Sea Beast and She who Rides

Then I looked, and I heard an eagle crying with a loud voice, as it flew in midheaven, “Woe, woe, woe to those who dwell on the earth, at the blasts of the other trumpets which the three angels are about to blow!”
Revelation 8:13

I confess this Election Cycle has me down. I don’t vote and I have not since 1982. I’ve been of the opinion that lesser of two evils is a sucky way to run things. But I’ve been watching and I’ve watched new messiahs rise up on the left and on the right and, in all cases, the messiah rises and the higher they rise, the harder they fall. I wonder that no one notices the pattern, or how it is that things only tend to go from bad to worse. How can people who claim to want XYZ can send a politician into a job, and not only get no XYZ but, in fact, get a whole lot of not-XYZ and rejoice? Not-XYZ was what we really wanted! Or, more often, they will produce charts showing that Not-XYZ is really XYZ.

But something about this one feels downright wrong. The whole system seems to say “You want XYZ but I’m going to ram Not-XYZ down your throat and you are going to like it. A lot.” I’m hearing that from all sides, the liberals, the conservatives, the indies: it’s like one huge ponzi scheme. There’s rabble. There’s pitchforks. There’s firebombing. It feels like we’re descending into the chaos we in the USA have often generated in other parts of the world… but that we’re doing it to ourselves. I don’t think we need too much help, although I’ve heard claims the Russians are ruining this one. If by ruining, you mean “letting all the dirt out” then yeah, ok. So then the trumpets come from Revelation. It can feel like we’re dealing with the Sea Beast with Ten Heads and She Who Rides on his Back…

That’s when the purpose of Revelation comes in. Over and over it says, “Yes, things are going to suck, and not your normal I didn’t pass my driving test and the prom is tomorrow suck, either, but more like human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria suck.” And when things get to the totally most suckiest, God will be glorified.

But God is not often glorified the way we want. In fact, God is glorified in our lives, and in their ending we make ourselves most like his son: and then he is fully glorified.

To be honest this election scares me. I know some folks, partisans, will say that other person is evil, this person is ok. But I don’t think so at all. In fact, for faithful Orthodox and Catholic folks, at least, and I would imagine a few other religious folks an intolerant dictator on the left or on the right makes no nevermind. The church, up and down this hemisphere, has suffered persecution from the left and from the right. In a few places the Church “got in bed” with a dictator, but in almost all places it was the state feeling mighty rejected by the Church, pulling out her guns and popping the Bride of Christ in the head. From the Left in Cuba, from the Right in El Salvador, from the Center (with American support) in Mexico: the church has been shot at, hanged, stabbed, imprisoned, starved, divested, and in every way trampled under the feet of the state. If it has not yet been the Orthodox Church it is because she’s not big enough to be on anyone’s radar.

But Revelation is right: things will get pretty durn sucky long before they get better.

On Sunday Pope Francis canonized two martyrs (among others). Both were killed by secularist regimes that claim to have no official religion – although we well know that secular humanism is a religion in its own right. One was killed in France following the Revolution – from the Left. The other was killed in Mexico – from the Center, with American support.

I think we have much to learn from these Martyrs as we do from those called the “New Martyrs” of Russia – those slain under the Communist yoke. In fact, nearly all the martyrs of the last century or two were killed by “respectable” governments, those recognized by the other governments of the world as legitimate. Most of them were acting within their rights. None of them were invaded by “international peacekeepers” for the crimes they committed.

I think we, faithful and (o)rthodox Christians in America, have only a choice to make, next week, between which side of the spectrum the firing squad will stand on. Beyond that, we have to glorify God.

Here, from the movie, For Greater Glory is the martyrdom of St Jose Sanchez del Rio – his icon is at the top of this post. It’s a French version of the film, sorry: I couldn’t find an English clip on YeTubez. Before the scene we’re about to see, the tortures demanded he deny Christ. And when he responded with Viva Christa Rey! (Long live Christ the King!) they gashed his feet before making him walk through the town. The only thing you need to know, I think, is right at the end, looking at his mother, he says, again, those words.

And so God is glorified. If we have the Beast from the Sea and She who Rides on his back, let’s not worry about that. In fact, if that’s who we got here then Glory to God: this whole thing is almost over. But, it could still suck, even if we just have dim foreshadows of a far distant event. I think it will suck. I keep praying I’m wrong. But I see no evidence of being wrong yet.

May we all glorify God in our lives and in our deaths.

And may St Jose pray for us!

If you only knew what Eternity is.

Ecclesiasticus 4:20-5:7
Revelation 7:1-8
Luke 9:51-62

Do not say, “I sinned, and what happened to me?” for the Lord is slow to anger. Do not be so confident of atonement that you add sin to sin. Do not say, “His mercy is great, he will forgive the multitude of my sins,” for both mercy and wrath are with him, and his anger rests on sinners. Do not delay to turn to the Lord, nor postpone it from day to day; for suddenly the wrath of the Lord will go forth, and at the time of punishment you will perish.

I had a class once in the Church Fathers. It was amazing to me to read the saints of the first four centuries and to hear, to my American ears, how much they sounded like modern, Protestant, liberal American religion. It was astounding. It was so astounding, in fact, that when the class was over, we asked the teacher to teach a second class. Instead of reading a textbook with selected quotes, we decided to read source material (in translation). So, for example, instead of reading snippets of Justin Martyr, we read the full text of both of his Apologies.  Instead of quotes from st Irenaeus of Lyons, we read his Against Heresies.  (Since his Apostolic Preaching had been referenced, I read that as well on my own.)

The difference was night and day.

As I pointed out in the discussions, “All the stuff we read last year is here, of course. But in context it tends to say the opposite of what we heard it say last year.”  Warm, fuzzy quotes about God’s all inclusive love (which are in the Church Fathers) are bracketed with stern warnings about his wrath. Prompts to right action are introduced and completed with prompts to right faith.  Advice to dance and sing before the Lord is predicated on most of life spent prostrate before him in humility.

God’s love, God’s mercy, God’s kindness, if you will, cannot be assumed, presumed, or taken advantage of. This is not a problem with God: but with us: Do not be so confident of atonement that you add sin to sin. God, who is kind, loving and merciful, has given us rules, commandments, and strictures, not because breaking those rules is bad, per se, but because if we don’t have rules we run amok. If all we have is mercy, then we presume on it, we take advantage of it. It’s not that God will take us in our sin and destroy us – but that sin is destructive in and of itself. We make our choice.

Imagine God is a warm, snuggly blanket on top of a comfy bed with lots of pillows by a nice fire, all on a winter’s night with snow falling outside and sleigh bells off in the distance.

But you’re sitting in another room where there is no fire and watching TV. You can whine all you want about the cold. You can complain that your teeth are chattering and your fingers getting frostbite. The TV hurts your eyes in the darkness and the wetness from your eyes is actually freezing on your face.  Do that all you want: you’re free to do so.  But unless you get up and walk into the other room all that kindness and coziness will be of no use to you. You can even get up and, instead, walk out into the cold and listen to the sleigh bells off in the distance: but that will just make your gradual chilliness get worse.  Eventually you will die, alone, in the darkness, with your TV.  All you have to do was come into the warmth.

There are some that will refuse to ever do that.

And, truth be told, coming out of all that cold into the warmth can even burn. It can feel like the roaring fire is angry. Like the blanket is just as cold as you are and nothing will ever warm you up again – you might even leave the room a couple of times. All you need to do is sit. Quiet. Wait.

The reality is there are a lot of people by the fire with you: but out in the cold, it’s just you and the TV.  By the fire you will never be alone. You’re free to leave anytime you wish but the only thing out there is the lonely TV. Some folks will want the lonely TV after the power is off and all things have frosted over and even the sleigh bells have stopped. Then the door will be shut and locked and the cozy fire forever out of reach or else, so warm and strong that to even come near the door – after so long at Absolute Zero – will be to shatter oneself into loss. So even a religious leader dedicated to mercy can be sad when someone walks out the door. The open door of God’s mercy is both an entrance and an exit.

The Church Fathers are a conversation – as is, to the honest, the Bible. The teaching of the Church is an ongoing Rabbinic dialogue. Yes, there are those voices that are all about judgment and sin. Yes, there are those voices that are all about love and mercy. Jesus is about both, of course, and the conversation itself is about both. It’s not a democratic voting process – whereby we can elect who we like. Nor is it an evolution whereby we can change things. God does not change. Mercy and wrath are both with him. It is us who must change to conform to him. The conversation is about how best to do that, and how best to keep in the middle, not straying to any excess that can lead people astray. But the time to enter that conversation, to commit yourself to be in the center is always now. Eternity is too late.

And yet we do pray for God’s mercy on all souls – especially those most in need of him. Which includes me: so I ask your prayers that I not leave the fireside.

Crucifixion: Tesseract

In my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church.
Colossians 1:24

This verse came up in a conversation about Paul’s teaching and Francis of Assisi’s reception of the Stigmata – the matching of signs on his body with the physical wounds of Christ in the Crucifixion. A discussion ensued about what Paul means – because, as the WR Orthodox say in the Anaphora of St Tikhon, Christ has made “a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world.” How can that be matched with what St Paul says, about “what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions”?

Anyone who was raised with (or around – as I was) Irish Catholic parents might remember hearing a child complain about a scraped knee, or how cold it was outside, or “But, Mom! I need to eat a pop tart now, I’m starving!” To which an exasperated, and overworked parent would reply, “Offer it up!” Which is shorthand for “offer it up to God for the souls in purgatory…” And that, too, seems a stretch, no? Jesus’ sacrifice was full, perfect, and sufficient” so what can I do? What can Paul do? Or Francis or anyone living or dead, no matter how holy they are? Not a thing was wanting, right? So what can be lacking?

The answer is in the Eucharist, really.

In the Divine Liturgy, in the Mass, we take bread and offer it to God and he gives it back to us as the Body of Christ. It is not the Body of Christ in abstract or in symbol but in reality. And, in the Eucharist, we stand, not just before the Throne of God, but also, at the foot of the Cross. Jesus is not dying again – as some Protestants say making blasphemous fun of the Holy Mysteries: Jesus is offering himself from the Cross before us. Right there, right here. Right then and always now. It’s not a redoing. It’s not even a reminder of the event. It is, to borrow a Greek word, an Anamnesis: a making present in our now of a thing in the past. Or, more correctly, a being present both here-and-then. In ScFi Terms: a Tesseract, a bending of space and time. All of universal reality changes at the Cross. We do not see “the Body of Christ” in abstract, but in reality at that moment, at that time: when he says “Father into my hands I commend my spirit” we receive the host.

Now.  It is always now.

The Church is the Body of Christ. Not in abstract, or in symbol,  but in reality. Partaking of the Eucharist makes it so: literally, you are what you eat. As a Church Father said, “The Eucharist is the meal that consumes us.” In that filled-with-Christ/being/becoming-Christ state of ontological change: when one suffers, we all suffer. When Christ suffers – we all suffer. When you suffer, Christ suffers. When I suffer, Christ suffers. We’re not talking about scraped knees, or needing pop-tarts here, but if you unify yourself with Christ in His Church it’s not that your pain “adds” to his but rather, your pain is his. We are one.

It helps to realize as we pray in various Western devotions, at least, that it is the entirety of Christ’s life that is Saving Us. His infancy, including wetting his diapers and maybe having a little baby vomit on the blessed Virgin, his puberty, including his awkward voice changing, acne and other things that happen at that time in life that embarrass teenagers, his struggles in school, his fumbling, first uses of a hammer in his father’s woodshop, etc. All of Jesus’ life is God saving us. All of the common-place struggles of Christ were the act of Salvation being worked out. And so: “offer it up” becomes not a parent saying “don’t bother me” but rather an ontological fact.

As the Church is really the body of Christ,  as the Church really is Christ in his person saving the world; and as you are in Christ in the Church, so Christ is in you, continuing his working of salvation. Your sufferings do not add to Christ in a mathematical sense, as if anything was missing from his “full, perfect, and sufficient” action, but rather they literally are the sufferings of Christ inasmuch as we present them in faith before the Altar of God and pray them to be offered in union with Christ. Your pain at your illness, your loss of a child, your grief, your inability to work – and anything else – are all, potentially, anamnetic channels of Christ’s salvific presence in the world.

Paul says in verse 27, “Christ in you the Hope of Glory”; and again in verse 28 he wants to present us “Perfect in Christ.”  We are, to the degree that we are willing to let go and trust his providence, presented before God as “little Christs” as “Christians”. And received (in energy, not essence) into the Godhead’s divine dance of self-emptying. Not as individuals: it’s not “Huw Christ” and “Ben Christ” and “Mary Christ”.  But rather, Christ, the one and only Son of the Father, consubstantial and coeternal, presented in your person. The Resurrection is the fulfilment of Christ’s action on earth, proof that God, who raised him up, validated his teaching.  But on the Last Day, in the General Resurrection, it’s not a new thing, not billions and billions of Resurrections: there can be only one.

Christ is risen.

Could there ever be another Francis?

Those who cling to worthless idols turn away from God’s love for them. But I, with shouts of grateful praise, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the LORD.’
– Jonah 2:8-9

He sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal the sick. He told them: “Take nothing for the journey—no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra shirt.
– Luke 9:2-3

The line from St Luke – as it’s recorded in Matthew, anyway – was the Gospel reading the day Giovanni di Bernadone was praying for guidance in starting his new community.  Giovanni is better known by his family’s nickname for him: Francesco or Francis.  Outside of Orthodoxy he’s one of the most-beloved of all Saints, regardless of one’s denomination.  He is, however, loved more for a near-mythological reading of a few highpoints of his life, turned into a sort of peace and furry animals sort of hippie icon.  Thus, the Francis one might find, for example, in the local protestant congregation will be all about blessing your fluffy kitteh but nothing at all about his Fanatical Devotion to the Pope, his radical deepening of the western tradition’s fasting rules, or the preeminent place he gave to the presence of Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. Francis, like the Gospel, is a la carte these days.  That line cuts to the point I wanted to make, rather directly.

How can we live the full, radical Gospel in the world today? Would there be room, if you will, for a new Francis?  It might surprise you to hear that I feel this is not a Church question: it’s a State question.  

Francis gave away all his money and slept in a ruined church (with the permission of the priest involved).  He’d surely be evicted today, if not by the police then by the building department.  Francis fed the hungry freely (not legal in many cities) and took care of the ill and weak. I can hear the Department of Health and the Obamacare people demanding he register here and there and take insurance and whatall.  Francis begged from the townspeople to take care of his monastics and their guests. We can, I admit, get some donations legally today, but, really, it helps if you’re a 501(c)3 or some other sort of registered charity. People want to get their tax write-offs you know.  And of course, registering with the gov’t means that you’re beholden to them. Even now people are agitating to have tax exempt status removed from Churches and – more importantly – Church land. Imagine how many doors would close if there was not tax free status! I agree, mind you: owning property is an obligation to the state. Francis’ Mendicant Friars would, today, be call indigent as would Jesus and thus would promptly get arrested in most places; or at least told to move along. Getting rid of all your earthly belongings was fine in the Great Depression. Could you do it today? This doesn’t even get into the Question of Support. Even assuming it’s legal, would your local church support you?  See all of the above about the laws.  I don’t know the answer.  

What I do know – going back to our essay on Monday about idols – is that clinging to idols is turning away from God. Salvation comes from the Lord. In Hebrew it’s a bit of a pun for us, for the Hebrew word is “Yeshua” – Jesus’ own name. If we Christians, and we the institution of Church have built or helped in building a culture where it’s impossible to live the Gospel, whose fault is it? If we imagine we can’t be Christians without our tax exempt status or our beautiful churches, what have we done? If we lean on such things – to the point even of denying the Gospel – then have we not turned to idols? Worse, have we not built the idols with our own hands?

This line of thinking is not about fleeing from the culture: Jonah made that mistake.  Got eaten by a fish for it. This is about something more radical. This is about reform, not by revolution, but by living.  So the question is: can the space be found?

Jonah, Jairus, Jesus

Jesus said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.”
  • Luke 6:48
Jesus answered him, “Do not fear; only believe, and she shall be well.”
  • Luke 6:50

A long time ago I noticed the Gospels use “pistos” and “sozo” a lot. They both get translated differently in different places.  Pistos is “believe”, “faith”, and “trust”. Sozo is “heal”, “made whole”, and “save”.  The Greek words carry all the meanings at the same time.  Only in English do we need to pick one or the other.  We learn more about the translator’s biases than we do about the meaning of the text, I think. The same word play is there in the Hebrew.  You can be saved or healed, either one, by the Latin Salvum but by the time St Jerome was working on the Bible he had to pick between meanings of fides and crede in translating these verses.  English is just a further evolution. This is important because of the meaning of “Save” in modern religious language.  We speak of it in the future-imperfect usually: I am saved, I will go to heaven when I die.  The key point is “go to heaven” or, to reverse it, “not go to hell”.  

But I never noticed two things about this passage: the same words are used for the bleeding woman – a present tense event – and, in the future tense, they are used of a dead girl.  There is a further difference:  the woman bleeding is “sozo-ed” is done so by her own pistis.  The man is told his pistis will sozo his daughter. This is not the only time in the NT this happens: St Paul tells a jailer only to believe on Christ “and you and all your household will be sozo-ed.”

Jonah gets a call from God and then runs away because he’s not trusting in God.  He has no faith.  In the end, however (we’ll see in a couple of days) he lets his faith take over and it saves all of Nineveh.

I don’t want to take this meditation too far: we can get in trouble. The Mormons get baptized once to sozo themselves and then repeatedly to sozo their dead relatives. Clearly it’s possible to do this wrong.

But what ever can it mean? For these to make any sense, faith can’t be a list of doctrines – My “credo” as it were.  Faith has to be something else. Jonah’s list of doctrines are probably not too long: God is one. Don’t eat pork (etc). But his faith saved a city.  What might it be?  Jairus had no doctrine, certainly; at least not much more than Jonah.  His faith raises his daughter from the dead. Trusting in Jesus, one assumes… but – and we know this from St James – “Faith without works is dead.”  Holding a set of doctrines in the head is meaningless: it’s not an emotion or mental activity.  It’s going to Nineveh and preaching.  It’s walking with Jesus to the sick girl’s bedside – even when they say “She’s dead.”

Before any set of decades are prayed on the Rosary, a Creed is said, then an Our Father. Then we say the “Hail Mary” three times, traditionally for an increase of Faith, Hope, and Love. But these three “theological virtues” as they are called are not emotions. We’ve already said the Creed, the doctrine. Doctrine is not faith. Faith, here, is the doing of it. Hope, here, is not being distracted from the doing of it by the world, the flesh, or the devil. Love, here, is the thing we are to be doing.

If we do it then the world will be saved.  That may not mean what we imagine – and people can always run away – but that’s what we are about.

Ephraim’s Idols

Hosea 14:1-9

O E’phraim, what have I to do with idols? It is I who answer and look after you. I am like an evergreen cypress, from me comes your fruit. Whoever is wise, let him understand these things; whoever is discerning, let him know them; for the ways of the LORD are right, and the upright walk in them, but transgressors stumble in them.

Hosea 14:8-9

Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?
Luke 6:46

When I was in High School I had a pastor who was very into the whole “Moral Majority” thing. That may be meaningless to some of my younger readers, but it was a group that wanted to “Make American Moral Again.”  They wanted laws passed that would force everyone in public to appear to be Christian. I’ve been told that this was only in public, because they didn’t want their children to see certain things, but I lived through the time. It is true they didn’t want their children to see (eg) two women kissing in public, but neither did they want to imagine that someplace someone was having immoral sex in private. If someone was having such sex, they wanted it to be illegal so that someone could go to prison for violating laws set down in the book of Leviticus. These folks worked to elect politicians who claimed to adhere to the same positions. And, when all was said and done it was of no effect at all. This is the both the beginning and the constantly replicated prototype of the “Cultural Warrior” form of Christian Politics.

What I find most odd in all of this is that the politicians are the ones that win: they get to say certain things and, by saying them, they win the votes of these “moral majority” people, the Cultural Warriors. But when they fail to follow through, no one seems to notice. When the next election cycle comes around, the entire process starts over again. The “moral majority” people, the CWs all demand politicians who say X, Y, and Z.  These politicians arise saying X, Y, and Z. They get elected. They blame other politicians for failing at X, Y, and Z. And they get elected again.

X, Y, and Z get further and further from the radar of the politicians because they see that all they have to do is say they will X, Y, and Z. The voters are so rabid that they will do anything at all for anyone who merely says they will X, Y, and Z. A member of the Roman church asked me who will defend us if we don’t elect pro-life Republicans. I had to remind him that we’ve had nothing from these so-called pro-life Republicans since Roe v Wade. He said “The courts stymie things” and I replied that the majority of judges in our system had either been appointed by Republicans and/or been approved by Republican legislatures all to no effect. We pay no attention to history: the past evaporates and we try again.

It seems CWs have made idols out of our political system and out of our politicians. To these voters God says, O E’phraim, what have I to do with idols? It is I who answer and look after you. I am like an evergreen cypress, from me comes your fruit. From God himself comes all of our blessings. Why are we bothering with idols?

To the politicians themselves, our Lord says “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?”  They build their moral house on sand – which is right and just for a politician who must change his talking points like the sand at every turn of the wind so as to attain an electoral victory. But Christians have no business paying any attention to such people.

Our Lord says the same thing to us: he has told us what to do as well. We are to go into all the world and make disciples of all people and teach them to obey all that God has told us. Go. Make. Then teach. Jesus never said to pass laws to make people look like Christians. We skip over the hard part – go, make disciples (students) of Jesus and then teach them. So why do we say “Lord, Lord” and build our world on Sand?
+++   +++   +++
These are very difficult time for people who participate in American political life and for people around the world who are affected by American political life. In fact, as Christians, I would say we hold a greater obligation to that second group – those without voice in our system who are affected most by our system. Let’s face it: apart from a Zombie apocalypse (which I deem highly probable after November of this year – but that’s another post) America will just continue on. The day after the election we will shop at Wal*Mart and consume too much food and make too much garbage and will continue on our egotistical way regardless of who we elected the night before.

But things will be very different in other parts of the world, where they have no voice, no say in our process. I remember in 2008 how the rest of the world rejoiced with the election of President Obama: joke’s on them, however, because see Hosea and all preceding American Politicians.  But the point is well made: our elections cause events around the world to change.

As Christians, I think we need to be mindful of that. What intrinsic evil will we be causing in the third world?  What moral decline will we precipitate in Africa? What injustice will we cause in Latin America?

Since the election is on everyone’s mind recently, it is unsurprising to find posts on this topic around the net.  I found one to be very helpful here. The part that is most helpful is this list of points from the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. (Our Orthodox bishops, meeting in Synod last week failed to say anything at all about the election beyond lamenting the crisis in civil discourse.)

34. Catholics often face difficult choices about how to vote. This is why it is so important to vote according to a well-formed conscience that perceives the proper relationship among moral goods.
A Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who favors a policy promoting an intrinsically evil act, such as  

– abortion,  

– euthanasia,  

– assisted suicide,  

– deliberately subjecting workers or the poor to subhuman living conditions,  

– redefining marriage in ways that violate its essential meaning,  

– or racist behavior,  

if the voter’s intent is to support that position.  In such cases, a Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in grave evil.  

At the same time, a voter should not use a candidate’s opposition to an intrinsic evil to justify indifference or inattentiveness to other important moral issues involving human life and dignity.

I added formatting and emphasis to make it clear: there is a whole list of things that are not abortion… these are not posted to invite an Orthodox-Catholic debate or additional commentary on our current failed crop of candidates, but rather to note: it’s not a case of lip service to X, Y, and Z. And Christians should not use one point to ignore the fact that all the other points are also important.

Read the entire document from the RC church if you wish: it contains a lot of good, solidly Christian advice even if one is not Catholic. I would ask you to pray, however, that Orthodox Bishops could get over their infighting long enough to offer such good advice. In American Orthodoxy’s chaos the most vocal of our clergy are still fitting into the CW group, having failed to learn any lesson at all since 1980.  I know Orthodoxy is slow – let’s not be hasty.  But the definition of insanity is doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results.

Basement Lessons

I had a good friend a while ago, although we have fallen out of touch now. He, his wife, and kids welcomed me into their family like a near relative: not a distant one that smells funny, but a favorite uncle; maybe cousin would be better. He was a Orthodox clergyman, although he has since left all religion behind and moved on to other things. We would sit in the basement rec room, he, his wife, and I, after the kids had gone to bed and talk, over too many cigarettes and bottles of Yuengling or Bud, way into the night.  That’s the sort of friend I love deeply, although cigarettes are not a thing for me any more, nor, really, beer drinking into the wee hours. It’s a college thing, really: and as one gets older it should be replaced by a pipe and some whiskey, I think, but I digress.

One night in our reflections, he shared with me something that has come to be nearly a mantra in my middle aged life. As he was lighting a cigarette he said, over the Zippo, “You always only meet the good party in a divorce.”

Here’s what he meant.  Let us say you have a coworker with whom you share a cubicle pod: not a close friend, but just someone you know.  Imagine this party comes to work one day visibly shaken to the core, not able to concentrate, nor do anything else, really.  And since you’re coworkers and they are “in your space” all the time, your human compassion reaches out and you say, “want to get a coffee?” As you walk to the coffee machine you ask, “What’s up?” And you find out their spouse has asked for a divorce.  And, over the next few weeks, bits and pieces come out – events during or after the marriage, even “warning signs during the dating stage”, or “the lawyer called today” – and you begin to get a clear picture of what happened.  The spouse – even the one asking for the divorce – was abusive, clearly has been angling to get a divorce for some time, maybe even trying to goad your friend into asking for it. Finally the filing was, itself, just more emotional abuse. Why could not this be going any easier? How much your coworker – and you – are being made to suffer by this real jerk!  And on it goes. You begin to feel as your friend feels: of course the other party is abusive, of course your friend shouldn’t be treated thus. Naturally, my friend will be awarded custody and child support. Of course the other party should be banished to the outer darkness! Morning coffee begins with, “What did the Jerk do to you now?” just as easily as it used to begin in silence.

As you listen, you never realize that maybe the other party has a side as well. It never dawns on you that possibly the argument you’re hearing is one-sided, not 100% true, or, not 100% of the story.  Relationships nearly never fail from one side only, nor from one act only.  Love stays a two-way street, even when it’s falling apart. Your perception of the spouse is ruined without you ever having met them.  You’ve judged them before you even get around to seeing there’s a person there.  They are going to be “that Jerk” for ever.

This is has become my mantra because it is perhaps the most universally applicable thing any clergyman has ever said to me. It is true in divorce cases, of course. But it is equally true in stories about your friend losing her job, in stories about your buddy dropping out of his school, about your clergyman leaving the Church, about your company laying off people, about your parish leaving your jurisdiction, etc. There is always another side that you have not heard because, well: we listen to our friends.

It is, in fact, equally true over political situations: wars are nearly never 100% one side’s fault – and which side is “really to blame” is usually decided by which side my house is on or who the winner is. The real cause of a war, or a party squabble, or breakdown in trade negotiations, whatever, is never made clear. One part of the problems leading up to WW2 was, nostra maxima culpa, the inability of the victors in WW1 to be gracious; or, later, to be forgiving of debt. This gave rise to a reaction formation that resulted in great evil. Luckily, this was a lesson we largely understood before the end of WW2: if, in 1945, the USA had treated Japan as the French had treated Germany in 1918, we might have had a very different second half of the 20th century. When the kids come home from school and tell you how Mrs So-and-so treats them in third period, don’t you want to go down there and tell that teacher a thing or two? When the guy at the bar tells you how his boss treated him that day, don’t you say to yourself, “Who would stay at a job like that?” When your neighbor tells you how they shat upon her most recent Customer Service call to the Cable Company, or standing in line at the DMV, or trying to resolve a Credit Card issue at the bank… how evil the whole world is but you and your friends. How can anyone survive such gross injustice?

Deep Breath.

“You always only meet the good party in a divorce.”

Someplace, there is another coworker hearing the same story from the other side and your friend is being made out to be the bad guy. Trust me, it is 100% true. Your friend, your coworker, your neighbor, your country is being made out to be the aggressive and injuring partner. And that jerk, that evil person, that ass you’ve never met, is the wounded lover, the jilted party, the abused, the forlorn. What would you do hearing the other side of the story rather than the side you heard? What would you do if, ten years hence, you met someone at a party and, hanging out, drinking, maybe even dating, you discovered this was the the total jerk your coworker had told you about? “Wait, she’s totally nice. Maybe my friend was wrong?”

What I learn is that, as long as we’re dealing with human beings, 100% of the time there is no human party that is 100% right or wrong. Human beings are like that. We’re complicated, messed up, broken. Any time there are human beings involved, there is always another human side in a more-complicated story than we want to hear.

Mind you: I don’t know who is right or wrong in the story you’re hearing. I note only that there is another side that is, most likely, equally as right or wrong in the grand scheme of things as the one you’re hearing. Mind you, I’m not arguing for moral relativism here. Nothing can explain away what happened in the Shoah. But equally, nothing can explain away what happened in Japanese-American internment camps, nor the destructions of Dresden, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki. Nothing can explain away what Soviets did to Christians after the Revolution. But, equally, nothing can explain away what the elite classes of Russia did – with the full support of the Church – to the poor, to the Jews, to the Muslims of Russia. There are always grey areas when humans are involved.

As in war, so in school yard fights, even in church schisms, you always only meet the good party in a divorce.

Cooperative Housing Plan for the Future

  1. Get 5 or 6 more friends interesting in Co-housing. 
    1. Couples+Singles would be the excellent. 
    2. Couples and Singles that also include children would be awesome.
  2. Create a community contract stipulating plans and ALL that follows.
    1. It should be clear about obligations 
      1. including obligations for departing members such as paying off bills, etc.
    2. Everyone signs it.
    3. Get it notarized.
    4. Bring this with you when you do anything as a group: apartments, banking, joining Sam’s Club etc.
  3. Set up a joint bank account.
    1. You’ll need, probably, a credit union to do this.
      1. Cuz they will be easier on your group 
      2. Their fees won’t kill you
  4. Even though everyone is still living on their own, begin collecting money monthly from all parties: this is to set up a fund for first month’s rent, security deposit etc.  Ideally this fund will also have the second month’s rent in it (or more) before you find a place to live – each month that you have saved up is one less month of stress when you actually move in.
    1. Yes, this may take a year or more.
    2. During this time, hang out a LOT: picnics, bar nights, movie nights. 
      1. Do you all go to the same school? 
        1. Take classes together. 
      2. Do you all go to the same worshipping tradition?
        1. Can you transfer memberships, whatever, to end up together?
  5. Find a large apartment or townhouse, house or other structure to rent.
    1. Tents are probably a bad idea
  6. Move in!
    1. YAY!
    2. Now for the hard part
  7. Track everything – any spending on food, utilities, rent, fixing things, renting movies for the house, phone bills (individual cellphone bills, yes) and anything else associated with the house.  Document it all on a spreadsheet.  Have weekly meetings to submit receipts. DO NOT FIGHT OVER THESE, YOU’RE STILL IN THE FIRST PHASE.
  8. After six months evaluate:
    1. Add cost rent (6 months)
      Cost of Utilities (6 months worth)
      Cost of food bought for the house (6 months worth)
      Cost of any individual purchase – phone bills, light bulbs, etc.
    2. Take total cost and divide by 6
      Take that 1/6 cost and divide by number of folks in the house.
    3. This is the cost of living in your house monthly per person.
    4. NB It is ok to make adjustments: the room under the stairs doesn’t need to cost as much as the penthouse, but everything else should be divided evenly.
    5. To the monthly cost per person, add $100 – this is for savings.
    6. Figure out what a basic health care plan would cost for an individual in your area, be that through Blue Cross, Healthy SF, Covered CA, etc. 
      1. Allow for folks to include this estimated cost in the monthly contribution to the community.
  9. Begin collecting the new rent+costs+$100 from each person each month
  10. PAY ALL BILLS ON TIME out of the new fund.
    1. Including individual cellphone plans.  
    2. Shop for the house from the new fund.
    3. Get a CSA and or join a food club. 
    4. Its OK to fight over these now.
    5. The goal is “From each according to their ability to each according to their need.” The month my cellphone bill taps my savings account is the month I need to eat on the house, so it’s ok. 
  11. You should, ideally, have $500-600 a month left over. 
    1. Put this in the bank account until you have two months’ rent surplus.
    2. Then begin putting monthly surplus in a savings account.
    3. Set aside the estimated health costs into a second savings account. 
      1. This is only a just-in-case fund: just in case someone is unemployed and needs to be covered.
  12. Live well and shop good. 
    1. Host public events – a weekly potluck is awesome
      1. Use these events to get the community’s name out there, to let people know that a common life of prayer is neither scary nor impossible to construct.
    2. Give one weekend a month to the community’s needs.
      1. The Garden, the doors that need painting, etc.
    3. Give 5% of time a month to an outside org and volunteer together at 
      1. The Senior Center
      2. The Animal Shelter
      3. The Parish’s After-School Program, etc.
  13. After 5 years: evaluate. 
    1. How much money do you have in savings? 
    2. Is there enough money to buy a house?
    3. No? Then come back next year.
    4. Yes? Well then, let’s see about doing that!

The Problem (2018.11.13)
The Praxis (2016.12.31)
The Vision (2019.10.04)
The Plan (2016.09.20)
The Church (2020.09.21)


In a discussion at St Augustine’s Western Rite Orthodox Church in Denver, the priest shared that Fr Alexander Schmemann once said words to this effect: You cannot refer to “Anglican Liturgy” because although there is one prayer book, if you go different parishes you find that each parish does things differently, based on the whims of the priest. I realized he was right – it is 100% true.

You could, at that time pick up your BCP’79 or BCP’28 (I don’t know when Fr Schmemann said it) and wander to the nearest Episcopal Church and take notes:

  • At St Swithun’s, Fr X did this but not that. He followed this rubric, skipped that one, and of option list on page 4 he picked A and D.
  • At St Audrey’s, Fr Z did that but not this. He skipped this rubric, followed that one, and of option list on page 4 he picked B and C.
  • Ad infinitum
It is truly different at most Episcopal parishes.  Fr Schmemann, from the seminary in New York, could have seen – probably did see – the stately Cathedral liturgy at St John the Divine, run by Canon Edward West, the late Mediaeval High Mass of St Mary the Virgin Church in Times Square, the middle of the road English Parochial rite at St Thomas Church, Fifth Avenue, and maybe even the low church Morning Prayer service at Grace Church, Broadway.  All of these happened on any Sunday and all were called “Episcopal liturgy”. Some used incense and some did not. Some genuflected and some did not. Some may have inserted petitions to the saints into the text, some would have removed anything that sounded remotely like those petitions.  And all would have been called Episcopal. Yet, there were very few places anywhere in the world where a visiting Episcopalian could go and – even with all the different options picked – he would not have known “This is the Episcopal/Anglican liturgy. I am at home.”  (One place where that didn’t happen was my former parish in SF, but we’ll not need to go there for this essay.)
But what makes that different from the Orthodox Church?
Based entirely on the whims of the clergy (they will call it “local tradition”)…
At St Spyridon’s they will start the day with Matins. They will skip most of it. It will last 15-20 mins. Then the divine liturgy will be served. They will skip many of the litanies although one will be all in Greek, the Anaphora will be silent – but the music will be so fast that there is no way at all that Fr Stavros is saying all the prayers – he barely has time to glance at them. No one will take communion, also Vespers never gets said.
At St Seraphim’s the night before they will have served “the All Night Vigil”. It will have lasted about 1.5 hours. Vespers and Matins will have both been sung, but many parts will have been skipped. The Canons at Matins will have been shortened from 60 mins (when you do all of them) to about 10 by singing only half of the verses of one. The Psalms at both services will have been skipped entirely. Liturgy will take the same amount of time, but, like at St Spyridons, a lot of things get skipped – however, here, everything is sung so slow and “piously” that it takes forever.
At St Olga’s, a congregation of three or four people will attempt to do everything.  Vespers the night before will take 1.5 hours.  The Psalms were chanted in full until everyone became hoarse. Matins in the morning, begins 1.5 hours before liturgy, again, everything is chanted in full. The canons – all of them in their august complexity – are rushed because they could take an hour by themselves. But the choir sings the responses nicely. Liturgy lasts 2 hours plus.  Everything that can be done is done. And at communion time everything stops while Fr Stanislos Smith hears everyone’s confession before giving communion.  During this time the Pre-communion prayers are read as well as the Canon of Repentance.  Then, after communion, the post-communion prayers are read and finally all the communion psalms are chanted joyfully and hella fast.
Another way to say this:  
  • At St Spyridon’s, Fr X did this but not that. He followed this rubric, skipped that one, and of option list on page 4 he picked A and D.
  • At St Seraphim’s, Fr Z did that but not this. He skipped this rubric, followed that one, and of option list on page 4 he picked B and C.
  • At St Olga’s, Fr S did that and this. He followed all the rubrics, and of option list on page 4 he picked A, B, C, and D.
  • Ad infinitum
In the three Orthodox Western Rite communities I’ve recently had the privilege of worshipping, I saw 5 different versions of the same liturgy – one community had visiting clergy.
My Orthodox readers will recognize that I have combined the liturgical practices of ROCOR-like parishes, GOARCH/AOCANA parishes and OCA parishes.  But we all claim to be “the Orthodox Church”.  If what Fr Schmemann said of ECUSA is true, then it is also true of Orthodoxy. We must admit, that by and large, what we have in Orthodoxy is no different than the liturgical chaos we find in ECUSA or the Roman Church.  We may not have guitars – yet – but if it is true that lex orandi lex credendi (the law of prayer is the law of faith, or “As we pray so we believe”) then it must be confessed we pray rather differently in different places.
And it is true that one Orthodox person, travelling from parish to parish, will say “this is Orthodox liturgy and I am home” just as easily as the travelling Episcopalian.  But – again like the travelling Episcopalian – he will be happy to get back to his home parish where “things are normal”.  This is, I think, normal parish life no matter what parish or denomination you belong to.  It was that way when Paul felt he had to write to the Corinthians and correct their liturgical abuses: someone had already complained that “they do it different at Corinth”.  The New Testament Church, the Apostolic Church, the Post Apostolic Church… in every period there seems to have been vast liturgical diversity. The Churches of Rome and Constantinople both had reformation moments when they commanded all parishes in their jurisdictions to use one liturgy – but even then, post haste, the evolution began anew.  This is a good thing.
In this day of the internet when we can literally watch what they do next door on our smartphones as we do something different in our parish, it is hard to admit – we are both right.  But if we are members of the same Church, under the same bishops, in communion with one another, then: that liturgy there, no more than my liturgy here, is a real liturgy.  I am annoyed when the Myth of Orthodox (or Catholic) Uniformity arises and is quickly discovered to be a lie and, rather than blame the Myth itself, we blame “them” for “doing it wrong”.   If I convert believing the Myth of Orthodox Uniformity – or the Myth of Catholic Uniformity – I’m going to trip myself up the minute I go on vacation and stumble into another parish. If I end up thinking, essentially, only my parish does it right then I’m just a congregationalist: a Byzantine Rite (or Latin Rite) Baptist, as someone once said.  This – and not the diversity itself – is a bad thing.
It seems to me that, if we are in the same church, in communion one with another, then I must allow that our Bishops have let you be that way, as they have let me be this way.  I have to love you (and vice versa) no matter what “liturgical abuse” you perform or what “liturgical excess” you find in my parish.  We are Christians together. If we are not Christians together then there is not only no way you can speak of “The Orthodox Liturgy” but there is no way to speak of “the Orthodox Church”.  Rather, what we have, is “The Orthodox Churches” – and so also “The Roman Catholic Churches”.  We have the Boutique of St Spyridon, the Boutique of St Seraphim, etc. We are each in tiny, walled-off communities where “only my parish does it right” and I don’t have to pay more than lip service to the idea of loving those who do it differently (ie, wrong).

Autumn in New York

Just after Labor Day in NYC is a special time for me. It’s when I moved to NYC in 1983 – taking all my stuff and going to NYU, moving into the fraternity house at 3-5 Washington Place. NYU was suffering from a housing shortage and some fraternities (especially those with many members who didn’t need housing…) found themselves renting out rooms to incoming students. I was lucky enough to have my housing problem solved by the Nation’s Oldest Continually Active Fraternity… the Gamma Chapter of Delta Phi. Delta Phi was so old that fraternities only needed two letters. For a few weeks things will be confusing because I was a “Boarder”: neither a brother of the fraternity nor a pledge. We’ll cover that in another p0st, but it’s important to know I’m a boarder for a while. My first weekend in NYC was the beginning of the San Gennaro Festival. A few boarders – two were named “Joe” one with long, blond hair, and one with dark, curly hair and a beard, one was named Jordan, this guy Russ, and myself all traipsed off to the Feast. I think the in-house brothers didn’t want to be bothered with us. This was my first outing in NYC. I had been there before, of course: several times in my late teens, but suddenly I lived there! In a way that I couldn’t quite describe, I had “become” a New Yorker – although no one would say that to me for another decade. We walked down Broadway. I cannot begin to successfully describe the emotions! Leaving 3-5 and turning right, we walked past the Unique Boutique, truly a sartorial experience for a small town boy from the South, then past Tower Records – 4 solid floors of records and this new thing, the Cassette Tape in the basement. Going down Broadway we passed Canal Jeans – whose checkerboard logo was the mark of cool and cheap. Further on we got to Canal Street itself – a crazy jumble of street sellers and open store fronts, all selling “electronics” as we called ‘em then and various hardwares: speakers, boomboxes, interesting light fixtures for black lights – which one used to use to entertain people on drugs in one’s bedroom…. seriously! Right on Canal and across to China Town (that’s another post) and then south to Little Italy on Mulberry.

Just the strings of lights, alone… it was like a County Fair (minus the rides and all the animals had been slaughtered already and were grilling…) run by Italian Grandmothers. I still remember how I watched one Nonna in a black dress drop dough from her hand, tightly clenched either by age or just managing the recipe, into the hot oil to make Zeppoles: hot puffs of fried dough covered in powdered sugar, served up in a bag through which the grease was soaking. The purpose of this was to mark you: you would naturally get oil from the bag on your shirt, and you would, naturally, drop sugar from the pastry as it made its way to your mouth. It would land on your shirt and adhere to the grease. This was, like ashes in lent, a mark of you having performed the duties of a pious pilgrim. At the heart of the Festival was a Statue of the Saint covered in Ribbons to which the faithful pinned money. A happy Protestant, I found this all very confusing – but Italian Catholicism was about to take over my life in all sorts of ways since it was the dominant religion of that part of NYC in those days. I pinned a dollar to the saint and got a pin with the Saint’s image on it… I’d love to have that pin anymore, just as a mark that I was there. (I used to be a pin collector.)

Looming over all of lower Manhattan at this point in our history, were the Two Towers of the World Trade Center. They were always there… no matter where one went, you’d turn a corner and there they were. I wanted – for a decade – to catch a photo of the full moon next to the Towers looking under the Washington Square Arch but in those days to take a picture required something called a camera… and film. And timing. And you had to pay to get it developed. And then the towers came down, which also happened at this time of year. I had forgotten my first weekend in NYC until I sat down to write this essay. Nearly everything has been overshadowed by those Towers now.

We made it back to the Fraternity house in one piece (or, rather, five pieces, as there were five of us) having survived our first night out in NYC. It was not too exciting by standards we sat later, to be honest, but there was a tapped keg of beer at the house and it was free – even for us – so we played a drinking game and I fell off my chair laughing… but that’s a good story for another post. I think I’ve promised two or three already.

I find myself wondering though: 15 years after Pearl Harbor, we had destroyed Japan and helped them rebuild. We had forgiven them – and they had forgiven us. And we had even already fought a war with Japan against China who had been our ally in our war against Japan. In less than 15 years the world changed that much. What are we missing? What skill whereby we forgave the Emperor and the Generals and all the people have we forgotten now? We’ve become, I think, a different people than the nation that so magnanimously won the 2nd World War. It would be fun to blame that on the 80s or the 90s, on Reagan, Clinton, or Bush, but the reality is we are a democracy: what comes to pass comes up through the ranks. We, as a nation, have forgotten something because each of us, as persons, have forgotten it. I don’t know what it might be, that we have lost. But I am happy to explore what I remember in the hopes of finding it.

And that’s news from Lake Woebegone… ‘s neighbor to the far East, where everyone was pushy and everyone has an opinion, where a good cup of coffee with butter bagel in the morning, a hot dog for lunch and a slice of pizza for supper were all the same price: $1.