Seeking the Heart of the Christian Classical Tradition of Education amid Socioeconomic and Cultural Diversity

[Intro Note: this was delivered as the afternoon plenary talk at the Alcuin Mid-Atlantic Regional Retreat at Veritas (a classical Christian school in Richmond, VA) on March 22, 2019 by Jesse Hake. The assigned topic was “Classical Christian Education for Culturally and Socioeconomically Diverse Settings.” At the end of this post, a handout is included that was in the back of the room but that was not referenced from the podium. An additional “Historical End-note” has been added as well. If video footage is posted online at some point, I will plan to link that here as well (presentation varied very slightly from this text at a few points). The talk took about 40 minutes and was followed by Q&A for about 20 minutes. Finally, because it was mentioned by the person welcoming me to the podium, I do not mention in this text that I have just left Logos Academy to take a position at Classical Academic Press. My school-age children continue to attend Logos Academy.]

Thank you, all of you here at Veritas, for the generous hospitality that you have extended to us all. I have learned so much over the years from your school community as well as from the Alcuin presentations and conversations that you are facilitating this week. I will reference a few of the many exciting connections for me between the principles and practices in my talk and some of what others have shared in these last two days. I’ve been a little under the weather and was sad to miss out on much of the feasting and conversational time yesterday evening.

Logos Academy was founded in downtown York, PA over 20 year ago as a beacon of light and hope in a community that, like so many other in these United States, suffers from violence and generational poverty. When I came to Logos Academy 7 years ago, every student in the 4th grade had a parent incarcerated. During my time there, I have supported as multiple children returned to school after the murder of a parent. When I came to the school, over 95% of our students lived below the Federal poverty line. We have diversified substantially in the last several years, and over 20% of our student body now comes from middle or upper income homes. Everyone pays some tuition, and we collect about $500,000 for 250 students each year—with several families paying a little over $9000 per student and several paying about $500 per student. Every year, the advancement team raises close to 2 million dollars in scholarships. With a lot of help, I oversaw all of the teachers, families, and students in the K to 12 academic program (including student behavior, family partnerships, scholarship awards, and tuition payment).

My two school-age children attend Logos Academy, and our family lives within walking distance and immediately amid the shootings that regularly devastate our community. Children of all ages have very often said to me with smiles of utter delight: “Mr. Hake, I live right near your house.”

In addition to the many challenges faced daily by my Logos Academy students and their families, the school district serving York city has consistently ranked in the bottom 2 or 3 out of the 500 districts in Pennsylvania.

Logos Academy was not my first experience with teaching in urban America. In my first school job, 16 years ago, I taught seventh and eighth grade social studies at a specialized private school serving only students from the Washington DC school district who had language-based learning disabilities. One young man who used to pretend that he was masturbating under his desk, asked me quite earnestly once if I had ever been a monk. (Which amused me as a young man who had grown up all my life as faithful and contented Presbyterian boy.) This student, and many with other challenges, did grow into strong contributing students within the school after weeks or months with us. As an indicator of the desperation too often characterizing such schools, they offered me a job as the middle school principal at the end of my second year of teaching.

With these experiences in view, I was invited to speak about three sub-topics under the heading of “the CC model and soci-economic/cultural diversity.” These three topics are:

  • Recovering the lost integrity of place and local community.
  • Potential impact on the curriculum or literary canon.
  • Practical strategies related to instruction and lesson design.

At this point, I should confess that I found time to cover only the first of these points. What I have to share was clarified for me because of my experiences leading such a diverse and hurting school community, and my practical invitations should be helpful to schools with students who are trapped by generational poverty and violence. However, the lessons that I’m sharing are very much applicable for all of us, regardless of the type of school or homeschool from which you come.

What I have learned most fundamentally at Logos Academy is that—in our modern, secular, and consumerist culture today—I have lost far more that is elemental to human flourishing than I realized and also that I am hurting and wounded (often in ways to which I am almost entirely blinded). What this means for all of us as classical Christian educators, is that we must dig a lot deeper in order to find the bedrock upon which the liberal arts and the great conversation can be faithfully restored.

What is this bedrock? It is the oral tradition, folklore, and the common arts—all of which thrive only in local human populations that have a strong inter-generational sense of place—a deep relationship to a particular valley within God’s creation. All of the liberal arts, the great books, the study of classical languages can only be restored when we recognize that our first priority is recovering this lost integrity of place and local community that makes possible the restoration of oral tradition, local folklore, and enjoyment of the common arts. One simple example of the fact that the liberal arts all rest on much deeper foundations is this devastating critique of the human invention of written language by Socrates (in Phaedrus):

[Written language and the alphabet] 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.

At a school like Logos Academy, I was forced to realize that I had to start restoring our classical Christian tradition at these much more foundational levels in order for me to also work at restoring rhetoric, logic, the other liberal arts, Latin language, or Socratic dialogue. However, this reality is equally true for any school in modern America. Some schools are in situations that allow them to remain blind to this truth for a longer time, but we all must face this reality in the end: within any logic, rhetoric, Latin, or great books classroom that does not extend some level of invitation to all of our actual neighbors who live on the ground that is within easy walking distance of our classrooms, our classical Christian tradition is cut off from its roots and its own original sources of life.

The classical Christian tradition has always been hospitable and has actually had schools throughout most of the centuries of its flourishing that were open to all students who desired what was being offered. Alcuin, for whom this fellowship is named, was explicitly ordered by Charlemagne the Great to accept any student, regardless of cost, into all of Alcuin’s many schools throughout the empire as long as the student wished to learn and could complete the work. And this was actually typical at many points in the history of classical Christian education. [See endnote at bottom of this post.] Christians understood profoundly that the liberal arts were grounded in the flourishing of local human cultures and that the liberal arts should be offered to all who wished to pursue them. However, my main point is not based on precedent or even Christian ethics.

My point is that we cannot possibly succeed in restoring the classical Christian tradition without giving first priority to recovering the lost integrity of the geographical place and the local human population that lies immediately outside every one of our schools.

Our own success as a movement depends on this because it is not possible to practice the liberal arts in isolation from your actual neighbors or in isolation from the earth beneath your feet and theirs. Another way to say this same thing is to remind ourselves that schools must always remember that they exist in order to make flourishing human homes possible. As G.K. Chesterton put it: “Just now there is a tendency to forget that the school is only a preparation for the home, and not the home a mere jumping off place for school.” We all have some sense that something is amiss if our home life has no interactions with our immediate neighbors. However, we very easily forget this reality of an actual local neighborhood when it comes to our churches and schools. In modern America, our schools and churches very easily become detached from the humans living immediately around them. By remembering that “school is only a preparation for home,” we should also be reminded that a school, to truly be a school, must serve an actual neighborhood.

Each of the speakers so far during this retreat have beautifully appealed to us to keep up the contemplation and the study of our rich tradition so that we will see our blind spots and our diseases more and more fully. My own suggestions for recovering the lost integrity of place and local community echos many of theirs.

Andrew Smith, in talking about the danger of falling into the modern black-hole of the autonomous self, referenced Bonhoeffer’s Life Together which is one of the most profound works of the last century about the fact that Christian life exists only when it is fully in contact with an actual human community (and not just some abstracted team of co-workers). It is heartening to hear stories of families at Veritas moving to the homes around this school in order to more fully experience life together. Of course, this Christian community must be located fundamentally in our churches, but classical Christian educators should be at the forefront of connecting Christian community to the human neighborhoods surrounding our churches as well as to our local civic communities.

Brian Williams, in giving us the history of grading, laid imponderable burdens on us regarding a system that we are all trapped in to some degree and that relies on a super efficient factory model of ranking students and assessing them on the most superficial aspects of what they are learning. Where Brian pointed us toward steps to take into a hopeful future, his examples all echoed the classical Christian tradition that was embedded within guilds of scholars–scholars who understood their craft as necessarily embedded within the community of other masters and apprentices surrounding them as well as within the greater civic or ecclesiastical communities just outside their school walls. Within such grounded communities, tasks given to students have a natural connection to the realities of an actual place and a local culture—such embedded tasks tend to have real-world qualities them that give them clear intrinsic value for students and that make grades irrelevant (even if you have to give them for various practical reasons). Such tasks also required the teacher to function as a forward-looking coach and exemplar rather than a technical evaluator of past mistakes.

Chris Hall brought similar realities home in remarkable ways when he shared how the common arts have a deep and vital history within the tradition of classical Christian education. Any teacher can see, first of all, the deep formative value of the common arts as Chris unpacks them. Secondly, any teacher should also see how these common arts lead almost automatically to student assignments that will leave absolutely no student, parent, or administrator thinking about grades. With the kinds of student assignments or projects that he showed to us, you can give grades if required, but these grades will be the last thing that students care about. Your battle as a teacher is won before you’ve even drawn your sword.

Most importantly, I want to reiterate Chris’ point that the sciences and common arts (as he advocates for them to be taught) go an incredibly long way toward recovering the lost integrity of place and local community. We have lost the common arts to an extraordinary degree as human communities for several reasons (mostly related to the rise of consumerism in its current form), and this leaves us tragically uprooted from the creation into which God has placed us as priests, kings, gardeners, and city builders. Finally, among the most profound integrators of people, is this capacity of the common arts to involve parents, school support staff, and community members from all walks of life in the formative practices that we put before our students. There is almost nothing so powerful as spending a year paying close attention to a small plot of ground. However, this student formation is exponentially enriched if you can bring parents and the surrounding civic community into your students’ experiences and observations via any simple and achievable means.

I would agree with any pushback to all of this that the liberal arts are the ultimate and the most appropriate objectives of a school community as such. However, in a world that has almost entirely forgotten what an art it (as Andrew Smith pointed out yesterday morning), we will learn a whole lot about the liberal arts simply by starting with the common arts. After all, the common arts are necessarily prior to the liberal arts, and that is where we must start in order to learn with our bodies what an art is. Common arts give us embodied understandings of what an art is before we engage with all of our heart, mind, and body in the liberal arts of the trivium and quadrivium.

What Christine Perrin shared about poetry this morning pointed powerfully in these same directions. She shared that poetry teaches us to see creation, to name it, and to continually turn and recall that creation is worth naming. There is something akin to the common arts within the fine arts of poetry and painting. Both are more elemental and deeply embodied as crafts than the liberal arts, and we cannot truly practice the liberal arts if we are disconnected from these sources of life in the fine arts and the common arts as they will always blossom forth in stable human communities that realize their dependent upon the land that they share.

Andrew Smith’s most recent reminder from Eugene Peterson points powerfully in this direction as well as we see in this passage from The Contemplative Pastor:

The subversive works quietly and hiddenly, patiently. …No subversive ever does anything big. He is always carrying secret messages, planting suspicion that there is something beyond what the culture says is final.

We’re working the depth, the heart of things. The gospel images are images of growth that comes from underneath. A seed, for example, is subsoil and subversive.

Some of these speakers overlapped with my points to such a degree that they reshaped what I had to say about my own topic. In the specific insights and practices that I have to share, I intend to pull together various strands and show a way basic forward for all of us that is hope-filled and achievable in our schools and classroom. My own thoughts recently on this need to find the fundamentals have clustered around two essays by Wendell Berry:

  • First is The Presence of Nature in the Natural World which traces our relationship as English speakers with the person of Lady Nature through the full corpus of English literature from start to finish.
  • Second is The Hidden Wound which catalogues how the dominant race in our nation has damaged itself deeply and collectively by our invention of race and our practice of slavery.

What connects these two essays is the fact the Wendell Berry is pointing with his own peculiar clarity toward the needs of human communities for each other and for the land upon which they live. Wendell Berry’s attention to these fundamental realities are unprecedented:

If white people have suffered less obviously from racism than black people, they have nevertheless suffered greatly; the cost has been greater perhaps than we can yet know. If the white man has inflicted the wound of racism upon black men, the cost has been that he would receive the mirror image of that wound into himself. As the master, or as a member of the dominant race, he has felt little compulsion to acknowledge it or speak of it; the more painful it has grown the more deeply he has hidden it within himself. But the wound is there, and it is a profound disorder, as great a damage in his mind as it is in his society.

…There is a peculiar tension in the casualness of this hereditary knowledge of hereditary evil; once it begins to be released, once you begin to awaken to the realities of what you know, you are subject to staggering recognitions of your complicity in history and in the events of your own life. The truth keeps leaping on you from behind. …It took me a long time, and in fact a good deal of effort, to finally realize that in owning slaves my ancestors assumed limitations and implicated themselves in troubles that have lived on to afflict me—and I still bear that knowledge with a sort of astonishment.

Wendell Berry points out here that we are carrying a wound. It is not our only wound or necessarily our most significant wound. However, it is one that I have had to come to know better in recent years. And it illustrates the fact that we have a history as a nation that we cannot leave behind but that we must learn to carry together with dignity, humility, and grace. The way that people learn to carry such things together is by creating shared practices: a calendar of rich civic festivals, folklore, and poetry that allow them to name their wounds as well as their shared dignity and humanity. We in the United States tend to try to “leave things in the past” or to try to “move past them.” Even we classical Christian educators think subconsciously in such categories all of the time. However, we of all people, should be leading participants in the few civic festivals that our communities do have and in the threads of folklore, poetry, and song that we have found as a people. Schools in the classical Christian tradition should be the greatest champions of any vestiges of local culture, we should be seeking out any local community events in which to participate in any appropriate and respectful ways. We should simply be regularly present with our students even when we cannot find any respectful way in which to participate. We should be leaders in the lost art of being present and of respecting higher human values regardless of the important political or moral differences that are likely to exist.

Our students at Logos Academy would regularly offer share readings from beautiful poems or speeches at all of the local civic and community events in York city regardless of who they might share the stage with and what critical differences we might have with others organizing these events. Examples include rallies for immigrant rights and breakfasts honoring the legacy of Martin Luther King. It is possible to participate in such things without making political or philosophical assumptions, to simply be present and to seek to share in the collective dignity and sorrow that we are all seeking to name and bear.

The most important examples that I have to offer however, get even more elemental than this attempt to grow better and better as seeing and bearing our wounds and our victories together. In his essay about The Presence of Nature in the Natural World, Berry is pointing out that we moderns have achieved the incredible feat of removing nature from the natural world. This is exactly what Chris Hall has been telling us about the sciences and the common arts. We have made nature into a vast neutral thing that we can turn to for revitalization during vacations or that we can turn to for raw materials in the maintenance of our consumer culture. Nature is a massive resource but it is not alive, not connected to us, and not participating alongside of us as creation does throughout the Scriptures: in which the hills and trees clap their hands, the stars sing beautifully, and the rocks cry out.

At the start of this school year, I taught Prince Caspian to an 8th grade medieval literature class. In that story, an new usurping civilization (the Telmarines) has entirely lost contact with the talking beasts as well as the nyads, dryads, and fawns to which Narnia originally belonged. Among several pagan gods who appear at the end of the book to help Aslan with his reconquest of Narnia, is a local river god.

One morning, as a local walking field trip, our 30 students in 8th grade hiked with a couple other teachers and me for three miles up a local stream called Willis Run. We followed Willis Run through the heart of York city—from its mouth where it empties into the larger and well-recognized Codorus Creek up to Kiwanis Lake (the most significant landmark along Willis Run). At one point, students had to take off their shoes and cross the stream. One 8th grade boy (whose father spent most of the boy’s life in prison but showed up for his last teacher conference, whose two older sisters both graduated from Logos Academy, who saw a Macbeth performance with me recently and said he liked it, and who I am pretty sure got a lot of support on his last vocabulary quiz) asked me to piggyback him, and I did. We learned more facts about the stream in the classroom as well, but this hike was essential. A few weeks later, students all delivered soliloquies that they had written in the voice of the stream, Willis Run and had memorized before delivery. One other assignment students did at the end of Prince Caspian was writing a description of a battle between people and creatures of modern-day York versus some of the people and creatures of York’s past, along with some of York’s local nature spirits. One character in this battle was required to be Willis Run. Students were free to decide what would be at stake in this battle for York city and how it might change York for good or ill.

It turns out that attention to the forgotten land beneath our feet is a great common ground (literally) to stand upon when facing potentially alienating and overwhelming differences of culture, ideology, or life experience. Likewise, folklore is a thread across all human cultures, and a great point of communion between people separated by income or status.

Christian classical educators in America today have much to regain regarding the profound value of local culture and folklore within human life and within the tradition of a liberal arts education, and we would do well to look to Prince Caspian as a model for the education of good princes. (It is a kind of antidote to The Prince by Machiavelli, if we may caricature that work as an early study in how to develop leaders with the utilitarian values of modern political power.) Here are few items to note from the education of Caspian:

  • Lewis mentions grammar, dialectic, and astronomy. However, under all and over all comes nursery rhyme and folklore and fairy tale.
  • It is significant that Caspian’s teachers must embody these stories in their own persons. Not only were Caspian’s great teacher and his nurse both part-dwarf, but imagine the schools that King Caspian would have founded shortly after his victory—schools with all manner of creatures on the faculties.
  • While still young, Caspian is expected to take on a real task, with decisions to make and battles to be fought.
  • There is apprenticeship under the kings, Peter and Edmund.
  • Pagan values and entities are not jettisoned. They are co-opted and put to work toward new ends.
  • There is the freedom, as well, for those around this renaissance to opt out—to try different paths and to form different communities. Aslan and Caspian allow the Telmarines to walk out the door. We must seek to keep doors open as well as keeping ancient boundary stones and fences respectfully in repair.

Looking at wise authors such as these and considering my own experiences at Logos Academy, I have become convinced that all of us in the modern United States do not actually have any idea what a school is. Every one of us would need many years of painful and patient practice and alternative living in order to begin participating in any holistic way in the life of the synagogue school in which Christ learned his Torah or in the school to which the akousmatics walked daily to be instructed by the mathematikoi who sat at the feet of Pythagoras himself. Chris Hall made several wonderful points about the primary goal of mathematics being the awakening of wonder and awe. There is no better example of this than Pythagoras. In the school of Pythagoras, students spent their time pursuing pure beauty and transcendence through powerfully embodied practices of music and theoretical mathematics. All of their mathematics was pursued within the context of rituals designed to present the music of the spheres to your senses so that you could participate, body and soul, in the ratios and music of the spheres. This has nothing to do with our own experiences and intentions within our math classrooms.

Consider some of these basic experiences and purposes of life that would have been felt as a deep living conviction by any students in Christ’s childhood synagogue or in the school of Pythagoras:

  • Intensely intimate relationships with family and friends sustained for many years in close physical proximity and sharing in monotonous labor as well as extended leisure both of which allowed for the stewarding of deep oral traditions.
  • Well-established habits of long personal contemplation and prayer in solitude.
  • An expectation of sharing the cosmos with many other types of minds as well as mystical and or spiritual encounters with these other minds.
  • Communal rituals experienced from infancy with deep roots in layered stories heard in a wide variety of settings as well as grounded in the daily and yearly rhythms of agricultural life. These stories and their many accompanying communal rituals would often include profound communal experiences of both traumatic destruction and injustice as well as extravagant blessing and shalom. Communities would remember together annually their greatest triumphs and failures from one generation to the next without a sense of leaving the past behind or moving into categorically new stories.
  • A deep sense of givenness and placement within your own layered human community (across the generations as well as in connection to a particular people and homeland with its many human stations, offices, and callings). It is worth noting that, despite a life of extensive travels, which ultimately lead to a self-imposed exile, Pythagoras returned to his homeland to help care for his teacher Pherecydes when his teacher was old and dying.
  • A similar deep sense of givenness and placement within a particular place that sits at the heart of a layered but unified and home-like cosmos.
  • Another way of stating the last two points is that the convergence between our particular piece of land and our immediate human community is our only point of access to the transcendent place and time of all those who are gathered around the throne of God (as several of the New Testament authors describe Christians as doing in each of their worship services). In the Kingdom of God, all specific human places and times can be present simultaneously, and we can’t come before God throne except by being truly and deeply present within a particular human place and community.

It should be clear that restoring schools such as these is not a simple task. It will only happen with generations of deeply committed, patient, courageous, and self-sacrificial children. However, I truly believe that the pursuit of this goal is possible—even that it is simple, delightful, and life-giving to us as teachers. There are countless ways to do these things, and I know that all of you are already doing these things already and you will recognize them easily because they were the most integrated and life-giving things that you have experienced with your students.

I would love to share more stories and examples of wonderful teachers I have known at Logos Academy who have lived inside of Homer with classes of delighted 7th grade students or who have gently shepherded 8th grade students into places of deep and caring contemplation of Christian martyrdom or who have guided students through senior thesis papers and presentations that left mature leaders in our community deeply impressed. However, I hope to have some time to answer questions and to hear your stories.

I’ll end with this note. Schools that shoulder their responsibilities for the dynamics of socioeconomic and cultural diversity within the modern United States should cling to this dictum by Wendell Berry: “Local work, well done, is applicable elsewhere, not as prescription but as example.” If we are at all faithful to the riches of our tradition, classical Christian schools will lead the way in just this kind of local work that is well done. Regional, or local, retreats such as this one–for sharing and rearming ourselves–are our best resource. While respecting their differences and limitations, schools of widely different types must form open and unexpected fraternities both locally and across larger regions, giving faculty, staff, and students opportunities to see and learn across the pockets of false abstractions and idealism as well as the broken spaces and the incomplete efforts that characterize all of our communities.

Handout with extended passages and additional resources:

The Presence of Nature in the Natural World by Wendell Berry. This traces our relationship as English speakers with the person of Lady Nature through the full corpus of English literature from start to finish.

The Hidden Wound by Wendell Berry. This examines how the dominant race in our nation has damaged itself deeply and collectively by our invention of race and our practice of slavery. Here is a select passage:

If white people have suffered less obviously from racism than black people, they have nevertheless suffered greatly; the cost has been greater perhaps than we can yet know. If the white man has inflicted the wound of racism upon black men, the cost has been that he would receive the mirror image of that wound into himself. As the master, or as a member of the dominant race, he has felt little compulsion to acknowledge it or speak of it; the more painful it has grown the more deeply he has hidden it within himself. But the wound is there, and it is a profound disorder, as great a damage in his mind as it is in his society.

…There is a peculiar tension in the casualness of this hereditary knowledge of hereditary evil; once it begins to be released, once you begin to awaken to the realities of what you know, you are subject to staggering recognitions of your complicity in history and in the events of your own life. The truth keeps leaping on you from behind. For me, that my people had owned slaves once seemed merely a curious fact. Later, I think, I took it to prove that I was somehow special, being thus associated with a historical scandal. It took me a long time, and in fact a good deal of effort, to finally realize that in owning slaves my ancestors assumed limitations and implicated themselves in troubles that have lived on to afflict me—and I still bear that knowledge with a sort of astonishment.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. This is an excellent corollary to The Hidden Wound by a contemporary African American author.

There is much to unpack in this short document regarding the creation of slavery in the United States as an unique institution that twisted the masters far more than it twisted the enslaved. Here is this unprecedented Virginia court ruling from July 9, 1640 in full:

Whereas Hugh Gwyn hath by order from this Board brought back from Maryland three servants formerly run away from the said Gwyn, the court doth therefore order that the said three servants shall receive the punishment of whipping and have thirty stripes apiece. One called Victor, a Dutchman, the other a Scotchman called James Gregory, shall first serve out their times with their master according to their Indentures, and one whole year apiece after the time of their service is expired by their said indentures in recompense of his loss sustained by their absence, and after that service to their said master is expired, to serve the colony for three whole years apiece. And that the third being a negro named John Punch shall serve his said master or his assigns for the time of his natural life here or elsewhere. [H. R. McIlwaine, ed. (1924). Minutes of the Council and General Court of Colonial Virginia: 1622–1632, 1670–1676. Richmond: Virginia State Library. p. 466. Punctuation and spelling modernized.]

Theodore W. Allen notes that the court’s “being a negro” justification made no explicit reference to precedent in English or Virginia common law. He suggests that the court members were aware that English common law held that a Christian could not enslave a Christian and that they were wary of the diplomatic friction that would come of enslaving non-English Europeans. They seemed to presume that Punch was a non-Christian, unlike his European accomplices. On these grounds, they were possibly hopeful of replicating the lifetime indentures of African slaves held in the Caribbean and South American colonies. At root here, we have an example of how new racial and theological categories were being created and codified in a process that was driven by implicit commercial forces.

The Love of Learning and the Desire for God: A study of Monastic Culture by Jean Leclercq. This is a close scholarly study the classical Christian tradition of education in its most vibrant and flourishing form. Written by a monk, it has a lot of insider lingo, but it is nonetheless full of fruitful insights for any educators.

Socrates (in Phaedrus) regarding what humans lost when they adopted the alphabet:

[Written language and the alphabet] 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.

In the “The Secret Commonwealth” (First Things, 2009), Notre Dame professor and world-renowned philosopher David Bentley Hart has written about the connection between the world of spirits and the intergenerational human relationship to the land beneath our feet. 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 treatise on “The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, and Fairies.” Here is some of what Hart had to say:

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.

As C.S. Lewis about the world of fairies (from chapter VI in The Discarded Image, entitled “The Longaevi” which is the name that Lewis selects for the fairy folk):

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.

G.K. Chesterton regarding how all of creation reflects the life of God:

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.

C.S. Lewis on the nature of the cosmos:

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. At no speed possible to man, in no lifetime possible to man, could you ever reach its frontier, but the frontier is there; hard, clear, sudden as a national frontier.

…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.

G.K. Chesterton on the nature of the cosmos:

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.

I would be glad to hear from you with specific questions or stories of your own: jjhake at gmail dot com.

Historical End-note

[This additional material—expanding on some of the historical references made in the talk—was added just to this post and was not available with the handout at the talk.]

“Establish schools in every town and village, and if any of the faithful wish to entrust their children to them to learn letters, that they refuse not to accept them but with all charity teach them …and let them exact no price from the children for their teaching nor receive anything from them save what parents may offer voluntarily and from affection.” —Charlemagne (in 797 via his chief educational adviser Theodulf, Bishop of Orléans)

Alcuin of York arrived at Charlemagne’s court in Aachen in 782 and began to have great success with educational goals that Charlemagne had struggled to pursue for years before. Not content to see education taking place only in his palace school, Charlemagne sought Alcuin’s advice as he started issuing a series of enactments from 787 to 789 to establish schools and educational reform throughout his empire.

Charlemagne was not content with securing for his palace school the services of the ablest teacher of that age. Acting under Alcuin’s advice he proceeded by a series of enactments dating from 787 (two years after the final triumph over the Saxons) to 789, to inaugurate a reform in the educational conditions throughout the empire. Theodulf, Bishop of Orléans, succeeded Alcuin (retired to the monastery of Tours) in 796 as Charlemagne’s adviser in educational matters. Charlemagne had his own daughters taught to read, but girls continued to be taught at home. While the schools were meant only for boys, historians are confident that they were open to all classes. Clearly, the candidates for the monastery and the wards (generally the children of nobles) committed to the care of the monks could attend. Provisions were also made, however, for the children of the village or country district around the monastery, for whom there was usually an external school attached to groups of monastic buildings.

In a document dated 797, Theodulf explicitly enacted: “that the priests establish schools in every town and village, and if any of the faithful wish to entrust their children to them to learn letters, that they refuse not to accept them but with all charity teach them …and let them exact no price from the children for their teaching nor receive anything from them save what parents may offer voluntarily and from affection” (P.L., CV., col. 196).

As we see in this brief passage from the Encyclopedia Britannica, elementary education was widely available for most of that empire’s existence (demonstrating the very early priority of Christians to make the fundamentals of a classical liberal arts education available to everyone):

Elementary education was widely available throughout most of the empire’s existence, not only in towns but occasionally in the countryside as well. Literacy was therefore much more widespread than in western Europe, at least until the 12th century. Secondary education was confined to the larger cities. Pupils desiring higher education almost always had to go to Constantinople, which became the cultural center of the empire after the loss to the Muslim Arabs of Syria, Palestine, and Egypt in the 7th century. Monasteries sometimes had schools in which young novices were educated, but they did not teach lay pupils. Girls did not normally attend schools, but the daughters of the upper classes were often educated by private tutors. Many women were literate, and some—such as the hymnographer Kasia (9th century) and the historian-princess Anna Comnena (1083–c. 1153)—were recognized as writers of distinction.

Recovering the Millennia-Long Track Record of Praying with Icons in Christian Homesa

Bridegroom

Surviving the recent death of my mother after her five-year battle with cancer, my father (an ordained Presbyterian minister who works as a college literature professor) asked me for some simple suggestions regarding how to make use of icons in his home where he lives with my four youngest siblings. Two of these siblings are twin girls still in high school, and two are grown children who stayed home to help with my mother and to support their younger twin sisters. Even more recently, after my father made this initial request, he told all of us about his own fight with a second round of malignant melanoma (a fight that just recently started up again with the removal of cancer-filled lymph nodes and that will now involve more testing and treatments to come). Although these notes are written with my father in mind, I’m posting my thoughts here because I want to include some images and also because I may want to revisit my thoughts on prayer with icons at some time in the future.

In his desire to start making some use of icons, my father is referencing a brief passage in a book that has meant a lot to him recently:

“Icons” have a millennia-long track record with the people of God and can be a powerful way of keeping entire stories and teachings effortlessly before the mind. We might arrange them tastefully present in each of our living and work spaces, so that they are always present in our visual field. We can thoughtfully use them to dispel destructive imagery and thoughts and to see ourselves as before God in all levels of our being. [Dallas Willard in Renovation of the Heart, page 113.]

This passage from Dallas Willard has several key words and concepts to understand and unpack. Here they are in six key phrases.

First, “a millennia-long track record with the people of God:” Before starting to use icons, it is good to start learning a little about the history and the theology of icons (and to keep this up indefinitely as you are able). Here is a simple timeline that will suggest some broad categories in which to search out more articles and books about the use of images by God’s people across many millennia:

  1. God made humans in His own divine image (“icon”). Some Church fathers wrote that this is why humans were not supposed to make any images of God, because we ourselves are the image of God within God’s creation.
  2. In the wilderness, God commanded Moses to build a tabernacle that was decorated with many images of living things, reflecting God’s heavenly throne room, the Garden of Eden, and all of creation. These included images of various kinds of angels as well as many plants and animals. God was not depicted because God was a spirit and was beyond or above (enthroned upon) His creation (not just one of the many wonderful things within His created world).
  3. Each different Jewish temple built by Solomon, Ezra, and Herod followed this tabernacle pattern of ornate images—depicting living things from all parts of creation.
  4. Jewish synagogues (as they developed during the exile and throughout different parts of the world in the Jewish diaspora) were also filled with images of living things as well as many of the great Old Testament saints and prophets.
  5. From the earliest years, Christians adorned their churches and their graves with images of Jesus Christ, his mother, the martyrs, and other great Christians heroes (saints). Many early Christian churches (even house churches and churches in hiding, such as in the catacombs) looked like Jewish synagogues with ornate images. These early Christians also told stories of Greek-style portraits that were painted by Luke (the Greek doctor and author of two New Testament books) as well as of other early images that appeared miraculously, depicting Jesus Christ. As generation after generation of Christians wanted to write their own icons, many sacred patterns and expectations were developed and carefully handed down from one icon writer to the next, so that the key features of each icon would be protected and preserved in ways that would communicate clearly, again and again, across different times and places.
  6. With the rise of Islam, there was a strong pressure to clean up the embarrassing variety of images and strange relics (bones and clothing of saints, etc.) that now filled and cluttered Christian churches and monastic communities. These sacred Christian things were considered very grubby, foolish, superstitious, and idolatrous by the sophisticated, elegant, rational, and tidy Muslims who strictly forbid the use of any images of God and who decorated their mosques with only the most beautiful and sophisticated geometric designs (showing the transcendent beauty of God in ornate yet orderly ways).
  7. Some Christian emperors and clergy began to teach that the ancient Christian use of images and relics was barbaric and a corruption of the pure Christian faith. These were the iconoclasts who often cleaned up churches by force, pulling down icons to put them in storage, paint them over, or even destroy them.
  8. In the Seventh Ecumenical Council, all the leadership of the churches around the Mediterranean world gathered and agreed that the icons (which were so beloved by the people of God) were not only permitted but were required by the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Because of Christ’s incarnation, Christians should make images of His human person which, in its fullness, reveals God the Father to us. It was taught that icons of Christ and of Christ in His saints were an essential weapon against idolatry.
  9. One of the great defenders of these decisions by the Seventh Ecumenical Council was Saint John of Damascus who suffered and saw great wonders in his battle against a second great wave of iconoclasts that came a while after the Seventh Ecumenical Council.
  10. Finally, these holy images have helped people in their prayers (as powerful means of God’s grace) to come very close into the life of the Kingdom of God. So very many close and intimate experiences of God and of His saints (as well as so many astounding miracles) are associated with so many specific images. Many icons have their own special days of remembrance and veneration. To this day, some images also stream myrrh as a powerful testimony to God’s gracious and compassionate presence with us in our suffering. (Myrrh is one of the key ingredients used in the olive oil that anointed the dead body of Jesus Christ as His body was lovingly prepared for burial once all the hopes of His followers had been destroyed by his death.)
  11. To recap, here are the key ideas in this history of how God’s people have used images in worship:
      • Images depict our worship as taking place within all of God’s creation (as we are made to lead, protect, and support all things in the constant and never-ending praise of our wonderful and loving Creator).
      • Humans are made in God’s image.
      • Images of Jesus should be made because He is the fully human incarnation of God the Son (or Logos) who took the specific human flesh of the virgin Mary (who is then literally the Mother of God).
      • Icons of Jesus Christ (as well as icons of Christ within His saints) are actually a necessary protection against false worship and idolatry (that is from developing abstract and disembodied “ideas” of Jesus Christ within our own minds, hearts, and imaginations).
      • Icons help to keep us focused on the historical and embodied Jesus Christ who:
        • actually was born, lived, and died among us,
        • rose from the dead to reign with His glorified body from the throne of God in heaven,
        • and ministers to us through the material stuff of creation within all of the sacraments of His Church.

Second, “keeping entire stories and teachings effortlessly before the mind:” This is true. Icons can convey complexity and whole story lines (multiple periods of time) as simply and simultaneously present with us in a transcendent current moment (a prayer that brings us close to God’s time which links together past, present, and future). However, it is also true that learning to read icons is as involved and intricate as learning to read any written text. In fact, all Orthodox Christian icons are properly said to be “written” and not “drawn” or “painted.” There are many resources for learning to read icons in general as well as in particular. It is always worthwhile to invest in some education regarding any particular icon that you are using or considering for use. A few key ideas to keep in mind are:

  1. Icons are intentionally two-dimensional and somewhat abstract (with a variety of perspectives and instances in time incorporated into one image). Much has been made regarding reverse perspective (also called inverse perspective, inverted perspective, divergent perspective, or Byzantine perspective) within Christian iconography. This is supposed to make the viewer part of the image or to make it seem as if the person in the image is actually viewing the person outside of the image. However, this technique probably has more to do with ancient drawing techniques and understandings of reality than it does with any intentional attempt by Christian iconographers to include the viewer in the image or to make the image into a two-way window. That being said, there are certainly more recent Christian iconographers who purposefully make use of this ancient reverse perspective to help the icons achieve an “other worldly” sense and to invite those making prayerful use of the icon to stand in another realm with Christ and His saints. This can be a blessing and means of grace.
  2. Another important aspect of icons is actually their frailty as human creations. Although they require practice to make and can be very beautiful in the eyes of anyone, they are not made primarily through technical skill or artistic genius. Icons are written primarily through prayer, and they often involve significant human errors or misunderstands while still carrying sanctity and truth as a line of devout connection to Christ or to those who displayed Christ with their whole life and person. In fact, the misunderstandings or errors in icons sometimes communicate meaning and truth of their own, or sometimes just reinforced the icon’s intent of helping to make otherworldly realities present to us.
  3. In addition to reverse perspective and to errors, icons often contain events from different points in time within one compact image. It is as if a modern cartoonist combined multiple frames into one frame. Almost all icons that cover a story will have this feature. In most nativity icons, for example, the infant Jesus is typically reclining beside his mother in a stable cave while also being washed by midwives near the bottom of the image. Sometimes, the same angels are giving instructions all-at-once to Joseph, the shepherds, and the magi.

nativity icon at st catherines monastery

Third, “arrange them tastefully:” It is certainly critical to consult everyone living in the home and to be tasteful. There is no “wrong place” to have an icon with you in your life as you seek to pray without ceasing. However, if you grow more integrated into church worship with icons, there are some ways to consider arranging icons, over time, that might be given to you by the practices of our wise ancestors in the faith (rather than simply being a matter of taste).

  1. An icon corner is normally near an eastern corner of a house so that you can face toward Jerusalem and toward the rising sun during your prayers (as all Christian churches have always done).
  2. Icons are often located in a corner of a room to promote praying in your heart (not before men), to eliminate worldly distractions, and to allow prayer to be more concentrated or focused.
  3. Often, in addition to the icon corner, a family will hang a small “portal icon” (usually of the Virgin and Christ Child) by the door, which is venerated by family and guests whenever going in or out of the house. If the portal icon or the icon corner is located so that it is visible when one first enters the house from the main entrance, an Orthodox Christian will traditionally venerate the icons before greeting the members of the house.
  4. In addition to a main icon corner as a primarily focal point for family prayers (when said all together), there will typically be other places (within private bedrooms or places of study) with smaller icon corners for each individual member of the home.
  5. Finally, icons are often paired or combined together in units that have a family connection. This is because the kingdom of God is truly centered on an actual human family. Every church altar space is lightly screened off from the congregation by three main icons arranged in the same way every time: Jesus Christ, his Mother, and his cousin John. In the Hebrew Bible, under several Davidic kings, the gebirah (“Great Lady”), normally the Mother of the King, held substantial power as an advocate with the king. We see this function throughout the Old Testament and also clearly at work in the wedding at Cana. It is good to have our vision of the heavenly throne room informed by these biblical images. Over time, it is healthy to have some simple reflections of such royal, familial, and traditional “church arrangements” within our homes. The Orthodox call the home the “little church.”

Fourth, “present in each of our living and work spaces and always present in our visual field:” This is a wonderful point. It is helpful (and a widespread practice) to have simple icons continually in view that are appropriate to each space where you live and work (including while at a computer or driving in a car). This is a support and reminder in our desire and our struggle to pray without ceasing—to have all that we do and think be an extension of our ceaseless prayers within the presence of God. In fact, God is always with us, and we are continually able to be present around His throne alongside the saints and angels who worship there without ceasing in the sunlight of His glorious presence.

Fifth, “to dispel destructive imagery and thoughts:” Not only do icons literal allow us to rest our gaze on the King and all the citizens of God’s heavenly kingdom, but the church has consistently experienced the fact that God uses these beloved images as powerful means of grace (in a sacramental kind of way or as “little mysteries of grace” as the Orthodox would say). This grace is tangible and powerful against evil. It is not our own work, but a gift of God as we stumble and struggle toward Him by means of every means of grace that God provides.

Sixth, “to see ourselves as before God in all levels of our being:” This phrase suggests that icons are a point of contact between different realms of reality that compose us and within which we exist. By “levels of our being,” I expect that Willard is referring to those that he writes about: the mind, will, body, social dimension, and soul. In The Abolition of Man, the entire point that C.S. Lewis makes is that modernity has made us into “men without chests.” At the core of our being is our heart (from the Hebrew or Semitic world) or our nous (a Greek word that is typically translated “mind” or “intellect” but that really indicates “our capacity to perceive reality directly without dependence on the physical senses” or we might say our “intuition”). This central area (or chest as C.S. Lewis calls it) rests between the rational thoughts of our brain and the desires, passions, or emotions of our stomach and other lower organs. Our ability to quietly perceive reality with a direct intuition (independent of both calculated thinking and of passionate emotions) should be our most basic capacity as humans and the capacity that we rely upon to give direction to our rational thoughts as well as to our emotions and bodily desires. However, instead, we typically live entirely within our brains or our bellies, and we have left our chests ignored, forgotten, and shut down. Icons can help us to recognize with (and in) our hearts that we are standing before God, at His throne, at all times. Icons can give us a place to rest quietly and patiently, listening for God in our chests. This is not achieved with our eyes or with our sharp mental analysis, but simply with a patient attention to God’s presence. All of God’s creation is made by Him to serve as a means of grace that can help to communicate His presence to us as humans. Icons of Christ and His saints are powerful means of extending this God-revealing quality of creation and of the incarnation into our homes and hearts.

Now to list a couple things that Dallas Willard did not say:

  1. Icons are indented to be aides in the prayer and worship of Jesus Christ (incarnate, resurrected, and enthroned in heaven). This can be done as private, family, or church prayers. If we don’t use icons this way (at least at some simple level privately), we run the risk of abstracting them and of failing to benefit from them as a means of God’s grace.
  2. Also, icons are intended for veneration. They are a tangible focal point and a means of expressing our commitment and love to Jesus Christ. As it feels appropriate and comfortable, it is a blessing to express this love in simple acts of kissing, kneeling, and prostration. This becomes much more understandable and meaningful at home when it is learned slowly (and practiced regularly) within the context of church worship services. However, it is a blessing to learn simple acts of veneration and love within private prayer and devotion even when this is not part of the practice within your church worship.

All this being said, it is best to keep everything simple and small at the outset. Once you begin to make use of icons in prayer, the practice tends to grow naturally.

Regarding what icons to consider starting with, I can give more thoughts if that is wanted. However, the key is really that you find icons that are meaningful and beautiful to you. Do some research and look at a good variety of options on your own. Ideally, the person making the icon should have a deep and prayerful respect for the long history of writing icons under the authority of the church. Here are two great places to purchase icons:

[Note on Christ the Bridegroom Icon at the top of this post: During the first service on Palm Sunday evening, the priest carries an icon of Christ the Bridegroom to the front of the church, where it remains until Holy Thursday. The three days of Holy Week it is there are dedicated to Jesus Christ as the central figure in the parable of the Ten Virgins (Matthew 25: 1-13). This parable is perfect for the week leading up to Easter, as its clear message is to be prepared for the coming of Christ. From the evening service: “Behold, the Bridegroom comes in the middle of the night, and blessed is the servant He shall find vigilant.” (Troparion of the Bridegroom Service) Given the eschatological undertones of the services, it might be expected for the Bridegroom icon to show Christ in Glory, or at His Second Coming. Yet the Icon shows Christ humiliated by Pontius Pilate’s soldiers (Matthew 27:27-31). In a cruel irony, the soldiers mockingly worshiped Jesus and through insults proclaimed Him rightly to be the King of the Jews. Crowned with thorns, cloaked in scarlet, bound and holding a reed, this is how Christ appears in the Bridegroom Icon. The crown is a symbol of Christian marriage in the Orthodox Church, and the ropes binding Christ’s hand are a near-universal symbol of marriage. The reed used as a mock-scepter is a symbol of humility, of a person that does all possible to bend in service to others.]

On the Death and Birth of Aragorn

“The funeral-boat of Boromir.” Anke Katrin Eißmann. 1999.

One month ago, my fourteen-year-old daughter told me that I should write a tribute to Aragorn for March 1st, the date of his birth and his death. I was proud that she had March 1st associated with Aragorn in her mind and flattered that she would want me to write a tribute to him. Therefore, with some advanced notice and a few snow-days in the interim, I wrote it.

Near the end of my first time hearing The Lord of the Rings trilogy read out loud to me, I can remember looking back on my first impressions of Strider and hardly believing that I had once mistrusted him. Tolkien’s roguish introduction to Aragorn in the common room at The Prancing Pony is a profound reason for the love that so many have for Aragorn. We first come to know Aragorn through the eyes of the hobbits, as a relatable yet mysterious character. In the rest of the story, we are introduced to his many names and honors only gradually and in small, appreciable glimpses. Collecting together material from all of Tolkien’s writings, Aragorn is exalted virtually beyond comprehension:

  1. one of the children of Lúthien;
  2. the son of Arathorn II and his wife Gilraen;
  3. the wielder of the sword Andúril (reforged from the shards of Elendil’s sword Narsil);
  4. Isildur’s Heir and commander of the Grey Host;
  5. crowned as King Elessar Telcontar (meaning “Elfstone” and “Strider”);
  6. the restorer of the divided kingdoms of of Arnor and Gondor;
  7. the last of the Númenóreans and the Elendili in the Third Age;
  8. the first king of the Forth Age;
  9. the last of the Dúnedain or Rangers of the North;
  10. and the husband of Arwen (son-in-law of Elrond), therefore a re-uniter of the two Half-elven families (Arwen being the daughter of the immortal Elrond and Aragorn being the 60th-generation descendant of Elrond’s twin brother, Elros, who chose mortality).

Long before Frodo Baggins encountered Strider just outside of the firelight in the inn at Bree, Tolkien himself had already been loving and developing Aragorn’s elaborate family story for several decades. Tolkien started to write the story of Aragorn’s exalted linage in 1914 at age 22 while serving in World War I, and Tolkien did not start connecting his humble hobbit story (written in the 1930s) to the story of Aragorn’s epic heritage until 24 years later in 1938 at age 46. These older epics were not inspired by Aragorn but led up to him, and they were not published until after Tolkien’s death (when they were first collected as The Silmarillion). This blending of worlds in The Lord of Ring ended up taking many years and being written in large part as a series of chapter-letters to his son who was serving in World War II. We hobbit-like people of this current age (pragmatic and democratic to a fault) are virtually incapable of reverencing Aragorn’s illustrious ancestry (the content of Tolkien’s first and deepest love). We fans are blessed indeed that Tolkien thought of hobbits in his midlife and then eventually found a way to bring them into contact with Aragorn and his world. This happy collision guided us gently into the final days of the Maiar, high elves, ents, and Númenóreans.

Aragorn ends up playing an essential part in this wooing of our imaginations when we first encounter him as the despised and enigmatic Strider. When Aragorn stands up to reveal his power and authority to Frodo and the other hobbits (leaving them with a terrible decision to make), this rough-looking Ranger of the North becomes a critical link between the humdrum world of the Shire and the mythic world of ancient men and elves. Aragorn’s own suffering in life had prepared him to play this part graciously and well. He was never frustrated by the ignorance of those around him regarding the many legends, peoples, and royal families of which he knew so much. One example of this is when Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas explain to an impatient and suspicious troop of the Riders of Rohan that they are tracking two hobbits. A rider standing beside Éomer replied with a laugh:

“Halflings! But they are only a little people in old songs and children’s tales out of the North. Do we walk in legends or on the green earth in daylight?”

“A man may do both,” said Aragorn. “For not we but those who come after will make the legends of our time. The green earth, say you? That is a mighty matter of legend, though you tread it under the light of day!”

Aragorn, more than most men, could do both. He could stride the green earth in daylight while defending the truth that we also walk in legends.

In his early years, Tolkien was systematically creating a mythic backstory that the barbarians of his island did not have. Tolkien literally worked backwards from the oldest languages and stories of his island peoples, creating the histories and the word-roots of multiple languages in a process of reverse-evolutionary legend-making. With the Númenóreans of Aragorn’s family tree, Tolkien was giving a proper mythic ancestry to kings such as Arthur (late 400s to early 500s), Alfred the Great (c. 847 to 899), Cnut the Great (c. 995 to 1035), and William the Conqueror (c. 1028 to 1087). By the time that Tolkien was finished, he had carefully crafted multiple languages and evolving alphabets (of elves, men, and dwarves) as well as complex dynasties for each of these races that covered many generations—leading all the way back to the singing into existence of the world by an exhaled order of powers who directly served Eru Ilúvatar (in the high elvish language of Quenya, Eru means “The One” or “He that is Alone” while Ilúvatar means “Allfather”).

Tolkien was filling in (for his own delight, initially) stories that sit behind the misty past of the English-speaking peoples—working in a layer of mythic time that was equivalent to the places of Cain, Seth, Enoch, Nimrod, and Solomon within the stories of the Semitic peoples from the Fertile Crescent to Ethiopia. This project was certainly born out of a great love for his own English people, but it was not done under the assumption that his ancestry was somehow uniquely noble. German Nazi’s were interested in having his books translated into German, and sent a letter to his publisher praising the books and asking if they could verify Tolkien’s ancestry. Disgusted by this inquiry, Tolkien wrote (on July 25, 1938):

If I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people. My great-great-grandfather came to England in the eighteenth century from Germany: the main part of my descent is therefore purely English, and I am an English subject — which should be sufficient. I have been accustomed, nonetheless, to regard my German name with pride, and continued to do so throughout the period of the late regrettable war, in which I served in the English army. I cannot, however, forbear to comment that if impertinent and irrelevant inquiries of this sort are to become the rule in matters of literature, then the time is not far distant when a German name will no longer be a source of pride.

Aragorn stands at the beginning of the age of men (were Tolkien leaves off all of his story telling), and it is clear that Aragorn’s linage extends to the people of today. Tolkien clearly desired to give the English people a mythic ancestor who could be a worthy source of pride. Aragorn himself honored all men and races of creatures, elevating the hobbits above himself at several points. Tolkien’s images of evil in his works speak boldly against all forms of corrosive power and pride. We see a portrait of this worthy ancestor that Tolkien wanted to give to his own English people in these words of Legolas:

In that hour I looked on Aragorn and thought how great and terrible a Lord he might have become in the strength of his will, had he taken the Ring to himself. Not for naught does Mordor fear him. But nobler is his spirit than the understanding of Sauron; for is he not of the children of Lúthien? Never shall that line fail, though the years may lengthen beyond count.

However, with The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien achieved far more than the story of a particular people. Anyone can learn to love Aragorn and the fellowship of which he becomes a part. Harper Collins publishing house reports official translations into 39 languages, and fans report quite a few more.

In college, a group of four dear friends and I began to call ourselves the Dúnedain. I do not want to take this tribute in a personal direction and to pay honor to myself, but I want to illustrate my own gratitude. Without presuming to speak for these friends, I can say that my own love for Aragorn was focused on his most relatable and basic of human traits: the loss of his parents as a child (to learn only late in life of his royal lineage), the long line of exiled and hidden kings before him, the love of a woman whose character and beauty humbles him, the endurance (along with his comrades) of mistrust and suffering while waiting in the wilderness over many years, his long watch-keeping on the outskirts of the Shire, his faithfulness to Gandalf through many risky and (sometimes) pointless-seeming assignments, his respect and care for a noblewoman who falls in love with him, his compassion for the fall of a great lord who could not pass by the opportunity to seize power in an attempt to restore his people and achieve much good. This long list fits into simple and familiar categories that anyone can appreciate.

But perhaps Aragorn’s most endearing quality in the end is his respect for the hobbits, his great faithfulness to them, and his ultimate trust in them. He starts by giving them the freedom to accept his help or not. He trusts them to take on the greatest task alone. He tracks two of them over many weary days in almost utter hopelessness. And he places them on his own throne at the end of all their labors. Aragorn admired the Shire-folk deeply, and this enduring love makes his humanity clear.

These simple qualities won my heart as a child and have left me (along with many dear friends and family) profoundly indebted. In later years, I came to learn that Aragorn followed in an ancient tradition of those who died on the day of their birth and of those who foresaw their coming death and accepted it immediately, with complete peace and contentment. However, these higher and mythic qualities are not what first won my heart. To this day, these epic elements only point me remotely to values and stories that I can barely comprehend. Like many others who have come to love Aragorn in the 64 years since Tolkien published The Lord of the Rings, I’m still learning what this love means, and I expect to continue learning this until my own death.

“Strider.” Oil on hardboard, 24″ x 30.” ©2010 Matthew Stewart.

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.