Friday, January 30, 2009

more MTA woes

This one's not too much of an issue for us, though I'm guessing Julie will find it more objectionable than I do. In the continuing efforts to balance its budget, the Maryland Transportation Authority is creating a disincentive to use E-ZPass. Now, if you don't know about E-ZPass, it's a device that you attach to your windshield, so that instead of stopping to pay tolls, you just slow down (sometimes--but they actually have some high-speed E-ZPass lanes now) so a scanner can catch your pass and give a green light. It charges the toll against the pass, and you get a monthly charge on your credit card whenever there's anything to pay off. Here in the Mid-North Atlantic states, you can use E-ZPass across state borders. We don't have any regular trips that involve tolls, but for some destinations on the other side of Baltimore, it can be used to pay for tunnels, or to cross the Annapolis Bay Bridge, or we can use it on the PA Turnpike, the NYS Thruway, etc., when we travel. We might easily go a year without using it, but it's a great convenience when needed.

Well, MTA just voted to add a $1.50/mo charge for E-ZPass, starting in July. Now, I'm no economist, but I have to wonder how much they really thought this through. It will generate new revenue, because undoubtedly there will be a lot of drivers who use the thing regularly and consider it worth $1.50/mo to continue using it. But also undoubtedly there will be many users who choose to turn in their E-ZPass rather than pay the extra charge. That doesn't necessarily mean they'll stop paying tolls--they'll just add to the lines at the toll booths. If the state responds by increasing the number or hours of toll booth operators, the extra cost will start to offset the revenue generated. If the state just lets the lines get longer, people will find alternate routes or drive less, either of which means less money collected in tolls. I don't know how much of this will have to happen to cancel out the new revenues, but I hope someone does.

Personally, I can't complain much about any measure that reduces the amount people drive (though I can complain that from everything I've seen, MTA is also making it harder to take mass transit). It will be an inconvenience on those occasions when we would have used it (and probably a bigger inconvenience than I'm thinking, because it's not just us getting back in line--it's a lot of other people getting back in line ahead of us), but since we're only talking about a few select trips, not a huge problem. I just have to wonder about the wisdom in the move.

One final thought: Is there any reason you can't sign up for E-ZPass in another state? What do other states charge in the way of a monthly fee? Something to consider. Something for MTA officials to consider.

Kathisma 20

Praise the Lord, O Jerusalem; praise thy God, O Sion. For He hath strengthened the bars of thy gates, He hath blessed thy sons within thee. He bringeth peace upon thy borders, and with the fatness of the wheat He filleth thee. He sendeth His saying unto the earth; right swiftly runneth His word. He giveth His snow like wool; the mist He sprinkleth like ashes. He hurleth His ice like morsels. Who shall stand before His cold? He shall send forth His word and melt them; His wind shall blow and the waters shall flow. He declareth His word unto Jacob, His statutes and judgements to Israel. He hath not dealt so with every nation, nor hath He shown His judgements unto them.
Ps 147 is included in this morning's readings. Perhaps it grabbed my attention because of our recent weather, or perhaps just because I have an affinity for snow (though not so much for ice). Anyway, I thought I'd share some of St. John Chrysostom's commentary:
Hence after saying, Who sends out his word to the earth, he added, his word runs swiftly. Now, he said this to show that he cares not only for our country but for the whole world. Word here means command, the working of his providence. . . .

Now, what does he command? The things that bear on our life - I mean, what concerns the management of the airs, the seasons and climatic changes. Hence he also added the words, Giving snow like wool . . . . Here in my view he presents the invincible and unlimited character of God's power in producing beings from what did not exist, and changing those already made and remodeling them to suit his wishes. . . .

Many other such marvels can be seen in nature. So when it happens each year and comes before your gaze, do not regard the marvel as of little significance: think how wonderful it is, at one time snow coming into view, at another time water, such changes happening in a short space of time. You see, in case any stupid person should think they happen by the natural operation of the elements, and simply regard these things responsible for them instead of knowing who is the one giving the commands, he directs his attention to God's ordinance about all these things, saying, He will send out his word, and they will melt, that is, his ordinance. It was not the nature of the winds taking the initiative and causing this, you see, but the God who made the winds. . . . I mean, just as with unbearable ice and sleet it is easy for him to restore order and settle everything, so too it is very simple for him to bring back to peace and to their own country those held in captivity and embroiled in wars, and guide them to their former prosperity.

He not only suggests this, however, but hints obscurely at something else. What in fact is that? That just as even these things that bring distress often prove useful and beneficial, so too the things that turned out for them disastrously also brought them great benefit. Lest they harm them further, he transformed them in turn to something more tranquil. . . .
Snow and ice, then, are used in this psalm as illustrative of unfriendly weather, which is sent by divine order as much as any other. The lesson is that God sends into our lives both the good and the bad, but just as easily he can turn the bad into good. Snow and ice do not remain forever but melt into flowing water that we need for life.

This is a fairly straightforward lesson taken from the literal sense of the psalm. St. John continues, however:
What has been said, then, is adequate for the literal sense. If, however, you have the desire to take the psalm also in an anagogical sense, we should not decline to travel that path as well, without doing violence to the historical meaning - perish the thought - but along with it adding this as well for the benefit of the scholars to the extent appropriate. . . .

Who sends out his word to the earth, his word runs swiftly: what word? I ask. The one through the apostles, the one that runs everywhere lighter than a feather. Hence David also suggests this in another place, saying, "The Lord will give a word to those spreading good news with great power." But if any stupid people have doubts, let them find proof in what happens with the elements, and learn how the snow falls suddenly, and in a moment of time conceals the whole earth, not covering its face over time but enveloping it all at once. So since he was inspired and it was likely he said this in an anagogical sense to forecast and hint at the future, it was logical he should make his point by reference to the elements. Now, what he means is something like this: All the earth is soon to be instructed by God, with great speed and in a moment of time. Then, lest anyone have doubts as to whether Jews, a single nation enjoying so much care over such a long period of time, proved upright, how it is possible for those inhabiting the world to be reformed in a short time, he takes the examples from the elements for reinforcement of his words - snow, mist, ice - which most of all happen in one moment of time. So have no doubts as to whether their attitude also is likely to be transformed. But are there many who resist? Even these will yield and give way, however: if no one can bear the onset of a little period of extreme cold weather, and instead everyone gives way to it, much more will all adverse influences yield to his word and command.
Prophetically, then, the psalm uses snow to illustrate how God's Word will rapidly spread throughout the world and transform human hearts. As snow comes suddenly and irresistibly and changes people's lives whether they choose it or not, so is God's Word in the wake of Christ's coming. Of course, when snow comes, people can choose to act as if nothing has changed, but to their own peril.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

wimp

Humility is good. Despite my typical bragging about "our weather is worse than your weather" and my intention of riding all through the winter, I'm staying home today. The roads really aren't that bad. It should be a clear day, and the high should be enough to see most of the snow and ice melt away. If I were driving, I probably wouldn't think twice about going in.

But, when I took a walk around the area this morning, there was definitely black ice, especially at the edges of the road. There probably wouldn't be much on Rt. 1, and morning traffic is usually light enough that I could stay well out toward the middle of the lane. But I have no idea what it would be like after I got off Rt. 1, and it only takes one slick patch to cause an accident. I've never ridden on ice, and I'd prefer that my first time not be skating downhill in almost total darkness, carrying a laptop that doesn't belong to me. Julie already expressed that she doesn't want me to try it, especially since my boss gave me the option of working from home.

In Directions on the Spiritual Life, Abba Dorotheus writes:
If we wish to be completely transformed and freed from attachments, let us learn to cut off our own desires, even in the least important things. For nothing brings more profit to men than renouncing their own will, since in truth a man gains a greater benefit from this than from any other virtue. Indeed, the cutting off of one's own will and desires can be practiced at every moment. Suppose a man is walking; his thought says to him, "Look at this and at that," but he cuts off his desire and says nothing. He meets some people talking; his thought says to him: "have a few words with them," but he cuts off his desire and says nothing. He comes to the kitchen; his thought says: "let us go and see what the cook is preparing," but he cuts off his desire and does not go, and so on and so on. But cutting off his desires in this way he acquires a habit of cutting them off and, beginning with small things, ends by easily and calmly cutting them off in big things as well. Thus, finally he begins to have no will of his own at all and remains unperturbed, whatever may happen.
In this case, it's not entirely clear what my "own desire" is. Sure, all things being equal, I'd rather work from home than commute two hours each way by bike, train, and subway. But in this case it seems that my pride would prefer the opportunity to give the nonchalant answer--yeah, of course I rode my bike in this morning; it was no problem--and know (or assume) that people wonder how he does it.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

eis polla eti despota!

Met. Kirill has been elected as the new Patriarch of Moscow!

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Elkridge Blessing (Part 1)

Sometimes mountainbikers happen across their strange woodland rituals--it might be about a dozen people out in the snow, gathered on the bank of a partially frozen creek, speaking in strange tongues and throwing water around . . .

Honestly, I would love to know what the three cyclists who swerved around our little gathering thought we were up to. If only they'd known that half-way around the world hundreds or thousands of groups were doing the very same thing, except that their festivities probably involved a bit more "walrusing"--what the Russians apparently call a polar bear swim.

As I've mentioned before, one of the things I like about living in Elkridge is that we're about a five-minute bike ride from an Orthodox cemetery. More to the point, it's the cemetery that belongs to Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Church in Baltimore, which has a good relationship with Holy Cross. Generally if a priest is needed in an emergency when Fr. Gregory is away, Fr. John from Holy Trinity is on call. We also use some of the cemetery space and the picnic facilities.

Picnic facilities? This is really starting to sound weird. Well, the fact is, Orthodox take very seriously the "communion of saints." Death is a real separation, but much less so in light of Christ's "trampling down death by death." We pray for our departed friends and family, and we pray to (somewhat less scandalously, with) the departed saints. It is said that the early Christians often had to worship underground, in the same caves where they buried their dead. So when the Book of Revelation talks about the martyrs under the altar, this would have reflected the usual practice. We are never very far from our dead even now, with regular commemorations and memorials of departed loved ones, various Soul Saturdays throughout the year, and one particularly beautiful tradition in the Russian Church. On Thomas Sunday (a week after Easter), they gather in the cemetery and proclaim the resurrection to the dead who lie there.

So it's not so unusual for Orthodox to combine picnic facilities with cemeteries. They also ideally maintain a chapel in proximity, if the cemetery is not already close to the church, so services like that on Thomas Sunday have somewhere to meet. Someone told me today that Ss. Peter and Paul Chapel, which is on the grounds of this particular cemetery, used to be pretty run-down and used basically once a year. Things have changed quite a bit since then. At one point, when Holy Trinity had two priests, they had a full-fledged Russian language mission, with regular vigils and liturgies. Now, they do the first vigil of the month at the main church downtown, but the other weekly vigils are held in the chapel. There are no regular liturgies there, however. So I can't rely on it as an actual neighborhood parish, but it is nice to participate when I have occasion to do so.

I visited a month or two ago for Saturday vigil (part of it anyway--I had Ian with me, and vigil is quite long). I was back again today for Theophany. That's the Orthodox name for what the West calls Epiphany--the end of the traditional 12 days of Christmas. Now, you fact-checkers are probably already calculating--if it's 12 days after Christmas, we're 13 days too late! Not so, if Christmas was in fact 12 days ago :-) Russian Orthodox still follow the Julian calendar, which was the traditional calendar of the Church down to the Great Schism and continued in both East and West until around the time of the Reformation Pope Gregory endorsed an adjustment to the calendar. Scholars had determined that adding a leap day every four years was gradually pushing the Julian calendar behind the actual solar year. They came up with the idea to skip the leap day every century year but the fourth, and to go back and re-calibrate the calendar according to the new system. This meant deleting some days and then moving forward with the new approach. Protestant nations were slow to adopt the new papal calendar; in the British Empire, it didn't take until a few decades before the American Revolution. Orthodox nations didn't adopt the Gregorian calendar until the 20th c., and even then there was difference of opinion over its use for Church events. To this day, the Russian Church retains the Julian calendar and therefore observes Christmas and Theophany 13 days later than the West (for the next century anyway).

I wanted to attend Theophany in particular for a few reasons. One is that I missed the Theophany service at Holy Cross due to a schedule conflict with Julie. (If there's any advantage to having Orthodox churches on two different calendars, it's that you get two chances to attend the major feast services.) Another is that I knew they'd have Theophany at the chapel, so it would be close by. Most importantly, they do an outdoor water blessing at Theophany, which Holy Cross doesn't do (it would be considerably more difficult logistically), and they bless a waterway that's in very close proximity to where I live.

Now, I need to explain something about the water blessing. Each year at Theophany, every Orthodox church performs the Great Blessing of Waters, at least inside the church building, but often outside as well. Western Epiphany has come to revolve primarily around the Three Wise Men, but in the East, Theophany is about the baptism of Jesus. This is the point of the name, which means "revelation of God." While Jesus's birth was heralded by angels and witnessed by Jewish shepherds and Gentile wise men, it was a more or less secret affair. It was not a public announcement for everyone to consider. But when Jesus reached adulthood and officially began his ministry, he started with being baptized by St. John. At this point, John proclaimed to his followers that Jesus was the promised Messiah, and the Trinity was revealed with the voice of the Father from heaven, and the Spirit descending in the form of a dove.

But why baptism? John was baptizing people for repentance, but Jesus was without sin. When John himself balked, Jesus said it was to fulfill all righteousness, which the Orthodox Church interprets to mean that his baptism was part of God's redemptive plan. He brought human nature into the water of repentance, but this was also a moment of redemption for the created world, which also suffers the effects of our fall. The water didn't cleanse him--he cleansed the water! And as water is integral to pretty much everything that lives on this planet, a cleansing of water extends to everything else. When we celebrate Theophany, we call on the Spirit to perform anew this miracle of redeeming the natural world. It works to do it indoors, with a big tub of water, but the connection is much more apparent when the blessing takes place at a natural waterway. In our case, the blessing flows from Rockburn Branch, into the Patapsco River, out to the Chesapeake Bay, and then to the Atlantic Ocean.

I didn't have much clue what to expect when I went. I wasn't able to find out until last night when the service would start, and even then I had no idea how long it would last or exactly when the outdoor blessing would take place. The liturgy started at 10:00 and was on the long side at something like two full hours. Then there was the indoor water blessing, so people could fill up jugs to take home. I kind of liked how this part worked. Perhaps it was by necessity because there's no plumbing into the chapel, but most people came in with jugs of water to dump into the containers for the blessing. Not that water is much of an offering, but still--the idea that we bring our fallen, contaminated water, and God gives it back to us made whole. After the blessing, several people left, while others stayed for a light lunch (which had to be set up, so that took more time). Then we got everything together and 13 of us went off to make our way through the woods, down to the creek. Fr. John said this was the first time they'd done it when the creek was significantly frozen, so it took some time to determine the best spot where we could get at the water. With the walk back up to the chapel, it was after 3:00 by the time I got home.

Taking the outdoor blessing in isolation, you couldn't have asked for a better setting--the woods, the light snow falling and just covering the ground, the iced-over creek, the bite in the air. It was exactly what such an outdoor winter sacrament should be. Though I must say, I was a bit relieved to find that they do not observe the custom of throwing the cross into the water, so those who choose to do so can jump in after it. The rest of the day was good as well, though a bit longer than I was hoping. I didn't really want to spend so much time away from my family, but it was nice that I had a chance to meet some of the parishoners and experience the services in both Slavonic and English. I'd probably be pretty lost if it were all in Slavonic, but between having a decent familiarity with the flow of the service and following enough in English, I usually knew right where we were, without once looking at a service book.

A lot of pictures were taken. I'll watch for them to go up on Holy Trinity's site, or more likely, that of Dn. Michael Bishop, and post a link if anything is available.

Friday, January 16, 2009

my short-lived career as an evangelist

In case anyone doesn't know, I grew up Evangelical. Particularly, I was very involved in a very active youth group. It seems that our primary metaphor was that of spiritual warfare, so we spent a lot of time and energy on how much the world was against what we were doing, and how much we needed to take a stand for our faith. There's a lot of truth in this idea, but I'm not sure I always got it right.

I did not live in the same school district where I went to church, so as far as I knew, when it came to defending my faith, I was mostly on my own. My Christian witness in high school consisted mostly of carrying a Bible wherever I went and arguing with teachers and classmates about certain pet issues (biological macro-evolution, the age of the earth, abortion, Christianity in American history, etc.). It gave me a chance to stand out as different and show off my intellectual abilities all at the same time, without much spiritual investment or love lost on the people around me.

The culmination came when I had to give the valedictory address at high school commencement. I had no idea what one would normally talk about for such things, and since my life had revolved more around church than school, I had no particular sentimental feelings about the event itself. Someone in the school office made the mistake of telling me I should just say whatever I wanted to tell my fellow students. I figured, since we were going our separate ways anyway, this was my chance to do what I had always lacked the courage to do and present the gospel. (As much as I acted like friendships didn't matter, when push came to shove, I was always worried that I'd offend someone and lose their friendship. Note that, for all my courage in these side issues, I was still scandalized by the cross.)

I was required to write out my speech and submit it beforehand for approval. This resulted in a conversation with the school superintendent, who tried to persuade me that I could take my faith seriously without offending. This was just the sort of advice I needed to steel my resolve. He would not forbid the speech outright, and I would not reconsider. Although in hindsight I'm not sure what it really meant, I felt vindicated by the applause-o-meter. Naturally, I have no idea what impact it really had on anyone's life.

My parents recently had the VHS converted to DVD and gave us a copy. As I was watching it last night, I was surprised how familiar the speech felt. I don't think I'd re-visited it in the past 15 years, but I recognized just about every word of it. Here, then, for your enjoyment is a blast from my own past. I take you back to the summer of 1993 . . .

video

Thursday, January 15, 2009

cold? what cold?

In the past few days we've had some of the coldest weather so far this season. Not that it's been what I would call bitter--lows around 20, highs around 30. I've donned some winter gloves and a headband to keep my ears from freezing; but aside from that, it's still just the usual, well-vented helmet, work clothes, sneakers, and some appropriate layers (work shirt, fleece vest, rain coat to cut the wind). It doesn't take me as long to cool down when I arrive, but I still strip down to one shirt while waiting on the train platform.

The morning rides this week have been unremarkable. I've had to blow my nose whenever I stopped, but otherwise no different from the usual. This evening, it was rough at the beginning, with significant wind, but the rest of the ride was pretty normal. The worst part was actually before I got going. My u-lock was stuck and took a lot of wiggling to get it open. When it finally came, I could see rust on one end. It hadn't occurred to me so far to watch for that kind of thing. It's sat in the rain a few days--nothing terribly heavy, but if it was going on all day, I suppose it would get some moisture in there. Maybe I should start spraying it now and then with some lubricant.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

St. Theophan's recommended readings

I don't know what people did before the Internet, but as I've been reading back through The Spiritual Life, I've tried to follow up any recommendations he makes of other reading materials.

Letter #4:
Long ago, Macarius the Great described this bustle of life with its futile pursuit . . . It expresses the essence of the matter, and, once you have accepted it with conviction, it will serve for you as a restraint from the charm of worldly life. In order to be able to think about this more and to get more familiar with this manner of thought, try to read the entire Fifth Homily of St. Macarius.
Note: The numbering of St. Macarius's homilies in his citations doesn't seem to agree with what I've found in current English sources.

Letter #30:
I take up my pen, and am still just beginning to explain the very same thing to you, that is, the attractiveness of the condition of being filled with grace, in order to set you on the path to attaining it, learning it and being established in it. But this time, I will not offer you my own words, but those of that wise man of God, Macarius the Great, namely from his eighteenth homily.

Letter #31:
Get a notebook, and in it write down the thoughts that come to you as you read the Gospel and other books in this manner: "The Lord says such and such in the Gospel; from this it is obvious that we must act in such and such a way; for me this is feasible in such and such instances; I will act thus; Lord help me!" This does not require much effort, but how much benefit comes from it! Act in this way. Your thought will come into focus and become inspired. The Spirit, moving in the Scriptures, will enter into your heart and heal it.

Letter #33:
After prayer, do some reading with meditation. You need to read, not in order to pack your mind with diverse information and ideas, but to receive edification and to understand how best to accomplish those things which are necessary for us during these days of govenie. For this one must read a little, but each item that is read must be brought to conscious feeling by devoting lengthy attention to it.

What should be read? Just spiritual books, of course. Of these, I cannot recommend anything to you more than the writings of Bishop Tikhon. There is the little book Arise and Conquer, a selection of articles by him that are conducive to repentance. There is another book about repentance and Communion, sermons on Great Lent and the preparatory week preceding it.
He is referring, of course, to St. Tikhon of Zadonsk, for whom St. Tikhon's Monastery is named, not the later Metropolitan of America and Patriarch of All Russia. The only book-length collection of his works that to my knowledge has been translated into English is Journey to Heaven: Counsels on the Particular Duties of Every Christian. This is an anthology of his works, published in Russian under the subtitle of the English and then in Greek under the main English title. Part III, on "Spiritual Struggles," addresses self-examination, sin, and repentance.
. . . Instead of conversation, it would be better to set aside an hour for reading together. This would be very suitable in the evening. Nothing would be better, if one of you could give edifying accounts that manifest the power of repentance and Communion. For your readings together, you should select something from the Lives of the Saints.
Letter #36:
Take the Lives of the Saints for the month of March and read the story of how blessed Theodora endured the toll-houses. This story is included in the life of St. Basil the Younger for March 26. The life itself of that starets is great. Begin immediately with the story of Theodora . . .

Do not desire to be worldly-wise, but take this story to heart, and undertake to correct all your imperfections in accordance with its teaching.
There is a rather heated controversy surrounding this particular story. It seems to me that the purpose for which he is recommending it circumvents a lot of the debate, since he's not making a point primarily about the afterlife but about self-examination.

Letter #45:
I am sending you a little book about this subject entitled Letters on the Spiritual Life. (One could also add the small anthology called The Holy Fathers on Watchfulness and Prayer.) It is directed toward the consolidation of the mind in the heart with attentiveness toward the Lord and prayerful disposition. For the labor of prayer, you need to select and read such books or articles that discuss everything about prayer and prayerful frames of mind.
The first book he mentions here appears to be one of his own volumes in Russian, which as far as I know has not been translated into English. I can't find anything on the second book, but my best guess is that it's his own compilation from the Philokalia, perhaps similar to the book by Archimandrite Ioannikios Kotsonis--Watchfulness and Prayer.

Letter #48:

I have already written that steadfastness and continuity of labor over oneself is an essential condition for success in the spiritual life. . . . You have St. Macarius the Great's Homilies. Try to read the nineteenth homily, which tells how the Christian must force himself in every good thing.

Letter #50:
For you to meditate on the Divine attributes and activities on your own may be a little difficult. It seems, however, that you have the writings of Bishop Tikhon. You will find his Letters from the Cell to be a most helpful aid. Bishop Tikhon clearly contemplates each Divine attribute and activity, and writes of each one with such warmth and conviction that, if you read attentively, they will permeate your heart.
As noted above (#33), I know of only one book available in English with any of St. Tikhon's writings. There doesn't seem to be a section comparable to the contemplation he mentions here.

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. . . .

As an aid to yourself, take up Bishop Tikhon once again. He has four entire books of such reinterpretations called Spiritual Treasure Gathered from the World. Get it and read through it. After you have read it and seen how he does it, you will become skilled at doing it on your own. Or you may directly adopt his reinterpretations for yourself. If, perhaps, reading these books seems to be too lengthy an undertaking, there is an abridged version of all the reinterpretations entitled Situation and Spiritual Discourse (Volume II). Here Bishop Tikhon gives a brief reinterpretation of 176 situations. It would be worth a little trouble for you to look over these with attention; besides, they encompass everything that you will need to reinterpret.
As noted above (#33), I know of only one book available in English with any of St. Tikhon's writings. There doesn't seem to be a section comparable to the reinterpretations he mentions here.

Letter #58:
One must appeal to the Lord, going down with the attention of the mind into the heart and calling out to Him from there. . . . This same John the Dwarf told the following parable on this subject . . . Resolve to learn this story by heart and always act according to its meaning. You will see how quickly inner peace that has been disturbed by the appearance of the passions is restored within you.
A footnote indicates that "this story may be found in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, trans. by Benedicta Ward, SLG (Oxford: Mowbray & Co. Ltd., 1981), pp. 88-89."

Letter #59:
You have been told almost everything about spiritual warfare now. . . . Do as you have been told, and you will successfully drive out every passion, no matter how forcefully it has arisen within you.

So that you may better remember all this and be persuaded that you must act in no other way, I am providing an excerpt from St. Hesychius the Priest of Jerusalem, whose book, you will recall, I sent to you. . . . Resolve to look over the little book in its entirety.
This text is translated in the English Philokalia (vol. 1) as "On Watchfulness and Holiness," by St. Hesychios the Priest.

Letter #64:
The best remedy for boredom, however, is to acquire a taste for serious reading and the study of subjects that you are unfamiliar with. It is not so much the reading that drives away boredom as the study. . . .

I would note for you that the study Count Speransky is referring to is the study of entire sciences, or certain parts of them. By this, it is obvious that one avoids any reading of frivolous books. . . . Read more the spiritual books (than scientific ones). This is the sphere of the most serious subjects, and, most importantly, the most necessary. In this sphere everything is new and never becomes obsolete. The more you learn, the more you will discover subjects that are as yet unfamiliar.

Letter #65:

Who got you interested in St. Poemen so that you want to know more about him? No matter who it was, I am very glad of it. You will find who St. Poemen was and how he lived in the Menaion under August 27, and also in the book Sayings Concerning the Ascetic Deeds of the Saints and Blessed Fathers. You will find a number of his sayings in these places.
The standard English edition of The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, cited above (#58), translates the sayings of St. Poemen on pp. 163-95.

Letter #66:
I wanted to write you something previously concerning tears, but I forgot. I will write something now. You get books to read from the library. Get Zhukovsky and read "The Peri and the Angel." This is in the fifth volume, it seems. It is morally edifying and long.
Zhukovsky actually translated this ballad from part four of Thomas Moore's Lalla Rookh.

Letter#70:
I am sending you the writings of St. Anthony by your request. Read and be absorbed. You will be surprised. He was not educated and did not read books of learned men; he only sang the Psalter and read the Gospel along with the Epistle. The grace of God revealed contemplation in his mind, and you see how wise his words are. . . . Books are only for guidance in the spiritual life. Knowledge itself is acquired through deeds. . . .

You write, "I read a lot; is this bad?" It can be bad and it can be good, depending on what you read and how you read it. Read with discrimination and verify what is being read through the genuine truth of our faith. . . .

The question still remains unresolved as to whether one may read anything besides spiritual things. I would tell you with reservation, in a low voice: You may if you like, but just a little and not indiscriminately. . . .

Even books containing human wisdom may nourish the spirit. These are the books that indicate to us the vestiges of wisdom, benevolence, truth and solicitous Divine industry in nature and history. . . .

What about stories and novels? There are good ones among these. To find out whether they are good, however, you must read them, and after you have finished, you will have acquired such tales and images that--God have mercy! You will soil your clean little mind. Afterward, go get cleaned up. Why would you want to bring such labor upon yourself? Therefore, I think it is better not to read them. When a benevolently-minded person who has read some story recommends it, you may read it.
There is a text included in the Philokalia that is attributed to St. Anthony: "On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life." In the English edition, it is relegated to an appendix of the first volume. The editors explain that they do not consider Anthony to be the true author, nor do they even consider its contents to be legitimately Christian. I don't know of any other significant English translation of his writings.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

you can't spell "transit" without "rant" (sort of)

Part of what got me back into carless commuting was the Transhare program. I had worked for a time as a government contractor, and I was hiring back in as a civil servant. One of the benefits I would pick up as a result was the availability of Transhare--a program where one's employer (in this case Uncle Sam) provides a subsidy to encourage using mass transit. Where I work, parking is tight, so the trade-off is that you get either Transhare or a parking pass. The timing was perfect, because our older car seemed to be approaching some steep maintenance costs if we kept it on the road much longer. Faced with the following options:
  • thousands of dollars in repairs
  • buying another car to put on the road
  • essentially free mass transit
it was a no-brainer. I figured out that I could walk about five minutes to the bus stop and get to my work site with only one transfer. It was a long commute--about two hours each way vs. 40 minutes to an hour by car--but I worked an early shift anyway, so I'd still be able to get home around 5:00. Besides, I could read or work on my laptop or sleep on the bus.

The way Transhare worked when I started, you filled out a form every six months with a signed estimate of your commuting costs for each month covered. Then, every two months you'd pick up an allotment of Metrocheks, which could be used like any other farecard on Metrorail, or loaded onto a SmarTrip card for use on Metrorail or Metrobus, or used as currency to buy other types of transit passes. In my case, I could hand them to the commuter bus driver in exchange for a ten-trip pass.

At some point, GAO determined that there was a lot of abuse going on--people selling their Metrocheks on Craig's List and eBay, etc.--and the program was modified to crack down. Here's where it starts to get interesting. One change was the justification form. Instead of estimating a total for each month, you now had to provide all of the calculations--where you travel, by what mode, the specific fare for a single ride, etc. I guess the assumption was that criminals were too lazy to make up the details, or too stupid to do so without getting tripped up. But one thing the new system meant was that you could no longer account for extended absences. With the old form, you were supposed to estimate your actual costs for each month. If you knew you'd be on vacation for three weeks or some kind of extended sick leave or out of town, you'd estimate a lower amount. With the new form, you couldn't do that if you wanted to. You could only give what it cost in a normal week of commuting. Also, on the old form, you could account for things like discounted passes (10-trip, weekly, monthly, etc.); on the new form, there was no way to calculate anything above the level of a single trip. So on both counts, most honest travelers were now forced to overestimate their travel costs.

Another change was that, presumably because the form was now more difficult to complete, you would only have to do it once a year. I suppose you could go out of your way to change your information in between--and certainly you would if your transit expenses went up--but if they went down, how many people would bother to submit a new form before it was necessary? In my case, our office went under renovations for a few months, during which time we all increased our telework. I wasn't sure how long the renovations would take or what would happen to my schedule afterward, so it seemed like a hassle to report my new travel costs. Besides, there's a limit to how much you can actually get per month, so I figured if my costs later ended up exceeding the limit I'd have a reserve I could use. If not, I could turn the Metrocheks in whenever I stopped participating. (I like the program and want it to continue--I have no interest in abusing it.) Besides, I'd have to submit a new form before too long anyway, right?

Then they came up with another change. Instead of everyone submitting their justification at the same time each year, it would now be done alphabetically by last name, spread throughout the year. As it turned out, they started in November or something (when we normally would have renewed), and my name fell in the previous batch (October or whatever). So I wouldn't submit my new form for another 11 months, on top of the 12 months it had already been. If I continued to telework for all that time, I'd accumulate a lot of extra Metrocheks.

Not to worry, though. There's one more change to report. This one came without any fanfare. In fact, it was almost by chance that I discovered it. According to the WMATA Web site, effective Dec 1, Metrocheks will no longer be issued (for some reason I just picked up another batch two days ago, but maybe they're a little behind). Instead they will issue vouchers specifically intended for buying fares that currently do not take SmarTrip--like, for instance, anything run by MTA (including the MARC commuter train and the commuter buses). But unlike Metrocheks, those vouchers cannot be used for anything else. They cannot be loaded onto a SmarTrip card, nor can they be used directly as Metrorail fare.

Now, I need to back up and cover one other new feature. At the same time that they changed the justification procedures, they also switched over to electronic payment of benefits as the default method. Where Metrocheks were anonymous, electronic payment would go onto a specific SmarTrip card, registered in the name of the benefit recipient. And once the value is added to the card, it's hard to get it transferred anywhere else. But because Metrocheks could be used for other transit services that were not set up to take payment by SmarTrip, they still had to provide the option of receiving payment by Metrochek. When you filled out your form, you would indicate the mode of transit and the corresponding kind of payment that you needed. No big deal--those of us who needed to use them for MTA could still load value onto the SmarTrip card for Metrorail or Metrobus.

But the new vouchers cannot be used for anything else. And at least the way they do things at my agency, you can only get your benefit in one form. I suppose there are people who work close enough to Union Station that they can commute solely by MARC. But I would guess that most people who ride the train also use another mode of travel--most likely Metrorail. Metrorail is not cheap, but the MARC is even less so. So, I'll be getting the vouchers I guess. Hopefully MTA will someday start taking payment by SmarTrip. In the meantime, I just got something more than a third cut from my benefit. It's still a lot cheaper than driving, but it's annoying that they can't run this program in a way that makes any sense.

I suppose the bright spot is that MTA is also discontinuing its 10-trip MARC tickets. So now I'll be paying more to ride the train and therefore getting a little more use out of my Transhare benefit than I would otherwise.

four hills, and turn left

I'm not a big fan of the GPS craze. (Go figure.) Although I must admit, it is nice to have resources like GPS and Google Maps available (I use the latter quite frequently on my Blackberry), I would much rather explore the terrain and the routes around me, and get to know them at a human level. (Of course, now Google Maps brings us Street View, so you can do just that from the comfort of your desk or couch.)

There was a running joke, back when I lived in "the sticks" (if only), about giving directions like: "Turn left where the old barn used to be" (like I know where things are by landmarks that existed 20 years ago) or, "Watch for the driveway when you see cows" (they're always standing right where I need them to be?). There are still plenty of places around this country where route numbers and street signs are scarce, where you're better off knowing the general direction you need to head and keeping a sense of where that is as you go. Places where the main topics of discussion at family reunions are, "Which way did you come?" and "How high's your corn?"

Of course, it helps too if the roads run in more or less definable directions. In the flat wilderness of Western New York, most of the roads run north to south or east to west, with a few notable diagonals. So if you know the major routes and you can remember which direction you're heading, you can usually figure it out. In Grand Junction Colorado, where I lived for a while in fourth grade, roads are actually named on the map grid. We lived on F Rd., which of course was equidistant between E and G roads. There was also F-1/2 Rd., and running perpendicular were numbered roads. There's an artificiality to it, but it's very easy to navigate. At the same time, I have a romantic attraction to more curving, less predictable roads that are shaped by the hills, valleys, and waterways of the land. They require more familiarity with the place where you live. And of course they're infuriating to newcomers and those passing through.

Riding bike in and around the settlement of Elkridge has given me a new perspective on distance and direction. As I always like to mention, Elkridge is situated on the Fall Line--the boundary between the outer Piedmont and the Atlantic Coastal Plain. This location put Elkridge on the map, because it was at one time the furthest point inland on the Patapsco River where tobacco casks could be loaded onto ships and sent across the ocean. It also gives it a very hilly terrain, which makes for a great workout and a somewhat more grueling commute than I would really ask for.

These hills are a rather prominent feature of my rides back and forth to the train station. There are four main hills on my route. I live at the top of one hill, so heading out in the morning, the first leg is the easiest--downhill to Rt. 1, a level stretch, and then a long downhill to get me well on my way. Then comes the first uphill of the morning, past the library, and then another good downhill. That one always gets me breathing hard, but I'm still fresh, so getting over it isn't too much trouble. Thankfully, the second uphill, which crowns just past Ducketts Ln., isn't bad at all. I can conserve some energy for the last, long hill, running up to Rt. 100.

I think in theory I could make it over that hill without stopping, but in practice I never have. There's a bit of shoulder that widens out not too far before the stoplight that precedes the ramp. The road will widen enough at the stoplight for cars to get over and prepare their entrance to the ramp, even though there are no lines marking out a separate lane. I know that if the light is green, they'll want to come hurtling through it, changing lanes to the right, and already speeding up to the 55 mph that they know will apply on 100. I like to get over to the middle of the thru lane as soon as possible, but that means I'm chugging uphill while tying up a lane, with cars passing on both right and left. I want as much energy as possible, so I don't take too long getting past the ramp and back to where I have good shoulder to ride. Even then, I still have to get up and over the bridge. So, I always pull over before I reach the light, take a breather, and check the time to see how I'm doing. Once I'm up the hill, it levels off and even drops down a bit before I reach the station, so I can take it easy, coasting much of the way, or push a little harder if I'm short on time. I make my left turn at Rt. 103, not far beyond 100, and then I'm on pretty quiet roads for the last stretch before the station.

Really, I must say that Rt. 100 is the major landmark on my morning commute and the bane of my existence. If I didn't have to get over Rt. 100, that last hill wouldn't be so bad. For that matter, if I didn't have to get over Rt. 100, I'd have a shorter ride to the station. Even worse, it wasn't until they finished Rt. 100 that the Dorsey station opened, with its practically car-only design. Before that, there was actually an Elkridge train station, which would have been a much shorter ride and more accessible and friendly to biking. I suppose I should be glad I didn't have to experience its closing. It was long gone by the time I had to worry about it.

The return trip is harder for a few reasons:
  • The traffic is always heavier, which gives me more to worry about. Fortunately, there's some compensation for this. There are some long stretches of real shoulder heading north, and I've come up with a route that makes my only left turn pretty safe and easy. Of course, even the extra shoulder has its problems. It's all well and good to get over on the shoulder, especially when I'm crawling up a long, steep hill; but getting back off the shoulder when it becomes a turn lane isn't always easy.
  • Even though the ride between the station and Rt. 1 is mostly level, it does have an overall grade that's generally uphill heading home.
  • Maybe it's just my imagination, but the intermediate uphills seem if anything a bit steeper heading north.
  • It also seems that the places where I have no shoulder to work with are at the crowns of hills, particularly the second to last hill.
  • That nice, long downhill that I have first thing in the morning is a nice, long uphill in the evening.
  • Also, because of the heavier traffic and the long uphill at the end, I have a tough choice to make. If I stay on Rt. 1 all the way, it's more direct and the hill isn't quite as steep. The drawback, however, is that it's heavy traffic, and there's no shoulder for a good bit of the hill. Plus, by the time I get to the end of the climb, I have to get over for a left turn, crossing two lanes of thru traffic. I've opted for the alternative, which is to veer off on Old Washington, take the little bit longer ride and steeper hill but much less traffic and only one lane moving each way. There's a similar problem with shoulders, but with fewer cars it's not such a big deal. I usually have to stop at least once for a rest on the way up (sometimes more than once), but the left turn is much less harrowing. Also, if I luck out, I get a little bit of a downhill to build up some speed before the final push up Montgomery to our development.
  • Which reminds me--there's also that steep uphill from Rt. 1 to our development entrance. It's a short stretch, but almost inevitably coming from a stop and at the end of the ride so I'm already pretty worn out.
But then I'm topped out on the fourth hill, and I'm home. And that's always good.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

tired and damp

Today was my first day back in the office since Dec 18, my first day with the usual commute in probably three weeks. I had planned to take a few days of vacation around Christmas anyway, and then I ended up taking some sick leave, first because Julie had strep and needed to avoid direct contact with the kids until the antibiotics kicked in, and then because I came down with something myself (probably the flu). I'm still getting over it--it started with nasal drip and a sore throat, then there was a day of fever, then the other symptoms continued a while longer before shifting to a runny/stuffy nose, which has held on ever since. Needless to say, I haven't felt motivated to get on the bike without a good reason. I went for an easy ride on Saturday while everyone else was napping, mostly because I knew I'd need some kind of warm-up before commuting again.

As expected, between still getting over the illness and being a bit out of shape, I was laboring more than usual today. On top of that, it wasn't great weather. The forecast called for "wintry mix," which was downgraded to off-and-on rain and freezing rain. But it never got cold enough to freeze, and when it was time to leave the house this morning it hadn't even started raining yet. I did get dripped on for the last few minutes, and there was more light rain on the walk across campus when I got to work, but nothing serious.

It was still just a light rain on the way home, but it went on pretty much the whole way. So I actually got something you could call wet. Glad I wrapped my backpack in a garbage bag before strapping it to the bike. I don't care too much if I get wet, especially on the way home, but carrying a laptop back and forth for work is another matter. At least this time I knew what to do with my brakes. I had one instance where I had to stop at a light and could have been in trouble if I hadn't been dragging my brakes at every opportunity to keep them somewhat dry. If I ever invest any serious money in this mode of transportation, I think the first thing on my list would be disc brakes, or at least aluminum rims and leather brake shoes--almost anything would be better than the combination I have now.

Anyway, I took things easy and allowed myself to rest when necessary. It was a pretty uneventful trip, but good to get home and change into some dry clothes. Jenna was waiting, but I'm not sure whether she was more interested to see me or to rummage through my bag. Ian barely noticed that I was home, he was so absorbed in a kid's show on PBS. We finally hooked up the DTV converter box last night, and one of the advantages is the extra sub-channels. Fortunately, it seems to be working OK, despite my earlier concerns. I think some of it is that the stations are upping their digital signal strength as the deadline gets closer. A lot of it is that we get much better reception here than in the old place.

Friday, January 2, 2009

some bedtime theologizing

After reading a brief children's devotional and talking about how God is the one person who's always with you,

Ian [laughing]: "God is in my heart, because I ate him!"

Me: "Actually . . . you did eat God."

Ian looks puzzled.

Me: "Do you know when you ate him?"

Ian: "No."

Me: "Well, for starters, the last time you went to church."

I can't say the conversation got any easier as it went on. I tried to explain about communion, and made sure to clarify for him that as a general rule, we don't eat other people. ("Will you eat me after I die?") There's time. I've learned to set my expectations low for these opportunistic conversations. He'll only pay attention for so long, and he'll only understand a bare minimum of what I say. (I've never been good at communicating with kids, even when I was one.) How much worse, when we're talking about things I don't even understand myself?