you know, Divine attributes and activities, extending the mind first in one thing and then another. Meditate more on the Divine creation and Providence; on the Incarnation of God the Word and the matter of our salvation that He perfected; on His death, Resurrection and Ascension into Heaven; the descent of the Holy Spirit; the founding of the Holy Church that is the keeper of truth and grace; and of the place prepared for all believers in the Heavenly Kingdom, including you. Meditate also on the Divine attributes, the inexpressible goodness, wisdom, omnipotence, justice, omnipresence, all-mightiness, all-knowingness, ever-blessedness, and greatness. Review all this, if you will, during prayer, or best of all, when you read. When you have done so, you will clearly comprehend that when you think about God, such thought is not ordinary; instead, it is thought that accompanies and evokes a great number of ideas on salvation that affect the heart and energize the spirit. . . .
Letter #51:
It is necessary for you to reinterpret everything that comes before your eyes in a spiritual sense. This reinterpretation must fill your mind to such an extent that when you look at something, your eyes see something sensual, but your mind contemplates a spiritual truth. . . .

When you have done this, each thing will be like a holy book or an article in a holy book for you. Then each thing will lead you to thought about God, as will each occupation and deed. You will then walk in the midst of the sensual world as if it were the spiritual realm. Everything will speak to you of God and keep your attention on Him. If each time you add the fear of God and awe before His majesty to this remembrance, then what other teachers and advisors do you need?!
It was actually good timing that I started assembling these passages around the feast of the Holy Cross. Abbot Gerasim of St. Herman of Alaska Monastery gave the homily at Great Vespers, speaking about the Scripture readings and hymns of the feast. He highlighted a lot of patristic typology related to the cross, much of which I'd heard before on one occasion or another, but all of which was good to hear again. It seems the cross is everywhere to be seen, if one knows how to look. If I could get that much down, I think I'd be well on my way.

Friday, August 14, 2009


I've been reading Patapsco: Life Along Maryland's Historic River Valley (2008)--a collection of photos and interviews with longtime residents of Ellicott City, Oella, Elkridge, and Relay. It's a wonderful book, and perfectly suited for my interest in the local history of my adopted home. In the last interview of the book, Harold Hedeman of Avalon (adjacent to Relay) remembers:

I love trains--especially steam trains. Yeah, after the bridge went in, they had local trains that stopped at every station between Baltimore and Washington. Then they had an express train which was Relay, Laurel, Washington, that's all it stopped. And then, of course, they had the Capital Limited, as they called it, and that didn't stop anywhere. That just took you right over.

And from Washington to Baltimore on the steam train ('cause I rode it more than once) it's forty miles exactly. I would have my watch out and usually it was on time. It was supposed to get there in forty minutes--and many times it was there in thirty-eight minutes.

And I'm telling you, there are curves on this end of the line and there are curves on the other end, and there's a lot of straight track in the middle of that route between Baltimore and Washington on the B & O. And when those steam trains were on that straight stretch of track over there, they were going between eighty and ninety miles an hour, because they had to go slower on each end of the line where all the curves were.

Oh, I always loved trains. More than once, I would get over on the boulevard, 'cause Washington Boulevard is right smack alongside of that straight section of B & O track. And when you had a steam train going through there--one of these big locomotives like the Capital Limited, you know, a big long train? And those driving wheels are eighty inches in diameter on that train, three pairs of driving wheels on those passenger engines that run those trains.

And when they went by at that speed, I mean, that was a sight to see. The ground was trembling where you're standing, and you can imagine, you know, that big arm that connects those wheels? You can't believe it that piece of equipment can be going that way, but it's going so fast that you can't even see, you know, it's just a blur. I mean, those wheels and that arm are just a blur going by there.

So, you know, it's a sight to see. So when they changed to diesel engines, I thought, phooey, I don't want any part of those things. I'll take the steam train.

Today the MARC Camden line is the only passenger train that runs the route he's talking about. It doesn't have a nonstop like the Capital Limited. The fastest scheduled time is the 843 morning express, which stops at Dorsey, Savage, Laurel, Muirkirk, and Washington. The scheduled run is 1:04; I don't normally ride that train, so I can't say whether it ever arrives ahead of schedule. In my experience, they sometimes do, but not by much. More often, there are delays, including the ubiquitous summer "heat restrictions"--anytime the temperature gets over 90 degrees, CSX says it's too dangerous to run the trains over 50 mph.

Glad to see we've come so far in 80 years.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

A Simple--if Overly Specific--Guide to Commuting between Elkridge and NIH

When I moved to Elkridge almost a year ago and started commuting back and forth to NIH, I wasn't able to find much information online about the specifics of riding the MARC. On my first attempt, I boarded the wrong train coming home and only just missed sailing off to who-knows-where. It took time to figure out the best places to stand, the kinds of delays to expect, etc. In the interest of perhaps sparing someone such inconveniences, and at the risk of thwarting some adventure, I offer here a hopefully simple (but wordy) guide to my particular commute.

First leg: Elkridge Crossing to Dorsey MARC Station

I live in the Elkridge Crossing neighborhood, near the corner of Rt. 1 and Montgomery Rd. The public transit options include HowardTransit Purple Route, MTA Commuter Route 320, and MTA MARC Train Camden Line. The first two stop within walking distance, but neither is of much use for my commute. The Purple Route first run is at 7:00 a.m. I could catch the 320 a little after 6:00 a.m., but I'd still have to walk 15 min or more from Rt. 1 and Dorsey Rd. to the MARC station. The earliest I could start work is 8:00, which would get me back too late to catch the last 320. The last rush-hour Purple Route would get me home no earlier than 7:00 p.m., just when the kids were going to bed.

So, I bike to and from the MARC station. It takes about 20 min. each way--maybe a bit longer in the evening, since there's more uphill. As I've commented elsewhere, Dorsey is not designed well for bike access. You have no choice but to come down Rt. 1 (there are some more roundabout alternatives, but almost none of them keeps you off it for long), past the station at Rt. 100, turn left on Dorsey Rd., left again on Douglas Legum Dr., right on Deerpath Rd., cut through to the station parking lot, and lock your bike up down by the station itself. I don't know how much the lockers are. I'm cheap, so I just leave my clunker at the bike rack, and so far nothing has happened to it.

NOTE: St. Denis MARC Station is probably about the same distance away, in the opposite direction. I can't comment on getting to it because I've never tried. The train stops there infrequently, so for my schedule it would be impossible.

Second Leg: Dorsey MARC Station to Washington Union Station

I take the first train of the morning, but I haven't noticed much difference on the rare occasion that I've taken a later train. Normally you wait on the platform closest to the station to head south. If the signal is red, it may mean that the train will come in on the opposite track. There are loudspeakers, and sometimes you'll get a message indicating if there's a delay or track change. You can also sign up for e-mail notifications, which I would recommend if you carry a blackberry or some such device.

The main thing you need to know about riding the Camden Line is that it runs on CSX (freight) tracks. Freight traffic seems to get the priority in most cases, so sometimes a train will have to wait for something (never sure what) to happen. Sometimes you'll have to change tracks to accommodate a more important schedule. Then there are signal problems, switching problems, and the ubiquitous "heat restrictions," where CSX limits the speed of the MARC trains any time it gets over 90 degrees. Basically, expect to arrive late, and be appreciative if you arrive on time. Afternoons tend to be worse, but it won't be long before you spend half an hour standing on the platform in the morning, waiting for a train that's delayed for some vague reason.

The car closest to the engine is usually the quiet car. At some stations, the platform is too small, and you have to board or exit through certain cars. Aside from that, if you want to make the best time possible, identify the car that will get you closest to where you want to go. In the morning, you want one of the front two cars. Normally you can only use the rear doors in the first car or the front doors in the second car. Since they're next to each other, it makes little difference which car you actually ride in--just get as close to the doors as you can. You'll want to wait somewhere around the far end of the second bench on the platform. If you can't get a seat close to the door, you can do like a lot of people and stand in the aisle after Riverdale.

Union Station is the end of the line, so there's no danger of sleeping through your stop. One side of the aisle has two-seaters, the other has three. I prefer the two-seat side if I don't have to go far to get it. The aisle seat on the three-seat side is too short to sleep comfortably, and it's awkward to sit down in the middle seat if there are only two passengers in the row. If you don't mind sitting by the window, the side doesn't matter much. The bathroom is usually in the end car, though personally I've never used it. I usually go when I get to the train station.

When you exit at Union Station, walk toward the front of the train. Once through the doors, head right, then down the escalators, and through the turnstiles. If you need the men's room, it's straight through the doors from the platform. I think the women's room is further down to the left.

Third Leg: Union Station to Medical Center

There's good information on the WMATA site about riding Metro, so I'm not going to say much here. If you have time, head all the way down toward the opposite end of the platform. Wait along the railing next to the last escalator structure. By boarding the train there, you'll be just about in position to head right up the escalator when you get off at the other end. I usually get out of my seat at Bethesda and get in position by the door.

Fourth Leg: Medical Center Metro to Building 31

I usually walk up the escalator to save time. Keep walking straight ahead. Visitors have to go through the Gateway Center to your left. Anyone with a badge can walk down to the other end and enter through the turnstiles. Once inside, you can take a shuttle or walk. If I arrive more or less on schedule, I can usually tell by the time and the number of people waiting whether the Campus Shuttle has already come by or not. If it has, and I don't see Mid-Pike, I'll walk. Otherwise I'll usually wait. Mid-Pike is faster, since it goes straight from the gate to 31. Campus is more regular, because it doesn't have to deal with outside traffic. It also comes more frequently.

Return Trip

I take the Rockledge or Executive Plaza Shuttle back to the Metro. Campus Limited would also work. Again, I jog down the escalator, and if there's a wait, I walk all the way to the opposite end of the platform. The further you can get to the front of the train, the better. The escalator at Union Station will be just outside the front door, and it's usually mobbed. Get a seat right by the door, or stake out a spot to stand somewhere around Metro Center. Doors open on the left.

Up the escalator, through the turnstiles, up the next escalator, then straight ahead. Check the screen for your gate. This is important. There are electronic displays at the end of the tracks, but they don't always work. More on that in a bit. I usually run to the bathroom if I have plenty of time, so I don't have to again before riding home. There's also a display in the passenger waiting area, if you didn't already get your gate number. Everything's Gate A. I think that's all MARC trains--definitely all Camden.

Now, here's the tricky part. If the track displays are working, take a quick look at yours. It should say "far north end," if the trains are stacked. Sometimes they'll put one train in front of another. Unless you're super early, that almost always means yours is out on the end. You'll have to walk *past* the train behind it. Most of the time, the rear train isn't boarding yet, so you can tell by the closed doors that it's not yours. If it is, check the size of the cars. Camden trains are mostly single-decker, occasionally with one double. If you see a lot of double-decker cars, keep walking. Once you've been riding a while, you'll get to know the faces on your regular train and the conductors (though they do change). When in doubt, ask. Ask the conductor if possible; ask people around you if you don't see one. There will usually be an announcement at some point before the train pulls out, but if you got on the wrong one, chances are pretty good you'll miss the one you wanted by the time you hear anything.

This time, you want the rear of the train. I usually go for the second-to-last car, because they fill up faster, and the bathroom in the last car pushes you back from the door. If you don't get a good spot, you can move forward once people start clearing out, or stand in the aisle after Savage. Just watch where the conductor is hanging out, so he'll have room to get by. Once you exit, walk around the rear of the train and across the tracks back to the station side. If you need to use the bathroom or wait for a ride, the doors facing the parking lot should be open.

I ride my bike back the way I came, with one exception. I take Old Washington Blvd at the split to simplify turning left on Montgomery Rd. Traffic is more of an issue later in the day. You have more shoulder to work with, but don't get too comfortable with it. It will vanish into a turn lane or a curb without much warning.

NOTE: A word about MARC tickets. There are ticket machines in most stations. I don't use them, because I get a subsidy and you can't pay with vouchers. The Amtrak counter at Union Station will sell MARC tickets, but for my purposes it's very inefficient. Because I don't commute every day, I buy one-way tickets. Because I get subsidy vouchers, I buy large quantities at a time. At a manned MARC counter, this is pretty easy--they just punch in your destination and the number of tickets, and hit print. At the Amtrak counter, they have to key and print each ticket separately. Make sure to budget time if you have to buy your tickets that way.

What Not to Read

I'm considering a sporadic series of brief posts on books that the average Orthodox layman or inquirer probably should not read. I realize it's a presumptuous venture. For starters, just because I shouldn't have read something doesn't mean no one should. I understand that, and everything I write here must be qualified, at least by saying that I have no authority to speak from anything but personal experience. Take my advice for what it's worth, or don't take it at all. Another problem is that, obviously, for me to comment that a book is better left unread, I must have read it myself. (I suppose this is not strictly true, since I could just pass along useful advice I've found elsewhere, but that's not really my intention here.) Why, if I bothered to read it myself, would I tell others to avoid it? And why didn't I get (or follow) some good advice before diving in and reading the book in the first place? Well, again, you have to take my advice for what it is. Yes, I do let my curiosity get the better of me. But if I can spare someone else from making the same mistake, it's worth the effort to try.

Having said that, the first book I want to advise against reading is the Rudder. This well-known collection of Orthodox canon law is noteworthy--if you're at all familiar with the field in Roman Catholicism--for its outlandish brevity. Even so, it contains very little that is of any direct use to a layman. Perhaps most importantly, canon must always be handled with economy. Knowing the rule is certainly useful; but knowing the rule without knowing how and when to apply it is dangerous. In practice, many of these rules are relaxed in various ways and at various times. We might quibble over cases where perhaps the rules are relaxed too far (though speaking for myself, I have absolutely no basis from which to quibble), but it is axiomatic in Orthodox canon law that economy plays a critical role. Economy is the domain of clergy, and the specific application of canons is best left to their discretion. A layman is ill-equipped to do much of anything beneficial to himself or anyone else in this area.

That much I knew before I ever tried to read the Rudder, which is actually why I felt safe carrying out the project I assigned myself. I had no serious expectation that I would end up with a bunch of new rules to follow. I just wanted to satisfy my curiosity about the contents of the book, particularly how much would have any bearing on someone who's not a monk or cleric. The simple answer is--very little. Most of the canons have to do with things like the appointment, movements, and discipline of clergy and monastics. Of those that don't, two large categories remain--established penalties for various types of sin (which should be applied by a confessor, not by an individual to himself), and statements about doctrine, heresy, and how to resolve schisms. The theological statements may be of some general use, but their contents are repeated in so many places--and often much more clearly and completely--that it hardly bears recommendation as a key source for learning Orthodox doctrine. Even what one might glean from the canons about discipline, since they incidentally identify various types of sin, is probably not worth the trouble. There are plenty of guides for confession, any of which would contain a more or less effective list of sins. The Rudder is not organized as a confession guide, so it's best not used as one. Indeed, if that's what you're looking for, the Exomologetarion would be a much handier tool, and it's still probably in at least the debatable category for lay use.

I might add that most of the sins listed are so straightforward in Scripture that they need no special comment as sins. Again, the point of the canons is to address the means of discipline, not identify the sin as such. As I was skimming through, I found only a handful of offenses that I wouldn't have picked up from a general familiarity with biblical morality. I repeat them here as the minuscule produce of several hundred pages:
  • Several canons order discipline for participation in or viewing of dramatic entertainment. I can't say myself whether this would apply directly to the kind of entertainment that is popular today, or if there was a more explicitly pagan component at that time. Of course, there are plenty of good reasons to think very carefully about the visual entertainment one consumes.
  • In a few different places, there are canons indicating that Bright Week (the week after Pascha) should be observed by refraining from work and spending as much time as possible in church. I don't know of any church these days where enough services would be offered (perhaps in a monastery), but it's probably not a bad principle to apply generally, if one can actually spare the time off of work.
  • In a few places, the importance of Sunday is emphasized. Notably, one should not travel unnecessarily on Sunday, nor should one skip three consecutive Sundays in church without a compelling reason. The latter is pretty straightforward as a general rule; the former is a beautiful continuation of the Jewish Sabbath observance and one that I think we would do well to take seriously in our lives today.
  • Finally, I found at least one reference in passing to the goal for laymen of eating for sustenance, not primarily for pleasure. The main point, if I understand correctly, was to caution against excessive partying; but I thought it was an interesting argument, which I've seen plenty of times in ascetic literature, but I can't recall whether I've seen it applied elsewhere to laymen.
So there you have it. IMHO these four points are about all a layman might gain for his daily life from reading the Rudder. When weighed against the risks, particularly for those of us who tend to be rule-oriented anyway, it's probably better left to monks and clergy.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

flying Simon

I had the opportunity last night to attend the patronal feast-day vigil at the ROC chapel of Ss. Peter and Paul here in Elkridge. (As much as I would love to have a full Orthodox parish within walking distance, it is still very cool to have a little chapel nearby, like some old-world village where scrounging up a priest to come out and celebrate the patronal feast at a local, all-but-abandoned shrine is an annual highlight. Or more to the point, I would love to see a revival of the tradition where everyone goes to the church dedicated to a particular saint on that saint's feast day. My circumstances don't always allow me to do it, but getting to the only Orthodox house of worship in Elkridge for its patronal feast is definitely going to be high on my recurring priorities.)

I had two revelations in the course of the service. (Not that kind.) First, knowing how to read Greek (loosely interpreted as meaning, at least I know the alphabet and a few other odds and ends) apparently means that I can follow along in the printed Slavonic service books. I hadn't really tried before. In the past, I just relied on my general knowledge of how the services run and getting my bearings whenever they switched to English. But at some point last night I started watching the Slavonic pages as well, and although I can't put together the sounds on my own, I found that I could track in the book with what was being chanted. That was helpful in keeping my place in the service; it also gave me some hope that, even without actually learning Slavonic, I might be able to pick up the pronunciation and improve my understanding of the script just by following along.

The second revelation had to do with the content of the service. Once again, I'm stuck having to rely on a passing observation, without finding a copy of the text; but I'm positive that one of the odes of the canon referred to the confrontation between Peter, Paul, and Simon Magus, where he flew about over the city of Rome, and they prayed to cast him down. I think it was back when I was in college that I was preparing a sermon outline or some such thing on the first part of Acts 8. In looking for more information about Simon Magus (I suppose I was trying to ascertain whether his conversion was genuine or not), I came across this passage in the apocryphal Acts of Peter and Paul:
Then Simon went up upon the tower in the face of all, and, crowned with laurels, he stretched forth his hands, and began to fly. And when Nero saw him flying, he said to Peter: This Simon is true; but you and Paul are deceivers. To whom Peter said: Immediately shall you know that we are true disciples of Christ; but that he is not Christ, but a magician, and a malefactor. Nero said: Do you still persist? Behold, you see him going up into heaven. Then Peter, looking steadfastly upon Paul, said: Paul, look up and see. And Paul, having looked up, full of tears, and seeing Simon flying, said: Peter, why are you idle? Finish what you have begun; for already our Lord Jesus Christ is calling us. And Nero hearing them, smiled a little, and said: These men see themselves worsted already, and are gone mad. Peter said: Now you shall know that we are not mad. Paul said to Peter: Do at once what you do.

And Peter, looking steadfastly against Simon, said: I adjure you, you angels of Satan, who are carrying him into the air, to deceive the hearts of the unbelievers, by the God that created all things, and by Jesus Christ, whom on the third day He raised from the dead, no longer from this hour to keep him up, but to let him go. And immediately, being let go, he fell into a place called Sacra Via, that is,Holy Way, and was divided into four parts, having perished by an evil fate.

The story stuck in my head at the time, probably as evidence of how wildly fanciful these apocryphal stories were. But apparently it was embraced in the Tradition of the Church as an authentic encounter. This doesn't mean that the book itself is inspired Scripture, but at least in this instance it happens to record something that actually happened. After a few years of reading lives of saints, I like to think that my take on what's "wildly fanciful" is a bit less biased than it used to be. For some reason, Evangelical Protestants have developed a habit of accepting at face value the supernatural powers manifested in biblical narratives, while discounting out of hand anything extra-biblical that really goes no further. Does it require more faith to believe that Simon flew by demonic power than to believe that demons could give superhuman strength or send a herd of pigs over a cliff? Is it any more fantastic that Peter would pray to end this blasphemous display than any exorcism found in the New Testament? Which came first--the assumption that such things only happened in the first century, or the refusal to accept them on any authority but the Bible?

Anyway, my point in bringing this up is not to preach. I'm just tickled that, after all these years, it turns out I can believe the story really happened.

Monday, July 6, 2009

cautiously optimistic about Chambésy

Most of the reactions that I've seen online to the recent Preconciliar Pan-Orthodox Conference in Chambésy have been either dismissive--it won't change much of anything--or downright negative--it's a step backward from the goal of Orthodox unity. Personally, I didn't feel like there was enough on which to comment until the publication this weekend of the official statement, and particularly of the promised "rules of operation." Having seen them, I must say I think there's reason to be hopeful.

Some have said that the proposed regional episcopal assemblies won't contribute anything to the American situation in particular, since we already have SCOBA. But there is a definitive difference--SCOBA's membership corresponds with that of the proposed Executive Committee: "the Primatial Bishops of each of the canonical Churches in the Region." The assembly itself, however, will consist of "all Orthodox Bishops of each region . . . who are in canonical communion with all the local Autocephalous Orthodox Churches." This is not only a more canonical arrangement (all bishops participate as equals), but it promises more balanced representation. Instead of, for instance, Bp. Ilia of the Albanian Diocese under the Ecumenical Patriarchate (representing two parishes) holding equal standing with Met. Jonah of the OCA (representing hundreds of parishes), the assembly would include all of the OCA bishops (not to mention, all of the Greek bishops, all of the Antiochian, etc.). It won't be strictly based on numbers of parishes or parishoners represented, but in general the larger jurisdictions will have more bishops in the assembly.

Another important point made clear in the statement is that this is an interim measure, designed to bridge the gap until a fully canonical resolution can be established at a future Pan-Orthodox Council. I realize there is a lot of cynicism about whether such a Council will ever happen, but there should still be at least two positive outcomes. First, the assemblies, to the extent that they perform their desired functions, should foster a unifying process over time. There is even an explicit prohibition on "actions that could hinder the above process for a canonical resolution of the issue of the Diaspora." For instance, there should be less confusion about clerical appointments and discipline: "It must record every decision relating to clerics promulgated by their bishops, in order that this decision is applied among all the Orthodox Churches in the Region." Second, they are specifically directed to work on developing canonical solutions. If that actually happens, we'll probably find ourselves in a better position further down the line, even if a Council never materializes. The latter outcome is safeguarded by specific requirements to meet regularly, and a mechanism for the bishops to call meetings even without the chairman's initiative. The assembly meets at least annually but may meet more often; the executive committee meets at least quarterly. One-third of the membership of either body may call a meeting.

Another point that should not be discounted is that this proposal has the stamp of approval from the Ecumenical Patriarchate. There seems to be a lot of negativity about this--whether anyone will accept the requirement that the chairman must be the ranking EP bishop, whether more conservative jurisdictions will follow, etc. (How much difference will it make that the MP is endorsing this plan?) But it seems to me that at least the perception of SCOBA is that its efforts at unity have stalled in the past because of EP intervention. If that's no longer going to be an obstacle, isn't that reason to be optimistic? Also, given the composition of the assembly and the directive to operate by consensus, I don't think anyone will need to fear a partisan agenda (liberal or otherwise) being pushed through against the wishes of certain jurisdictions.

Of course, if the American bishops aren't also hopeful about this proposal, it probably won't go anywhere. But my ignorant assessment is that it's a workable structure, and probably the best possible arrangement we can hope for right now. There will be time later to see whether the push is toward complete EP dominance, but for right now, taken at face value, I think it's a good opportunity to work out our own issues on our own soil.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

more grumbling about the Dorsey station

It feels like too long since I last grumbled about the Dorsey MARC station and Rt. 100. Apparently the engineering firm that designed the Dorsey station won an award and some honorable mentions for the project. Good for them that I wasn't on the committees handing out awards--I'm not sure they would have fared as well. I suppose it depends on your criteria. The station is designed well as a fortress. It is hemmed in on two sides by steep grades that make overland access virtually impossible. Opposite these, there is an office park and a rather roundabout route, with no real entrance to the station. Fortunately, there is a paved cut-through for foot and bike access (must have been an oversight), but coming from the north you still have to traverse a circuitous path that adds significantly to the travel time involved.

Apparently it's more important that cars have the most direct access possible. I'm not sure why, since they're the fastest-moving option, and extra distance has less effect for them; but there it is. The best access to this modern-day Masada is an air-drop from the elevated highway that reinforces beyond all reason its north-facing impregnability. An elevated highway, I might add, that like most controlled access routes is off-limits to bikes and pedestrians. So, I have to climb over it, then skirt around the other side of the station.

For the most part, this is well-worn ground. The reason for my new rant is that I thought I had discovered an alternate route--shorter distance, and more back roads--but it was not to be. Google Maps thought so, but I was skeptical. For some reason, the address it pulls up for the station puts it on the other side of the tracks. A more suitable phrase cannot be found--apparently that's the way the barbarian hordes will come. I've looked down before on that road, from the lofty perch of the northbound platform. As I suspected, there is no access between the two, designed or incidental. Nor is there anywhere suitable to leave a bike at the bottom of the hill, if one were inclined to bushwhack an assault. So for all the apparent usefulness of that route, you're still left having to travel past the station and double back, to come in the very same way that I already do now.

Now, I'll admit that the engineers and architects may have done the best they could. I doubt that they had anything to do with the height of Rt. 100, and presumably the tracks were already higher than the adjacent road before the station was put in. But surely something could have been done to make it more broadly accessible. The grading isn't as steep elsewhere--perhaps a better location, or more of an effort to create a walkable hill. Failing that, what about putting in a stairway and a bike rack at the bottom? Apparently the completion of Rt. 100 included the station in its design--why couldn't they push the access road all the way through into the industrial park on the north side, so at-grade access from the north would be possible without a car?

The real problem is how the station was envisioned, as a car-accessible enclave, with no real connection to anything beyond Rt. 100. It is surrounded by other roads, but they may as well not exist. They're already talking about mixed-use development around the Savage station; how long before the same thing comes to Dorsey, and with it presumably (hopefully) a complete redesign of the station, at least as it relates to its environment? Wouldn't it have been better to make the place accessible from the beginning?

Monday, June 8, 2009

until next year

Once again, we come to the great parting of the ways between Orthodox believers on the "Old Calendar" and those on the "New Calendar." The 13-day lag, of course, is with us year-round, since the fixed calendar never really stops. But for those blessed 18 weeks--more than a third of the year--we all share in common the movable feasts and fasts.

The movable calendar starts, at a minimum, ten weeks before Pascha and extends eight weeks after. The four Pre-Lenten Sundays include: Publican and Pharisee, Prodigal Son, Last Judgment, and Expulsion from Eden. Fasting is forbidden during the first week, regular during the second (ending with Meatfare Sunday), and vegetarian during the third (ending with Cheesefare Sunday).

Lent starts with Clean Week, the Monday after Cheesefare. Strict fasting continues for 40 days, including five Sundays: Triumph of Orthodoxy, Gregory Palamas, Exaltation of the Cross, Ladder of Divine Ascent, and Mary of Egypt.

The 40-day fast of Lent ends on Friday, followed by Lazarus Saturday, Palm Sunday, and the even stricter fast of Holy Week. Pascha follows on Sunday, then Bright Week, with fasting forbidden. Normal fasting resumes after Thomas Sunday, the first of six Sundays identified between Pascha and Pentecost: Thomas, Myrrhbearing Women, Paralytic, Samaritan Woman, Blind Man, and Holy Fathers.

The Feast of Ascension always falls on the Thursday before Holy Fathers, exactly 40 days after Pascha. Pentecost follows, on the 50th day after Pascha, then fasting is forbidden for a week until the Sunday of All Saints. That Monday starts the Apostles' Fast, which lasts until the Feast of Peter and Paul on June 29. This fast bridges the gap back to the fixed calendar and thus marks the end of the movable feasts. It's always 13 days longer on the Old Calendar than the New, and the rest of the year is just more of the same.

At least we have this much in common, but it still seems a high price to pay so we can celebrate Christmas on Western time.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

a year ago today

Today (or rather, yesterday liturgically) being Pentecost, I took a stroll down memory lane. Last year at Pentecost, Ian, Jenna, and I entered the Church through baptism and chrismation. If anyone cares to read, the last few posts from my old blog preserve my reflections before, during, and after the event. It's amazing to me that a full year has passed already, but then sometimes my complacency reminds me that the initial thrill has definitely worn off.

A couple of weird coincidences to mark the occasion:
  • For the past several months, instead of trying to track each day with the prescribed readings in the lectionary, I've simply been reading through each of the four Gospels, loosely synchronized with the time of year--John in the spring, Matthew in the summer, Luke in the fall, Mark in the winter. I just start at the beginning, try to read a bit each day, and repeat as much as necessary until the end of the season. It happens that, without knowing or planning it, I read today's assigned Gospel passage this morning before church.
  • When we put Jenna to bed, we realized her cross had come off its chain at some point, exactly a year after she got it. Hopefully it will turn up somewhere . . .

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

stinkin' Yankees

Apparently one of the advantages of having preserved the Union is that Northern garbage finds its home in the South. Literally. Garbage. On stinkin' long trains (and I only had to smell it going by on a 40-degree morning), mostly hauling from NYC to various landfills in Virginia. Jeff Davis must be retching in his grave.

I'm sorry. I really am. For being from the inconsiderate North. For eating fast food that comes with more packaging than calories. Tie me to a track in a vain attempt to stop the madness. Or more plausibly, try to get through a day without generating more garbage. (One day isn't so hard--start there, and do the same thing again tomorrow.) Give a rebel yell for the poor and defeated who have more open land than money or dignity. Shed a tear with the old Indian by the road. Repent in dust and ashes before the God who made us stewards of his creation. Or at least go stand on a train platform in August and breathe deep the stench of your own death.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

cleanness of teeth

I'm guessing that somewhere someone is using Amos 4:6a as a life-verse for dentists:
And I also have given you cleanness of teeth in all your cities . . .
much like the exegetically suspect line reportedly seen in a Christmas card:
And they that dwell upon the earth shall rejoice . . . and shall make merry, and shall send gifts one to another . . . (Rev 11:10)
But Amos's point is not primarily about oral hygiene. The next line adds:
. . . and want of bread in all your places . . .
suggesting that this cleanness of teeth comes from not eating.

I was reminded of this Hebrew phrase (in the Greek translation it becomes "gnashing of teeth") in the context of fasting for Lent. When you give up meat, flossing loses much of its apparent usefulness. The main purpose, as far as I'm concerned, is to maintain the habit until the fast is over. But actually getting anything stuck in one's teeth becomes a rare occurrence. When you give up all food, as on Holy Friday, even brushing seems reduced to the purpose of covering up (however feebly) the stink of an empty digestive system.

Perhaps now brushing my teeth can become a reminder, however small, of God's blessing--that the food particles I must scrub away every morning and evening are a gift many would feel fortunate to have.

"persecuting giant" in the Holy Saturday canon?

The irmos of the first ode in the canon that was read for both Holy Saturday matins and the midnight office before Paschal matins:
The One, who of old hid the pursuing tyrant in the waves of the sea, the children of those he saved have hidden beneath the earth; but let us, like the young maidens, sing to the Lord; for he has been greatly glorified.
At least, that seems to be the kind of translation I've seen in print and online. But as we sang it in church, I believe "pursuing tyrant" was replaced with "persecuting giant." Now, "pursuing tyrant" makes me think of Pharaoh at the Red Sea crossing. But when I heard it in church, I couldn't begin to think who this "persecuting giant" was.

The usual translation looks more faithful to the Greek edition that I found online, but I don't read Slavonic. Anyone know where the "persecuting giant" comes from?

Monday, April 13, 2009

spa review

Um . . . yeah. That's me--your neighborhood spa reviewer. This probably isn't going to be of much use to anyone who's actually looking for a spa in the area. Well, maybe some use. See for yourself.

So, last Friday was Julie's birthday. Every year, the balancing act is to find something that will surprise her, but that she'll also like. I'm not very good at figuring out what she'll like, and as a general rule I don't shop, so my opportunities to happen across something and think, "Hey, Julie would love this!" are limited. I usually have to resort to asking her for suggestions, which seriously diminishes the surprise factor.

Well, this year I wasn't moving very quickly (probably nothing new there), so before I got a chance to get out and look for anything I heard her say something to Ian about wanting "a day at the spa." I'm not made of money (as I like to remind my kids), so an actual day at the spa was out of the question. But I figured I could probably at least get her some kind of decent gift certificate. The only question was, where? Because I know spas. I'm in them all the time, so I know the best, and I know how to pick a good one. Right.

But I do like to shop local. So, I googled something like "Elkridge MD spa" and got a list of results arranged by proximity. I wasn't actually expecting to find anything all that close by, but to my surprise, one of the top hits was something called Oriental Spa, just down the road in a little strip mall on Rt. 1. Their Web site looked OK, and they do massages, which was the kind of thing that I figured would interest her. Worth a shot, right? The first opportunity I had, I went over to ask about a gift certificate. It happened to be an occasion when Ian was looking for somewhere to go, and my answers usually involve walking somewhere or going to church. Even better, Julie was on the tail end of a nap, so we might get there and back without any incriminating questions.

I realized when we got there why I couldn't remember much about it, even though I knew I'd walked through that strip mall a few times before, checking what businesses it contained. Aside from the fact that I normally wouldn't be the least bit interested in a spa, there's not much to say about the outside. The windows are opaque and the glass door covered with blinds. When we walked in, we were faced with another door--solid, with a button to ring a bell. The only other features in the small entryway were a mirror with some kind of picture on it (I wasn't paying much attention) and a sign proclaiming that the establishment was subject to random police inspection. Before I had time to think, "That doesn't sound promising," a female Asian voice yelled through the wall, "No babies!" (I assume she meant my almost six-year-old son) and asked what I wanted. I explained that I wanted to ask about gift certificates, and she said they don't do that. There didn't seem to be much left to do, so we walked back home.

It occurred to me as we were leaving that there are spas, and there are spas. Sometimes a massage is just a massage, and sometimes it's whatever $70 gets you in Elkridge. I settled on a day spa in Columbia. They seem to have a wider range of advertised services, they sell gift certificates, and you can see through their front windows--probably all good signs.

Julie was surprised (she probably would have been either way), and likes what she got, though she hasn't yet redeemed the certificate. If anyone knows of a good spa in Elkridge, I'd appreciate recommendations--never know when I might need to buy another gift. As for the Oriental Spa on Rt. 1, about all I can say is, bring cash, leave the kids at home, and don't expect very good customer service. Maybe it gets better once you're through that second door, but I don't expect I'll ever know.

Monday, March 23, 2009

does a song scream when you emasculate its lyrics?

Over a year ago, I blogged about coming to terms with my continuing life as a Marylander. At that point, things were starting to look like we'd be staying put for the foreseeable future, and I was looking for anything I could grab onto and identify with my place. Most notably, I came across the Maryland state song, "Maryland, My Maryland!" which seemed to me a surprising breath of fresh air in this state that (around here anyway) often forgets that it is more than a suburb of Washington, DC. How it got there I do not know, but clearly it needs to be preserved and sung, loudly and often.

Sadly, not everyone thinks so. Apparently, instead of teaching our fourth-graders about the complexities of life, history, and politics--and perhaps at the same time reminding them that they live in a (supposedly) sovereign state with its own trajectory, not just some ill-defined tract of a continent-wide empire--we seek to protect their tender ears by abandoning history and place. (Check their iPods to see what fourth-graders don't find offensive.) After four years of indoctrination in political correctness and the sainthood of Lincoln, what an interesting project, to let them read or hear the song and then go react to it by taking political action! Is there really any question how they will perceive it, without some kind of instruction on the context and issues involved?

I'm all for political involvement, and it's not a bad thing to teach kids about it. I would hope that at some point we move beyond teaching them the mechanics of how to make their opinions heard, to instilling in them the kind of critical thinking and values orientation that makes those opinions worth hearing. I'm sure none of this had anything to do with the opinions of the library media specialist who instigated the project, or those of the intern who salvaged the letters, or the sponsoring delegate herself. I'm guessing it had nothing to do either with the political attraction of a cause championed by kids. Perhaps all these well-meaning adults simply agreed with the compelling logic that the song "has too many old fashioned words."

But seriously, can anyone really love the proposed alternative? It has all the appearance of a downloaded state-song template, which probably contained a blank where they inserted the reference to the Chesapeake. Take that out, and it could apply (vaguely) in any patriot's heart just about anywhere. Gone are "the streets of Baltimore," "Carroll's sacred trust," "Howard's warlike thrust," and the other now-virtually-unknown state heroes. Gone are the Old Line, the neigbor-in-need Virginia, and the very historical context and conflict that runs throughout. If everything I need to know I learned in fourth grade, apparently the highlights are that poetry should be easy to read, bland, and unemotive. But don't take my word for it--read the awful specimen for yourself:



And if you're still awake, compare it with the power it seeks to supplant. Then write your state senators and assemblymen and tell them what I want you to think.

Friday, March 13, 2009

does God read labels?

Don't get me wrong--I think it's a worthy point that reading labels shouldn't be part of Orthodox fasting. Fr. Pat is technically correct when he says that the Ninevites and Jesus didn't read labels. I'm just not sure things are ever quite so simple.

For starters, these are great examples of fasting, and if we were to follow them literally, our fasting would look quite different. We probably wouldn't eat anything, which does take away a lot of the guesswork. On the other hand, we might struggle a bit with how to align the Ninevites' very public fast with Jesus's instructions to make sure that our fasting isn't obvious. Perhaps the different contexts help--the Ninevites were fasting as a community, so there was no point hiding it. When fasting as a matter of individual ascetic practice, it's better to keep it a secret. But that gets us to what I think is the real issue here--how do we fast in the here and now?

Orthodox may all fast as a community (that puts us somewhat more on the side of the Ninevites), but particularly here in the West we do so as a minority community. Our friends and neighbors often aren't fasting with us. In some cases, even family members aren't fasting together. Indeed, within a given parish, some may fast very strictly, while some do not fast at all. So the individual dimension is pretty hard to get around.

Now, for the specific issue of reading labels. If we start from the high standard of Jesus and the Ninevites, it's very easy--just don't eat anything, and everything's safe (or nothing is, but the outcome is the same). But generally speaking this kind of observance of Lent is discouraged as too extreme. And arguably, even if one is capable of fasting so strictly, one shouldn't. It seems to me that it would be very difficult to do so and avoid the sin of vainglory.

There are only a few days during Lent in which it is even considered that one should fast with this degree of strictness (Holy Friday and Clean Monday, for instance). The next step down is bread and water, which could also be done in a pretty straightforward manner, without reading labels. That is, it could be done if one first knew to stick to basic yeast breads, where dairy products are less likely. Of course, making the bread yourself is always a good way to know for sure.

Beyond that, we get into things like soups and salads and various other concoctions of vegetables and legumes. Again, if you prepare them yourself, it's generally quite simple to avoid meat and dairy. If you buy them pre-mixed in the store (to say nothing of prepared foods in restaurants, etc.), it can be surprising what's in there. And this is precisely the point. If you go back just a couple of generations, you get beyond our current obsession with pre-processed foods. Whatever minimal processing was done was typically done in the home. Things didn't come already mixed together. You might buy a chicken from the butcher already killed, plucked, and ready to cook--but it was just a chicken. Anything else that went in the pot was your business. These days, it seems the exception rather than the rule for people to prepare their own food truly from scratch. It's because we buy things that come with labels that we have to read labels.

Another issue here is the learning curve that converts face. Presumably generation upon generation of Orthodox housewives learned from their mothers and grandmothers what recipes to prepare during Lent. You didn't have to think about it--you just knew the right dishes. Not to mention, much of this tradition had a chance to develop where meat was truly a luxury. Cooking vegetarian was a way of life and an economic necessity, even aside from fasting. These days, many American converts have for the first time even to think about cooking and eating without meat or dairy. Eventually you do figure out what's safe and what's not. But getting to that point takes some study, at least part of which normally involves reading labels.

Of course, we could avoid a lot of this hassle if we just stuck with the basics--homemade breads, soups, and plain veggies. For many people, it would mean spending more time on food preparation during Lent than otherwise, which may be counterproductive; but if you do it with the right attitude, I suppose it could be a spiritual exercise to make things from scratch. If you have little kids, you might need to be a bit more creative. Given a choice between soup and starvation, I suppose at some point they'd pick the soup, but few parents have enough patience for that kind of stand-off. So, you start looking at more prepared foods, snack foods, desserts, etc. Would it be better just to say that they must be too young to fast? Or do they learn at least something about fasting by restricting themselves to Oreos for two months?

And then there's the complication of social interaction with non-Orthodox adults (some of whom may live in the same house with Orthodox). Do you refuse all invitations because it's Lent, or do you insist on picking a vegan restaurant, or do you call love an excuse for breaking the fast every time? I don't think there's a one-size-fits-all solution here, but at least some of the time you can just quietly pick things that don't break the letter of the fast (and if you're genuinely participating to avoid offense or out of love, you're probably not breaking the spirit either). If you've spent enough time reading labels, it actually cuts both ways. Sometimes it's easier not knowing what's in everything so you can plead ignorance, but sometimes you find pleasant surprises, where something you wouldn't have thought is OK really is. NOTE: I am not advocating reading labels while you're at a party or someone's house. My point is that it helps in such cases to have done some homework on the most common packaged foods.

I'm not saying that reading labels has to be for everyone. Personally, I'd rather not do it, because I know I can get too legalistic about such things. If you can get by with homemade bread and soup the whole time, God bless you! You're better for it. But in some situations, I think there's good cause. The trick is moving beyond label-reading. At some point you hopefully settle down into enough of a routine that you don't have to think about it anymore. You figure out what works for you, you know how to adjust when interacting with others, and you keep your mouth shut when someone does something differently. Reminders from the pulpit about not reading labels are good for pushing us in the right direction and instilling the right attitude; I just hope they understand the practical challenges involved.