a mysterious sanctuary where we are inseparably joined to God

And so there is, over and beyond our faculties, at the point where they originate, a mysterious sanctuary where we are inseparably joined to God and maintained by him upon the abyss of void, posed as a living mirror of his life and being. In this mirror, beyond habitual consciousness, our interior gaze meets that of our Creator, outside the confines of space and time.

From The Song That I Am: On the Mystery of Music by Elisabeth-Paule Labat (translated by Erik Varden).

This passage was a generous gift this morning from a mother in the faith. I love this description of a “mysterious sanctuary” existing at “the point where our faculties originate” in which “we are inseparably joined to God and maintained by Him” and also where “our interior gaze meets that of our Creator.” In the last line, however, I would suggest that “outside the confines of space and time” should be amended to say “deeply within the confines of space and time.” Three realities indicate that our union with God is bodily (and therefore profoundly within the confines space and time):

  1. our being made in God’s image,
  2. the incarnation of God the Son (the Logos) as Jesus Christ,
  3. and the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ to ascend into heaven and to be seated on the throne of God.

God placed us in time and space as a means of communion with Him (who transcends time and space). Within the Christian tradition, I’ve read of three ways in which our communion with God is strictly within time and space:

  1. God is only in the present moment. The present is the only time in which we touch God’s eternity and commune with Him. We can be lead astray from God into the past (nostalgia or pride) or the future (worry or hubris). There are right relationships with the past (gratitude) and the future (hope) but only when we are grounded in our present communion with God.
  2. God only meets with us in our particular place (via our bodies and the material world that we inhabit). All of creation is designed to be sacramental and to bring our bodies into communion with God. Material things of all kinds (from the waters of baptism to the bones of saints) can carry great sanctity and be the gracious means of God’s communion with us.
  3. God stands at the door of our heart and knocks. All the saints who speak of communion with God in prayer speak of it as an inward but still clearly an embodied experience (or vision) of transcendent and unifying love, heat, or light. “To stand guard over the heart, to stand with the mind in the heart, to descend from the head to the heart—all these are one and the same thing.” Our intuitive perception of eternal or ultimate truth and love are from the heart (a perceptive capacity that is called the nous). Our intellect (in our head) can perceive with bodily senses and can analyze these perceptions using rational thoughts. Our passions or desires were long associated with the stomach or liver. In between these upper and lower faculties is the heart. C.S. Lewis describes modern people as having become “men without chests” (in The Abolition of Man) because we have lost this middle capacity that unifies our thoughts and feelings with an intuitive inner vision of God’s love. This nous in our heart sees immaterial things, but it still has a strong association with a particular part of our body. Some desert fathers were very specific: “not in the head but in the chest, close to the heart and in the heart …close to the left nipple of the chest and a little above it.” (This quotation and the one near the start of this bullet point are from The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology, edited by E. Kadloubovsky and E. M. Palmer, which I posted about here.)

Therefore, to enter this “mysterious sanctuary” wherein “our interior gaze meets that of our Creator,” we must not let our minds or our feelings run freely. We must “descend into our heart” or “stand guard over our heart” and listen quietly there for God. This is not an emptying of our intellect; it is not a denial or leaving of our body; it is not an insensibility to the surrounding world or to the input of our five senses. Instead, this communion with God in the quietness of our hearts unifies and fills all of these other things. Out nous allows all of our other faculties (sensations, thoughts, and feelings) to be made potent and meaningful while remaining only supportive agents of our primary purpose: this steady gazing and quiet listening of our heart’s interior ears and eyes. There we may learn to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8).

True, at this table of the Lord, we do feast outside of time with those from many other places and many others times. However, all of us gathered there are doing so within each of our hearts in the reality of our particular places and our present moments. In doing so, we mysteriously bring together many particular times and places—transcending, unifying, and sanctifying these places and times without discarding or annihilating them. Each present time and unique material place gives access to the throne of God, where all times and places have their origins and find their true identities.

only lover of humankind

Every now and then I guess we all think realistically (Yes, sir) about that day when we will be victimized with what is life’s final common denominator—that something that we call death. …If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don’t want a long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long. (Yes) …I’d like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody.

Christian heroes such as Martin Luther King, Jr. are a blessing and a model of sacrificial love amid our suffering as we see in this sermon (called “The Drum Major Instinct”) delivered by Dr. King at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Ga. on February 4—exactly one month before Dr. King was shot and killed.

As we each “try to love somebody” in this life, it is such a comfort (and our only sure help) to begin experiencing the love of the only one who succeeded fully in loving us. Ancient Christian prayers frequently describe Jesus Christ as “the only lover of humankind” (µόνε Φιλάνθρωπε). As wonderful as it is to love others and to see great examples of love, we all know that we fail to love ourselves and each other. May we each grow in our understanding of the love that Jesus Christ has for each of us so that we can continue in our own efforts to love.

If you do not have references to Jesus Christ as “the only lover of mankind” within your own devotional materials, consider adding this title for Jesus into your regular prayers and hymns. It is such a valuable reminder in the course of our daily walks with Him that He is the only one who perfectly loves us and all others. Here is one example of this phrase from the Resurrection Apolytikion (Dismissal Hymn):

You arose, O three-day Savior, granting life to the world.
For this reason the Powers of heaven are crying out to You the Giver of Life:
Glory to Your Resurrection, O Christ,
Glory to Your Kingdom,
Glory to Your plan of salvation,
O only Lover of Humanity.

There are many other examples of such language within ancient Christian prayers and hymns. Here is one other:

O Lord, lover of the souls of men, who prayed for those who crucified you, and who commanded your servants to pray for their enemies, forgive those who hate and mistreat us, and turn our lives from all harm and evil to brotherly love and good works. For this we humbly bring our prayer, that with one accord and one heart we may glorify you, who alone love mankind. [From a A Manual of Eastern Orthodox Prayers by St Vladimir’s Seminary Press.]

With Dr. King, may we have this comfort of coming to know God’s love for us. Dr. King closed his sermon at the Ebenezer Baptist Church on February 4 with this hope:

Yes, Jesus, I want to be on your right or your left side, (Yes) not for any selfish reason. I want to be on your right or your left side, not in terms of some political kingdom or ambition. But I just want to be there in love….

the-crucifixion-with-mary-and-probably-mary-magdalene-1

Illustration of the Crucifixion with Mary and probably Mary Magdalene from an 18th century Ethiopian Psalter [St Andrews University call number: ms38900].

God—sheltered by humanity

Elizabeth

After a lifetime outcast as childless,
she gave home to one who should not
have been with child.

God—sheltered by humanity—first heard
welcome from two women proclaiming
over unborn children.

Still questioned by her kin, speaking her
child’s name, they called to confirm it
with her silenced husband.

Her boy “grew and became strong in spirit,
and was in the deserts till the day
of his manifestation.”

Wound in wilderness and bearing his
mother’s barrenness, he had learned
from her to wait, with his last breath,
for the greater one. Watching since
the womb, he decreased willingly
and died asking: “Is this, now,
God’s Kingdom?”

Even before her son, her heart knew of swords
and losses, and (even then) she returned
thanks and consolation.

She believed that God’s Kingdom was
for such as these, and she knows now
what His love has conquered.

a secret weapon within our divine image

When God made us in His divine image, this included a hidden divine capacity that has been revealed and perfected by Jesus Christ as our salvation. This secret weapon carried within our divine image is God’s humility and His joyful willingness to suffer. We correctly describe God as infinite and omnipotent, but He is capable of smallness to the point of death. This voluntary suffering and humiliation cannot be comprehended by the demons, and the Devil’s schemes still do not account for this factor in God’s nature. Satan’s mighty efforts are all completely undone by God’s ability to be small and to suffer. Another way to say this is that God values communion (shared life) over glory (while Satan values glory over all else). Ultimately, glory and beauty are revealed as being built upon deeper truths that we cannot typically see. In God, strength, beauty, and glory are built upon voluntary (and hidden) weakness, homeliness, and humility.

What Jesus Christ does is to join divine life and love with human sin and death (as both the first complete human and also fully God). By making humans in His own image, God made possible this seemingly impossible union between His divinity and human suffering. This hidden feature of our design (completed by Jesus Christ) means that we find God perfectly united with us only within our greatest points of need, powerlessness, suffering, and death. What Satan did not realize about divine or human nature is that they were compatible to the point that God remains all-powerful even as a dead human. Furthermore, because of Christ’s death and resurrection, humans can now be united to the fullness of God’s life only in their own deaths. This entirely undoes the schemes of Satan from the inside out (or from the final objective backwards).

Jesus Christ both accomplishes this union of divine life to human death and also shows each of us how to participate in this union. As Scott Cairns writes in The End of Suffering:

He did not come simply to rid the Jews of the oppressive Romans any more than He came to trump the other oppressive circumstances that His oddly beloved creatures have continued to construct for themselves and others. On the contrary, He came to suffer the results of those cosmic bad choices with us, and by so doing to both show us how we might survive them and to enable our survival—in Himself.

He did not come here to undo our choices, but to move through them victoriously, and to show us how we might likewise move. He did not come to eclipse us, or to overrule our persons. On the contrary, He came to endow our persons with the self-same unending life.

“I now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, for the sake of His body, which is the church” (Col. 1:24).

…A more likely translation seems to me to be “what is yet to be done.”

…What the fathers and mothers of the church have taught me is that inevitably each of us will, in one or in a number of ways, partake of Christ’s suffering, and that these experiences will help us to apprehend all the more how we are both joined to Him and how we are joined to each other.

We may well have occasion to ask—as Christ Himself asked—that the cup be taken away, but we will fare far better if that request is followed by “yet not my will, but Your will be done.” We will fare far better if, like the Theotokos, we answer the call of the messenger, saying, “Behold the servant of the Lord. Let it be done to me according to your word.”

…In mystical synergia, He collaborates with His Body, now and ever. In appalling condescension, He remains Emmanuel, God with us. Whereas we had brought only death and brokenness to that mix, He has brought life and wholeness.

As I’ve written in an earlier post:

Saint John Chrysostom said in his Paschal Sermon: “Hell was embittered, when it encountered Thee in the lower regions. …It took a dead body, and met God face to face. It took earth, and encountered Heaven.” God’s glorious and all-powerful strategy has always been to enter death itself, to find us at our weakest point and to join us there. Maximus the Confessor said: “Christ, the captain of our salvation, turned death from a weapon to destroy human nature into a weapon to destroy sin” (from Ad Thalassium 61 “On the Legacy of Adam’s Transgression”). By becoming our sin (2 Corinthians 5:21) and entering death with us, Christ transformed death into something life-giving. Maximus further says that “the baptized acquires the use of death to condemn sin.” By joining with us at our weakest point, Christ gives suffering and death back to us as great weapons against the ravages of our soul sickness and sin.

In all this, it helps to recall that sin is not primarily about legal guilt. Sin is primarily about a desire for (and an aiming at) anything other than God’s love (for which we are made and which is the only thing that enables us to fully become the unique person we are made to be). Sin is therefore a desire for anything apart from its communication of God’s love (which is a desire for a lie because all created things communicate the Creator’s love). Sin is an inclination toward (or a step toward) a falsehood and the unmaking of our unique personhood—that is our death. However, Jesus Christ has gotten to the end of this road before us. Jesus united God’s own fullness to our final self-annihilation and carried God’s life into our grave. God has met us at the very end of our desperate flight away from Him. This has made voluntary death into our ultimate weapon against sin (our tool for learning to find and to know God’s love). We are not to pursue our death, but we do accept our death as the end of our failures and as the means by which we can be united to God’s life.

Therefore, in this Advent season, do not fear smallness and suffering. Instead, wait to find God within your own smallness and suffering just as the shepherds and the wise men found Him come to us all as a baby and a refugee.

Willis Run Soliloquy

I caress each stone, brick, root, turtle, and grocery bag that rests in my slow, shaded pools, and I taste each rock quarry dredging that muddies my current. I hold everything—from every side—within my moving waters, and I search out the interior scents and textures of all that touches me. Each moment, all my waters shimmer in a vivid curtain of eddies—from my source-springs to my mouth.

Every Spring, Great White Egrets and Black-crowned Night Herons nest beside me, bringing far-off photographers. Just upstream, my bedrock is dynamited weekly for limestone, carving a crater hundreds of feet below my water table. But all the tomorrows carry their worries without me, just like the dead who cover Prospect Hill. Only my angel remembers the millennia of life and landscapes that have shared in my song as it has played over my bedrock since it was first given a shape to hold me.

[Note: this is my try at something that I’ve assigned to some eighth grade students: “Students must write, memorize, and deliver a one minute soliloquy as Willis Run (a local stream that they will learn about and visit in person). Students will be given time and support to create a compelling and believable personality for Willis Run as they personify this stream and speak in its voice.”]

Catechism of Medieval and Renaissance Literature

Table of Contents:

  1. Question One: What is God like?
  2. Question Two: What is creation like?
  3. Question Three: What are humans like?

Note: This Catechism of Medieval and Renaissance Literature is for an 8th grade literature class that I’m teaching. (Subject to Revision)

Question One: What is God like?

John, the exile on Patmos, says:

Around the throne, on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with the face of a man, and the fourth living creature like an eagle in flight. And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within, and day and night they never cease to say:

“Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!”

And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to him who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives forever and ever. They cast their crowns before the throne, saying:

“Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.”

We moderns do not associate consistency with liveliness and power, but medievals understood God to be perfectly consistent because He is completely and powerfully alive. As the colossal G.K. Chesterton says:

It is supposed that if a thing goes on repeating itself it is probably dead; a piece of clockwork. People feel that if the universe was personal it would vary; if the sun were alive it would dance. This is a fallacy. …The variation in human affairs is generally brought into them, not by life, but by death; by the dying down or breaking off of their strength or desire. A man varies his movements because of some slight element of failure or fatigue. …If his life and joy were so gigantic that he never tired of going to Islington, he might go to Islington as regularly as the Thames goes to Sheerness. The very speed and ecstasy of his life would have the stillness of death. The sun rises every morning. I do not rise every morning; but the variation is due not to my activity, but to my inaction. …The sun rises regularly because he never gets tired of rising.

…A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.

Although consistent, the true God is also mysterious and surrounded by paradox, as G.K. Chesterton further says:

Christianity alone felt that God, to be wholly God, must have been a rebel as well as a king. Alone of all creeds, Christianity has added courage to the virtues of the Creator. For the only courage worth calling courage must necessarily mean that the soul passes a breaking point — and does not break. …In a garden Satan tempted man: and in a garden God tempted God. He passed in some superhuman manner through our human horror of pessimism. When the world shook and the sun was wiped out of heaven, it was not at the crucifixion, but at the cry from the cross: the cry which confessed that God was forsaken of God. And now let the revolutionists choose a creed from all the creeds and a god from all the gods of the world. …They will not find another god who has himself been in revolt. Nay (the matter grows too difficult for human speech), but let the atheists themselves choose a god. They will find only one divinity who ever uttered their isolation; only one religion in which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist.

Question Two: What is creation like?

As G.K. Chesterton says:

In a hundred forms we are told that heaven and earth were once lovers, or were once at one, when some upstart thing, often some undutiful child, thrust them apart; and the world was built on an abyss; upon a division and a parting.

As Jesus says:

I tell you, if those singing praises to me become silent, the stones will cry out!

As one of the psalmist says:

All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.
Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth;
break forth into joyous song and sing praises!
…Let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
the world and those who dwell in it!
Let the rivers clap their hands;
let the hills sing for joy together.

As King David said:

The heavens are telling of the glory of God;
And their expanse is declaring the work of His hands.
Day to day pours forth speech,
And night to night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
Their voice is not heard.
Their line has gone out through all the earth,
And their utterances to the end of the world.
In them He has placed a tent for the sun,
Which is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber;
It rejoices as a strong man to run his course.

As Isaiah the prophet says:

The mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.

As the Lord God says to Job:

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell Me, if you have understanding,
Who set its measurements? Since you know.
Or who stretched the line on it?
On what were its bases sunk?
Or who laid its cornerstone,
When the morning stars sang together
And all the sons of God shouted for joy?

As John of Damascus, a Syrian monk, says:

I honor all matter, and venerate it. Through it, filled, as it were, with a divine power and grace, my salvation has come to me. Was the three-times happy and blessed wood of the Cross not matter? Was the sacred and holy mountain of Calvary not matter? What of the life-giving rock, the Holy Tomb, the source of our resurrection — was it not matter? Is the holy book of the Gospels not matter? Is the blessed table which gives us the Bread of Life not matter? …And before all these things, is not the body and blood of our Lord matter? …Do not despise matter, for it is not despicable. Nothing that God has made is.

As C.S. Lewis says:

Go out on any starry night and walk alone for half an hour, resolutely assuming that pre-Copernican astronomy is true. Look up at the sky with that assumption in mind. The real difference between living in that universe and living in ours will, I predict, begin to dawn on you. …You will be looking at a world unimaginably large but quite definitely finite. …We find (not now by analogy but in strictest fact) that in every sphere there is a rational creature called an Intelligence which is compelled to move, and therefore to keep his sphere moving, by his incessant desire for God.

…The motions of the universe are to be conceived not as those of a machine or even an army, but rather as a dance, a festival, a symphony, a ritual, a carnival, or all these in one. They are the unimpeded movement of the most perfect impulse towards the most perfect object.

As G.K. Chesterton says:

A man may say, “I like this vast cosmos, with its throng of stars and its crowd of varied creatures.” But if it comes to that why should not a man say, “I like this cosy little cosmos, with its decent number of stars and as neat a provision of live stock as I wish to see”? …I was frightfully fond of the universe and wanted to address it by a diminutive. I often did so; and it never seemed to mind. Actually and in truth I did feel that these dim dogmas of vitality were better expressed by calling the world small than by calling it large. For about infinity there was a sort of carelessness which was the reverse of the fierce and pious care which I felt touching the pricelessness and the peril of life. They showed only a dreary waste; but I felt a sort of sacred thrift. For economy is far more romantic than extravagance.

As C.S. Lewis says:

I have put the Longaevi or longlivers into a separate chap­ter because their place of residence is ambiguous between air and Earth. Whether they are important enough to justify this arrangement is another question. In a sense, if I may risk the oxymoron, their unimportance is their importance. They are marginal, fugitive creatures. They are perhaps the only creatures to whom the Model does not assign, as it were, an official status. Herein lies their imaginative value. They soften the classic severity of the huge design. They intrude a welcome hint of wildness and uncertainty into a universe that is in danger of being a little too self-explanatory, too luminous.

As Shakespeare says:

The earth hath bubbles, as the water has,
And these are of them. Whither are they vanished?

Question Three: What are humans like?

Our interior lives are far greater than our own understanding, as the beloved African Bishop Augustine says:

All these doth that great receptacle of memory, with its many and indescribable departments, receive, to be recalled and brought forth when required; each, entering by its own door, is hid up in it. And I discern the scent of lilies from that of violets while smelling nothing. …These things do I within, in that vast chamber of my memory. For there are nigh me heaven, earth, sea, and whatever I can think upon in them, besides those which I have forgotten. There also do I meet with myself, and recall myself,—what, when, or where I did a thing, and how I was affected when I did it. There are all the things that I remember, either by personal experience or on the faith of others.

…Great is this power of memory, exceeding great, O my God—an inner chamber large and boundless! Who has plumbed the depths thereof? Yet it is a power of mine, and appertains unto my nature; nor do I myself grasp all that I am. Therefore is the mind too narrow to contain itself. And where should that be which it does not contain of itself? Is it outside and not in itself? How is it, then, that it does not grasp itself? A great admiration rises upon me; astonishment seizes me. And men go forth to wonder at the heights of mountains, the huge waves of the sea, the broad flow of the rivers, the extent of the ocean, and the courses of the stars, and omit to wonder at themselves.

…But where in my memory do You abide, O Lord? Where do You there abide? What manner of chamber have You there formed for Yourself? What sort of sanctuary have You erected for Yourself? You have granted this honour to my memory, to take up Your abode in it.

Likewise, the Christian Saint Macarius in the 4th century says:

Within the heart are unfathomable depths. ….It is but a small vessel: and yet dragons and lions are there, and there poisonous creatures and all the treasures of wickedness; rough, uneven paths are there, and gaping chasms. There likewise is God, there are the angels, there life and the Kingdom, there light and the Apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasures of grace: all things are there.

As C.S. Lewis says:

It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbour. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. …This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously—no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be a real and costly love.

As the song of Beowulf says:

They lived brightly on the benches of Heorot
caught up in laughter till a creature brought them
fear in the night an infernal hall-guest.
Grendel circled sounds of the harp
prowled the marshes moors and ice-streams
forests and fens. He found his home
with misshapen monsters in misery and greed.

As C.S. Lewis says:

You can’t help feeling stronger when you look at a place where you won a glorious victory, not to mention a kingdom, hundreds of years ago.

Introduction to Our Narthex at St John Chrysostom Church in York, Pennsylvania

[Preface: this was written upon request and included in a little booklet prepared by our church (with multiple authors and photographers) to give to guests.]

As with everything else in our church, the narthex exists to point everyone toward Jesus Christ and His ultimate ministry to His people from the heavenly altar (as described in Hebrews and Revelation among other passages). In our congregation, as with all other traditional Christian congregations throughout history, this worship is focused on our own altar at the eastern end of the church. The narthex is the first indoor space that is entered from outside the church building, and it serves as a place of entry, welcome, and preparation. The worshiping life of the whole parish community as one body starts in this space, and services often extend into it. For example, in many services the deacon comes out from the altar and delivers incense throughout the nave and into the narthex. For some services, such as crismations and baptisms, the priest and all participants start within the narthex before proceeding into the nave and finishing in front of the iconostasis and the altar. For every service, worshipers all enter the narthex first and are invited to prepare themselves for prayer and worship.

To help with these preparations, there are three main icons* in the narthex as well as a table with prayer candles to purchase and two sandboxes for lighting prayer candles. For some festal seasons, there is also a smaller icon for the feast on a separate stand beside the table with candles. On Sunday mornings, the table with prayer candles also has bulletins containing announcements and the hymns for the day. The table with candles is located to the right as you enter. Two varieties of prayer candles are offered: simple tapers to place in one of the sandboxes within the narthex and week-long red votive candles that are typically lighted in the narthex and carried into the nave to place before specific icons there.**

The three main icons in the narthex are:

  1. An icon of Jesus Christ (to the right of the main doors leading into the sanctuary and paralleled with the icon of Christ to the right of the main doors on the iconostasis before the altar). In this icon, Jesus is shown blessing and teaching us from His throne in heaven (in image known as Christ Pantocrator).
  2. An icon of our church’s patron, Saint John Chrysostom is immediately to the left of the doors leading into the nave). Saint John Chrysostom was a faithful and courageous leader and teacher of the church in Constantinople, and he is the beloved saint for whom our church is named.
  3. A specific and beloved icon made from a large embroidered cloth and bearing an image of the dead body of Christ as He is being mourned and prepared for burial. This is called the epitaphios and hangs on a north wall of the narthex with a sandbox for prayer candles before it. Epitaphios is Greek and comes from the words “epí” meaning “on” or “upon” and the word “táphos” meaning “grave” or “tomb.” This icon is an important and intimate part of the liturgical services of Good Friday and Holy Saturday in the Eastern Orthodox Churches, marking the death and resurrection of Christ. After these services, it is placed on the altar table and remains there throughout the Paschal season. During the rest of the church year, it is available for veneration and prayer within the narthex.

End Notes:

* If you wish to learn more about the Christian use of icons for prayer and veneration, more information is available in our church library and bookstore as well as in classes for inquirers.

** Lighting lamps and candles as a part of prayer is an ancient practice of God’s people, with many examples in the Old and New Testaments (including within the heavenly temple described by the Apostle John in his Revelation). Lighting candles with prayer imitates and responds to God who often reveals Himself through light (in creation and in the transfiguration for example). As the candle is lit and placed in a sandbox before the icon, a private and quiet prayer is typically said.

Building Folklore Wealth

Stable, local, human communities accumulate folklore over generations. This is a form of wealth that we are no longer capable of producing, valuing, or enjoying. Modern nation-states* no longer have the stable local communities or the value systems required for folklore creation and maintenance. It is well worth considering the many profound values offered by a growing store of folklore as well as the way that a human life is shaped when it is lived in pursuit of this form of wealth.

Folklore cannot be produced and maintained by any single person, no matter how powerful or gifted they are. It requires whole human communities with each of these qualities:

  1. Frequent and reliable communication patterns sustained over a defined geographical region for many generations.
  2. Significant shared labor and leisure times for all classes or subsets of the community to spend listening to and telling stories together in person so that deep repositories of oral tradition are continually being created and maintained.
  3. Strong shared purposes and desires across all classes or subsets of the community so that heroes, villains, and all other story elements will be identified within the community, translated into folklore and/or mythology and carry these clusters of meaning and value onward for generations of people who will hear and retell the stories.

Human communities can value and produce many other types of stories, such as literature (great books) or entertainment (theater and film). However, folklore is radically different from even the most beloved classics of a literary culture, whether we are talking about the sacred writings of a community or simply the “great books” that become enshrined within the halls of education. Even more removed from folklore are the pop songs, comic books, TV shows, and blockbusters of our modern entertainment industry (or the opera, ballet and theater of earlier eras). While some communities within our modern society still have urban legends that develop, almost all other forms of story-telling or myth-making have been commodified or monetized by TV, Hollywood, Disney, celebrity culture, or pulp fiction.

It may be possible for human societies to maintain and enjoy a strong folklore heritage while also enjoying vibrant literary and entertainment cultures. However, there are clearly some elements of mutually exclusive conditions required for communities to consistently develop and enjoy folklore vs. blockbuster films. These different mediums require radically different forms of attention and human interaction, and they also directly compete for limited quantities of leisure time.

The products of folklore have been made very profitable by companies such as Disney and many others. However, folklore as a living practice within a community has never been connected to money or power. Can you imagine the originators of Br’er Rabbit or Robin Hood stories giving a fig about the opportunity to influence the high and mighty of this world? There is a kind of wealth reflected in these stories that cannot be easily given to anyone or easily taken away. Ever since the rise of capitalist economies, we no longer measure wealth in the most substantial or communal of categories. In a strange and vivid little image of what we have lost, C.S. Lewis laments that our society will never see “Cabinet Ministers leaving sandwiches in Hyde Park as an offering for the Dryads” (source here). Imagine if all economic and political energies focused entirely on goals such as:

  1. Depth and vibrancy of local folklore traditions.
  2. Rich genetic variety within local strains of produce or livestock.
  3. Or any quantifiable measures of shared spiritual lives and collective empathy across various classes and subcultures within local communities.

Societal values or objectives such as these would radically raise the bar on our ideas of progress and would require very different personal and collective commitments and decision-making criteria. Of all such standards, measuring the health of a rich local folklore is arguably the most meaningful single indicator of a society’s true wealth. This is because the growth of folklore and myth require so many other factors in order to develop: many generations of stable food supplies, predictable family structures, substantial leisure time spent physically together swapping stories that reflect and maintain shared value systems across various social classes.

We have lost the capacity to create and to enjoy folklore because, for many generations now, we have relied upon the written word and because we have pursued money over the ties of family and local community. Our loss of substantial time spent together in conversation and story telling has radically changed the nature of human society and individual experience. After many centuries of writing (and now well beyond the printed age and into the digital age), it is impossible for us to understand the extent of our isolation from each other and from the physical places that we inhabit. When one generation after another spends countless hours standing barefoot on the same piece of land and when these generations of barefoot people sit around the same fire to share the sames stories, the people, their land, and their stories all become one seamless fabric. This is a fabric that our fathers and mothers were torn out of a very long time ago. Writing as a tool for money, power, comfort, and entertainment has come to dominate our human interactions in ways that we cannot see or evaluate from the inside. About 2400 years ago, Socrates made this prophetic point in his dialogue with Phaedrus (written down, ironically, by Plato):

The parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the usefulness or uselessness of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of the written alphabet, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to letters a quality that they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. [That] which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality. [Translation by Benjamin Jowett (with a few of my own minor clarifications into more contemporary language).]

What would it look like to live a life committed to the restoration of stable local cultures capable of multi-generational creation and enjoyment of rooted oral traditions? I have no idea. It is almost certainly not a goal that any one individual could take up in any meaningful way. It is a goal that would require a community and the commitment of multiple generations. Nonetheless, I pray for the vision to somehow be included in such a work. I have no expectation of being able to see the thing of which I wish to be a part, but I pray that I might still, in some small way, be a part of it. This is not an opposition to writing or to the digital age. I love both alongside oral culture without any sense of contradiction. However, I am saying that our sense of value, proportion and priority are tragically damaged and distorted in ways that must be healed.

There is one more aspect to this vision that is even much more difficult to articulate. God’s entire creation participates in God’s own bright and fiery life of love, and all of creation also participated in human life as human life is made in the very image and likeness of God. I believe that spirits frolic, dance, and sing with every star, sand grain, leaf, ant, and asteroid in this cosmos-temple. When Job 38:7 speaks of how “the morning stars sang together,” I take that very literally.

God made many kinds of living creatures, and they all can be blessed (or harmed) by the life that humans take up (or forfeit) as God’s image bearers and priestly officiants within this loud and swirling temple throng that inhabits God’s creation. These spirits are typically not concerned or obligated in any conscious way by human life (or even by the life of God their maker, given that we’re in a fallen world). Often the disinterest that these other creatures show toward everything that we think is central to our human lives is the greatest gift that these creatures can offer to us. In any case, consciously interested in humanity or not, these many spirits are all bound up with us mortals in ways that run deeper than anything known by even the holiest saints and angels.

Humanity has always known these truths within our oral traditions. We inhabit a world of many spirits, and we know this very well within our folklore. Distinguished Notre Dame professor and world-renowned philosopher David Bentley Hart wrote about this world of spirits in “The Secret Commonwealth” (First Things, 2009). He describes a fabled pamphlet publication by a Scottish Presbyterian minister and Bible translator Robert Kirk (1644 to 1692). In addition to being a scholar trained at St. Andrew’s and Edinburgh, a master of Celtic tongues, and the author of the Gaelic Psalter of 1684, Reverend Kirk also possessed the second sight and wrote a short treaties on “The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, and Fairies” (which I have read for myself). David Bentley Hart writes:

One aspect of Kirk’s investigations I find especially interesting is the purely autochthonous quality he ascribes to the second sight. Once removed from his native heath, says Kirk, a prophet loses the virtue that allows him to see the other world, and he becomes as blind to preternatural presences as any other mortal. He is like Antaeus raised up off the earth. Not only is every fairy a genius loci, every seer is a vates loci with a strictly limited charter. And the reason it pleases me to learn this is that it allows me to offer a riposte to an English friend of mine “a famous theologian whose name (which is John Milbank) I should probably withhold” who has quite a keen interest in fairies, and who regards it as a signal mark of the spiritual inferiority of America that its woods and dells, mountains, and streams, are devoid of such creatures.

In proof of this, he once cited to me the report of some English traveler in the New World who sent back a dispatch from Newfoundland (or somewhere like that) complaining that there were no fairies to be found in these desolate climes. But, ah no, I can say (having read Kirk), of course some displaced sassenach wandering in the woods of North America would be able to perceive none of their ethereal inhabitants, as any faculty he might have had for seeing them would have deserted him. And, anyway, anyone familiar with the Native lore of the Americas knows that multitudes of dangerous and beneficent manitous haunt or haunted these lands. They may lack some of the winsome charm of their European counterparts, not having been exposed to centuries of Greco-Roman and Christian civilization; and they may therefore be somewhat more Titanic than Olympian in their general character and deportment; but they certainly do not merit disdain or a refusal to acknowledge their existence.

Kirk and Hart both make it clear that a profound relationship exists between the land that human families inhabit and the storied forms of life that share this land with us. Beyond this, Hart strongly suggests that human communities somehow “domesticate” or otherwise influence the local spirits and stories over the course of generations. Hart says that North American fairies “may lack some of the winsome charm of their European counterparts, not having been exposed to centuries of Greco-Roman and Christian civilization.” This may include some cultural snobbery but may also be mixed with a profound understanding of the many New Testament passages such as 1 Peter 3:22 that speak of the ways in which all “angels, authorities, and powers have been made subject to [Jesus Christ].” Paul and all of the apostles inhabited a world permeated by diverse spirits and all deeply intertwined with the will of God for His image bearers.

As someone who grew up in a largely pagan and premodern Asian culture (throughout my childhood listening to shaman and séances working and chanting loudly through the night while following the water buffaloes through the rice paddies and swarms of dragonflies by day), I know just a little about oral cultures. The oldest son of a Presbyterian minister, I’ve ended up standing (for as many holy day as I can manage) within an Eastern Orthodox Church reciting very long verbal liturgies that have developed very slowly over millennia.

I certainly have no idea what I am doing or how to apply any of this for anyone else. However, it has been a great personal blessing to me as I have seen pieces of the human story come together for me more clearly across time and place. Therefore, I’ve shared these thoughts, and I do commend a life lived with a desire to grow in respect for stories and for their vital places within specific human communities.

Peter Pan is not an example of folklore (but of literary culture), and Peter is wrong when he claims: “Every time a child says, ‘I don’t believe in fairies,’ there is a fairy somewhere that falls down dead.” However, I do think that every time a family sits down together to the table in their home, there are a few unseen creatures who care enough to pause and to either laugh or cry over every word that is said.

End Notes

* Nation-state: this is a term coined by historians to describe a radical reorganization of human communities within modernity that represented unprecedented power structures and value systems. Historians continue to dispute exactly how nation-states came into existence, but there is wide agreement that nation states represent a cataclysmic and a relatively recent development in the rules and structures by which humans live and work together. In many ways, nation-states throw an invisibility cloak over the systems of empire and economic domination that drive the stories of interactions between human communities across time.

On Life and Motherhood

Life (that is the quality of being alive) is so easily seen in all aspects of creation, and this kind of seeing may be far more reliable than we know. Rocks and landscapes live lives of great loveliness, depth, and mystery. After all, the Spirit, the Giver of Life, broods over all that “is not” and encourages all that “comes to be.”

We say in the creed: “the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life.” And this is expanded when we pray in the Trisagion: “O heavenly King, O Comforter, the Spirit of truth, who art in all places and fillest all things; Treasury of good things and Giver of life: Come and dwell in us and cleanse us from every stain, and save our souls, O gracious Lord.”

All of life both contains and is contained by bewildering contrasts: wildness and welcome, threat and nurture, symmetry and divergence, predictability and volatility. In all of this layered life, there is a dependable beauty. There is also a direction or purpose that can be sensed or glimpsed but not grasped or seen.

These contrasting and developing qualities of all living things make them impossible to posses, consume, or use. Life’s independent development as well as its irreducible complexity make it impossible to fully describe or to employ. We can respond to life, commune with it, enjoy it, but we cannot have it for our own or make it work for us. In fact, our own life depends on our communion with the life around us, and any effort to have or use the life around us is a destruction of this communion and a step toward our own death. Life cannot be demanded or taken but only received in gratitude and humility.

The difference between communion and consumption is life and death. Sadly, we teach consumption in every aspect of modern life. We teach only efficient production and consumption. Find ways to learn to commune. Find an altar before which to stand in quiet anticipation. Find a eucharist to receive. Eucharist means thanksgiving, and the word comes ultimately from the Greek word for “grace” (a gift offered freely with no expectation of return).

Tomorrow is Mother’s Day, and in motherhood we have this same generous communion—this giving and receiving of life. It is no mistake that the first and most living image of the Spirit is that of a mother bird who spreads herself over those within her nest. The Hebrew word in Genesis 1:2 that is often translated “hover” actually means “brood,” as when a mother bird broods over her eggs to bring forth life.

Jesus takes up a long tradition of this image across Scripture (Deuteronomy 32:10-11, Ruth 2:12, and Psa. 17:8, 57:1, 91:4 for examples) when he says: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” (Matthew 23:37; Luke 13:34)

Rather than seeking to seize, to use, and to hold onto life, may we all learn to receive the life so abundantly offered and to give up our own as an offering poured out. May we learn from our mothers how to live.

Tips I’ve Heard About How to Pray and Worship in an Orthodox Church

In no particular order and from various sources, here are some tips that I’ve heard regarding how to pray and worship in an Orthodox church (and which also double as tips for all of life):

1. Keep your mind quietly within the present moment and only in the present moment. God only meets with us in the present, but we spend most of our time in either the past (nostalgia, regret, bitterness, etc.) or the future (worry, fear, ambition, etc.).

2. Be open, alert, simple, and honest within your heart and mind to all that is within you and around you. Notice your inner emotions and your surroundings, but do not dwell on them. God, who is truth and the Author of reality, will commune with us as we see clearly all that really is. (Our perceptive or intuitive ability—nous—is typically overpowered by our abilities to judge, categorize, plan, and experience emotions. We therefore must quiet our hearts and our minds—not making plans, forming judgements, imagining beautiful things, or dwelling upon emotions—so that we can see and hear clearly everything that truly is. We are not emptying ourselves but quieting ourselves to perceive clearly and alertly.)

3. Stand guard over the heart. Stand with the mind in the heart. Descend from the head to the heart. All these are one and the same thing. The core of the work lies in concentrating the attention not in the head but in the chest, close to the heart and in the heart.

4. Everything that you are is important because it is known and loved by your Creator. Everything around you also is vitally important because it is a good gift from your Maker:

  • the incense rising through the air
  • the splash of holy water against your face
  • the candle flames
  • the smell of myrrh in the anointing oil
  • the icons before, beside and above you
  • the words of scripture, song and prayer
  • the cadences of the singing and chanting
  • the play of light
  • the people all around you
  • the child at your side and the baby in your arms
  • the parent whose suffering you recall as you pray for all those who are sick.

5. Follow the most experienced worshippers around you (but without worrying about actions and details that are confusing or uncomfortable to you in any way). Save questions for later (after the service) when it is good to ask and learn as much as possible, year after year, about each stage of the service, each personal activity, and the meanings associated with everything.

6. Experience your whole body and with your whole body. Your bodily existence is a gift and a key aspect of being in God’s image. Being aware of your body and of your intentional use of it within worship is a blessing (as well as a powerful aide to remaining present and attentive).

7. Stand straight but relaxed (with hands inactive and arms hanging straight at your sides). If standing becomes so uncomfortable as to distract you, sit down and rest with an upright posture whenever it is most suitable. Be prepared to stand for each of the most solemn moments and activities in each service (if at all possible without injury to yourself).

8. When the priest is visible or audible, pay particular attention to all that is done by him (and to those supporting him) as Christ’s representative within the service.

9. Do nothing to draw attention to yourself or to distract others (other than the most simple acts of helpfulness or kindness).

10. Do nothing to direct or correct others (adults or children) unless you have a particular responsibility, but even then keep all direction to the simplest possible minimum.

11. When caring for young children, the elderly, or the ill, remain as participatory as possible but consider every need of theirs as a part of the body of Christ which you have the privilege to serve.

12. Do not pursue great thoughts or wonderful feelings. Sentimentality is the greatest impediment to true depth of feeling and profundity is the greatest impediment to true clarity of thought.

13. Admit and accept your frailties (wandering thoughts, physical fatigue, inattentiveness, carelessness toward others, etc.), but do not indulge them.

14. Stand quietly before your God and allow Him to enter into your heart. There, He desires to heal you and to commune with you.

15. Attend church services whenever you can do so without neglecting your responsibilities to others, and prepare faithfully at home. Stand in church where you can see and hear. Attend to the beauty of your prayer corner at home. The daily and weekly patterns of prayer and spiritual disciplines as well as the yearly church calendar will continually invite you into the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In my very small experience of them, these practices (when returned to after each falling away) will gradually increase:

  • your ability to use and enjoy your body and to stand still for long periods of time
  • your ability to pay attention and to notice details in everything around you
  • your awareness and honesty with your self regarding your own frailties, failures, and self-deceptions (as chief of sinners) as well as your sense of individual calling and gifting by God
  • your sense of joy and gratitude for the way in which you are known and loved
  • your deep sorrow over your own life of indifference and animosity
  • your deep sorrow over your suffering and the suffering of all those who you know
  • your desire for communion with God.

P.S. Two readers later added these two excellent points:

  1. Be yourself. [A true and wise paradox. Personhood and a free will are found only in communion with God, and God only wants all that we uniquely are as a person. Much more to unpack here.]
  2. Don’t get too stuck in the service books or the pews.

Image credit: from the Atlantic’s “Photos of the Week.” They published it with the caption: “Russian Orthodox believers attend the Orthodox Easter service in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, Russia, on April 8, 2018.”