This eulogy was written for my mother’s funeral on August 29, 2014. A few months before, she was diagnosed with a Class 4 glioblastoma (brain cancer) which ultimately claimed her life. A somewhat shorter version of this text was delivered at the funeral service.
Funeral Service of Sandy Damick, August 29, 2014
Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick
Colorado Springs, Colorado
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
As a Christian pastor, I have delivered many eulogies and sermons at funerals. Some have been for people I have known for some time, some for only a short time, and some for people I never met while they were still alive. No matter how well the departed person is known, anyone who speaks at funerals can tell you that it is never an easy task to find the right words to shape fittingly for the moment. Yet nevertheless, a eulogy must be spoken.
The people of our family often like to pause and reflect on what particular words mean, and today I want to draw attention to this word eulogy. It is from Greek, and it means “a good word” or “a blessing.” Colloquially, people use it to mean the good words that are said about someone at his funeral, but in its Christian context, it is larger than that. A funeral blessing must be a blessing for those who hear it, not only to bring fit remembrance of the person who has departed, but to affect the hearers in a larger way.
So what “good word” can a son offer for his mother?
There is no more powerful nor vivid image of motherhood in Scripture or really in human history than the relationship between the Firstborn of all creation and His mother, that is, our Lord Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary. And if one is to search for that “good word” for a mother, here is a good place to look.
When the Archangel Gabriel said to the young Mary that she would become the mother of the Son of God, her response to him was “Let it be to me according to your word.” Some may see in this statement a mere acquiescence. After all, what does one say in the face of an archangel with a message from God? One hardly says “No, thank you.” But we must remember that her consent was preceded first by a question of wonder, that she did not understand how this conception could be. The consent of the Virgin was not given out of a sense of inevitability or fate. She was not the helpless plaything of an overbearing deity like the women who encountered the pagan gods of old. No, this was the chosen alignment of her will with the will of the one true God.
And as I think of the life of my own mother, she really was the same. There were many times when she was presented with some great task—whether it was a task that the world would consider great or not does not really matter—and she did not merely resign herself to its inevitability. She could have said no. Should could have escaped. She could have quit.
But that wasn’t my mother. She chose to give her consent. She chose to align her will with the will of God, and just like the mother of the Lord Jesus, that choice put into practice again and again throughout her life eventually became almost reflexive. She got to the point where she did not have to mull over in her mind whether to do what God set before her. She simply did it. She chose kindness so many times that she became kind. She chose service so many times that she became a servant.
There are other incidents in the life of the mother of Jesus that are also worth mentioning here. The Gospels mention a moment when she and his brothers wanted to see Him, and He responded “My mother and brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it” (Luke 8:19-21). And there is another moment when a woman in a crowd shouted out, “Blessed is the womb that bore You, and the breasts which nursed You!” and He responded, “More than that, blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” (Luke 11:27-28).
These are not rebukes of His mother, despite what some may say. What son could rebuke his mother like that, especially publicly? Rather, these sayings from the Lord Jesus underline how He felt about His mother—her motherhood and the blessedness that she had were because she heard the word of God and she did it.
This is something that I not only admired about my mother but which imparted to me and to many who knew her a core sense of identity—blessedness is to hear the word of God and to keep it, to do it, to make it who you are. No one could ever doubt this about my mother. And although it may not be that “all generations” will call my mother blessed as they have the mother of Jesus Christ (Luke 1:48), there is no doubt that this generation will call her blessed.
But why? Is it because of these qualities that my mother has? Yes, but we have to ask where she came by them, and not only what the content of her character was but what the context of her character was. It is clear to me that it is the same for her as it was for the mother of Jesus, who said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, / And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior. / For He has regarded the lowly state of his maidservant; / For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed. / For He Who is mighty has done great things for me. / And holy is His name. / And His mercy is on those who fear Him / From generation to generation” (Luke 1:46-50).
This is indeed the message of my mother’s life. It is the same message as anyone who says to God, “Let it be to me according to your word.” Christ’s mother followed Him even to death, and she even stood at the cross and watched her Son die. And now my mother has followed that same Son even to death, and we have watched her die, some from nearby and some from far away. But as the Lord’s mother witnessed just a few days after her Son’s death, death is not the end. For there was something much bigger happening, something much bigger even than that which can be encompassed by the grief of those who love watching their beloved slip from this life.
Earlier this week, as it became known among my friends that my mother had died, many of them greeted me with what might be thought of as a curious greeting. It is a greeting which I believe is unique to the Christians of the Middle East, who have stood as witnesses to the reality of Jesus Christ for some twenty centuries now, and many of whom make up my own flock and are in my circles. And how did they greet me on the death of my mother? They said to me, “Christ is risen!”
The Lord Jesus said: “Most assuredly, I say to you, the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God; and those who hear will live. For as the Father has life in Himself, so He has granted the Son to have life in Himself, and has given Him authority to execute judgment also, because He is the Son of Man. Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation” (John 5:24-29).
This is the truth which my mother knew and which she witnessed to again and again—that the Son of God, Who is God and therefore has life in Himself, will someday raise His divine-human voice, and every single person who has ever died will stand up out of their graves and live. But first we wait. My mother has now gone to that place of waiting, where she receives a foretaste of what is to come, where she along with her mother and father and all of departed mankind await the resurrection. And it’s coming. Because Christ is risen, death is slain. Because Christ is risen, Hell has no victory. Because Christ is risen, this moment which seems now to overwhelm us will someday pass away and be just a memory.
The memory of these recent days which will be most treasured for me will be how my mother on that Sunday night now about a month ago called her closest family to her and took each one of them into her arms and prayed a blessing for us. Her thought was not to her own suffering nor comfort. Rather, she wanted to give each of us something of what she herself had received from the Lord of Resurrection, and she spoke also of the work that God had appointed for each of us.
An ancient account, preserved in Christian history, recounts some of the words which the mother of Jesus said before she herself was about to depart this life. They may be legendary—who knows?—but their truth rises above the issue of historical fact. Having gathered the Apostles to herself, brought there from the ends of the earth where they had been preaching Christ, she said to them:
“Do not sorrow, my children, for you make me sad when I see you cry so. Although I shall be going to my Son, O friends of my Son, yet I will not be apart from you… Do not darken my joy by your sorrow and mourning. Much rather, rejoice with me, for I am going to my Son and God. My body, which I have myself prepared for burial, commit to the earth in Gethsemane. Afterward, return again to the preaching of the Gospel appointed to you. If the Lord should will it, you shall see me after my departure” (The Great Synaxaristes, August 15).
This is what life—and death—are really about, a longing to see the Son of God. It is what gave my mother joy and peace as she began her own passage from this life. One might say that she stared death in its face, but really, she had no time for that—she was looking into the Face of Christ. We long to see her now, to wish that this all had never happened. But no matter what happens, we shall all someday die, as well, should the Lord tarry a few more years. But the direction we all must aim for is this same one, the one that will enable us to see her after her departure.
That direction is the great and holy hope of Christians, the hope of the resurrection of all. For just as Christ rose from the dead, we too shall all likewise be raised. And rising, our song shall be:
“O Death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory? Christ is risen, and you are overthrown! Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen! Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice! Christ is risen, and life reigns! Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave! For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. To Him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages. Amen” (Paschal Sermon of St. John Chrysostom).
My friend Seraphim Danckaert published an article today on the O&H site that I think every Christian (Orthodox or not) should read: Losing our Religion: On “Retaining” Young People in the Orthodox Church. Why? Almost every kind of church throughout America is losing kids. So read it first before reading the rest of this.
First, some bad news: If you’re counting on your church having awesome programs for your kids to make them be and keep them being good Christians, you’re going to be let down. There is only so much they can do, and expecting that they will do all the heavy lifting in your child’s spiritual life is extremely unrealistic. On a personal note, I’ve spoken with many 20- and 30-somethings who were very active in youth groups, Bible studies, outreach projects, etc., who all checked out of church after they left home. Their problem wasn’t that they weren’t active in public religiosity. It goes deeper, to the day to day stuff. Follow the path home. That’s where they learned to be adults. If the faith isn’t visible at home, which should be regarded as a “little church,” then it’s not going to be visible when your children start their own homes. You cannot outsource the spiritual side of parenting. And simply taking them to Sunday School (even consistently, which itself doesn’t seem to happen often any more) isn’t enough, either.
Okay, some good news: This piece is good news for all those parents who are striving to make their faith real in the home. Mothers especially are the heroes here, but fathers are critical, as well. Pray together with your kids, and not just over meals. Pray before they go to bed and at other times. Read the Bible to them. Read saints’ lives to them. Talk with them about what you read. Let your kids hear you talk about your faith, your hopes, your trust in God, your wish that you could spend more time in church, more time in prayer. Let them see you reading the Bible and other spiritual books. When you’re alone in your study and praying and your toddler sneaks in to play with forbidden things, pick him up and keep praying. All that agonizing you’re going through to make faith alive in your home is not in vain.
Another obvious conclusion is that you shouldn’t choose godparents for your kids based purely on familial or friend relationships. Your child needs to have an adult spiritual mentor who will model adult faith. Your pastor probably cannot be that person, not just because he cannot be an at-home part of your child’s life with great frequency but also because his status as a clergyman puts him outside the “role model” world for most kids. Most kids don’t imagine themselves as clergy, but they are more likely to imagine themselves to be like an aunt or uncle or close family friend. Imagination is critical in terms of spiritual possibility. If a child knows what it looks like to be a serious Christian adult, he’s more likely to be able to do it.
Regarding Seraphim’s third point, that a child needs not only authentic home spiritual life and a non-parent spiritual mentor, but that he also needs to have a spiritual experience of some kind before he hits his late teens, well, that can be a bit harder. You can’t make a kid experience the grace of God. But one thing we can count on is that there will be crises. And the direction we go when we experience a crisis will very much determine whether we experience grace. Do we model for our kids that we take such things to our pastors and into the sacrament of confession, that our first remedy is prayer and fasting? Or do we look for other solutions? (This is not to say that sometimes medical help may not be validly required, but it shouldn’t be sought out to the exclusion of spiritual guidance.) Someone who is raised going to confession regularly (not just once a year!) will likely think of his confessor as a go-to resource for dealing with a crisis. And while there’s no guarantee, he’s more likely to experience God’s grace there than if he turns to some other remedy.
I write all this in the context of working on the youth ministry in my own parish. It seems to me that it should probably mostly be geared to teaching how to make all these things a part of daily life, not just making time to get together and be spiritual and/or religious for a while and then go home. I also write this in the context of learning how to be a better father to three little Christians. I’m no expert. But I’m working on it. And I’m glad my wife is working hard on raising our children as Christians, too.
Ten years ago today, Nicole Ann Boury married me. After ten years, I’m still not entirely sure why she did it. I know I haven’t always made her happy. I know I’ve many times made her unhappy. But even through all the uncertainty and instability of the past ten years—which is not very much for some, but is for us—we still belong.
Over this past decade, there have been a good many things we used to have in common that we no longer do. Life changed us. We got bored with some things. We discovered new things. We discovered that stuff we thought we had in common really wasn’t. One by one, our preconceptions of what married life is supposed to be have come to light. Many have been set aside. But we still belong, and this marriage is ours.
As I’ve spent nearly the past eight years as an ordained cleric, my understanding of marriage has been clarified by my experience in the diaconate and the priesthood. Ordination is a gift, not a right, and it mainly consists of duties and calling, not of desires and personal dreams and hopes for fulfillment. Certainly, each of us in holy orders brings his own particular style and emphases to the vocation, but we nevertheless do not call ourselves. And we can indeed be un-called. The same holds true for marriage. In both marriage and ordination, there is a walk around an altar or its analogue, and in those steps, three times around, the walkers are changed. They now belong to something larger than themselves, to which they are responsible, something they did not invent and cannot reinvent.
I’m not sure when I’ll ever be very good at either of these ordinations I’ve been given—husband and (then) priest (a temporal order that is deliberate and necessary)—but they’re what I’ve been given, and so I have to do them.
What we’ve found along the way as our things in common have gradually gone by the wayside is that what we have in common that is far greater than any of these other things is the community that God has founded in and through us. We now have three children, each with his or her own personality, habits, delights and challenges. And as much as I cannot imagine life without Nicole, I also now cannot imagine life without them. I want them to exist, and life before their existence in retrospect seems diminished.
I deal with broken relationships all the time, whether pastorally or personally, and the tragedy of that brokenness affects me, even if it is “only” the tragedy of death, where the relationship’s brokenness is not the fault of anyone involved but is the price that continues to be paid for the sin of Adam and Eve. I thank God that that tragedy has not entered into our home, and I must admit a certain degree of fear when I imagine it.
I love my wife. I love my kids. I thank God for them all. I do not know whether I will ever be very good at loving them. It always seems not quite enough, not quite the right thing. Grand plans in my head all just sort of fizzle out. Yet somehow we have this decade, and in it we’ve lived in six different homes, brought three children into the world, survived seminary, served in two different parishes, said farewell too many times to too many people (too many of them, until the next life), lost hair, gained weight, lost weight, lost friends, gained friends, gained family, finally bought a house, finally started planting a garden, finally started thinking really long-term. Finally. Finally.
But so much more to go.
This has been our decade, though—a gift, but given for us and for our salvation. For growth. For holiness. And it seems sometimes that we have only just made a beginning. The Fathers say that that is enough. And I have hope that it is—a hope for belonging.
I love my wife, and I hope she keeps forgiving me, and I hope I keep learning how to forgive and how to repent. Because someday everything will make sense. Because everything we do in this life is for that Day, that bright, bright Day.
Unto ages of ages. Finally to belong.
In the past few weeks, I’ve learned of impending relocations of more relatives west of the Mississippi River, including one family that has been in the same state for decades and one elderly relative who has even been in the same house since the mid-1960s. One by one or in clumps, over the past several years it seems that both sides of my family (or at least the parts I stayed in touch with) are gradually relocating at least two time zones to the west, with all indications that they mean the move to be permanent.
I couldn’t quite place how I felt about all that when I learned it. It seemed a combination of anger, disappointment, betrayal, regret, helplessness and loss all bound up together into one unnameable emotion.
I don’t blame the individual members for their reasons, to be sure. For some, it is for work. For some, it is health. For others, it is simply a desire for a major change of scenery they’ve never had before. For still others, it is to be close to those who were already headed that way. And even though we haven’t lived less than hundreds of miles from most of them for many years, this series of relocations seems to me far more tragic than when we at least lived in the same time zone, within a day’s drive.
It all seems just wrong, like a violation of some sort. And of course, I suppose I have little room to talk. I ran off and went to seminary, offering up my locus and domus on a platter to the hierarchy like a good soldier. I just happened to get assigned to my native time zone at something relatively near my accustomed latitude. So my loyalty to—what, exactly?—only remains vaguely intact for reasons mainly beyond my control. But I still nevertheless feel that it is right I should be here (even though it is no credit to me) and that my family ought to be somewhere accessible to me and to my children. Shouldn’t they be allowed to know them?
Again, I am not blaming any of them individually or even as a group. Their reasons are all pretty decent reasons. But for many of them—for many of us, I should say—there is nothing to violate. There is no home. There is no hometown. There is no ancestral land, no place where we all once were from, no place to go back home to. There’s just nothing.
For generations now, my family on both sides has been mobile. They usually didn’t head this far out, to be sure, but they were mobile. There hasn’t been a home for… well, I don’t exactly know how long. Maybe a century. Home seems to me some kind of artifact hanging on the wall of a museum, fashioned by hands long cold and dead. I can see it and see how beautiful it is, but I can’t quite touch it. It is out of reach, behind the glass, above my head, somewhere else. But not here.
One of the curiosities of what it means to experience the peoples of Orthodox Christianity in America is that we are always encountering immigration. In one form or another, immigration touches everything we do. Everyone here either is or knows someone who is far from home, who has left family behind somewhere, stranded on a map somewhere. We continually are confronted by uprootedness, an unsettled restlessness where the heart is always somewhere else. But even the immigrant has a home, a place to locate his heart, even if it is not here. I’m not really sure what my family has. It’s not that.
My wife and I made a commitment to try to give our children this thing we’ve never had—a home. It’s kind of laughable, though, isn’t it? I’ve moved twenty-two times, and she’s moved twenty-three. We’re not experts on home, not by a long shot. But we want roots. I want them really badly.
Roots are a curious thing, though, something that can take generations really to put down, even for trees. And some trees will never come to their full glory within the lifetime of those who plant them. I feel that way sometimes about my now 15-year-old move into Orthodoxy. I know so many families whose whole lives are bound up in this faith, bound together with cords that are centuries old, and I am deeply covetous. I don’t know of anything that binds my family together like that. Even though most of them are all Evangelicals of one sort or another, they’re distributed nearly randomly among a post-denominational handful of churches that happen to be close to them and are mainly the kind of thing they’re used to.
But I dream of “the Orthodox Damicks,” and I don’t know if I will ever see such a thing. Right now, we are the only ones. Will my children remain in the Church? Will they marry Orthodox Christians and raise Orthodox Christians? Will they know Emmaus as their home and remain in the Lehigh Valley so that we all will celebrate Pascha and Christmas and Theophany together, so that I will get to baptize and marry them, so that many cousins will go to church together, so that love will not only be something we do over the telephone?
Forgive me all this. I know it’s self-indulgent. But I do have a point in all this. Even though it’s true that we have no continuing city, that we seek the one to come, we best reflect and preach that city that is to come by making the homes we have into Paradise as much as we are able.
I think it will be long after I am dead before the Orthodox Damicks will have their earthly Paradise, at least the incomplete, contingent one that will help them along to salvation toward the true Paradise. But like a monk I know once told me, you still plant the tree, even though you know it may be a century before it’s truly grown.
Gardening is hard. We do it anyway.
I feel that as long as the Shire lies behind, safe and comfortable, I shall find wandering more bearable: I shall know that somewhere there is a firm foothold, even if my feet cannot stand there again. —Frodo Baggins
I happened upon this quotation again yesterday evening, while I was reading my daughter The Lord of the Rings. It seems a dauntingly long tome to read to a five-year-old, but of course we have years, if need be. She’s also already listened to the whole of The Hobbit and liked what she heard and wanted to hear more about hobbits. So of course I could not resist. Naturally she will not remember everything or understand all the details this time around, but that doesn’t particularly matter. So it goes with all of the good tales for any of us, including, I think, the Book itself.
As someone who is in some sense homeless (though not houseless), having lived now in twenty-two separate dwellings across fifteen towns, six states and one unincorporated territory, these words from Frodo in anticipation of his great Quest always make me a bit sad. Much of Tolkien’s work is about a sense of loss, of remembering things that never will return, and when Frodo speaks these words to Gandalf, he has no idea yet how much he will lose, that he will indeed lose the Shire for himself, even while he saves it for others.
The sadness that I feel is not quite Frodo’s sadness, though, because there is no geographic place that I have left behind and can return to or at least hope for while I am in my wanderings. And while I do intend to spend the rest of my days here in Emmaus, I think that it is too late for me to have a home. Though I am not old, I am too old for that. I’ve done it backwards from Frodo—I have tried to find a home after my wandering rather than embarked upon my wandering from a home already found and already loved.
My point here is not really about me, though. My life is what God has permitted it to be, even if I’ve muddled it up here and there, and I am grateful for what I have received. No, the point is about that “firm foothold” that Frodo mentions. For him, it is the Shire, and he carries memories of the Shire throughout the Quest to destroy evil. I do not have a Shire of my own, not in the sense that there is some specific place I can place my mind’s feet to gain that firm foothold.
But even though some of us are homeless in this life, I think that we nonetheless have the possibility for such a firm foothold, for a memory of beauty and homeliness (to use homely in its British sense, roughly homey in American English, though not so rustic). I hope I can say this without sounding like a romantic, but for me that firm foothold has become the worship of the Church, most especially in its Byzantine iteration, with which I was first imprinted in Orthodoxy. It is not quite the same as having a home in the earthier sense—a sense I encourage all to develop as best they can, even in such a homeless state as I find myself—but there is certainly a firm foothold to be had there, a power and glory and sense of belonging that can be carried along in any place of wandering, any struggle, any peril, as we pursue our own great Quest.
There are many instances throughout the history of the Church in which the saints, those people who were most infused with God’s presence here on earth, did something peculiar as they faced imprisonment, torture and even death—they sang hymns. I cannot help but think that their experiences in worshiping the one True God in His Body the Church became for them the firm foothold that made their wandering bearable. And when faced with the gravest of circumstances, they called to mind that power and energy, and they brought it forth again in an act of anamnesis (a term usually referred to the invocational memory that brings Christ’s passion and death into the here and now as the Eucharist). While Frodo could only engage in mneia (recall), we Christians have the possibility for anamnesis, bringing the Savior Whose salvation we remember into the very present by means of collective invocational memory.
As we do that, the orcs and Uruk-hai and evil wizards and the Ringwraiths and even the Enemy himself can be borne rightly, with patience and even with love and with joy. And in so doing, like Frodo, we can also destroy evil and loosen its hold on our hearts.
The world is trying the experiment of attempting to form a civilized but non-Christian mentality. The experiment will fail; but we must be very patient in awaiting its collapse; meanwhile redeeming the time; so that the Faith may be preserved alive through the dark ages before us; to renew and rebuild civilization, and to save the world from suicide. —T. S. Eliot, “Thoughts After Lambeth”
When my wife and I married, one of our major logistical problems was figuring out where to put our combined libraries. We still have this problem, although we have discharged a number of volumes from our total. Among the books that were not part of the original merger but are an increasing portion of our cache are tomes with titles ranging from When Technology Fails to The Square Foot Garden. We are, in short, stocking up on books (and items) toward the goal of being more self-sustaining. We have various reasons for this, but one of them is the sense that a possibility exists that we need things like a manual flour mill, because it’s possible that the industrial civilization around us may well collapse. It’s also—and this is perhaps a bit less obvious—because the spiritual civilization around us has already collapsed.
Rod Dreher has written in a couple pieces recently (here and here, both well worth reading), specifically addressing the question of same-sex marriage (SSM) but also touching on larger issues, that the culture war has essentially been lost by conservative Christians. (I use “conservative Christian” here to refer to a theological outlook, not a political one, though of course there are political implications to all theology.)
He writes that the time has come for Christians in America to use libertarian strategies to secure religious liberty for themselves before they find their churches, businesses, education and even private behavior overwhelmed and even outright persecuted, because the competing moral vision that includes same-sex marriage as only one of its many tenets will demand more and more of the moral imagination of the people. The time is coming when Christians will not be allowed merely to tolerate moral dictates that are contrary to their own doctrines but will be expected to endorse and participate in them, or else face real penalties.
As I noted a few posts back, religious liberty is already being penalized by the courts because believers have the temerity to try to live out what their faiths teach them—and I’m not talking about trying to “impose” their beliefs on anyone else, but simply trying to live them for themselves. Christian doctrine is already thoughtcrime in countries not terribly unlike ours, and I have little reason to believe that we will somehow remain exempt.
I am not much of a social prognosticator, but I think Dreher’s right. The culture of what a writer he quotes refers to as “atomism”—that the most basic moral commandment of society is that the individual should be allowed to do whatever he wants under nearly any circumstances, that there is no grand narrative larger than the individual—has become so pervasive that something like SSM is, in Dreher’s words, “only a skirmish in a much broader war that we’ve lost. The essence of the problem? The collapse of Christianity as the foundational bulwark of our civilization — something that happened long before anybody had the slightest interest in promoting same-sex marriage, or the Sexual Revolution.”
That is, the foundation of what was Christendom was ripped out long ago, and I would trace that to long before America’s founding. It’s taken a long time for it to come to such foundational errors regarding the nature of humanity as the Sexual Revolution makes, but those are only logical extensions of the atomistic culture of liberalism—and here, again, I am not speaking of political liberalism exactly, but of this moral idea that the individual and his desires is the only absolute on which the culture is built.
I think that conservative Christians’ problem is that we’re acting as though Christendom is under attack and that we have to defend it. But look around, folks. Christendom has already fallen. All we have left are the ruins, a handful of basic affirmations like the inherent worth of the person and the equality of all mankind—but even those things are subject to the charismatic domination of some ideology or leader, who may well turn those things on their heads, as the 20th century so amply demonstrated for us. As Dreher writes, “My sense is that we Christians and other traditionalists had better plan for resistance in the long run. My fear is that by focusing so many of our resources on fighting for ground we’ve already lost, we will have left ourselves unprepared to build the structures and strategies we are going to need to pass on what we know to be true to future generations in a culture, legal and otherwise, that is going to be ever more hostile to those beliefs.”
We cannot act any longer as though we are imperial soldiers defending the borders of the empire from the barbarians. We are resistance fighters engaged in a guerrilla battle against an occupying force that conquered us generations ago. Or, if you like, we are now in much the same situation of the Apostles, who had no particular dreams of reforming the government but were instead concerned with getting the light of Gospel into a world covered in darkness.
So what, then, do we do? I think we have to continue to speak sanity clearly even in the halls of the insane, and we have to be willing to suffer for it. Even if we could use the force of law to try to enshrine certain moral precepts into the legal code, such things will not last long, as they would be counter to the prevailing cultural logic of the age. True morality is always about more than the individual, about an appeal to a narrative grander than myself alone and certainly far grander than the state with its guns. In any event, I do not believe that making the state our primary mode of speaking truth to the culture will actually serve the truth. We should of course remain involved in the political sphere, but we have to keep in mind that the law can only restrain. It cannot make men moral.
If there is going to be any hope for Christians in a post-Christendom culture, it can only be found in that primal Apostolic fire that once, long ago, turned the world upside down. We may well have to suffer some martyrdom. But we will also have to show an increasingly inhuman society what it means to be human. That is the real purpose behind a Christian localism—to demonstrate a humanity of love to those who can receive it, who are right next to us and mostly only know the Machine. This is also the purpose of our evangelism—not only to save individual souls (though that would be enough!) but also to build a new culture, refounded on the one foundation of Christ. The Church has always been counter-cultural, but in some points in history the contrast with the surrounding culture is greater than others. This is one of those moments in history.
All this is part of the great worth of homeschooling, pilgrimage, gardening, opting out of the 24/7 entertainment/infotainment culture, knitting church communities more tightly together, and learning all the skills that many of our pioneering forebears had to know for survival. We may well need these things for basic survival, especially if the moral corrosion of post-Christendom continues to express itself in economic corrosion. But even apart from these skills’ value for survival, they also teach us to be human, to be humane, to love, to deny extraneous and unnecessary possessions. They have a spiritual value, both for our own salvation and for our evangelism.
We may well find ourselves in a situation not unlike that described in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, in which most of a galaxy is plunged into war and barbarism, but there are two libraries (“foundations”) at distant corners of the galaxy, waiting for their contents to be used to restore civilization far more quickly would have formed unaided. Christians may end up being embattled enclaves of sanity, whose very existence will stand witness to the world that it is possible to live with self-sacrificial love for one another and who will retain the knowledge of how to worship the one God and to receive the divine energies needed to be fully human.
Even if it really is the case that religious liberty is not about to be overwhelmed by the atomist culture of materialism and desire, we still have to approach this culture as the Apostles did their own. We live in an empire that is not Christendom, but rather the domain of spiritual powers working for the Enemy. If the Gospel is going to fall on ears that are anything but deaf to it, it will have to be accompanied by a clear, authentic demonstration of the humanity of love, a sane humanity that loves people, loves the earth, and treats all persons and places as holy and bearing the sacred imprint of the Creator. We will soon be the only alternative to the madness of the Machine.
And some of us may well have to die. I hope we’ll be ready.
The following is a repost from September of 2008, when our first child (now 5, the older one you see in this photo) was only 18 months old. Since my wife just gave birth to our third child (also pictured) on Monday—a boy named Raphael Joseph Caedmon—I thought it apt.
Children and saints cling to You, O Lord, the rest rebel against You.
Children and saints are the boundary between the Kingdom of existence and the shadow of nonexistence.
It occurred to me recently in becoming a father that I am even less of an atheist than I was before. (This is predicated upon the truth that we are all atheists to one degree or another—the only truly perfected believers are the saints.) This quote above from St. Nikolai which I ran across this morning alludes directly to this thought that I had sometime last week.
In looking at a little child, most especially one’s own, we are enabled to become acutely aware of the awesome reality of creation. Here is this person who until recently was defined only by non-being. Before her conception, my daughter simply was not. To be sure, there were cells and proteins and molecules and atoms which would go into her constitution. But they were not my daughter.
And then, into the nothingness, God stepped once again and called her forth ex nihilo, just as He did the universe itself. It is only with the eyes of faith that one can even begin to perceive this boundary between the total non-being of a person and the sudden, yet secret and mysterious, truth of personal existence.
Here, before us, is this new person, created by God in the hidden and sacred interior of womanhood and then revealed to the world in due time. She is unrepeatable, unique, a singular event in history which has never before been seen and never will be seen again.
And this is the same power which Christ holds out to each of us for our re-creation, that having hurled ourselves toward the nothingness from which He called us, we may repent (turn around) and be renewed in that same life-giving energy and power.
How the heck can we ever allow ourselves to become nominalists? We can only stand in rapt wonder.
Our pairing was (and in some ways, remains) unlikely. When I met her ten years ago, she was actually an atheist with a Lutheran background she had left behind in her teens. Although when I met her I was quite interested in her, I never attempted to convert her to anything, though of course I invited her to church (at our first meeting, in fact). She came, and she stayed.
I proposed to her a little less than four months later, while she was doing dishes. I was fairly sure of her response before I began (by reading her a poem and giving her a ring with an amethyst), especially since she already had her wedding dress purchased. (It had been the tax-free weekend, you know.) We had also actually arranged a wedding date with the priest. I don’t remember when that was, to be honest, so I don’t really know when we had essentially agreed to be married, although without yet going through the ritual of proposal.
We were also something of an unlikely pairing because, although we never really explored it very much at the time, we were probably initially worlds apart politically. We’ve both changed a lot in that regard since then, and now we have nearly identical opinions about politics and even work together to figure out how we want to vote.
Probably the biggest unlikelihood of our courtship and marriage was cultural: I was raised Midwestern/Southern/Missionary/Evangelical, while she represents a hybrid of upper-Midwestern/Lutheran and immigrant/Palestinian/Lebanese/latent-Orthodox, favoring the latter in many respects, though of course she still says melk (rather than milk) like her Wisconsin relatives and was raised with their religion. The curious mix of communication styles that come with each of our backgrounds (not to mention, the basic fact that we are a man and a woman) have made for challenges over the past ten years, but I do think that we’ve largely acquired something of the best of each other’s worlds, especially in our better moments.
I was an Orthodox Christian when I met her (though only about four years into it), and of course now we both are, as she was received into the Church just a few days before our wedding. Yet while we are both Orthodox Christians, we are different kinds of Orthodox Christians. From my pastoral experience, I can see that these differences are partly just the differences that come because we are a man and a woman, though they also come from the different paths we took to get into the Church. Hers was always communal, whether from her father’s childhood background in Orthodoxy (and even her Middle East relatives’ sense of membership that doesn’t much include actually going to church) or her reintroduction to it through the guy she decided to date and marry, while my path was (and in many ways, remains) a kind of personal quest, the quest for beauty.
We still have many differences, and some of the things we used to have in common we don’t have in common any more. But we also have new things in common. And what we truly share between us is life—in all of its rugged, ragged, rickety glory.
As I write this, she is now quite expectant with our third child, a second son. The due date is less than three weeks away, which puts us in the “any day now” stage. (Inexplicably feel like buying us something for this event? Go here.) She took to motherhood quite a bit more rapidly and with surer commitment than I took to fatherhood, something I think is probably true in many families, if only because of the essential and deep link that is shared in the initial period of life between a child and his mother. But as the children gain more and more interface with the world outside our home, I find that fatherhood is making more sense to me, that I am becoming more a father. So I am slower at this than she is, but God gives His grace in His ways and times and completes that which is lacking—and if there is anything fatherhood reveals to a father, it is that he is lacking.
I think that what we most have in common—though often with different iterations of it—is a deep and enduring longing for home. We are both children of itinerant families and have nearly two dozen residences under our belts, and we are weary of moving, of uprooting and restarting. We want to know this place and remain in this place until our deaths, and our prayer is that our children will desire the same thing. And we mean home for all that the word means, both earthly and heavenly.
I have titled this post Conversions, because that is what it is about, really. Over the past ten years, we each have had to convert on a number of occasions—not just trying to put on an idea of what we think we ought to be, but actually having to become different people in order to meet the new demands of communion.
One of the singular insights of Orthodoxy is that man is not simply a lone hero on a quest, searching for his absolute identity and trying to acquire it or to authenticate what he suspects is his true essence. Rather, man is a dynamic being, dependent for identity not only on God but even (as dangerous as this may feel) on other human persons. He is capable of repentance. He is capable of conversion. He is capable of communion. He is capable of union with the Other.
For all of this and in all of this, I am and will always remain grateful to the Creator for my beautiful, beautiful wife Nicole. Her spunk, longsuffering, flexibility, patience and ingenuity are all elements of her beauty. She is a woman brightly-adorned by her Maker. I do not know or wish to know what my life would have been like without her. But from that moment, ten years ago today, when our communion began, I knew that I had found beauty—and that I would, even in my imperfection and frequent failure, try to be with her always.
Like most of the rest of the Orthodox Christian presbytery this time of year, I am currently in post-Paschal recovery mode. Lent, Holy Week and Pascha always take a lot out of us Orthodox Christians, and the clergy stand at the center of the liturgical, spiritual and emotional maelstrom that this season swirls us through. But I quote a certain theologian and philosopher when I say: “I’m still standing.” That is, of course, the answer to the question I have gotten the most over the past week, usually asked with some slight concern in the voice and in the eye: “How are you doing, Father?”
Bright Week is normally a week when no one calls the priest, when he tries to leave little for himself to do, except perhaps for a couple of extra Paschaltide services. I wish I could say that this Bright Week has been no exception to that rule, but for various reasons (some of which are my own fault) it hasn’t, so perhaps recovery will have to wait until next week. In any event, it’s understandably been a few weeks since I posted anything here, so I thought I might catch up on a few brief pieces of news and such.
Concerning Lent, Holy Week and Pascha, I felt that things went quite well at St. Paul’s here in Emmaus. Musically and liturgically, things came together quite well, and that is the basis for everything else. The rhythm of Christian life is ultimately liturgical so (if I may paraphrase some wise person whose name now escapes me), when liturgy is good, everything is good. I continually find that the people who are best able to say “it is well with my soul” are those for whom corporate worship is not just a Sunday-only affair. So by any real measure, this past season has been quite good. I have also noticed that there have been more people who have begun to embrace this truth, and we have seen some fruit borne out of this cultivation of souls.
It was wonderful to have a chrismation on Holy Saturday this year, and those who remember my interview with actor and musician Jonathan Jackson should be glad to hear that he and his family were all baptized into the Orthodox Church on the same day at their parish in California.
This week (Thursday, in fact) also featured a similar event for me: fourteen years since I was received into Orthodoxy at All Saints Orthodox Church in Raleigh, North Carolina. Every time I mark this anniversary, it seems like such a long time ago and also a short time ago. This next week, my wife and I will mark ten years since we first met each other. Again, a long time and a short time.
It was also good this week to celebrate some Bright Week services with my friend and neighbor Fr. Noah, who is pastor of St. Philip’s in Souderton, Pennsylvania. We both took the opportunity to function as chanters at our respective churches while the other filled in at the altar. I very rarely get to serve as a chanter at liturgy, so the one we did here in Emmaus was a rare treat for me.
This week, I also delivered a lecture at a class on Orthodox Christianity at Muhlenberg College, entitled “A Divine Ecology: An Orthodox Christian Vision for the Environment,” courtesy of the inestimable Dr. Tighe, an Eastern Catholic professor of history who is quite kind to the Orthodox and well known in small-C-catholic Internet worlds. You may also have seen his work in Touchstone or First Things.
On a more familial note, we are now only a few weeks away from the birth of our third child, a boy, to be named Raphael Joseph Caedmon. His coming is welcome, mainly of course because my wife is rather tired and would like to get about the business of raising him. This being our third child, we will be crossing a new threshold of parenting. It seems daunting, of course, but we have multiple friends and relations who have raised far more than three (and both of us come from sets of siblings of at least three), so we do have some examples to draw on. Still, it will be a new level.
Speaking of babies, my Red Spot Nyassae Cichlid recently gave birth to about forty or so little fry. I have no idea who the father might be, but it’s probably one of the other Aulonocara cichlids in my ninety gallon aquarium. On that same note, my post-Paschal gift to myself is another aquarium (yes, I have four now), a fifty-five gallon one for my office at the church. I’m decorating this one far more cheaply (and, I think, effectively) than I have my others (having learned a few things), mostly with rocks in a kind of neolithic ruins look. Think “Stonehenge with caves around it,” and you’ll be in the right mindset. I plan to feature some New World cichlids therein.
Now that the great whirlwind of Great Lent, Holy Week and Pascha is behind me for the year, I’m looking forward to getting back to work on the new book.
- Conciliar Press tells me that Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy is selling very well. Thank you to all who have bought copies, recommended it to friends, or written reviews! I honestly had no idea when I did the original parish lectures in Charleston and then repeated them in Emmaus that they’d get so far away from me.
- I will be signing copies of O&H at the Conciliar Press booth at the Antiochian Archdiocese Convention at 4:30pm on July 27, 2011. I’ve already done a couple of other booksignings at parishes (one including a lecture), and they’ve been a lot of fun.
- If you can’t make it to the Convention or don’t live anywhere near Emmaus but would still like a signed copy of O&H, you can contact me privately about getting one.
- I’ve added to the sidebar here on Roads from Emmaus a section of reviews and press on O&H.
- You can now follow my goings-on via both Google+ and Facebook.
- I’ve started a new weblog entitled Vox Oriente for the Emmaus Patch, a locally focused website dedicated to my home which kindly ran a short column introducing folks to O&H. The intended audience for VO is local readers who’ve never encountered Orthodoxy before.
- Beginning in August, I will be leading an 8-part Introduction to Orthodox Christianity series at St. Paul’s in Emmaus. I have no plans to record the series for podcasting for a couple of reasons: This is meant to be local and informal (and thus not really suited to international publication), and there is also a wealth of this kind of material already available online from other sources.
- Beginning earlier this spring, I took up in earnest the aquarium hobby. My wife is a wonderfully patient woman who has not laughed at all the poor, dead fish who have given their lives to further my education in aquarium biology and chemistry. If you happen to be in the Lehigh Valley, I strongly recommend you support your local aquarium store and only shop in the corp-stores when you have to.
- As of a couple of weeks ago, our family marked its second anniversary serving in Emmaus. We are grateful to God to be here. This has become home, and we want it to stay that way, at least until the final Day.