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.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

St. John Cassian on vainglory

St. John Cassian's seventh principal fault is one of the most frustrating, in that almost everything we might do to avoid it is equally susceptible to the same temptation:
For where the devil cannot create vainglory in a man by means of his well-fitting and neat dress, he tries to introduce it by means of a dirty, cheap, and uncared-for style. If he cannot drag a man down by honour, he overthrows him by humility. If he cannot make him puffed up by the grace of knowledge and eloquence, he pulls him down by the weight of silence. If a man fasts openly, he is attacked by the pride of vanity. If he conceals it for the sake of despising the glory of it, he is assailed by the same sin of pride. In order that he may not be defiled by the stains of vainglory he avoids making long prayers in the sight of the brethren; and yet because he offers them secretly and has no one who is conscious of it, he does not escape the pride of vanity.

What, then, is to be done? St. Cassian advises the following steps:
  1. Think "on that saying of David: 'The Lord hath scattered the bones of those who please men.' . . . consider that we shall not merely lose the fruits of those labours of ours which we have performed at the suggestion of vainglory, but that we shall also be guilty of a great sin, and as impious persons undergo eternal punishments, inasmuch as we have wronged God by doing for the favour of men what we ought to have done for His sake, and are convicted by Him who knows all secrets of having preferred men to God, and the praise of the world to the praise of the Lord."
  2. Do not allow yourself "to do anything at the suggestion of vanity, and for the sake of obtaining vainglory." Often this is easier said than done, and it requires that we constantly examine our motives. If we see that we are doing something for the wrong reason, this is probably a good occasion to cut off our own desires.
  3. When you have begun a thing well, "endeavour to maintain it with just the same care, for fear lest afterwards the malady of vainglory should creep in and make void all the fruits of our labours." Here's the real trick. Once you've started something, even if it was for the right motive to begin with, it's so easy to drift into doing it for the wrong reasons, or to welcome the praise that comes from others. It seems to take even more vigilance here than in starting something new, and I'm really not sure what the best strategy is to apply when we realize we've slipped. Stop doing whatever it is? Or is it enough to acknowledge and repent of the vainglory that has crept in?
  4. Avoid as leading to boasting "anything which is of very little use or value in the common life of the brethren." Again, the particular context of his remarks is a monastery, but the principle applies in other walks of life. If we're doing something that is of little use to anyone else, we're probably doing it just for the sense of accomplishment. This is a hard thing. We're used to climbing the mountain because it's there, or studying humanities for the pure intellectual challenge, or striving in athletics just to beat our own personal best. I think it is possible and appropriate to do things for sheer joy, but if that joy is not centered on God, we too easily drift into pride.
  5. Shun "whatever would render us remarkable amongst the others, and for which credit would be gained among men, as if we were the only people who could do it." This is another thing that's difficult even to pursue. If I can sing well, shouldn't I sing out? If I can fix things, shouldn't I look for ways to serve others with my ability? What about all the parables that teach us to make the best use of what we're given? Isn't it squandering God's gifts if we don't use our unique abilities? But the danger is very real, because if we're not truly using them for Christ, it's worthless--even worse than worthless.
It still leaves a lot of questions unanswered. But it's a start. Somehow, I think a major part of the battle (not necessarily half) is learning to examine even the most basic things that we do and the motives for which we do them. If we get no further than weeping over our sinful addiction to vainglory, we're still better off than before. And the silver lining (if there is one) is that this all-pervasive temptation can yield an element of humility that permeates everything we do. However much I may think I have my act together, I am never more than a blink away from sin. What cause does that leave me for pride?

The Elkridge Blessing (Part 2)

The pics are finally available from the Theophany service at Ss. Peter and Paul chapel and the blessing of Rockburn Branch. Dcn. Michael has been having issues with his site, but it's nice that at least they're up before the end of winter. I'm easier to spot in the outdoor shots with my bright green coat than the indoor.

Monday, March 9, 2009

St. John Cassian on fasting

In what amounts to a mostly selfish series of posts (as if anything about my blogging is not), I'm going to try to compile what I find to be some of the more useful remarks in St. John Cassian's books on the eight principal faults. By "useful" I mean, useful to me--undoubtedly, much that is useful to others will not make the cut. What's more, I don't even mean this in the sense of everything that is useful in his books, but mostly what doesn't stick in my head quite as easily, so that I might derive some particular benefit from writing it down. This latter qualification is emphatic, because it has the unfortunate effect of omitting some of the most important points. But precisely because they are so important, they are addressed in almost everything written or said about these subjects, so that I'm constantly reminded of them. The more mundane bits that I'm collecting here are probably less emphasized for good reason.

I should also clarify what St. Cassian's writings are about. He spent a good deal of time traveling throughout the Egyptian deserts, visiting monks in various places to glean their wisdom and practices and distill it all into some useful guidance for monasteries in western Europe. Of course, his writings are directed at monastics, and as such, will not always apply directly to laymen. But as long as we're careful to account for the difference in life situation, we can still glean a lot. After all, the fundamental point of monasticism is not to be different from everyone else, but simply to follow Christ.

We are in Great Lent, and the first fault St. Cassian addresses is gluttony, so fasting seems a logical place to start. There is a wealth contained in this little book, but I keep coming back mostly to the how-to parts. Fasting, of course, cannot succeed in isolation. The other principal faults must be addressed as well, which is why he doesn't stop here. Furthermore, fasting never works as an end in itself. The real objective is to make eating a less significant part of life, in light of more important things:
First then we must trample under foot gluttonous desires, and to this end the mind must be reduced not only by fasting, but also by vigils, by reading, and by frequent compunction of heart for those things in which perhaps it recollects that it has been deceived or overcome, sighing at one time with horror at sin, at another time inflamed with the desire of perfection and saintliness: until it is fully occupied and possessed by such cares and meditations, and recognizes the participation of food to be not so much a concession to pleasure, as a burden laid upon it; and considers it to be rather a necessity for the body than anything desirable for the soul. . . . And so at length we may enter on the course of our life, so that there may be no time in which we feel that we are recalled from our spiritual studies, further than when we are obliged by the weakness of the body to descend for the needful care of it. And when we are subjected to this necessity—of attending to the wants of life rather than the desires, of the soul—we should hasten to withdraw as quickly as possible from it, as if it kept us back from really health-giving studies. For we cannot possibly scorn the gratification of food presented to us, unless the mind is fixed on the contemplation of divine things, and is the rather entranced with the love of virtue and the delight of things celestial. And so a man will despise all things present as transitory, when he has securely fixed his mental gaze on, those things which are immovable and eternal, and already contemplates in heart—though still in the flesh—the blessedness of his future life.

We don't have to look hard to find examples of this principle. My son could practically starve himself to death if he were having enough fun doing other things. Get him playing with friends, or even other kids he just met, and it's almost impossible to drag him over to the table to eat for five minutes. Personally, I've ended up skipping lunch for a lot of reasons in my life--mostly because I had other things that I considered more important. In high school, dropping my lunch period made my schedule flexible enough to take the classes that I wanted. In various jobs, I've skipped lunch so I could leave early or go for a walk or get caught up on something--but it's always easiest to do when I have something to occupy my time instead of eating.

The point, then, is that fasting should not be a mere vacuum in our daily routine. I used to eat at this time--now I just sit around and think about food. Rather, it should be a zeal for our spiritual life that so consumes our efforts and focus that we consider food a distraction and an annoyance. Now, one application of this, I think, is that eating should be more interactive. There are plenty of stories in St. John Cassian and in other monastic writers about elders and hermits who would only eat when they had someone to share a meal with, or about breaking their usual fasting rule to offer hospitality to a guest. Eating has always had a social component to it, and it seems clear that that component should be more important than whatever of my own bodily desires are met by eating.

A guideline that I've toyed with but never really followed very well goes something like this--eat together with others; if no such opportunity arises, then eat when you must, due to hunger. Like anything else, there's still plenty of room to manipulate this kind of principle. The point isn't to seek out parties or to make your friends a means to an end. (No, I really don't care much for you, but you're as good an excuse as any to eat.) Maybe it's a principle that makes sense to me, because I'm not a very social person to begin with. Maybe it just needs to be explicated that part of the pursuit of the spiritual life involves a healthy level of solitude.

This overarching principle of priority leads into the next excerpt:
A monk therefore who wants to proceed to the struggle of interior conflicts should lay down this as a precaution for himself to begin with: viz.: that he will not in any case allow himself to be overcome by any delicacies, or take anything to eat or drink before the fast is over and the proper hour for refreshment has come, outside meal times; nor, when the meal is over, will he allow himself to take a morsel however small; and likewise that he will observe the canonical time and measure of sleep.
The context is in a monastery, where meal times and sleep times are carefully regulated. So the point here is, eat when it's time, with no snacking in between. This means, of course, that you will be eating together with the rest of the community, not based on your own biological urges. No one's going to starve by following this kind of rule. You might be hungry for a while, but you'll make it to the next meal time and eat whatever you need.

In a home where meal times are well-established, this rule could be applied pretty directly and probably is in many of them. We let our kids snack, but when we know it's coming up on a meal time, we make them wait. To them, it may seem like they really are starving to death, but it's a start in the process of learning discipline. Where meal times are less well-established, things can get a bit more complicated. But again, I think the general rule is, eat regular meals rather than snacking. Eat together if possible rather than alone.

Finally, some remarks on the type of food that we eat:
We should then choose for our food, not only that which moderates the heat of burning lust, and avoids kindling it; but what is easily got ready, and what is recommended by its cheapness, and is suitable to the life of the brethren and their common use. For the nature of gluttony is threefold: first, there is that which forces us to anticipate the proper hour for a meal, next that which delights in stuffing the stomach, and gorging all kinds of food; thirdly, that which takes pleasure in more refined and delicate feasting. And so against it a monk should observe a threefold watch: first, he should wait till the proper time for breaking the fast; secondly, he should not give way to gorging; thirdly, he should be contented with any of the commoner sorts of food.

Now, I'm no expert on what food "moderates the heat of burning lust," though if I recall correctly, that's at least part of the point of abstaining from meat and dairy as per the regular canonical fasting routine. My interest here is in the rest of what he has to say--the food we eat should generally be cheap, easy to prepare, and of common use. Now, when he says "common" here, I don't think he's exclusively talking about the avoidance of delicacies, though that's certainly something he has in view throughout. But he goes on to talk about those who want to eat a diet of beans or vegetables, rather than bread. There are many of the desert fathers who were known to subsist on such things, but my take on this is that it's a difference of communal life versus the life of a hermit. Many of the hermits would live on whatever they could forage around their dwellings. Presumably in a communal setting such a departure from the normal rule would require that someone make an extraordinary effort to get the alternate ingredients. In such cases, the best course is to accept whatever makes the most sense for the group; choosing to do otherwise could be a sign of vainglory (more on this later).

I sometimes struggle with this point, because what's cheap and easy in our culture is usually more processed, less healthy, and less basic. Because I generally fast alone, anything else would also mean preparing my own meals, buying a lot of special ingredients, and generally focusing a lot more attention on food than I do right now. Opening up a can of beans and a box of Triscuits is, quite simply, the best sort of meal preparation to keep from getting too obsessive about food. Another rule that I would say applies here is to eat leftovers. Don't get your heart set on whatever you know is in the cupboard, when there's something else that needs to be eaten up before it goes bad.

So, to boil down my personal application of these basic guidelines (again, what I'm shooting for, not where I am right now), I have in mind the following principles:
  • Focus on spiritual development, so that eating in itself is treated as a distraction from what's really important.
  • Don't snack--eat actual meals as necessary.
  • When possible, eat at regular mealtimes with the family, and eat whatever is provided.
  • Otherwise, choose food that is cheap, easy to procure, and easy to prepare; start with leftovers.
  • If there's no opportunity to eat with others, eat alone when hunger requires it; usually this means eating late in the day, when you know with more certainty that you need to eat alone.
The other point with all of this that I need to work on is controlling how much I eat at a time. Here the basic rule that almost everyone gives is to eat enough so you're not actually full. To some degree it's trial-and-error, but that's also where a lack of variety can help. For one thing, you're less likely to stuff yourself if the food just isn't that interesting. For another, you start to learn how much is the right amount to eat.