Friday, February 27, 2009

St. John Cassian on anger

If you fast for quarrels and fights
and you strike a humble person with your fists,
why do you fast for me as you do today
so that your voice may be heard by its clamor?
--Isa 58:4
When the aged John, who was superior of a large monastery and of a quantity of brethren, had come to visit the aged Pæsius, who was living in a vast desert, and had been asked of him as of a very old friend, what he had done in all the forty years in which he had been separated from him and had scarcely ever been disturbed in his solitude by the brethren: “Never,” said he, “has the sun seen me eating,” “nor me angry,” said the other.
--The Institutes of St. John Cassian 5.27

On the threshold of the Fast, I've been re-reading some of St. John Cassian, particularly his books on the eight principal faults. I planned to read them for Lent anyway, but it occurred to me that I could use a refresher before I start the Fast, so that my attitude is right (or at least better) as I begin. Perhaps no more is this the case than with the fault of anger, since it's so easy to get snippy when one is hungry. The whole book on anger is worth reading several times, but this one, short chapter stood out to me:
Or how can we think that the Lord would have [anger] retained even for an instant, since He does not permit us to offer the spiritual sacrifices of our prayers, if we are aware that another has any bitterness against us: saying, “If then thou bringest thy gift to the altar and there rememberest that thy brother hath aught against thee, leave there thy gift at the altar and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift” (Matt 5:23-24). How then may we retain displeasure against our brother, I will not say for several days, but even till the going down of the sun, if we are not allowed to offer our prayers to God while he has anything against us? And yet we are commanded by the Apostle: “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17); and “in every place lifting up holy hands without wrath and disputing” (1 Tim 2:8). It remains then either that we never pray at all, retaining this poison in our hearts, and become guilty in regard of this apostolic or evangelic charge, in which we are bidden to pray everywhere and without ceasing; or else if, deceiving ourselves, we venture to pour forth our prayers, contrary to His command, we must know that we are offering to God no prayer, but an obstinate temper with a rebellious spirit.
--The Institutes of St. John Cassian 8.13
Ouch! He doesn't leave much room here, does he? St. Cassian goes on at the end of the book on anger to raise this point as one of our best tools for self-correction. If we remember what an impediment anger is to prayer, how can we possibly let it go unchecked?

I would recommend as well a series of talks by now-Met. Jonah of Washington and New York, in which he discusses resentment and reacting (in anger) as obstacles to achieving inner stillness.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009


I like a good debate as much as the next person--probably more, but I'm working on that. There was once a time when I identified my faith with my ability to reason and defend it. I went looking for debates so I could win them--not, of course, for my own glory, but to show that God was right. For many years, I pursued academic training with the primary goal of enhancing my ability to reason. Ironically, it led me to more questions than answers, and even to the point of practical agnosticism. Actually, it's only ironic from the perspective I had before--now I would say that it was the only logical place my striving could take me.

I've largely recounted my journey back to faith on my earlier blog, so I won't go through it again here. My point is simply that a lot has changed in my approach to faith and reason. I no longer have a burning desire to defend what I believe--certainly not to pick fights over it. If others have questions, I'm happy to discuss. But there's generally not much point going head-to-head with someone who has opposite convictions. No one really learns from it. That's why I'm no longer particularly interested in watching everything that appears in popular media about the roots of Christianity, or the Bible as history, or science and the Bible, etc. For one thing, I've seen most of the arguments before, and what you generally get in an hour or two for mass consumption can't possibly move the discussion forward. For another, I find it tiresome to perform my own analysis of such presentations, which is not likely to interest anyone else anyway.

But, as I say, I'm happy to answer questions when they come. That's why I spent some time this afternoon watching Bill Maher's Religulous, and why I'm sharing thoughts on it here. The friend who brought it up knows who he is. It won't be a blow-by-blow. Far from it, I'm going to try to keep my remarks as brief as possible by highlighting one overriding problem--that Maher cannot disguise his own religious conviction. For anyone who sees this about the film, it comes off as petty and hypocritical.

If you don't get the intensity of Maher's faith, just skip to the sermon he preaches in the last five minutes or so. He gives the most rabid fire-and-brimstone preachers a run for their money, as he warns of the dire consequences if we don't act now to eradicate religion. He shamelessly appeals to emotion and raw chemical response by bombarding the viewer with montages of image and sound. All this, as he declares how humble he is for doubting when those "religious" people (who are somehow different from him) are so certain of themselves. Now, I'm all for doubt as an important component of humility. But his argument is self-defeating, because he feels the need to pooh-pooh their apparent humility. Doubting human reason and submitting to revealed truth is false humility; doubting revelation and submitting to human reason is the real thing!

Of course, Maher has no trouble finding people who are overly certain about far too many things. And for every trucker or televangelist who can speak with utmost confidence, he's got a Catholic priest ready to tear down the faith he's supposedly dedicated his life to preaching, with equal certainty that all those old-fashioned ideas are just silly. I suppose we're meant to come away with a dim view of the believers; personally, I just have to scratch my head at those priests, whose credibility must be based on their position as clergy. Oh, wait--that's not where he's going with this, is he? No, but a two-second clip of someone who claims to have discovered both a "God gene" and a "gay gene" does seem to come ex cathedra. Maher never really comes out and says that he thinks anyone who can claim scholarly credentials--at least, if that results in them speaking against faith--must be believed infallibly, but he often acts like it.

He repeatedly asserts without question that the Gospels are not eye-witness accounts, presumably on the basis of some scholarly opinions. I'm not interested in arguing whether they are or aren't, but I bring up this particular example, because it highlights the contradiction that plagues this film. So, since the Gospels must not be verifiable history, the only logical conclusion is that it was all made up. But when he turns to the virgin birth, he insists that if it really happened, surely all four of the Gospels would have recorded it, not just two. Well, if all four of the Gospels were just recording oral tradition or legends or whatever you want to call them, we might suppose that they all would have repeated some widely-circulated tale of the virgin birth. But if they were in fact eye-witnesses (just supposing for the moment), what would we expect? If four men who met Jesus when he was an adult were writing about his life for the very purpose that they wanted to set down an accurate and reliable account before all the witnesses were gone, how would they tell us about his birth? They weren't there themselves. Would they just repeat rumors? Or would they base their remarks on what they had the opportunity to hear directly from someone who was there--the Virgin herself, for instance? Aren't the odds against all of them having a surviving eye-witness to interview? He can't have it both ways. One argument or the other might get some mileage on its own, but they can't both work.

Not that I expect Maher to be an expert in historical or literary analysis. But by claiming the intellectual high ground, he's set himself up for criticism when his own arguments are so shallow. Who's really promoting blind faith? In the segment on God and country, he never really gets to a point. It's scatter-shot, starting with his assertion that Jesus can't possibly have anything to do with nationalism, then a brief discussion about how the founding fathers of America weren't all Christians (no, really?), then an interview with one apparently clueless senator about the religious faith of Americans and the importance of the Ten Commandments. I suppose we're meant to think of all this that a lot of evil or deluded people are trying to connect God with America, and somehow that's bad, but nailing down anything more specific than that doesn't seem to be on the agenda. I came away feeling like he'd insulted my intelligence as a viewer, not my faith as a believer.

The film did have its bright spots. The discussion in the trucker chapel ended with some heartfelt, honest prayer and the closest thing to a compliment that Maher had to give. In his discussion with the Jesus actor at the Holy Land theme park, he actually asked some substantive questions about how God handles evil in the world and why God is so jealous. A lot more could have been said in response than we see (though Maher should have been impressed with how much the guy admitted ignorance rather than try to explain what lies beyond our understanding), and perhaps a lot more was said. There were several times when I had to question the editing. How many of the awkward pauses were fabricated by splicing in silence where a reply was actually given? (Ken Ham at a loss for words? Now that's implausible!) It's his show--I suppose it's his right to send whatever message he wants (not like he makes any claim to hard-hitting journalism). But for someone who claims to be advocating truth and reason over blind faith and manipulation, it still seems hypocritical to me.

I don't suppose there's much cause for surprise here. An agnostic who cares enough to produce a show about religion can hardly be very agnostic. One might expect that he's just as religious--just as evangelistic--as anyone he sets out to mock. But by sending such a contradictory message, he loses any opportunity he might have had to raise substantive questions for intelligent discussion. In other words, he's preaching to the choir--to his own people, who already agree with him. They get some good laughs, and then they get a rousing challenge at the end to go out there and storm the gates of heaven. Just what we need--one more religious leader shouting antagonism to his followers, and in the name of fixing what's wrong with those people. That's religulous.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

this year's evil

Just when you thought it was safe to go back into Lent . . .

One of the things we've gained from moving to Elkridge is better proximity to some discount stores. I'll save the Super Walmart that's just up the road for another rant; this time, my beef is with Aldi. If you're not familiar with this store, I can only hope you will get to know it in the deepening economic crisis that yawns before us. Ethical issues aside (I don't know, and I don't want to know), it's just plain cheap. You put in a quarter deposit to unlock your cart and get it back when you return it. (If you don't care about the quarter, someone else will.) The cashiers just chuck your groceries back in the cart as they scan, and you put the mess in bags at a counter along the wall. They carry some name-brand stuff, but a lot of items are their own.

Anyway, my wife's better at singing their praises--I'm here to complain, so let's get down to it. Not long ago--just in time for Lent, it would appear--she discovered their fruit pies. You know the type--single-packaged dough shells filled with some kind of fruit. Since they're cheap, there's nothing fancy in the crust--flour, sugar, and low-grade vegetable oil. So . . . if your definition of "oil" for lent is olive oil, there's nothing objectionable. Nothing, that is, except the decadent, well-preserved sweetness of a dessert that I didn't need to know about. Think, a jelly donut with a long shelf-life. I've tried the apple and the cherry, and even without heating them up, I can tell it's going to be hard to resist.

Now that you know, my recommendation is to stay as far away from the things as possible. If knowing makes you go get one, we'll talk again at Forgiveness Vespers.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

riding into the wind

This morning was probably the windiest ride I've had so far. Last night one of those storms blew through, where it looks like the rain is coming down in sheets, mostly sideways. Clear skies today, but it still says 25-35 mph west winds. I can believe the numbers, and west is definitely right. Rt. 1 runs SW-NE, and I was mostly riding into the wind or getting blown from the right. At points where I normally cruise downhill faster than I can pedal, I felt like I could almost coast to a stop just from the drag. Going uphill, I had to downshift a lot faster than normal and spent a lot of time in first gear. Sometimes when I'd hit an open stretch I could feel the bike wobbling, with the wind cutting across my path. It was a hard ride, but at least the wind helped keep me cool, and since the temperature today is just about right (50s all day), I was traveling light without any extra clothes.

So much for the literal meaning of today's title. The metaphorical ride into the wind refers to the mounting forces that conspire to make my commute more difficult and more expensive. On top of everything else, this morning (or rather, in the dark of night, when nothing good except Pascha happens) I got an e-mail from MTA announcing the installation of ticket machines in its rail stations. This measure "will provide increased access for ticket purchases during business hours." How convenient! Oh, wait. The e-mail is carefully crafted--it never explicitly says that ticket agents will be vanishing from most of these stations. What it does say is, "Odenton, Camden, and Brunswick Stations will have TVMs installed, and will continue to be staffed." That's a relief, but why are you telling me they will continue to be staffed? Was it ever in question? "AMTRAK Stations on the Penn Line . . . will still have ticket agents as well as TVMs. The Amtrak stations, as well as the remaining MARC stations, will continue to accept your Transit Benefits." "Remaining MARC stations?" Are some of them being torn down? Or are they talking about stations that will still have actual people working in them? So presumably this means that the oh-so-convenient machines will not accept our brand new transit vouchers (which, after all, have almost no other purpose than to accommodate the MTA). "Cash or vouchers of any kind cannot be used." Ah, there it is. So what can I do with the lovely things now? "We recommend using"

Hmm. It does turn out that you can buy single-trip tickets online, which is what I need, since they discontinued 10-trip passes. That's better than I thought. Also, there's no shipping charge if you use plain U. S. Mail. But to use the vouchers, you have to send them in after placing your order. That's at least a first-class stamp. Not to mention, you're practically sending cash both ways, so there's good reason to get insurance, which isn't free. The other option is to buy the tickets at a station that still has a manned counter. Fortunately, Union Station is one of them. I'm normally rushing from Metro to train or from train to Metro when I'm there, but I suppose my best option will be to take some time every couple of months and buy a huge wad of tickets on my way home. At least, until the next change. Whatever it is, I'm sure it will do even more to encourage the use of mass transit.

Monday, February 9, 2009

the most wonderful time of the year

No, this isn't about yet another observance of Christmas according to some obscure, ancient calendar. It's about the 17 glorious weeks (or 19, if I get really grabby) when all the Orthodox churches of the world (except Finland ) are mostly on the same calendar. It's about the Serbian and Russian bloggers talking about the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee together with the Greek and Antiochian. It's about wishing each other a blessed fast and a blessed feast, without the usual caveat that some are two weeks early and some are two weeks late. It's about celebrating the compromise that at least preserved the Traditional Paschalion in the so-called New Calendar (since when did Orthodox want anything new?), even if we still feel a twinge over the separation that exists in the fixed feasts.

Ironically, much of the reason that we even have two calendars to think about (and I do recognize that this is a rather petty sentiment on which to start the season, but I can't deny that I enjoy it nonetheless) stems from the more fundamental, the more--dare I say it--crucial point, that everything in this third of the year revolves around Pascha. Some have asked why we can't just date Pascha by astronomical observation and be done with all these artificial systems. The practical answer (leaving aside the example that even Muslims, who use direct observation, generally end up observing Ramadan on different schedules separated by a day) is another question--how do you observe the first moon of spring ten weeks ahead of time? The most important point is a center, with Great Lent looking forward and Pentecost looking back. It makes calendars more complicated, but on the issues of life and death, it is how everything falls into place.

And that's what really makes this "the most wonderful time of the year." Would that our lives were always a sober preparation of Great Lent for the coming of God to save our souls. Would that they were always a joyful anticipation of the fulfillment of the resurrection promises. For these all-too-brief weeks we pull back the veil and glimpse how the ever-rippling glory of the cross touches our lives, past and future. If we don't come away unchanged, our eyes adjust to see that glory a bit longer in each direction.

This week we remember the Publican and the Pharisee, the latter of whom was scrupulous in his obedience but forgot only one thing--that we never really measure up by what we ourselves can do. What the Publican had, and what he lacked, was a humble heart of repentance. And to remind us that the best of intentions and good works don't make us impressive in God's sight, we live this week without fasting--perhaps the only week all year that's fast-free without a specific celebration. For this rule-boy, it still doesn't feel quite right.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Reason #78 Why I'm not Patriarch of Moscow

At that time, namely in the year 988, under the rule of prince Vladimir, this newly-founded Church of Russia was placed under the canonical jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, in application of the 28th canon of the Fourth Ecumenical Council.
--Abp. IRENAIOS of Crete, Head of the Delegation of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, from his address given at the enthronement of Pat. KIRILL of Moscow

As a newbie to Orthodoxy, I may be way off base here, but this seems like a gratuitous citation of the canon, and a rather insulting one to be made at the enthronement of the new Patriarch. "Congratulations . . . look forward to working with you . . . by the way, I'm right and you're wrong."

Now, for those who might not know, relations between the Ecumenical Patriarch--that's the bishop of Constantinople--and the Patriarch of Moscow have been strained in recent years, to say the least. It's got to the point that their delegations literally cannot be in the same room with each other at what are supposed to be joint theological dialogs between the Orthodox Churches and the Roman Catholic Church. I'm not going to try to explain all of the ins and outs of the dispute. I probably don't understand it well enough myself, and I suspect it would bore most readers.

But a major point of contention in their relationship is precisely the "application of the 28th canon of the Fourth Ecumenical Council." Yes, that Fourth Ecumenical Council--the one that articulated and defended the doctrine of two natures of Christ. The Ecumencial Councils were called primarily to address major Christological issues, but while they were at it, they also dealt with more practical concerns of Church life in their time. Canon 28, if I may attempt a rough summary, re-affirmed the Ecumenical (imperial) status and prerogatives of the Patriarch of Constantinople. Included in his responsibilities was the ordination of bishops in certain areas listed in the canon. The controversial part deals with "bishops of the aforementioned dioceses who are among the barbarians." Recent Ecumenical Patriarchs have contended that this means their jurisdiction automatically extends to any "barbaric" area where an independent Orthodox Church is not already established. Moscow Patriarchs (and others) have preferred a more limited reading of the canon--that it applied to the specific territories mentioned and the specific political circumstances of the Empire.

The practical outcome of these competing interpretations is that Constantinople claims jurisdiction in a particular area because of the canon, while Moscow claims jurisdiction in the same area because of history and common sense. Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Empire in the 15th c., around the same time that Moscow was coming into its own as capital of the Russian Empire. Over the next four centuries or so, Orthodox existence was largely defined by these two Empires. Russia became the default protector of Orthodoxy in many parts of the world, and missionary activity of the Russian Church pushed eastward, all the way into North America. Around the beginning of the 20th c., things changed dramatically, when both Empires collapsed. Waves of emigration from various parts of the Orthodox world brought different ethnic groups into closer contact, far removed geographically from their home churches. Waves of nationalism also swept through the states newly freed from imperial rule, with often controversial claims of ecclesiastical independence. As it suffered under Communism, the Russian Church could no longer oversee much of what it had in the past. At the same time, as Orthodox fled the historic territory of the Ecumenical Patriarch, and the new, secular government of Turkey took an even more hostile stance than that of the Ottoman Empire, the Patriarch looked to the Greek Diaspora in the West for strength.

Today, Orthodoxy in the West is a patchwork of ethnic jurisdictions. Vestiges of the multinational administrations set up by Imperial Russia no longer have a real claim on territorial unity. Constantinople has had little success convincing anyone of its canonical claims, but it retains control of the populous Greek churches and thus champions the status quo of divided, ethnic structures. Meanwhile, in the post-Communist bloc, fragmenting states and overblown nationalism make fertile ground for schism. Those who fear the West cling to their associations with Moscow, including church jurisdiction; those who fear Russia are quick to set up their own independent churches, either by simply striking out on their own (without recognition from any other Orthodox church) or by appealing to Constantinople.

One bright spot in all of this came a few months back at the anniversary celebration of Orthodoxy in Kiev. There, competing churches abound, but so far the Ecumenical Patriarch has refused to endorse any of them. Instead, he and the Patriarch of Moscow concelebrated, and disaster was averted.

I digress, but hopefully it's of some use to show what a slap this citation of canon 28 could be. I would guess that Pat. KIRILL expected no less and let it go by. He has decades of experience working with other churches, so I can't imagine there's much that would surprise him. The Western press, when it has paid any attention at all to the election and enthronement of the new Patriarch, has mostly been interested in what it means for relations between Russian Orthodoxy and the Roman Catholic Church. Personally, I'm much more interested in what it means for relationships within Orthodoxy--specifically, for that between Moscow and Constantinople. It's a very complicated situation, and I don't profess to understand it fully or to have any substantive answers. But it's a sad testimony to the ways that human fear and pride upset the unity of Christ, and I pray every day that resolution will come quickly.