personal life

The Gift of the Cross

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two-crosses
He could not have known.

In the joy only a 21-month-old is capable of at successfully worming his way into papa’s inner sanctum, he began to explore its secrets and soon made his way to that low table that had so many wonderful things lying on it. Amid the prayerbooks, candles and even a brass hand censer was a ceramic Celtic standing cross papa had brought back from the holy island of Iona many years before and thousands of miles away. He did not know that his big sister had, a few years before, approached that same table, opened up the little bottles she found there and actually swallowed some of the soil brought back from that same holy place. He laid hold of the ceramic cross and swung it around in happiness.

He did not know that it would break so easily.

The broken cross has been sitting on my desk at home for the past couple of weeks, and when I came home from a short trip to discover it had been broken, my heart sank. Losing it made me quite sad, and I posted briefly about it online, noting that the experience tested my ability to be non-possessive.

It was irreplaceable. I had gotten that standing St. John’s Cross when I went on pilgrimage to the British Isles in 2001.

That pilgrimage was transformative for me. I had just graduated college (finally), still sorrowful and a bit mopey from the break-up a few months before with a girlfriend I’d dated for about a year and a half. My parents bought me the plane ticket, and I spent nearly a month traveling around the British Isles—in England, Scotland and Ireland—visiting holy places and doing a little touristy sight-seeing, as well. Spending nearly a month traveling mostly alone, breathing the air of a country I’d read about all my life, connecting with places that for me had been just legends in my heart—all these renewed my faith in a way that no convincing argument or even reading ever could.

I foolishly bought a few t-shirts as souvenirs, but I also got a few more lasting things, as well. On the little island of Iona, where St. Columba began his holy exile and from where he converted Scotland to Christ, I got that cross, a small replica of a large standing cross that is not far from Iona Abbey.

After I got back that summer, I wondered for a while if I’d reconnect with that young lady, eventually moved on and tried with another I met through church, though that one didn’t work out, either. The following April, I met my wife. I didn’t know it was her, of course, and it turns out we’d met before, though, to this day, neither of us remembers that earlier meeting.

Our first in-person meeting (that we can recall) was at Global Village Organic Coffee (a.k.a. “Tree-hugger Coffee”) in Raleigh, North Carolina. I’d been going there for a couple years by that point (from its opening day, in fact), and I’d been a customer for some years at the coffeehouse that had previously been housed in the same space. I also frequently talked with the proprietor Mike, a devout Catholic. So this was good ground for me to meet a girl—public, comfortable, hospitable. We talked mainly about the Church, and I invited her to come sometime. She did. And I’m glad she did.

broken-crossOver the years, those souvenirs—souvenir; French for “I remember”—were a reminder of what God had done for a beat-up heart, a child just a few years old in His Church. That pilgrimage steadied (and I hope, deepened) me for what was to come—manhood, marriage, seminary, priesthood, fatherhood, parish ministry. There have been many bumps and bruises along the way. Many. And a lot of them have been self-inflicted. I’ve failed at all those things.

Some of those failures are ongoing, and I’m not sure yet how to overcome a few.

So yesterday, I was at the post office to drop off some letters and packages, and I brought with me one of those “sorry you weren’t there” notes that the mail carrier leaves when he can’t deliver a package. I had no idea what the package was. I just found the note at the church. I must admit to being a little annoyed when I found it, because deliveries to the church are unreliable like that. I always get packages sent to my home. But I gave the slip to the woman behind the counter, and she found the package and handed it to me.

It had a customs notice on the outside, and I could see that it had been shipped from the little town of Oban—of all places. I’d been there. That was the final mainland stop in Scotland for those journeying to Iona. A ferry, a bus ride, and another ferry, and you were there. Oban? Who was shipping me something from Oban?

I brought it home and opened it up. Inside was a St. John’s Cross, almost just like the one my little boy had unknowingly broken, but made of pewter. A packing slip was included, and the billing name and address were those of Mike, the Raleigh coffeehouse owner. I haven’t frequented his shop in nearly ten years, but we’d reconnected on Facebook a couple of years ago. He must have seen my little lament about the cross.

Putting all these various narrative strands together doesn’t quite add up to a particular story, but when I opened the package and saw the cross, I was moved enough that I began to wonder how to make sense of these pieces of the story that are indeed all connected in one way or another. And it occurred to me that what weaves them together is precisely the Cross.

As anyone who attempts to be serious about Christian faith experiences at various points in life, crucifixion is required. The Lord says, after all, that anyone who would come after Him has to take up his cross and follow Him. We can sometimes romanticize what this must be like, that we are going to be suffering for a Cause, perhaps. But the biggest cross that I have to take up and carry to Golgotha really is my vanity, my pride, my desire to be right—and my need to, well, need.

And I also remember that those around me are carrying crosses, too.

It is no accident, I think, that this holy object—just an object, yes, but nonetheless one that is holy—connects between so many different times of transition: coming of age, confirming my faith, getting married, being a husband, being a father, being a priest. For the Christian, the gift of the Cross of Christ is always a crossroads.

And we keep returning to the Cross until that final Day, which is coming and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and live.

12 Reasons Why I Became and/or Remain an Orthodox Christian

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Lists like this are usually so much clickbait, I know, but I thought it was nevertheless worthwhile to compile a list of most of the reasons why I became and/or remain an Orthodox Christian. Some of these things were not really on my radar when I became Orthodox in 1998, but they are part of the reason why I genuinely do love belonging to the Orthodox Church (which is why “and/or Remain” is in the title).

The nature of lists like this is such that they can’t constitute apologetics, really, nor is this one (at least) intended to be universally applicable — these are my reasons. They may not be someone else’s. It will also become apparent that my background as an Evangelical prior to becoming Orthodox is a major factor here. So, all that said, here’s the list.

1. I believe the Orthodox Church really is the one, true Church of Christ.

There’s a lot that could be said here, but the reason why I believe this is that I examined both the Scriptures and the early history of Christianity, and I became convinced that the only church that matches them both is Orthodoxy. Particularly formative for me were the writings of St. Ignatius of Antioch, a disciple of the Apostle John. The church life he described was definitely not what I saw in Evangelicalism. Since he was someone who learned how to be a Christian from the Apostles themselves, I wanted to be in his church.

Orthodoxy takes history seriously and doesn’t gloss over the hard stuff. It also doesn’t pick and choose from early Christian witness to develop a streamlined “system” of theology that is easy to swallow. Rather, because Orthodoxy is truly the community descended from the Apostles, within its theological memory are centuries of dogma, doctrine and theological reflection. Not all of it is totally consistent or easy to sort out, but it is nevertheless one great river of truth with an overall unified direction. One doesn’t see that in the same way in Roman Catholicism (there are several major turns in history), and it is impossible to find that in Protestantism. Most Protestants aren’t even concerned with it.

None of that means I regard non-Orthodox Christians as damned, nor do I even regard all Orthodox Christians as definitely destined for eternal bliss. And Orthodoxy’s truth is no testament to me. Orthodoxy is true, but not because of me.

2. Orthodoxy gives me something to do.

I don’t mean that I was bored and needed something to entertain me. I mean that the Christian life as I had been taught it prior to becoming Orthodox was essentially non-critical. I had been “saved,” and there was really nothing critical to do after that. I should try to be moral, of course, and get other people to get saved, too, but those things weren’t really necessary to the big question, which was: “Do you know what would happen to you if you died tonight?” Well, I knew. I was “saved.” I was going to Heaven.

But what if spiritual life is actually all critical? What if you need to endure to the end to be saved? What if being a Christian means working out your salvation with fear and trembling? Orthodoxy provides a full-bodied, full-souled spiritual life that assumes that everything you do as a Christian makes you either more like God or less like Him, and because becoming like God is what salvation consists of, that means that everything you do is critical. You haven’t “arrived” in this life. You should be moral and you should be evangelistic not because they get you bigger rewards in Heaven but because those things are part of what it means to cooperate with God so that you can be saved.

3. Orthodoxy gives me a way to see and touch God physically.

The Son of God became the Son of Mary, and that means that He became visible and touchable. In Orthodoxy, the implications of the doctrine of the Incarnation are that the divine presence — holiness — actually becomes present in the material world. Now, one can argue that that presence is uniquely present only in one physical place — the human body of Jesus — or one can be consistent and see how holiness shows forth in lots of other physical places both in the Bible and in subsequent Christian history. Saints’ bones, apostles’ shadows and even handkerchiefs touched by apostles have all showed forth the power of God.

Within that context, when Jesus said “This is My Body” and “This is My Blood,” it makes more sense to take Him seriously and not just metaphorically. That’s why St. Paul warned that people who received Holy Communion unworthily could get sick or even die. If it’s “just” a symbol, why would it do that?

The physicality of Orthodoxy — sacraments, incense, vestments, church architecture, icons, etc. — don’t get between me and God. They put me in touch with God. A bridge between two cliffs does not get between the cliffs but rather connects them. Orthodoxy’s many physical elements not manmade magic, but the working out of God’s gift of the Incarnation, the reconnecting of God and man.

4. Change is really hard.

People sometimes joke that Orthodoxy is not really an “organized religion,” with emphasis on “organized.” There is no pope handing down uniform instructions to the whole Church; our chiefest prelates often can’t seem to get along; and it seems like we’re never going to get around to holding that Great and Holy Council we’ve been talking about for nearly a century. But all those things don’t bother me. For one thing, it means that sheer logistics make it nearly impossible for us to alter what we do.

And if all that Eternity and Truth stuff is really true, why should we even think about altering it? It can’t get voted on democratically, and it can’t get imposed monarchically. So change doesn’t much happen. That’s not a bug. It’s a feature. Orthodoxy is not going to change out from under you.

That lack of organization also leads me to love Orthodoxy for another reason, too:

5. Orthodoxy really is one Church.

Unlike the denominationalism of the Protestant world, the various churches of Orthodoxy really do have to talk to each other and work things out. A Presbyterian and a Lutheran may each recognize each other as Christian, but they have almost no stake in each other’s internal church life. The same even holds true of someone belonging to the PCA and someone belonging to the PCUSA (both Presbyterian denominations). They don’t have to work anything out between them. A PCA church plant does not in any way infringe on the territory of the PCUSA, because they’re not the same church.

Orthodoxy may often bicker and fight (though most parishioners never see this unless they happen to be in a dysfunctional parish), but the fact that we have such bickering and fighting with each other means that we recognize in each other that we are one Church, that we have a problem and that we need to fix it. Protestants always have the option of just splitting (and once splits occur, they don’t have to bother with each other), while Roman Catholics can ultimately appeal to the Vatican, who can impose solutions that work for the Vatican but might not work for everyone else involved.

6. Orthodoxy is a faith for the whole life.

Because Orthodoxy comes with a vast set of expressions of its tradition, you can never exhaust it all. There is always something new not just to learn but to become. While we don’t really “arrive” until the next life (and I’d argue even that is not an arrival; that is, it’s not the end of the road of salvation), there are many way-stations in this life that delight and grant joy. The difference between Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism in this regard is that I’m talking about not just growing in wisdom, which is common to all religious traditions, but that Orthodoxy tracks many stages of spiritual development throughout a whole lifetime.

I remember one time hearing a monk explain the response he got from a holy elder on Mount Athos after asking him many questions. The elder replied that some things just wouldn’t make sense to him until later, until he’d received some level of illumination (theoria). It’s true. One cannot read a “Statement of Faith” from Orthodoxy (not even the Creed) and say, “Ah, yes. That is everything Orthodoxy teaches. I understand it now.”

Again, that’s not a bug. It’s a feature. Yes, we like things to be simple, to be readily accessible to everyone, but any faith that is not complex enough to address all the complexities of human experience is not worthy of the dignity of mankind. Orthodoxy provides that in a way that I haven’t found anywhere else.

7. Orthodoxy is a faith for the whole world.

There are no “target demographics” for Orthodoxy. We don’t do market research to figure out how to attract young people, old people, urban people, suburban people, or whatever particular demographic we might desire for our parish. A parish can often have a certain degree of commonality among members, but that isn’t by inherent design. There was no committee that met saying, “How do we get the 30-something suburbanites?”

Yes, Orthodoxy is sometimes plagued with ethnocentrism. But that’s a distortion of Orthodoxy, not faithfulness to it. And it’s not everywhere. I’ve belonged to both more ethnically focused and less ethnically focused, as well as ethnically non-focused Orthodox parishes, and none of them had an ethnic membership card check at the door. Orthodoxy is really a universal faith that has shaped numerous cultures and languages over many centuries.

If people as diverse as Arabs, Greeks, Serbs, Georgians, Russians, Estonians and Finns can all sing the same faith, and if both their young and old can sing it together, then truly, anyone is welcome. (Some Orthodox need to remember that more than others, though.)

8. Orthodoxy is a faith for the whole person.

Mankind is not just emotionally moved by beauty, but he aches to be near it, to create it as much as that is possible. More than any other iteration of Christian faith, the Orthodox Church knows how to envelop the worshiper with beauty in all five (or more!) senses, both otherworldly beauty that transports the worshiper and otherworldly beauty that transforms the earthly.

One might describe this as aesthetic, but it is not “mere” aesthetics in the sense of something that appeals only to the senses, perhaps for entertainment value, but goes nowhere in particular. This is aesthetic in the sense that God Himself is beauty. That is why Orthodoxy, while sometimes homely or homey, is never cheesy. It is timely and timeless, but not “contemporary.”

The beauty of Orthodoxy addresses the whole human person in multiple ways. It is not a faith just for the “soul” or the “heart,” but for the body, as well, including our ability to apprehend beauty.

9. God really does love you the way you are, and He loves you so much, He won’t leave you that way.

There seems to be a constant battle these days, especially within Protestantism, over whether God should be perceived as loving or as a judge. Even those who preach that God is love still tend to preach a God Who is angry at you for your sins and has to be appeased. But Orthodoxy preaches the God Who is consistently loving, a God Who loves with such strength that His love will change you, if only you will cooperate with it. The change won’t be lousy, either, turning you into some goody-goody prude. Rather, it will be a change into authentic personhood, where virtue is striven for because of communion, not because of adherence to arbitrary rules.

10. Orthodoxy is both mystical and rational.

Some Orthodox will oppose the mystical to the rational, but that’s a mistake, I believe. For all the apophatic theology (theology which emphasizes our inability to know God with our minds), there is also a lot of cataphatic theology (theology that makes clear, positive truth claims) in the tradition of the Church. We don’t have to choose one or the other, nor are the two really alternatives to each other. Apophatic theology is also not merely a “corrective” to cataphatic theology. Rather, both are simply ways of talking about theological emphases within Orthodoxy.

It is not as though, when I am serving the Divine Liturgy, I switch on the “rational” part when preaching the Gospel and then toggle the switch to “mystical” when I drink from the Chalice. All these things are in play simultaneously. I love that, and I haven’t really encountered that anywhere but in the Orthodox Church.

11. Orthodoxy is ascetical.

No Christian body takes asceticism as seriously as Orthodoxy does. Roman Catholicism has it in its tradition, but it is mostly ignored. Yet Orthodoxy expects all Christians to fast, to stand vigil, to be as non-possessive as possible, etc., and it provides a programme for how to do that. You don’t have to make it up for yourself, because the tradition is already established. And it’s also customizable according to the pastoral discernment of your father-confessor.

Asceticism is a way to do real battle with the broken modes that the human will functions in. It allows a man to take control of himself in a powerful way so that he can redirect his God-given powers and energies back toward God and away from his base appetites. Asceticism doesn’t save anyone, but it certainly does help. Why? Because we are only saved to the degree that we want it. Asceticism helps us to want it.

And as anyone who has really fasted for all of Lent and then tasted that first taste of roast lamb at Pascha can tell you, asceticism actually makes the good things of this earth taste better. Far from being a denigration of God’s good creation, asceticism returns the creation to us and opens up its beauty in ways that consuming it without restraint cannot ever do.

12. Orthodoxy aims higher than any other Christian faith.

While theosis (deification/divinization) is not the only model of salvation in Orthodox Christian theology, it certainly makes some of the strongest claims. There are hints at doctrines of theosis in Roman Catholicism. (I am not aware of any Protestant groups that teach it.) Yet it is only in Orthodoxy that one is taught that salvation means to become by grace what Christ is by nature, that “God became man so that man might become divine” (Athanasius, On the Incarnation) that becoming “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4) is actually expounded upon. “I have said, ‘ye are gods, and all of you are sons of the Most High’” (Ps. 82:6) is taken very seriously. You won’t find that anywhere else.

Even Pentecostals who teach that you can be chosen by God, spoken through by God, etc., aren’t really teaching that you can enter into such union with God that you begin to take on the divine attributes. But that is exactly what Orthodoxy teaches, that the transfiguration, death, resurrection and ascension of Christ are all what it truly means to be a Christian, that mankind is now seated on the very Throne of God Himself, and being in Christ means being seated there, too.

Pretty daring. But why settle for less?

So those are some of my reasons. What are yours?

Priest vs. Machine: Dollar Rent A Car as an Emblem of Bureaucratic Nihilism

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I offer up the following experience as a data point along the continuum into deeper inhumanity because of the too-big-to-care nature of much of corporate and government life in these latter days:

I recently had the misfortune of renting a car from Dollar Rent A Car at the Atlanta airport. The original estimate for the rental was $93.50 for three days’ use. But in the end, I paid $233.28. I thought it might be a little more than the estimate, since I forgot my GPS device at home and asked to use one of theirs, but I was unprepared for a rate that was roughly 250% what had been estimated, though I had been prepared to get something ignominious like the screamingly red Kia they assigned me.

Somehow, I also signed for insurance and “roadsafe options,” and the sales representative never once explained to me that those things were not actually required. Mind you, even though I asked questions and tried to understand all this (I am not a regular car renter), the sales representative’s thick non-American accent made it hard to understand the monotone script that he no doubt had well memorized. (I do not blame him, of course, for the unavoidably degrading nature of his employ. Nor, of course, do I blame him for being from another country. I love people from other places, and I love other languages, but someone whose job it is to talk to people needs to be comprehensible to his customers.)

On top of all that, even though I knew that I was reserving a car for three days, when I returned it, I was actually only a little over 17 minutes past 48 hours’ use. I sent a letter to Dollar explaining all this in a most irenic tone and not once demanding a refund (I was sure they had my signature on file for everything), but hoping that perhaps they might at least not count 17 minutes as 24 hours and give me a partial refund. I also told them that, based on my experience, I did not see myself renting from them again and would warn people off from doing business with them. This is what I got in return:

Dear Rev. Damick,

Thank you for notifying us of your recent experience with Dollar Rent A Car in Atlanta. We appreciate the opportunity to assist.

We have attached a copy of the final billing contract that we received from the location for your review. We are showing that LDW, the navigation unit and the roadsafe options we [sic; no doubt they meant "were"] accepted and signed for at the beginning of the rental. Due to this information all charges are done correctly and we are not showing a refund. Please let us know if you have any further questions.

Thank you once again, Rev. Damick, for taking the time to notify us of this situation. We look forward to serving you again soon at Dollar Rent A Car.

Sincerely,

[Name redacted - Fr. A]
Member Services Representative

Case ID: 2013018

I probably should have searched to discover that this is what I would likely get. It seems that “Refuse to adjust, relying on terms of agreement” is their S.O.P. Here’s my response to that (slightly edited to fix some typos and grammatical mishaps):

I will essentially take this to mean “You signed for all this stuff, so even if we didn’t really explain it to you, we have the legal upper hand, so no refund.”

I’m not sure whether what I was attempting to communicate really got across, though. I was not actually demanding a refund, though it might have been a gesture of goodwill on your part to offer at least a partial one. I was sure after I realized what happened that I had indeed signed for all those things. I’m not accusing you of cheating me.

The problem, though, is that the process itself leaves almost no room for actually understanding what is being signed for, and your representative certainly did not explain these things to me, something that would perhaps be expected in the normal circumstance of a traveler renting a car after having gone through all the annoyance of air travel. That is the essence of my difficulty here.

Now, I have no doubt that you do enough business that people getting charged for things they signed for but didn’t really understand does not particularly bother you. And especially since they signed, it probably doesn’t have to bother you in any legal sense. But I do hope I might appeal not to your sense of legality here but rather of simple, basic courtesy and humanity (even if not morality). One would imagine you would want your customers to know exactly what they’re buying and what they don’t have to buy if they don’t want to. I certainly didn’t want to buy insurance or “roadsafe options” (I still don’t even know what those are), but somehow I did anyway.

In any event, my purpose is not to come off as a pompous know-nothing who breezed through something without any care for the consequences. I asked your representative why all those charges were there, and whatever it was he said was incomprehensible to me, perhaps because the script he no doubt is required to read from is written that way and possibly that combined with his thick accent. In any event, the point is that one of your customers has walked away disappointed.

I am sure that you do not have to care, but I hope you might. We’re human beings out here. Perhaps there are some in there, too. I hope so.

A shout into the darkness, I am sure, but one may as well say something and try to be civilized about it and even wax slightly philosophical. Caveat emptor, caveat lector.

Update: It looks like a problem quite similar to one of mine is actually the subject of a lawsuit against Dollar.

Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy turns one!

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On Saturday, May 12, Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy: Exploring Belief Systems Through the Lens of the Ancient Christian Faith turned one year old!

It’s honestly a little hard to believe. This little path has now been winding about for more than three years.

O&H was originally done as a series of lectures offered at St. George Orthodox Cathedral in Charleston, West Virginia, beginning in November of 2008. At the time, I conceived of it as something of an exercise in encyclopedia-making, an attempt to catalogue nearly every religious movement in the world (especially Christian) and offer a brief summary of its similarities and differences with the Orthodox Church. I had no expectation that hardly anyone would actually attend the lectures, since I figured that relatively few folks would have an interest in such questions. The folks at the cathedral proved me very much wrong.

When I came to St. Paul Orthodox Church in Emmaus, Pennsylvania, in July of 2009, I wanted to offer some adult education classes that Fall, and since there were already so many other things happening connected with newly taking up the pastorate at a parish that made any major writing projects almost impossible, I figured I would pull O&H out of my files, give each talk some revision, and then deliver them again.

Before I actually delivered the talks, I ran into John Maddex, CEO of Conciliar Media (which includes both Conciliar Press and Ancient Faith Radio) at the Missions and Evangelism Conference at the Antiochian Village in September of 2009. I grew up as the son of radio missionaries, and with his extensive background in Christian radio, we found we had some things in common. He was even aware of who my father is, and it turned out that he had helped run a local Christian radio station in northern Ohio that I listened to as a kid.

In the course of our conversations, I mentioned my plans to deliver O&H here in Emmaus, and he and his wife Tonya both agreed that they would be interested in recordings of the lectures for Ancient Faith Radio. Not long after that, I received in the mail a box containing a microphone / mp3 recorder, something of a step of faith on their part, since they had never heard me speak or even read what I’d written!

That Fall, I recorded O&H in Emmaus. Turnout at those lectures was also quite good, filling our parish hall nearly to capacity. Soon after the recordings began, O&H started airing on AFR as a podcast. I also started getting a lot of email from listeners—some highly critical and even hostile, but mostly exceptionally kind and positive.

In late February of 2010, I got an email from the acquisitions editor at Conciliar Press, saying that John had asked her to contact me to see if I would be interested in making O&H into a book, that the podcasts had been so popular that they were convinced it would also do well in print. In all honesty, I was exceptionally surprised.

I had in my younger days imagined myself being a published writer, but eventually I put away that childish vanity and settled on the idea that blogging was pretty much going to be my only real publication. So when CP approached me with the proposal, it hardly seemed real. Nevertheless, within about 45 minutes of receiving the initial email from CP, I responded positively. How could I not?

I then entered the process of getting hierarchical approval for the publication and, once that was secured, began working on a complete overhaul of the original manuscripts. I reordered the chapters, did some renaming, corrected errors, nuanced some things that had been phrased too absolutely, and added some new material. I started out with lectures totaling about 60,000 words and ended with a book that was roughly 72,000 words. Along the way, CP did a lot of work to refine the editing and also produced the cover featured above. It went to press the following Spring, in 2011, and went on sale in May. The following November, it was made available as an e-book.

I have been honored and humbled by this whole process, and I am most especially immensely grateful to my wife who is a good check on my temptation to vanity. I’m grateful to John Maddex who put the resources of Conciliar Media behind this material twice and also to all the listeners to the podcasts and to the readers of the book.

If you haven’t yet bought a copy of the book, here are some places you can do so: Conciliar Press, Amazon.com, Amazon Kindle, and B&N NOOK.

You may already be aware that I also have another, ongoing podcast with other lectures (and recently, sermons) entitled Roads From Emmaus, and I’ve also signed a contract with CP for another book tentatively entitled An Introduction to God: Encountering the Divine in Orthodox Christianity which is in the revision process. We’ve also lately been discussing the possibility of a book of essays, as well.

Again, thank you for your prayers and support in all of these projects. I love doing them, and I hope they’re useful to you.

Children and the Cosmos

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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.

—St. Nikolai Velimiromich, Prayers by the Lake XCV (full passage here)

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.

Conversions

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Ten years ago today—April 26, 2002—I first sat down and had coffee with the beautiful woman in the picture above. This picture was taken about sixteen months later, on our wedding day.

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.

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The Last Homely House, painted by J. R. R. Tolkien

Whenever I have not read The Lord of the Rings for some time, I feel as though I am a long way from home. I try (but sometimes fail) to read it annually. And yet I have all these books around that I bought but just haven’t gotten around to reading yet.

They’re good books, mind you. Being a geek who married a geek, our books bought on whims tend to be dense, hearty stuff. To my right is a Steven Runciman book on the 13th century Mediterranean (gazed upon lovingly), while G. K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man (begun, but left off) is buried underneath some paperwork. Above me is The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien (leafed through furiously), and I also appear to have a 19th century edition of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (never even glanced past the title page) somewhere floating about nearby. (Its chief virtue, besides being in dire need of a bookbinder, is that its prime page claims it was “done into English.” There’s a translator with gusto, I tell you.)

My educational background (B.A. in English Literature; most of a B.A. in Communication; minors in Religion, Classical Studies and Ancient Greek; M.Div. with Honors in Church History) marks me boldly as one who drowns in text. (I would say “swims,” but let’s be honest.) And yet I somehow never seem to find time to read. I’ve got too many projects going on, and reading lately is more like a sprinter chowing down on the carbs than like a cow browsing in clover. (One has to wonder which of those is really the more appealing image.)

Mind you, I look around at my books, and there really are many of them I’ve read, quite probably the majority. But these little golden volumes that I pull off the shelf but somehow haven’t read keep gnawing at me, and when the only steadily observable progress I make on anything new is the novel I read before bed, well, it’s still a little depressing.

I do console and excuse myself by thinking that I am still in recovery from seminary, which is where I learned the sprinter’s approach to reading, since everything must be eaten, digested, and then powered out in short order. Of course, continuing to exercise my “mutant power” of actually producing mounds of text in short order does nothing to adjust this problem. So perhaps this is actually some form of addiction and not really recovery at all.

There is a rehabilitation plan in the works, however, and it mainly consists of working out the balanced schedule for my writing and other educational work in the parish. Besides weekly sermons, I’ve been writing two lecture series per year, and I’ll continue to do that. I am planning on adding an ongoing adult educational class, as well, something less formal and rhetorically developed. (All this is not to mention the actual print publication project that’s in the works and slated for release in the Spring.) Once I’ve got my basic patterns in place, it should be easier to plan the workload for everything, and then that “Long term projects / Study” slot I usually have reserved for Wednesdays will finally get better used.

In the meantime, once I’ve finished the novel series I’m reading, I think I’ll go back home again for a while and hear some songs sung in the Last Homely House.