Everything is beautiful in a person when he turns toward God, and everything is ugly when it is turned away from God.
- Fr. Pavel Florensky
The quote above has had, for some reason, a significant impact on my life. I read it only recently on Father Stephen’s blog Glory to God for All Things and somehow it brought a new element of lightness and joy into my life. It made the idea of repentance as turning towards God and the idea of God as light much clearer to me. It is funny how sometimes the most esoteric statements can be the most helpful.
Now I have started to wonder whether the statement works in reverse: whether all that is beautiful in a person is turned towards God. Some Christian apologetics seem to believe so. In his book Orthodoxy G.K. Chesterton describes all good and pleasurable things in this world as treasures rescued from the shipwreck that was the Fall. In C.S. Lewis’s The Last Battle, the last novel in the Narnia series, Aslan tells Emeth that all the service he had done to Tash, Aslan accounts as service done to himself.
I’ve been testing this against situations I encounter and so far the theory has held water. In some mysterious way it seems to explain how the same action in one situation is “righteous” and “unrighteous” in another. A few examples regarding fasting:
• Fasting on Holy Friday is a beautiful act of compassion and participation. Feasting on Pascha is a beautiful act of celebration of the Resurrection of Christ. Feasting on Holy Friday – not so beautiful. Fasting on Pascha – not so beautiful (at least in my opinion, and if I read my Bible correctly, not in Christ’s opinion either).
• Fasting as a sign of obedience and respect – a beautiful act. Fasting with a “holier than though attitude” – not so beautiful.
• Breaking the fast even if you desire to keep it to accommodate a visitor on the Atkins diet – a beautiful act? Inviting you Atkins-following friend always on Fridays so that you have an excuse not to fast-not so beautiful.
Seems to work here? How about other areas of life, attending services for example?
• If a parent skips services to attend to his or her child (or spouse, or parent, or neighbor…) who needs attention, I see that as a beautiful act of parenthood and could see that being turning simultaneously towards God and your neighbor. Always skipping services even to stay home with your family, irrespective of what the surrounding situation is – not so beautiful.
I still need to do more thinking about this, but this interpretation would seems shed light to the grey areas in our lives where we ,actually do spend most of our time. It might also give guidance on how to put into action St. Paul’s words about the lawfulness and profitability of things.
All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any. - 1 Corinthians 6:12
Do I find this compelling because I find it easier to recognize what is beautiful rather than what is “right”? Or that, ultimately, it is more important that an act is beautiful rather than right or just in our eyes?
Friday, June 4, 2010
An Orthodox Church on any given Sunday
This one is St. Seraphim's Cathedral in Dallas, Texas
A colleague was describing a wedding she will be attending soon. The bride and groom have placed very strict limitations on the person officiating the ceremony. One of the stipulations was that the ceremony should not last more than 15 minutes "because I guess the people will be standing throughout the ceremony".
I managed not to say anything.
Thursday, June 3, 2010
This past Sunday, a dear friend of mine was chrismated, that is received into the Orthodox Church. His journey to Orthodoxy has been a deliberate and thorough examination of the differences between the Orthodox faith and Catholicism, which is the tradition he grew up in.
Often, those not actively participating any organized form of Christianity are put off by the divisions within the different Christian denominations. Two issues seem to come up repeatedly:
- Isn't it the same God that is worshipped by all Christians? Why all these different denominations? Isn't one church as good as the other?
- Why it is necessary to participate in organized religion at all? Doesn't everyone have their own personal relationship with God? What do you need the church for? Why isn't praying at home by myself enough?
These are good questions and really go to the heart of what it means to become a member of any particular church. Why was it necessary for Ryan to leave the Catholic Church in which he was brought up and become an 'Orthodox' Christian? Why did I find very little that to me seemed real or appealing as I grew up attending, once in a while, the Lutheran Church, and yet found something very compelling in the Orthodox Church? Ryan has a cute (sorry, Ryan) allegory on his blog My Odyssey: A Journey East about why he felt he needed to attend the Orthod Church. Basically, the crux is that John Lennon is great but he is even more amazing within the context of The Beatles. He speaks of the fullness of faith that has been retained in the Orthodox Church. It is this same fullness that I experienced when I first started attending Orthodox Liturgy. It is fullness both of theology and of worship. Another friend-another Ryan-tells a similar story but from an evangelical perspective on his blog Gradually Brightened.
As part of each Sunday's Liturgy we sing, "we have seen the true light, we have received the heavenly Spirit, we have found the true Faith." As Father Stephen emphasizes in his blog post We Have Seen, that "Dogma is not an argument over ideas, but a statement that guards the Apostolic witness (which is living and true)." We sing these words with joy, gratitude and humility instead of as fighting words to be hurled like spears at Christians of other denominations. At each vesper service we also sing: "Preserve, oh God, the Holy Orthodox Faith of Orthodox Christian unto the ages of ages." Having this as part of the service seems to me infinitely wise. It is the recognition by the Church Fathers that even though the Church is established by Christ and handed down to us from the apostles through our bishops in direct succession, it still exists within the fallen world and is threatened by the same corruption as everything else. So we pray each night for God to preserve this treasure that is the Liturgy and the sacraments-the outward manifestations of the True Faith that was revealed over 2000 years ago.
Secondly, the church was established to guide us on how to create a "right" relationships with God and with each other. Therefore it is extremely important what each church's teachings are on these issues. As members of a Christian church we become ambassadors of God' Kingdom for others. How each church defines the goal of our lives has huge implications on our day-to-day life. According to the Orthodox Church, it is not the goal of our lives to become "good people" in worldly terms. Neither is it to save the world (Christ already did that). The goal is to turn towards God, to have a change of heart, to become holy, to become Christ-like. And until this happens all the social programs we develop, all social utopias we conceive are temporary, of this world. (And can easily be destroyed by a small group of hell-bent individuals). This is of course not an excuse for individuals to ignore what happens in the world around them. (Here I am going to use the old grad student cop-out: "but that is beyond the scope of this blog post". But, naturally Father Stephen has interesting things to say).
The second question regarding the need for organized religion gets a little bit more complicated, I think, because the answer would have to be Yes and No. Some lucky individuals, I guess, feel God's presence so strongly all the time that they need no help. But I believe those people are few and far between. Even the saints often went through years, even decades, when they felt abandoned by the Holy Spirit. It is the teachings of the Church Fathers, the Tradition of the Church and the community of saints that help us over these dry spells. And when you feel too weak even to pray, you can be sure that there are others who are praying on your behalf. So, even if some lucky individuals truly do not need the Church (which I in fact doubt) there are a multitude of others who not only need the Church but they also need others to participate in that same church. It was for ALL that the Church was established.
It is this Church that makes the eucharistic sacrifice (communion) each Sunday "on behalf of all and for all", that Ryan was received into. I was delighted and honored but also humbled to become Ryan's godmother at his Chrismation. But, as a godparent, especially to an adult, what can I bring to the table? His journey to the Orthodox Church was a lot more thorough and deliberate than mine was. I am also not a church historian or a theologian. (Luckily his godfather, Stephen, more than makes up for my ignorance in this area). What do I have that I can impart of this treasure that is Orthodoxy? The only things I can think of is sharing my relatively extensive collection of Orthodx literature and bringing baked goods when appropriate. But most importantly, perhaps, I can share the joy that I feel about what I know about our God, our faith and our church.
Wednesday, June 2, 2010
When I put Sasha to sleep at night, I usually lie down next to him and as part of the evening "ritual" I say a prayer. Recently Sasha has started whispering his own prayer while I recite mine.
It goes like this: "I love you, Mommy. I love you, Guardian Angel. I love you, Mommy. I love you, Guardian Angel. I love you, Mommy. I love you, Guardian Angel..."
Perhaps this prayer cannot be found in any Orthodox prayer books, but I think it is just fine for now!