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.
It seems that Allentown (our three years younger neighbor to the north of Emmaus and my temporary place of residence) has hired someone to come up with a new slogan: “City without limits.” I know that the purpose of this slogan is essentially for marketing for development, but I can think of few worse slogans for any town.
Allentown, it should be noted, is no longer the city that Billy Joel sang about. The grittiness and rust-beltishness largely passed years ago. It really is a new sort of town, compared with that time, and perhaps this is the sort of thing the sloganeers had in mind. But the irony is to be found in their comparisons with other city nicknames, namely, New York’s “The Big Apple”, Chicago’s “The Windy City,” Philadelphia’s “City of Brotherly Love,” or even neighboring Bethlehem’s “Christmas City.”
None of those cities came up with their nicknames as part of a marketing campaign. They were simply nicknames that arose from the experience of those living there, for various kinds of reasons. Both Bethlehem and Philadelphia’s nicknames are derived from their actual names. Chicago is, quite literally, windy, and New York, curiously enough, shares its sobriquet with another great city, Constantinople, which was also thought of as an apple. Whatever the case, these towns drew their nicknames from experience. They also drew their nicknames from limits.
The limits which define those other cities are their particular character. Chicago can’t be anything other than windy, and Denver can’t be anything other than a mile high. What makes those nicknames work is that they are peculiar, precisely that they are, indeed, limitations on the character of their geographic reference points. But in the Allentown sloganeers’ desire to market what is, really, not a bad town at all, they chose something that is, in itself, devoid of real meaning.
Ah, yes—what was that town that had no limits to it? Yes, Allentown. Does that mean they’re going to annex poor Northampton now? (Actually, Allentown’s first incorporated name was, indeed, Northampton.) Will fair Emmaus be next or that upstart Macungie? Being “without limits” is precisely a characterless anonymity which simply suggests that here there is undifferentiated ground ready for development. We are SimCity. Paint some arbitrary zoning on us with your mouse. Something tells me that they will try this name on for a few years, until they realize that no one but marketeers and sloganeers (and maybe some Mouseketeers, but surely not musketeers) is using it. Then, they’ll replace it with something else, like “Allentown: Open for business.” Or (and this really is a snappy original) “Allentown: Please build something.”
Limits are precisely what make a place what it is. It’s this, not something else. It’s here, not there. It has limits. If it has no limits, it’s really just screaming out to be an undifferentiated morass of Wal-marts, Starbucks and publicly funded pieces of bad sculpture made from castaway steel girders and doctored up by a group perhaps best known as “Welders Without Borders”, a bland sprawl without grounding, without face, without identity. (Okay, I made up the “Welders Without Borders” bit, but not the art. Our poor valley is littered with it.)
Local tradition has it that Allentown was originally supposed to be named Jerusalem (which is not surprising, given other local names in the Lehigh Valley, e.g., Bethlehem, Nazareth, and Emmaus). That’s right—Jerusalem.
Now, there’s a city with limits.
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, July 5, 2009
Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
Yesterday was the 233rd anniversary of our country. This year marks the 250th anniversary of the town of Emmaus and its 150th anniversary as an incorporated borough of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. This parish is also 22 years old this year, depending on the starting point one chooses. And this year marks the 2000th birthday of our parish’s patron, the Holy Apostle Paul.
I mention all these anniversaries, because they have in common one thing: place. One cannot conceive of the birthday of the United States without calling to mind the continent which is its home or of the city of Philadelphia just south of us. Likewise, the borough of Emmaus has a geography and a history which define it. The same is true for our church, and even in remembering the birthday of St. Paul, it brings to mind his own home town of Tarsus, and it brings to mind this church.
Our modern society, however, seems to have an antipathy toward homes and places. Most people in America almost gladly move to any part of the country to follow their careers. We have no problem traveling to the other side of the Lehigh Valley to get the best price on groceries. If we want something unavailable locally, we simply get online and order it via the Internet. Most of us do not know the people who produce our eggs, beef or milk, those who grow our vegetables, those who build our cars. For many of us, the concept of a “home town” is almost foreign, since the place where one was born, the place where one lives, and the place where one works can easily be three separate towns.
This placelessness is nearly endemic to our world, especially as globalization turns the world not into a global village but rather into an impersonal monoculture which is piped into our homes through our television and computer screens, enabling us more and more to be alienated and separated from the people whose relationships to us used to be mediated by our basic acts of commerce and community. Though there are exceptions, and I hope that many of us are among them, Americans in general do not know their neighbors, even if they share a wall with them.
English is rare among languages in that it can make the distinction between a house and a home. When we think of “home,” what do we think of? Do we think only of our house? Do we think of a home town? Do we think about family? Do we think about our church? We might be tempted as Christians to say that we truly have no home here on Earth, because our true home is in Heaven. Stated like that, that is certainly true. But does this mean that our modern placelessness is somehow a theological good, that our society has evolved to such a state of detachment from the world that we are nearly ready for Heaven? I think any honest assessment of our culture would quickly and resoundingly deny our readiness for Heaven. Our cultural placelessness has not detached us from the world and prepared us for the Kingdom of God.
We know from the Scripture that God calls us to be in the world, but not of the world. Placelessness does not fulfill this command but rather denies its whole context. Placelessness is in fact the opposite, making us of the world but not in it. We as a culture are deeply attached to the pleasures of this world, all the while blind to the very place in which we stand. We know more about politics in California or in Washington, D.C., than we do in Emmaus. We know more about musicians born in Canada and performing on gigantic stages than we do those born in the Lehigh Valley and performing at the local farmer’s market.
So what is the proper relationship of the Kingdom of God to the kingdoms and boroughs of this world? What should we as Christians be doing in and for the places where our homes are, the place where our church is? We know that, in the end, there will be a new Heaven and a new Earth, that the kingdoms of this world will be baptized with fire and superseded by the Kingdom of Heaven. Does this mean that we should simply ignore this place where we find ourselves, just waiting out the Apocalypse?
As you may imagine, the answer to that question is “No.” We are called to be pilgrims in this world, journeying to the Kingdom of Heaven. But if you have ever gone on a pilgrimage, you know that the whole experience is dominated by place, whether it is the destination or the journey to it. One cannot be a pilgrim and be nowhere. The pilgrim is where he is. He is changed by the place where he is, and his presence changes it.
The very word parish comes from a Greek term meaning “sojourning.” We are sojourners here in Emmaus, here in the Lehigh Valley. We are taking up our residence here in this home for a while as we journey to our ultimate Home, which we shall not see in its fullness until after death or until Christ comes again. But in our sojourn, the Master of this home and of the Home which is to come has called upon us to do whatever we can to make this place reflect the Home toward which we are oriented.
Yes, we are surrounded by a world afflicted by entropy, the tendency to break down, to fall into corruption, both physical and spiritual. But especially here in this holy house, in this holy home, we are also surrounded by the divine energy, the creative and dynamic power of God which heals that which is broken and restores that which is corrupt. Though we find ourselves in a world of decay and death, we worship and participate in the God of resurrection, the God of the living.
Thus, we who are Christians wield a curious and awesome authority. We have the authority to participate in the transformation of this place, not to make it something other than Emmaus, Pennsylvania, something other than the Lehigh Valley, something other than America. History may well make those changes all on its own. Rather, we are called to make Emmaus, the Lehigh Valley, and America into what the ancient Christian Celts would have called “a thin place,” a place where the boundary between this world and the next is so thin that the divine breaks easily through the veil and touches those on the other side. If you have ever been to such a place, such as Iona or Lindisfarne, the grave of St. Raphael of Brooklyn, the relics of St. John of San Francisco, or the tomb of Christ, then you will know what I mean. If you have never been, it is time to begin the pilgrimage.
Our calling is to bring the Kingdom of Heaven into the kingdoms of this world. We accomplish this by the authority given to us by God and through the power that He alone wields. If you know anything about the Biblical Emmaus which gives this borough its name, you know that when the disciples broke bread there with the Lord Jesus Christ, they saw Him for Who He was. It was in that Eucharistic moment that true communion, true community was possible.
Every Sunday and perhaps every day, we find ourselves on the road to this Emmaus. And in this one, like the first one, we are also called to commune with our Lord Jesus Christ, to know the dangerous possibility of real community by means of the one Cup and the one Bread. And in doing so, we begin to make the boundary between this world and the next just a bit thinner, so that at this place on 156 East Main Street in Emmaus, Pennsylvania, people will say that here is a holy place. Indeed, the boundary within ourselves becomes thinner, and when people draw near to us, they find themselves encountering Christ.
The degree to which we are serious about our own faith is the degree to which this can happen. It can happen if we pray every day, teaching our children how to do so and using our authority in their lives to prioritize not the passing pursuits of this world but rather what it takes to gain eternal life. It can happen if we put our money where our mouths are, giving back to God just one tenth of the abundance He has given us. It can happen if we are serious about worship, praying not just privately at home but also corporately in this holy house, not just on Sunday morning for 90 minutes but every time we can get away from worldly pursuits to plunge ourselves into Heavenly ones. What happens here, this miracle of communion and community, is not just “a part” of our lives—this is our life.
This past week, I moved for the 20th time in my life, and for those keeping score, it was the 21st move for my wife Nicole. I have lived in six U.S. states and one unincorporated territory, including fourteen separate towns and cities. We know well what placelessness is all about, and we are tired of it. Our hope and our prayer as we begin this new chapter in our own lives is that all the many relocations which have preceded our time here turn out to be simply the prologue to the story of our sojourn for the rest of this earthly life, here in Emmaus.
Our prayer also is that together as a parish family, for as long as God may grant to us, that we work together as co-workers, building and growing not only the quantity of people in this holy house, but also the quality of those in this holy house. We pray that we and this place may become thinner and thinner, more and more transparent, that people will come here, whether invited by us or more directly by the Holy Spirit Himself, and they will say, “There God dwells among His people. In that place, Heaven shines through.”
To God therefore be all glory, honor and worship, to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.