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.
I have to say that this is one of my favorites among the things I’ve written. A number of folks have actually asked me to expand this into a book, but I don’t think I really yet have the experience or background to have enough material to warrant a book on this. Perhaps I will someday.
In light of yesterday’s post, I thought it might be useful to comment on the “other” side of the questions of inter-religious relations. By no means is this a sort of antithesis of yesterday’s thesis. Indeed, I believe a vigorous engagement precisely on doctrinal terms is the basis on which the best inter-religious friendships can occur. I’ve known some good men who have been engaged in honest, “ecumenism with a gun” type of dialogues who have made many good friends along the way, even if they remain on different sides of doctrinal questions.
Now, it should be noted that I do not rise in any sense in defense of “religion.” There is no such thing. There are only religions. Religion is far too broad a term to be useful in any real sense as a phenomenon to which one can point or offer criticism or defense. (For more on this, see the opening pages of David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies). That said, I find religion quite interesting, and if we boil it down at least to its etymological roots (re + ligio), it means “reconnection.” Religion is fundamentally about reconnecting oneself—to community, to transcendent principles, to metaphysics, to tradition, etc. And in that sense we can see the fundamental irreligiosity of our age—even while attendance at religious services remains quite high just about everywhere, there is more and more a fundamental cultural sensibility of disconnection rather than reconnection. Indeed, much religion is, in this sense, distinctly irreligious.
The forgetfulness of politics (e.g., the senator who today insists that the sovereign debt ceiling must be raised who five years ago spoke out against it on principle, yet without any loss of reputation or influence), the ahistorical character of much theology and spiritual life, the general ignorance of history and disdain for tradition, the banality of modern industrialized mass education, the popularity of contraception—all of these things form a maelstrom of disconnection, of people from their pasts, of people from each other, of people from what orders their lives toward what is noble. The irony of our age is that, as telecommunications gives us more of the illusion of connection, we are plunged further into isolation.
Thus, I rise today in praise of faith, which is fundamentally not a set of beliefs, but an act. Faith is the act of reconnection. It is the act of religion.
I am fascinated by religions, and the more I learn of them, the more I learn to love Orthodoxy—not out of disdain, happy to be “free” of their problems, but rather out of being able to see my own faith more clearly and having my blind spots cleared up because of the way some other faith emphasizes things. It was a class on Hinduism which helped prepare me for the paradoxes of Orthodox Christianity. It was a friend’s decision to become Roman Catholic that articulated for me why I could no longer be Protestant. It was in seeing Islam in prison that I caught a glimpse of what prisoners experience. It was a Roman Catholic roommate in college who demonstrated for me what firmness in faith could look like for men in their twenties. And of course it was my Evangelical upbringing that gave me Christ.
All those who believe in what is beyond the world of the dull senses, who are willing to use tools of knowing that are beyond what has become standard in our world, have something in common, and that is that we believe in the possibility of self-transcendence. If there is a God (or even gods), then that means that humility is called for.
There is also something about man’s reach for transcendence that produces beauty. I can see the beauty in Buddhist culture, though I have a hard time relating. I can see it much more clearly in Catholic and Anglican Christendom, and indeed, in many ways, I still feel more at home in those Western Christian worlds than I do in the cultures of Orthodoxy. I of course want to go see Greece, Syria, Russia, etc., but I don’t think that they will thrill my heart in quite the way that my pilgrimage to the British Isles did in 2001. And I still try to read Tolkien every year.
I am also moved by the seriousness and capacity for compassion of the believers I meet outside of Orthodoxy, as well. Of course the family in which I grew up is highest among them. But I also greatly respect my clergy friends in other confessions that live and work here in Emmaus. I don’t believe in their theology, but they (who are mostly far more experienced than I) have a maturity and a comfortableness in their own churches that I hope someday to attain in my own. And I also very much wish that the sort of strong moral voice that certain communions have in America (particularly Rome) were characteristic of the Orthodox.
Yes, I want everyone to be an Orthodox Christian. But I do not go around trying to “make” people Orthodox. I will of course debate doctrine if that is appropriate at the moment, but I’m mainly interested in trying to facilitate an encounter with Christ. And just like St. Justin Martyr believed of old, Christ can be encountered outside the visible boundaries of the Church, as the spermatikos logos, the Word of God in seed form. That doesn’t mean that Christ’s Church doesn’t have boundaries, but it does mean that He’s out and about. He’s on the move.
It is not the case that everything outside the Church’s visible boundaries is unmitigated darkness. Any place where God is sought, where Christ is loved, or where the Truth is desired is a place where I can find joy.
There are, of course, cheerful materialists out there, people for whom transcendence or absolutes are utter nonsense yet are not bothered by it. But almost all of them are enjoying the inheritance of religion and not really ready to abandon it.
John Lennon once asked us to imagine a world without religion. The last prominent man who really did that with any consistency and honesty was Nietzsche. And I’m not fond of the vision he concocted. He was ready to deal with a world with a dead God.
It’s a good thing he was dead wrong.
The following is Part VI (the conclusion) of a talk I gave on April 2nd at the St. Emmelia Orthodox Homeschooling Conference at the Antiochian Village. The full talk is entitled “The Transfiguration of Place: An Orthodox Christian Vision of Localism.” Read Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV and Part V. There are six parts in all.
I live in a place called Emmaus, a small borough of about 11,000 people nestled onto the southwest edge of the Lehigh Valley, next to Allentown. If you spend any time around me at all, you will know that I love Emmaus. It’s a beautiful place to be during all the seasons of the year. The people in our borough love it, and they love it with a curious passion that I’ve never seen anywhere else.
When Emmaus was founded in 1759 by a group of Moravian Christians, it was founded deliberately as a Christian community. And when Bishop Spangenberg named it for the little village in ancient Palestine called Emmaus, it may be that some of what happened at that Palestinian Emmaus made its way permanently into the dirt of the Pennsylvanian Emmaus. In the twenty-fourth chapter of the Gospel of Luke, the resurrected Christ joins with two of His disciples—not of the Twelve, but Luke and Cleopas. And He walks with them on the road to the village of Emmaus, but they do not recognize Him.
But then they come to the house of Cleopas in that village, and there they go in with Him and eat supper together. And then it was as Christ broke bread and blessed it that they suddenly realized Who He was. It was in that place, in that Eucharistic moment, that divine revelation came to them. And the Church later appointed that same place to be the site for many centuries of the church of Emmaus, which for a time even had its own bishop.
Since the exile of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Paradise, mankind has had a broken relationship with his place. Globalization has accelerated that brokenness and introduced whole new levels of alienation between us and each other, between us and our places, and as a result, between us and our God. Our collective exile is becoming ever further and further from the homeland of our souls.
The Church understands that exile and the need for the healing of not only ourselves as individual human persons or even just as communities of persons, but as communities in places. We therefore hear again and again our liturgical services prayer not just for specific people or even just for groups of people, but also specifically for places. We pray for “this church.” We pray for “this city” and for “every city and countryside.” Monks and nuns pray for “this sacred monastery.” All these references are to places, not only to the people who happen to live in them. We are meant to be in harmony with our place, to pray for our place, to sanctify our place by our prayer.
We might be tempted sometimes to think of the Lord’s words that His kingdom is “not of this world” and to interpret them to mean that He doesn’t care much for our place, that His only real concern is for our souls. We even sometimes think of the Church itself in this way, when people say that the church is not a building but is rather the people. All of this is true in its way, but if we take these things to mean a denigration of place, then instead of privileging the human soul and the very human character of the Church, we are instead engaging in a de-humanization.
When our Lord became material, when He became matter, then He opened up the possibility for the restoration of all matter back to the “very good” character in which He originally created it. This world was meant to be a blessing to us, to serve as the vessel of God’s holiness for us. And our responsibility to it is as its priests. In considering the vocation of a priesthood, it has always been a canonical stipulation of the Church that a priest is ordained for and canonically attached to only one altar. There are no priests “at large,” nor bishops or deacons. All are connected to a specific place.
When you love a place and care for a place, then that place reflects who you are. And if you are an Orthodox Christian who is seriously trying to live the life of Christ, then your place will reflect Christ. We know from the beginnings of Russian Christian history that the emissaries of St. Vladimir were so stunned by what they saw in that place, in Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, that they were convinced that God dwelt among people. In that place, they experienced its transfiguration—the material of this world came to be a conduit through which the divine light shone.
Place matters. It is not only essential to our humanity, but it is critical to our salvation. And being critical to our salvation, it is also critical to our evangelism. Consider within yourself where you are paying your attention. Is it primarily to far-off things and people that you will never meet nor touch directly? If so, then you are contributing to your own dis-incarnation. In this televised, computerized age, we are all guilty of it to one extent or another.
The beauty of the Christian faith, however, is that change is really possible. With prayer, with sacrifice, with time, with attention, and above all, with grace, we can return our gaze back to the place we are. In doing that, every day can become a pilgrimage, and every stone, every stoplight and every street we encounter can become a vessel of divine grace.
And thus each road—not just “every” road, but this road—can become the Road to Emmaus, a path to the Eucharist. There, what has been created by God is offered up to Him once again for His transformation and then His return to us as the very means of receiving His presence. May that be true for each of us a little bit more today.
Some years ago a resident of Emmaus said to the writer in her native dialect [Pennsylvania German], “Heit iss der Hussedaag” (Today is Huss Day). I asked her what that meant. She did not know, but said that they always sowed their turnip seed on that day. Thus did the memory of John Huss, the great pre-Reformation reformer, find a place in our local folklore.
—Preston A. Barba, They Came to Emmaus (1959)
Emmaus residents: Make sure you plant your turnips on July 6, the day Jan Hus was both born and burned at the stake (1373 and 1415, respectively). (Wikipedia claims he was born “ca. 1372″ with no actual date listed. I’m not sure of his source, but I like Barba’s claim that July 6 is also Hus’s birthday.)
A somewhat bizarre and truly sad story has unfolded here in Emmaus. It seems that the president of the Emmaus Historical Society recently became embroiled in controversy within the society, and finally stepped down as president yesterday, just before the election for the presidency scheduled for this evening, leaving his opponent in the election uncontested.
Today, the former president barricaded himself into a barn on his property in nearby Upper Milford. Just after lunchtime, he shot himself in the head. He’s 72 and now listed in critical condition at the major hospital on the west end of the Lehigh Valley.
I actually have been entertaining plans to join the historical society for some time, but I may wait a little while, given what’s happened. We’ll see.
Despite the sad futility of this tale, there’s a strange sort of poetry to it, almost fit for a dark and ironic kind of folk music. History and folk music (which are traditionally quite aware of one another, especially the latter of the former) have always included dealing with this kind of incident as part of their vocation. There are certain dark moments in a community’s story that cannot really be incorporated into the collective memory in any other way. I’m sure that 100 years from now, the society’s exhibits may well include a few notes about this poor man.
May he be granted recovery, and may all those affected by this awful moment find grace for the healing.
Update: The scheduled election has been postponed to July 28.
Update: The historical society president has died of his wounds.
I wrote last week regarding the proposed opening of a swingers’ club (to be named “The Vault”) on Main Street in Emmaus, at the very heart of the borough. Last night, to consider the matter, the borough’s zoning hearing board met at the Emmaus Community Park (an aptly named venue for this event), rather than their usual borough hall location. Suffice it to say that the proposal was rejected again on its appeal by the board.
I attended as much of the meeting as I could (from its beginning at 7:30pm to about 10pm), not so much to speak (which I wouldn’t have gotten a chance to do anyway, since they started hearing residents from the opposite end of the amphitheatre from where I was sitting), but rather simply to be involved and to provide as much pastoral presence as was possible. There were hundreds of people there, probably around 400, of all ages. The residents who spoke out against the proposed club were lawyers, a pastor, a retired FBI agent, mothers, fathers, local business owners, leaders of community organizations.
It was striking and truly moving to hear all these people speak, sometimes with anger, always with drive and passion, but most often with love. The people of Emmaus love their town, and with that love comes a sense of responsibility. No matter what the precise letter of the law said (which was the grounds on which the appeal was rejected), the strong sense of a dedication to the common good was immediately palpable for all those who spoke out against this club.
The club owner, whom I had hoped would see the borough lined up against him and realize he’d made a mistake, attempted to co-opt the moral authority of both the love of the original Moravians of Emmaus for the Native Americans, as well as using the language of the civil rights movement, to promote the notion of “tolerance” and lack of “prejudice” for a club for swingers which we are asked to believe wasn’t for the purpose of swinging. The club’s website was nothing short of pornographic in many of its elements (and those elements were put on verbal display last night), yet of course we are assured that those things had nothing to do with the actual workings of the club.
This duplicitous sort of thinking of course dominates our current cultural discourse, but it is deeply flawed. One cannot call upon the moral authority of a movement begun and nurtured by a solid moral, religious tradition and then violate that tradition’s most basic moral sensibilities. Neither the Moravians nor the civil rights leaders of the 1960s (all Christians of traditional morality) would have “tolerated” any such thing in the heart of their community. These are not rarefied philosophical ideas that can be separated from their tradition. It’s not about tolerance, but rather love, especially for one’s home. One does not have to be on a witch hunt for swingers to be disapproving of a club explicitly for them on bold display in the very middle of Emmaus.
Those opposed (who were pretty much everyone other than the potential proprietor) expressed themselves with candor, clarity, eloquence, and most of all, love. No one freaked out. No one screamed at the man. They just made it clear that Emmaus’s most beloved and defining district is not the place for what he wanted to do.
I came away from that meeting extremely proud to belong to Emmaus. This is a good, good town.
It seems that “quaint” Emmaus (the word the newspapers all use to describe our borough) has been targeted as a potential home for a swingers’ club, to be situated right on downtown Main Street. The fellow behind the club claims that it’s not going to be a “sex club,” that they’re going to be more innocuous than the Freemasons (will they also have funny hats and sashes?), but anyone with just an ounce of worldliness to them knows exactly what the advertising for it means. As you may imagine, the borough is not only abuzz with this news, but a lot of folks are—you guessed it—”up in arms.” (I’d be fascinated to see a bunch of folks actually getting armed, maybe with pitchforks or somesuch.) The clichés abound, it seems.
Your humble servant is, quite naturally, not interested in seeing a swingers’ club in Emmaus. (I was about to write disinterested, but of course that means something else. Perhaps we could coin misinterested. I considered the fanciful antirested, but that’s just silly.) Such a thing is certainly immoral, but morality is not the only question in play here. You might ask how someone dedicated to liberty on theological grounds plans to attend the borough zoning hearing next week that will hear an appeal on the initially denied request for putting the club in, especially with an intent to let the zoning board know he’s in favor of their upholding their previous decision.
This moment is one of those where the localist parts ways with the libertarian (I am usually the former and often the latter). The strict, ideological libertarian would depend on market forces to drive this sort of trashiness out of our borough. (He’s also probably interested in eliminating all our borough zoning ordinances entirely.) If needed, it may well work, mind you. I can see picketers and perhaps even local church clergy and congregations lining up on the sidewalk outside the club and letting folks coming in that what they’re doing is a bad idea. But I’d much prefer the zoning board would nip this in the bud.
Emmaus borough ordinances are such that new uses for public property that are not already explicitly regulated by the borough are automatically prohibited, unless an exception is made. It was on this basis that the request was initially denied. Such an ordinance sounds rather draconian on its surface, i.e., that you’re essentially not allowed to do anything new in the borough in public spaces. But if one considers how this actually works out, it’s quite different. What it comes down to is that the borough, through its locally elected representatives, would like to have a say-so on anything too out of the ordinary before it gets introduced into borough life.
Such a law, if passed on a Federal or State level, would be utterly repugnant. Why? It’s because those governments have no real expertise in such matters and would be downright awful at making the right decisions. But Emmaus, with its population of roughly 11,000, is a place where people actually can know one another, know what’s going on in town, and what would constitute a nuisance and not just novelty.
Yes, I suppose if the zoning board were to deny this appeal, it would constitute something of an imposition of morality, at least in some sense. But consider that the question is not whether swingers should swing, but whether that’s the sort of thing we as a borough want in the most public, most frequented, most beloved part of Emmaus. That’s another matter entirely. As a community, we have a say-so as to what kind of public life takes place in our borough. Individuals dedicated to the common good should not have recourse only to market forces, most particularly on the local level.
This is exactly the sort of question that local governments are qualified to handle. Do we need a one-size-fits-all policy to make such determinations throughout our whole country? Certainly not. Why? Because people in the District of Columbia are unqualified to make such decisions, and—this is critical—they wouldn’t have to live with them, anyway.
Theologically, local government makes so much more sense than centralized, universal policy-making. It is much more commensurate to the nature of human persons, who tend to behave better when forced to live with the consequences of their decisions, rather than examining such questions in the rarefied theoretical world of virtual governance that dominates large-scale politics. This anthropological truth is why I am planning to go to the zoning board meeting (assuming I can get in the door!), because it is part of my pastoral responsibility to this borough, even for the people who may never step through my church’s doors. I have a duty to work for an atmosphere where they can meet God in peace, repent of their sins, and be united to the divine energies. Putting a blight on Main Street will hinder that.