Thomas Hopko’s 55 Maxims

JMJ

ALONG WITH THE “Rule” of the Late Fr Alexander Schmemann, which he wrote in his Journal on Tuesday, January 20, 1981 (see my copy here) the 55 Maxims of the Late Fr Thomas Hopko are, for me, a sure guide to living a Christian life as a single man living in the world. I can keep neither perfectly, so don’t read any claim into this post! These two together – adapted to my situation – are my personal rule.

Fr Tom was Fr Alexander’s Son-in-Law. Both served as Dean of St Vladimir’s Seminary. The maxims were originally part of a podcast. The Episode is archived here, along with a full transcript. Below is a condensed version of the 55 points. Although they were written for an Eastern Orthodox context, both the Maxims and the Rule are applicable in any Christian Journey.

  1. Be always with Christ and trust God in everything.
  2. Pray as you can, not as you think you must.
  3. Have a keepable rule of prayer done by discipline.
  4. Say the Lord’s Prayer several times each day.
  5. Repeat a short prayer when your mind is not occupied.
  6. Make some prostrations when you pray.
  7. Eat good foods in moderation and fast on fasting days.
  8. Practice silence, inner and outer.
  9. Sit in silence 20 to 30 minutes each day.
  10. Do acts of mercy in secret.
  11. Go to liturgical services regularly.
  12. Go to confession and holy communion regularly.
  13. Do not engage intrusive thoughts and feelings.
  14. Reveal all your thoughts and feelings to a trusted person regularly.
  15. Read the scriptures regularly.
  16. Read good books, a little at a time.
  17. Cultivate communion with the saints.
  18. Be an ordinary person, one of the human race.
  19. Be polite with everyone, first of all family members.
  20. Maintain cleanliness and order in your home.
  21. Have a healthy, wholesome hobby.
  22. Exercise regularly.
  23. Live a day, even a part of a day, at a time.
  24. Be totally honest, first of all with yourself.
  25. Be faithful in little things.
  26. Do your work, then forget it.
  27. Do the most difficult and painful things first.
  28. Face reality.
  29. Be grateful.
  30. Be cheerful.
  31. Be simple, hidden, quiet and small.
  32. Never bring attention to yourself.
  33. Listen when people talk to you.
  34. Be awake and attentive, fully present where you are.
  35. Think and talk about things no more than necessary.
  36. Speak simply, clearly, firmly, directly.
  37. Flee imagination, fantasy, analysis, figuring things out.
  38. Flee carnal, sexual things at their first appearance.
  39. Don’t complain, grumble, murmur or whine.
  40. Don’t seek or expect pity or praise.
  41. Don’t compare yourself with anyone.
  42. Don’t judge anyone for anything.
  43. Don’t try to convince anyone of anything.
  44. Don’t defend or justify yourself.
  45. Be defined and bound by God, not people.
  46. Accept criticism gracefully and test it carefully.
  47. Give advice only when asked or when it is your duty.
  48. Do nothing for people that they can and should do for themselves.
  49. Have a daily schedule of activities, avoiding whim and caprice.
  50. Be merciful with yourself and others.
  51. Have no expectations except to be fiercely tempted to your last breath.
  52. Focus exclusively on God and light, and never on darkness, temptation and sin.
  53. Endure the trial of yourself and your faults serenely, under God’s mercy.
  54. When you fall, get up immediately and start over.
  55. Get help when you need it, without fear or shame.

Homeless Life in SF

JMJ

Homo quidam erat dives…
There was a certain rich man…

WE HAVE A HUGE HOMELESS problem in San Francisco. 
The problem is we have a huge, wealthy population that’s scared of homeless people.
They are scared that property values might fall.
They are scared that job candidates might get turned off.
They are scared that poor people might cause crimes.
They are scared that someone might say something uncomfortable-making to them on the street.
They are scared that some people smell.
They are scared that some people are not on meds.
They are scared that living in tents make us look bad as a city.

We have a huge homeless problem in San Francisco.
The problem is that we don’t remember them.
We don’t remember that the second set of shoes we have belongs to the poor – not to the consignment store.
We don’t remember that the extra clothes we have belong to the naked – not to Goodwill.
We don’t remember that the extra food in our fridge belongs to the hungry – not to the dog or compost.
We don’t remember that the extra anything we have belongs to the poor – or else we are stealing it.

We have a huge homeless problem in San Francisco.
The problem is that we tend to trust gov’t blindly without calling it to account for failure.
If we manage to elect persons of all colors, genders, and sexual orientations we feel good about ourselves – even though they are as unjust to the poor as anyone else. 
If we manage to elect only one party (we really only have one party in SF) we feel good about ourselves – even if they are just as beholden to big corporations, property developers, and the wealthy as the party we don’t have. 
If we manage to elect people who actually try to do something we pass ballot measures that undo their good works.

We have a huge homeless problem in San Francisco.
The problem is we ask too many questions.
How did he get that way?
Did he do drugs?
Is she abusing the system?
If I give her money will she just buy drugs?
Is that even any of my business?
If I give money to that organization how much of it goes for wages?
Won’t the gov’t support them so  that if I give them money, it’s  just double.

We have a huge homeless problem in San Francisco.
The problem is that we nullify any moral teaching that might make us feel obligated.
We are obligated to charity in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Sikhism, Hindusm, and several others. We prefer instead an odd combo of Prosperity Gospel and Newage, Neognostic Victim Blaming that allows us to imagine no deity will hold us responsible as long as we feel good about things.
This coupled with an entitled NIMBYism means that no one is obligated to care if they don’t feel like it and those that do care can be called to the carpet for making the rest of us feel guilty.

We have a huge homeless problem in San Francisco.
It has nothing to do with homeless folks.
It has nothing to do with the govt.
It has everything to do with the rest of us.

And in the end, we will find ourselves beyond Abraham’s bosom on the wrong side of the great abyss. The Fathers are not kind here:

AMBROSE; From this we learn then, that we are not ourselves the masters, but rather the stewards of the property of others.
THEOPHYLACT. Next, that when we exercise not the management of our wealth according to our Lord’s pleasure, but abuse our trust to our own pleasures, we are guilty stewards. 
CYRIL. This discourse concerning the rich man and Lazarus was written after the manner of a comparison in a parable, to declare that they who abound in earthly riches, unless they will relieve the necessities of the poor, shall meet with a heavy condemnation.
AMBROSE. But the insolence and pride of the wealthy is manifested afterwards by the clearest tokens, for it follows, and no one gave to him. For so unmindful are they of the condition of mankind, that as if placed above nature they derive from the wretchedness of the poor an incitement to their own pleasure, they laugh at the destitute, they mock the needy, and rob those whom they ought to pity. 
AUGUSTINE. For the covetousness of the rich is insatiable, it neither fears God nor regards man, spares not a father, keeps not its fealty to a friend, oppresses the widow, attacks the property of a ward.
Pope GREGORY. Moreover the poor man saw the rich as he went forth surrounded by flatterers, while he himself lay in sickness and want, visited by no one. For that no one came to visit him, the dogs witness, who fearlessly licked his sores, for it follows, moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. By one thing Almighty God displayed two judgments. He permitted Lazarus to lie before the rich man’s gate, both that the wicked rich man might increase the vengeance of his condemnation, and the poor man by his trials enhance his reward; the one saw daily him on whom he should show mercy, the other that for which he might be approved.
 CHRYSOSTOM. He died then indeed in body, but his soul was dead before. For he did none of the works of the soul. All that warmth which issues from the love of our neighbor had fled, and he was more dead than his body. But not because he was rich was he tormented, but because he was not merciful.
Pope GREGORY. We may gather from this, with what torments he will be punished who robs another, if he is smitten with the condemnation to hell, who does not distribute what is his own. 

In San Francisco, each one of us has the nearly unique opportunity to be Dives to our own private Lazarus. I think, though, most of us would rather banquet in linen and purple robes. We’re doomed.

(Originally published in these pages on 1 March 2019)

The Virtues of the Name JESUS

JMJ

From the Book, For the Love of Jesus, compiled by Robert Hugh Benson in 1906.

Introduction

IF thou wilt to be with God, and to have grace to rule thy life, and to come to the joy of love; this name Jesu – fasten it so fast in thine heart , that it come never out of thy thought. And when thou speakest to him, and sayest Jesu, through custom, it shall be in thine ear joy, and in thy mouth honey, and in thine heart melody. For thou shalt think joy to hear the name of Jesu named, sweetness to speak it, mirth and song to think on it. If thou think on Jesu continually and hold it stably, it purgeth thy sin, it kindleth thy heart, it clarifieth thy soul, it removeth anger, it doeth away slowness, it bringeth in love fulfilled of charity, it chaseth the devil, it putteth out dread, it openeth heaven, it maketh contemplative men. Have Jesu often in mind; For all vices and phantoms it putteth from the lover or it. Also thereto hail Mary often, both day and night and then much joy and love shalt thou feel. If thou do after this sort, thou needest not greatly covet many books. Hold love in heart and in work, and thou hast all that we may say or write; for fulness of law is charity; in that hangeth all.

The Meditation

OLEUM effusum nomen tuum. That is in English, Ointment outpoured is thy name.

This name is ointment outpoured, for Jesu, the Word of God has taken man’s nature. Jesu, thou fulfillest in work what thou art called in name – in truth he saves man, he whom we call Saviour – therefore Jesu is thy name. Ah! ah! that wonderful name! Ah! that delightable name! This is the name that is above all names, the highest name of all, without which no man hopes for health. This name is in mine ear heavenly sound, in my mouth honey full sweetness. Soothly, Jesu, desirable is thy name, lovable and comfortable. None so sweet joy may be conceived, none so sweet song may be heard, none so sweet and delightable solace may be had in mind. Soothly, nothing so slackens fell flames; destroys ill thoughts; puts out venomous affections; does away curious and vain occupations from us.

This name Jesu, leally holden in mind, draws out vices by the root; plants virtues; sows charity; pours in savour of heavenly things; wastes discord; forms again peace; gives lasting rest; does away grievousness of fleshly desires; turns all earthly things to nought; fills the loving with ghostly joy.

Wherefore what can fail him that covets everlastingly to love the name of Jesu? Soothly he loves and he yearns for to love; for we have known that the love of God stands in such manner that the more we love the more we long to love. Wherefore it is said, Qui edunt me adhuc esurient, et qui bibunt me adhuc stint; that is to say, They that eat me hunger yet, and they that drink me thirst yet.

Therefore itself delightable and covetable is the name of Jesu and the love of it. Therefore joy shall not fail him that covets busily for to love him whom angels yearn for to behold. Angels ever see and ever they yearn for to see; and they are so filled that their filling does not away their desire, and so their desire does not away their filling.

Therefore, Jesu, all shall joy that love thy name. Soothly shall they joy now by the in pouring of grace, and in time to come by the sight of joy; and therefore shall they joy, for that they love thy name. In sooth, were they not loved, they might not joy; and they that love more shall joy more; for why? Joy comes of love.

Therefore he that loves not, he shall evermore be without joy.

Therefore many poor wretches of the world, trowing that they shall joy with Christ, shall sorrow without end; and why? For that they loved not the name of Jesu. Whatsoever ye do, if ye give all that ye have unto the needy, except ye love the name of Jesu ye travail in vain. They alone may joy in Jesu that love him in this life; and they that fill them with vices and venomous delights, doubtless they shall be put out of joy.

Also know all that the name of Jesu is healthful, fruitful, and glorious. Therefore who shall have health that loves it not? Or who shall bear the fruit before Christ, that has not the flower? And joy shall he not see that in his joying loved not the name of Jesu. The wicked shall be done away, that he see not the joy of God.

Soothly the righteous seek the joy and the life, and they find it in Jesu whom they love.

I went about those covetous of riches, and I found not Jesu.

I ran by the fleshly wantons, and I found not Jesu.

I sat in companies of worldly mirth, and I found not Jesu.

In all these I sought Jesu, but I found him not; for he let me wit by his grace that he is not found in the land of soft living.

Therefore I turned by another way, and I ran about by poverty; and I found Jesu, pure born in the world, laid in a crib and lapped in clothes.

I went by suffering of weariness, and I found Jesu weary in the way, tormented with hunger, thirsty and cold, filled with reproofs and blames.

I sat by myself, fleeing the vanities of the world, and I found Jesu fasting in the desert, praying alone in the mount.

I ran by the pain of penance, and I found Jesu bounden, scourged, given gall to drink, nailed to the cross, hanging on the cross, and dying on the cross.

Therefore Jesu is not found in riches, but in poverty: not in delights, but in penance: not in wanton joying, but in bitter weeping: not among many, but in loneliness. Soothly an evil man finds not Jesu, for where he is he seeks him not. He endeavours to seek Jesu in the joy of the world, where never shall he be found.

Soothly therefore the name of Jesu is healthful, and need behoves that it be loved of all that covet salvation. He covets well his salvation that keeps busily in him the name of Jesu.

Soothly I have no wonder if the tempted fall, who put not in lasting mind the name of Jesu.

Safely may he ( or such as he ) choose to live alone, that has chosen the name of Jesu to his own possession; for there may no wicked spirit do harm, where Jesu is much in mind or named in mouth.

The New Temple

JMJ

MARY THE MOTHER OF GOD is celebrated on 1 January, the Octave of Christmas. (Fr Vincent pointed out in his Homily that this is feast the Latin Church lifted from the East. There it is observed on 26 December.) Mary is seen as a type of the Church because she opened her heart and her womb to the God of All Creation. One of my favorite titles for her is She Whose Womb was More Spacious Than the Heavens: the infinite God, Whom the heavens cannot contain, consenting to dwell within her. She is the fulfillment of the promise of the Tabernacle and Temple: he who dwells not in houses made by human hands dwelt, for nine months, in a house. Mary is the New Ark, the covenant written on the Tablet of Human Flesh coming forth from her; the new manna, the Bread of Angels stored within her; the symbols of the Priesthood carried in her. All that was foretold about the Virgin, fulfilled in her, unfolds to even greater fulfillment in the Church.

As the Temple (housing God’s presence) was to Israel, and Mary (housing the Messiah) is to the Church, so the Church (housing the Messiah’s substantial presence) is to the Whole World. And I don’t mean your local Gothic, Romanesque, Baroque, or Brutalist physical plant either.

I mean you. We have a job to do, bearing God’s presence to the world.

The Fathers teach that as the soul is in the body, so the Church is in the world. The Church is, literally, the form of the world: what holds the world together, what moves the world closer to God – the ordered direction of all creation. And Mary, as the Mother of God, is also the Mother of the Church, which is his body – as each member of the Church is also, on a lower typological level.

The name, “Israel”, is important here. It means to struggle with God: that is, against our own selfishness, concupiscence, and pride. Like ancient Israel, the Church is engaged fully in this process. We follow our elder brothers.

We do believe that goodness prevails, but the happy ending is not our focus. Our focus is the struggle to get there. Regardless of the result, the struggle itself is holy. If you strive for goodness, you’re in, even before you get there. If you’re trying to be better, even if you fall sometimes, you’re on the path. It’s all about the struggle.

Source (Retrieved 3 Jan 2023)

“The struggle itself is holy.” As we walk through the world daily, working out our salvation in fear and trembling, we are doing something not only for ourselves, but for the whole world.

As St Seraphim of Sarov said, “Acquire the Holy Spirit and thousands around you will be saved.” Every one of us is called to this continual action of salvation on behalf of the entire world – even those who reject the offer. And, conversely, every sin draws down the world as well. God’s action is greater, of course, but it it often seems, as Tolkien said, a long defeat. Still, it is the action that is important.

As Mary’s assent to God allowed the Birth of the Messiah to save the world, so do each of us, as we struggle to make continual assent, allow God to continue that salvific action. Yes, he could do it all without us. But he has graciously invited us to participate in the Relationship of Son to Father. We act as sons healing the world.

Happy New Year!

Be the Mikveh

JMJ

And he stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I will; be clean.” And immediately his leprosy was cleansed.
Matthew 8:3
He who believes in me, as the scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.’
John 7:38
Whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.
John 4:14

THEOLOGICAL WRITERS MAKE MUCH OF Jesus “contagious purity“. The laws of Jewish Scriptures assume that something that is impure cannot be touched lest the impurity pass through the touch. If one is in a state of ritual purity and touches something unclean it is the impurity that is contagious: if I touch a corpse it is I who become unclean. Thus men refrain from touching a woman because she may be ritually impure. It is her impurity that is contagious – a man’s ritual purity is very fragile and can be destroyed. Jesus, however, walks around touching things – lepers, the sick, corpses, etc – without fear. Instead of becoming impure himself he makes them pure – healing them, raising the dead, cleansing lepers.

I get why this is important as it’s a huge paradigm shift from Second Temple Judaism. Fear of contagious impurity is what makes the Priest and the Levite out to be the bad guys in the Good Samaritan story. Contagious impurity comes up in other New Testament conversations as well: it’s the heart of the objection that Jesus eats with sinners (becomes contaminated by them). Jesus says that’s not the issue at all. So I get why his purity is hugely important. But I missed the application until September when I was working on a paper for Homiletics, published here.

Finally, the reference to Jewish purification rituals in verse 6. Traditionally such washing had to be done in “living water” which means the ocean, a river, stream, a spring, etc, or from rainwater. Wealthier Jewish homes may have a dedicated pool (called a mikveh) for use by the family. Jewish laws require a certain amount of “living water” to be used but other “normal” water can be brought into contact and – thus ritually purifying all the water to make it acceptable for the ritual. Among other uses, the mikveh was traditional for a bride (and sometimes the groom) to use before the wedding to be in a state of ritual purity. A mikveh requires about 140 gallons of living water or water that had otherwise been purified. (Source retrieved on 9/11/22.)
… There’s something interesting about the use of “living water” in a mikveh and Christ promising streams of living water rising up with the believer (John 7:38). The Greek in 7:38 is the same phrase for “living water” in the LXX for Jeremiah 2:13.

I have been meditating on the “something interesting” for a while now. When I was a kid I thought that living water might mean something alive… like a monster or a water being. I don’t know. I did not think of living water as a class of water opposed to water that is “dead” or “still”. What I think I’m seeing is a promise that – as Jesus has contagious purity, flowing out from him to others around him – we are to have streams of living water (Hebrew מים חיים Mayyim Chayyim) rising up from within us, where this is a contagious purity flowing out to others. This is the promise Jesus makes to believers. What he does, we are to do as well – and ever greater things than he! This living water, welling up from within us, is not our own “Stuff” but rather Jesus.

It’s (another) scriptural promise for absolution in confession: those sins you forgive are forgiven… living water welling up inside of cleanses those around you. When we are open to Jesus’ action in our lives we become mediators of that action to others around us. “Acquire the Holy Spirit,” as St Seraphim of Sarov says. “And thousands around you will be saved.” We do not act for ourselves but for the extension of the Kingdom of God. As Pope Benedict says (in Introduction to Christianity) we’re to be open “on both sides”: to God and to our fellow men, as Jesus was fully for God and for us.

By Grace, we become a source of living water for those around us and they, in turn, become sources of living water as well. The living water flows out from the Tabernacle of the Eucharist until it becomes a flood filling all the world.

Washing Up

JMJ

AS A CHILD your host was raised (for 5 or 6 years) by his grandparents. They were not “Children of the Depression” but rather “Adults of the Depression”. Grandpa had been in his 20s. Grandma, born just prior to the turn of the century, was 30 when the stock market crashed. So their habits and, really, their psyches, were shaped by having known the excess of the pre-crash era followed by the trauma of the collapse. They knew how far things could go in both directions. So, it will come as no surprise that they were never prone to excess. Even though we were neither terribly poor nor terribly wealthy, we were always frugal. Regardless of what other folks did in the 1960s – neither in the rural South where your host grew up nor in other places – but “use it up, wear it out, make due or do without” should be translated into Latin and place on our family crest.

One of the things that always stands this writer apart from other people of the same era is that the idea of wasting any resource horrified us. Leftovers were always reused. Food was never tossed out. Lights turned off. Heat kept low (we burned coal in our furnace). And, always, water was conserved. In childhood, while washing face, hands, and neck was a common experience, barring emergencies, bathing was reserved for Saturday Nights. There were jokes on TV about this. Everyone in Mayberry knew Saturday was bath day. Even into the mid-70s, the idea of bathing more than once or twice a week (it was Saturday and Wednesday by 1974) seemed like a needless waste. To bathe every day – even more than once a day at times – seems a terrible luxury.

Lust (Luxuria) from The Seven Deadly Sins
Etchings, 1558. Pieter van der Heyden

This brings us to the word of the day: luxury. It seems most interesting that while luxury, to us, implies fur coats and sumptuous foods at its Latin source, luxuria, this word means lust.

What makes this the word of the day is the fact that I had no hot water this morning or, rather, I had tepid water. I think the heater in our building was working, but, perhaps, someone had taken an over-long shower. I’ve done that myself in the past. Additionally, this being SF, most of our pipes are actually outside. Thus to get from the boiler to me involves a trip in the cold outside air. It has been quite cold. Anyway, I had not my usual luxurious shower today. And I found myself thinking of Exodus 90 and also of the folks that come to me and ask for help. And how showering in the cold is normal for some folks, as is not showering at all.

This is not a post about feeling guilty for our modern luxuries. But it is a post about not-recognizing that they are, exactly, luxuries. No one has a right to bathe every day or even to do so in warm water. No one has a right to not-smelling or even to not-smelling their neighbors. To put it even better, no one has a right to clean neighbors.

I think of how race was once used to exclude strangers from whole neighborhoods. Now it is also class and smell with the defense (in all cases) being “property values”. My right to not-smell you is enough for me to demand you not be allowed to sit in “my pew” or next to me on the bus. In fact, it’s such an important right that I will fill up the road with private vehicles so we don’t have to smell each other – gas fumes are better. My property values are more important than your dignity as a human icon of God as is my right to have meat at every meal, my right to have cheap plastic junk at Wal*Mart, and my right to consume adult content on the internet.

At root, our modern luxuries are, exactly, luxuries.

Time flies…

JMJ

LEARNING, TONIGHT, OF TWO different readings of this passage. One will be familiar to my Christian readers, the other to my Jewish ones. There may be some overlap, but they seem to be mutually exclusive. There may be a way to pull in the both-and option, but we’ll see.

The Torah Portion that was read last Shabbat Morning was וַיִּשְׁלַח Vayishlach which means “and he sent”‎. The important passage, for me, is the wrestling with the angel. I have that as the header image on literally every page and post on this blog. (By way of stealing a bit of the sky from the Doré illustration.) But I do not read it the way the Jewish Tradition does.

A man wrestled with him: our sages explained that this was the ministering angel of Esau.” A commonplace of Talmudic and midrashic literature is that every nation has its own angelic “minister” who represents its interests before G-d. It is Esau’s angel, then, who attempts to frustrate Jacob’s mission.

Source which cites the Talmud and other texts in support

Every Christian commentary I’ve heard on this passage indicates that Jacob is wrestling with God, himself, with even most of the liberal scholarship falling on the side of this being a mythological telling of Jacob wrestling with God. Israel is taken as a literal description of what has just happened (Jacob has wrestled with God) and a prophecy that he has nothing to fear from his brother, Esau, with whom he has also striven. The same commentaries say Jacob is sending his own angels ahead of him (Messangers = Angels, I get it).

Then Jacob and Esau meat and are reconciled. This reunion gets spun into some very interesting symbolism.

Jacob left home to try and control his own destiny but he knew he had to come back – God wanted him in Eretz Israel for his own salvation as well as the blessing he would be to the whole world. To come back into the Land, though, he would need to reconcile with his family – including the ones he had tricked. God needs to make evident that Jacob intends to be here – evident not to God, but to Jacob. So it is fitting that there are trials for Jacob to overcome on his way home. God wants Jacob to see that he – Jacob – wants to be here.

Sometimes, when things are too easy, we are willing to drop them just because they were too easy. When we have to work for them… suddenly I will not let you go until you bless me. This journey home was Jacob’s purgatory. He has more to come, actually. But he’s home for now.

Part of our own journey home is realizing where home really is.

This Sunday was Advent 3, Gaudete Sunday. “Rejoice”, from the Introit Verse in Philippians 4:4, Rejoice in the Lord alway: and again I say, Rejoice. Amen, rejoice.

From my first visit to St Dominic’s in 2016

Six years ago on 3 Dec 2016 I walked into St Dominic’s Church for the first time. It was Saturday before the 2nd Sunday of Advent that year. Three days later, as my friend Tim says, I moved in. I was thinking about it this weekend. Six years later and some things have happened. I feel like I’ve been here at least 10 years. One lifelong parishioner assumed I was also a lifer. Look upon this vine you have planted….

Making, with my Sister Anne, Life Profession as Dominican Tertiaries.

In the midst of all life’s changes and passions, I wanted to promise God I would not run away. That if he let me come back to SF from my exile in Alabama, I would stay put. I would root this time. Nothing would be an optional item. Nothing would be expendable. God would be in charge of staying or going. I’m not leaving minus clear indications otherwise.

Six years after walking in the front door, I work for the parish and I’m involved as a Dominican tertiary and also in the formation program for the diaconate. It’s not been easy – there have been many surprising bumps and som very hard knocks. Purgatory is not supposed to be easy. But the end is the reunification of God and Man. The Catholic Answer to Gnosticism is not “God can use matter” or “matter is neutral” or even “don’t worry about matter”. To make a direct pun, matter matters. There is literally nothing in life that is not intended as an action of God’s grace. Your friends, family, even your enemies are there to pour God’s grace into your life for your salvation. This is why icons are bathed in light: all of the universe, all physical matter, is mdiating God’s grace to you if you can but see it. Icons are windows to heaven and heaven is happening here, now.

Is Jacob wrestling God or an Angel sent from Esau? It matters not – for, for him who loves the Lord, all things are God working out his salvation. All angels are divine messengers, no matter who they are guarding. Esau’s angel cannot but be doing God’s will any more or less than any other angel.

As the Rabbis teach, “Only in the Messianic era will the world experience the wholesomeness of the restored relationship between Esau and Jacob, between matter and spirit, between body and soul.”

We are in that era now: these words are fulfilled in your hearing. Indeed, for most of the Church Fathers any theophany in the Older Scriptures is God the Son – this Angel, the Burning Bush, the voice on Sinai. God thw Father speaks, yes, but his word is the Son. God has become man and flesh and spirit are returned to their rightful relationship. Even in the things you fear, Rejoice! God is mysteriously working for your salvation and healing.

Our Idols Our Selves

JMJ

WHILE LISTENING to the most recent episode of Clerically Speaking, I was struck by Fr Harrison’s ruminating on his ADHD and his free will. If we make out a part of us to be “who I am” then everything is filtered through that. Father seemed to be asking if he’s created too much of a crutch, short-handing his entire life into the ADHD diagnosis. It was an internal conversation I recognized because of how we treat SSA. The claim that “this is who I am” is reinforced, over and over, through the process of coming out: each emotional hurdle – telling Mom and Dad, telling my siblings, telling my friends, telling my faith community, etc – involves a process of fear, courage, and eventual release of endorphins, that it might almost be called self-hypnosis. The individual formulates a self-image, then does a test-run and is affirmed in that image. Eventually even the negative reactions to that image become positive reinforcements.

We can do this with sexuality, medical or psychological diagnoses, with our job, our class, our social positions, etc. We create a self-image based on some tiny aspect of ourselves and then feed that image until it grows into sort of synecdoche for our entire person. But that image isn’t me: it is, essentially, an homunculus, a fake me that I put out there to let others see and interact with. The real me, deep inside my being, is not important. Who I am projecting to be now is the only thing that matters. I’ve made a new me out of this one thing.

There are a couple of moments in, of all things, Brideshead Revisited when the narrator recounts that either himself or another character (Rex Mottram) are “part of a man pretending to be the whole”. For Rex it is his political aspirations, which are so important that his politics change over and over: from far right to far left, from capitalist to socialist, he will do anything to be popular – even contradict his previous self-image. The Narrator does this as an artist: puts a self-image of Bohemian Creator out there and runs with it. Anthony Blanche busts him free of this, calling out his charade. It takes, however, a few more chapters before the narrator gets it. Rex never gets it at all.

This seems a species of Imposter Syndrome, projected outward. At the heart of this is a fear that I’m not good enough. I must fool you into thinking I am, though. If I show you a fragment of me, just the bits that are what are needed here, then I have some control over things. You will like me or I will make up a new me for you to like.

What struck me, working through this with my therapist and my spiritual director (two different guys), was that having an homunculus is a defensive habit that is hard to break. In the last 6 months I’ve caught myself making a new one out of my job and out of my vocation: a tiny little mini-me that has all the qualities of a deacon or a soup kitchen director, but none of the qualities of me. God can’t save a mini-me, only the real me, hiding in the background. I wondered how often we do this to ourselves: set up a defensive shield of something (my liturgical office, for example) and then hid behind it. For me it was my religious journey that, after a while, became the thing. I was looking for something but even when I found something it was never good enough. This makes sense, of course: if it’s not the Truth, how can it be good enough? But for a while, it was fun just being the “guy with a really cool journey”. It didn’t matter that I never got anywhere. Rootless trees don’t grow though: they are more properly called tumbleweeds.

The homunculus is, really, an idol: someone I’m pretending to be that is much more important than who I really am. Not, mind you, that the homunculus needs to be important: but it is more important than me. I have created this thing so you must deal with it. You must love or hate it not me. You must argue with or support it not me. I have put so much work into creating this that you must pretend not to notice me at all. This thing is who I am… fully responsible for all that happens, and never at fault. Eventually, I have no choice but to do the things that the homunculus would want for its own preservation. I become the thing itself. (Except that’s not really possible…)

When we have an idol (or a pantheon of them) we can comfort ourselves with the idea that people are relating to us. But no, they are not. They are only relating to the idol – the fake person created to pass for the whole. They sacrifice to the idol their love, their companionship, their time and worth. But they do not know they are doing so. Carrying the idol around, I know there’s an idol, but I dursn’t admit it: to do so would risk giving up the not-real connections I think I have. If I give up the idol, you might not like me. So I, too, begin to sacrifice to it on a regular basis. The idol becomes stronger than I am. Chapters 10-14 of CS Lewis’ Great Divorce have two stories of this issue: The Man with a Dragon (Chapter 11) and the Man with a Chain (Chapter 12). But, more subtly, there are other stories about holding on to self-image in lieu of self also in that chapter. We can make an idol out of everything and, eventually, the idol destroys us.

Tracking my own reactions, there are times when people break the homunculus, or when they shatter my self-identity unintentionally. If I’m doing something where (in my mind) I must be perceived as this thing then to do something that clearly is outside of the role I’m playing makes me wither in self-doubt. For another person to (by their actions) cause me to break character is to provoke a huge emotional response from me – usually anger, yes, but sometimes fear, self-loathing, or pouting. I know who I am pretending to be, but if you get a glimpse of the real me, I have to be defensive. I have to lash out in anger to not only fix the thing you broke, but to quickly cover up the rip you’ve made in my self-image.

As Lewis points out, the homunculus eventually takes over, like a parasite feeding on its creator’s life. Eventually there is nothing left except the homunculus. The thing is God can’t save the homunculus. God can only save a human soul. The Church can’t ordain an homunculus, even one that is liturgically perfect. An homunculus cannot love others, although it can be made to seem as if it is loving others. A choice must be made: do I keep feeding the homunculus, or do I let the real me out of the box? The risk is that the real me must now feel and make choices: to be liked or not, to get saved or not, to love other people or not. Taking risks can be dangerous.

That’s what life is about: be still and know. Life is coming to oneself which can only happen by God’s grace. And self we imagine we’ve found on our own is not really us. As with Abram and the Prodigal Son, God is the only one who can reveal our real self to us. There is no need for panic attacks, angry lashings out, or fearful idol worship. Be still, and know.

No Longer Strangers

JMJ

THIS READING CAME UP a week or so ago on the Feast of St Simon and his buddy. It’s been a bit of a wrestling match since then. Getting along with Christians who disagree with us is part of this (that’s where our preacher took it last Friday). But it’s the relationship between our elder brothers, the Jews who follow Messiah, that interests me most here.

So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.

Ephesians 2:19-22 (RSVCE)

St Paul wrote this in 60 or 62 AD. And here we are nearly 2000 years later. So, by way of reminder: Paul is writing to a community made of of Jews and Gentiles who, together, have come to believe the Jesus is the Messiah long promised to the people of Israel. In this belief, they (Jews and Gentiles together) are worshipping the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. These two groups feud a bit, ok. But here’s the rub. I think we hear it backwards today.

The issue with Jews and Gentiles was not only “should Gentiles become Jewish first…” (ie, get circumcised, etc). We can read it in Galatians as if it’s Gentiles doing Jewish things because they don’t feel on equal footing to be actually following the Jewish Messiah. Paul calls them, “You Foolish Galatians” for this. Who bewitched you? So some (at least – more? all?) of what Paul is writing is to Gentiles who do not need the courage to face off against the “Judaizers” but rather they need to be assured – in their own faith – that they are worthy to stand why they are. Remember, last week (hyperbolically) these Gentiles were killing bulls for the Magna Mater and offering incense to Caesar. Now they are following YHVH. What do they need to do? Nothing other than believe in Jesus. Paul says he used to persecute the Church and now he’s an apostle! How are we good enough?

In other words, what if Judaizing was the “pastoral accompanying” of the 1st century? You don’t feel good enough? We can make things easier for you: let me get my knife, and give up your bacon and sausage as well…

Paul assures the Gentiles that they, “are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God”. This must refer to the covenanted household of Israel. There’s only a handful of Gentile believers in the world. There’s not even one generation of dead Christians yet. There’s about 2000-3000 of them (Gentiles and Jews together) at this point, honestly. Unless Paul means to limit that “household of God” to those 2500 people, then he’s reassuring his Gentile flock that they have been united to something much bigger than themselves. In Romans he will remind Gentiles that they have been grafted into Israel. It’s we (I’m a gentile, too) who are outsiders here, strangers, aliens. And Paul is telling us that through Jesus, we’re good enough to be here.

A lot of times when I hear these verses expounded they usually get read to be about the Jews trying to make us do things “like them”. It never gets around to the possibility it was Gentiles were not feeling included from our side; because of our own insecurity. Paul seems to be saying, Look, in Yeshua we’re all in this together. Gentiles have been united to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. We are no longer strangers in Israel. Mind you, I know that Jews would disagree with this reading soundly. But some good part of this is based on 2000 years of Gentile bully of Jews. Romans, for example, reads more as if Gentiles were trying to bully Jews into eating bacon. And Paul has to remind his Gentile followers that they have been grafted in and they can be cut out again, too.

Personally, it feels as if sometimes a fascination with “Jewish Roots” can be a type of envy: I have no history, no tribe, no culture other than that of a white, middle class, American male. Because of the chaos of the last few decades, I’m not really tied to “American” except by a reference to a common mythology about cherry trees and fireworks. What my grandparents fought for as “freedom” is deemed nearly-fascist oppression now. Persons born in the last 20 years would feel overly burdened by even my parents’ generational ideas of “gender roles”. And, even embedded in the culture, some are honest enough to admit it’s only about marketing. So, being disconnected from the past by our current world – but rejecting the present as hopelessly silly – I have no culture. From the 90s on, I’ve sought one: ancient religions, ancient languages, even ancient clothing. Gentiles of the 1st and 2nd Century AD would have been in the same boat: entirely cut off from their pagan past and their pagan present, they tried latching on to Judaism as a cultural home. It makes perfect sense. Here, at last, was a culture, traditions, language, and a people of which God fully approved. Heck, he (God) even spoke in Hebrew at the Creation of the World.

וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים יְהִי אוֹר וַיְהִי־אוֹר׃

And God said, “yhee ohr”. See? He spoke Hebrew.

So why not convert to this culture as well as this religion?

But to retreat into this culture is to miss the boat entirely. God set up Israel, by Covenant, as a sacrament for the whole world; a sign and a reminder of the Eden that was – and was lost – and the Eden that will be in the World to Come. In Messiah, we Gentiles partake fully of that sacrament. We become not the sacrament but the presence itself. You are what you eat, but when we take communion we don’t become only more bread, but rather Jesus. And more ourselves as God intends.

Israel was the Host in the Monstrance. Now we eat, partake, and go out into the world to do the Gospel. The temple is no longer only in Jerusalem but in all the world.

We are grafted in. And in the grafting, the whole tree is changed.

Crocheted

JMJ

FINALLY CATCHING THE Binge Bug this late in Covidtide. I’ve been Rapidly Consuming the Israeli TV Drama Srugim – סרוגים (the word means knitted or crocheted as a plural adjective) from 2008-2011. If you’ve been watching Shtisel on Netflix, this was Israeli TV’s Shtisel-before-Shtisel. Many of the ways Netflix show is said to break ground were already broken on Srugim. Yes, I realize it’s over ten years old so it’s hardly “binge-worthy” but previously I’d been found binging MASH and Mary Tyler Moore, not to mention the original seasons of Roseanne. Don’t bother me: I’m old.

NEway, Srugim is billed as a drama but it’s somewhere between Friends and 30 Something. I recognize the characters both from my past and from my present: not only did I run with folks like this in the 1980s and 90s, but I know these people intimately now from Church, on the one hand, and from Tech on the other. They all suffer from indecision and a strong fear of missing out. I used to think that was a millennial issue, but it’s an Xer one as well. And I’m only halfway through season two (of three) so my evaluation of the morals that follow may be way off. But so far I’m impressed.

There are five or so main characters in their mid-to-late twenties. They are all single, Orthodox Jews living in Jerusalem’s Katamon neighborhood. I’m not sure if it’s this way now, a decade later, but at the time of the show it had the reputation of being a “Swamp of singles“. In that way, it reminds me of life in Hoboken in the early 90s, Asheville at the turn of the Century, and Buffalo in 2008. And my life in Tech for 25 years where I was nearly always the oldest person around – often old enough to be even the founders’ father. All of the characters in Srugim are looking for love and stressed out: it’s Orthodox practice to be married much younger than nearly thirty. They walk around second-guessing their choices, worried about Mr or Miss right instead of Mr or Miss right in front of me, and wondering if religion was the right thing for them to stick with.

The plot line that’s currently holding my interest is about Roi and Reut. Roi experiences same-sex attraction although he’s never acted on it. Reut wants to date him but Roi is torn between being 100% honest (and scaring her away) or breaking it off entirely. He tries the latter but she pushes through and demands a fully explained reason. After a very rough spot, they agree to try the relationship and work towards marriage.

To me, this is the right way for most folks to deal with SSA. Full stop. Get you a spouse that will support you in your struggle and, being 100% honest with them, keep working out your salvation. That is literally the way most of human culture has dealt with SSA since forever. The full, self-sacrificing love a man offers his wife or a woman her husband is a sign of Christ and the Church. Marriage is a sign of Christ and the Church, of God’s Covenant with Israel, of how humanity and divinity are united in Jesus. It’s a real union of opposites for the purpose of fructification in human lives and in the world. Where we take it, where it takes us is a participation in grace. There is a purpose for love: it heals us. Real love really heals.

In Transformation in Christ we are invited to consider contemplation in one of two forms: I-Thou-Contemplation for relationships and It-Contemplation for things (ie, of Beauty, as in a sunset). The author, Dietrich von Hildebrand, says that I-Thou contemplation involves a reciprocal nature on the human level. When a man and woman love each other in a self-sacrificial way it can be compared to contemplation. Friendship also is a form of contemplation, but disordered disire is not – for it posits misuse and anthropological mistakes. Building on my earlier post on Celibacy, contemplation then opens up the fuller meaning of forgoing the natural good of marriage. We get bored or selfish and these vices disrupt our contemplative action. It-contemplation is one-direction and very stable. But there is no real return.

Contemplation of God, however, combines these two: yes, God is a person who loves us, but he is also infinite being, so far beyond our experience that we cannot at all comprehend him with our minds. When we contemplate God we are engaging in I-Thou and also It-Contemplation. Reciprocity, here, cannot be – but the weakness is on our part. God’s infinity loves each and every human infinitely. We can only ever love in finite terms. Celibacy pulls us away from the natural good of marriage to engage in the supranatural good of Divine Contemplation.

The folks in Srugim spend a good bit of mid-season plot-time asking two questions: Can someone who’s never had gay sex be properly called gay? And can someone be gay and religious? At least as it stands now the answers in the show appear to be No and therefore No. One character in the show even paraphrases a rather famous line from the late Rabbi Moshe Tendler זצ״ל, then Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshiva University. He said (in 1999) that being Gay and Orthodox was like saying, “I’m an Orthodox Rabbi and I eat ham sandwiches on Yom Kippur.” I agree. And if one is not actively engaged in (or promoting) same-sex sexual activity, it seems illogical to lump them into the “gay community”. It is a mistake (if not an outright lie) to label someone by a psychological accident. When we tag an entire person with a misken label we can no longer enter into self-sacrificing love (contemplation) with them. And – with that in mind – while there are many (o)rthodox Christians of various denominations who experience same-sex attraction, there are, properly speaking, no (o)orthodox Christians who can be called gay. I recognize the word “orthodox” is doing a lot of work there, but there are many liberals in many denominations who disagree with me. I think that disagreement makes them liberals rather than orthodox. Using gay as shorthand for everyone who experiences SSA only confuses the issue: it’s blending too much in with the world, I think. It’s making the one broken thing to be the totality of the person – to which the Church expressly says no. Additionally, labeling something as not-broken when it is actually broken only leads to more brokenness.