Archive for June, 2016

June 22, 2016

conformity to the likeness of the irrational

Q. Are the passions evil in themselves or do they become so when used in an evil way? I am speaking of pleasure, grief, desire, fear, and the rest.

R. These passions, and the rest as well, were not originally created together with human nature, for if they had been they would contribute to the definition of human nature. But following what the eminent Gregory of Nyssa taught, I say that, on account of humanity’s fall from perfection, the passions were introduced and attached themselves to the more irrational part of human nature. Then, immediately after humanity had sinned, the divine and blessed image was displaced by the clear and obvious likeness to unreasoning animals. The passions, moreover, become good in those who are spiritually earnest once they have wisely separated them from corporeal objects and used them to gain possession of heavenly things. For instance, they can turn desire (ἐπιθυμία) into the appetitive movement of the mind’s longing for divine things, or pleasure (ἡδονή) into the unadulterated joy of the mind when enticed toward divine gifts, or fear (φόβος) into cautious concern for imminent punishment for sins committed, or grief (λύπη) into corrective repentance of a present evil.

From Maximus the Confessor in Ad Thalassium (On the Utility of the Passions1, ccsg 7: 47–49).

When we wish to give a collective name to the passions, we call them world. And when we wish to designate them specifically according to their names, we call them passions. The passions are portions of the course of the world’s onward flow; and where the passions cease, there the world’s onward flow stands still.

From The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian (Homily Two, trans. by the Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Boston, 1984, p. 14).

If neither the Deity is passible nor our nature free from passion, what other account remains whereby we may say that the word of God speaks truly, which says that man was made in the image of God? [XVI.4]

It is not allowable to ascribe the first beginnings of our constitutional liability to passion to that human nature which was fashioned in the Divine likeness; but as brute life first entered into the world, and man, for the reason already mentioned, took something of their nature (I mean the mode of generation), he accordingly took at the same time a share of the other attributes contemplated in that nature. [XVIII.1]

Thus our love of pleasure took its beginning from our being made like to the irrational creation, and was increased by the transgressions of men, becoming the parent of so many varieties of sins arising from pleasure as we cannot find among the irrational animals. Thus the rising of anger in us is indeed akin to the impulse of the brutes; but it grows by the alliance of thought: for thence come malignity, envy, deceit, conspiracy, hypocrisy; all these are the result of the evil husbandry of the mind; for if the passion were divested of the aid it receives from thought, the anger that is left behind is short-lived and not sustained, like a bubble, perishing straightway as soon as it comes into being. Thus the greediness of swine introduces covetousness, and the high spirit of the horse becomes the origin of pride; and all the particular forms that proceed from the want of reason in brute nature become vice by the evil use of the mind. [XVIII.4]

So, likewise, on the contrary, if reason instead assumes sway over such emotions, each of them is transmuted to a form of virtue; for anger produces courage, terror caution, fear obedience, hatred aversion from vice, the power of love the desire for what is truly beautiful; high spirit in our character raises our thought above the passions, and keeps it from bondage to what is base; yea, the great Apostle, even, praises such a form of mental elevation when he bids us constantly to think those things that are above (Colossians 3:2); and so we find that every such motion, when elevated by loftiness of mind, is conformed to the beauty of the Divine image. [XVIII.4]
The misery that encompasses us often causes the Divine gift to be forgotten, and spreads the passions of the flesh, like some ugly mask, over the beauty of the image. [XVIII.6]

Passion in the human soul is a conformity to the likeness of the irrational. [XXVIII.4]

From On the Making of Man by Gregory of Nyssa.

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June 18, 2016

Learning to Laugh with Angels

He remembered a hornbill, which was simply a huge yellow beak with a small bird tied on behind it. The whole gave him a sensation, the vividness of which he could not explain, that Nature was always making quite mysterious jokes. …He wondered whether even the archangels understood the hornbill.

Coming across this passage yesterday in G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who was Thursday and being flat on my back today with a high fever, I spent some time reflecting on his theme of heavenly humor. This topic is taken up by several other Christain authors including C.S. Lewis. For example, this scene in The Magician’s Nephew when a Jackdaw has an awkward moment just after Aslan has given voices to all of the animals in the new world of Narnia:

“Laugh and fear not, creatures. Now that you are no longer dumb and witless, you need not always be grave. For jokes as well as justice come in with speech.”

So they all let themselves go. And there was such merriment that the Jackdaw himself plucked up courage again and perched on the cab-horse’s head, between its ears, clapping its wings, and said:

“Aslan! Aslan! Have I made the first joke? Will everybody always be told how I made the first joke?”

“No, little friend,” said the Lion. “You have not made the first joke; you have only been the first joke.” Then everyone laughed more than ever; but the Jackdaw didn’t mind and laughed just as loud till the horse shook its head and the Jackdaw lost its balance and fell off, but remembered its wings (they were still new to it) before it reached the ground.

Chesterton, like Lewis, clearly had a high view of humor and defended it often. His two main themes on the topic are the goodness of human laughter vs. the awfulness of divine laughter. Chesterton suggests that human laughter is an almost unmitigated good. Here are several examples from over the course of his lifetime:

  • Laughter has something in it in common with the ancient winds of faith and inspiration; it unfreezes pride and unwinds secrecy; it makes men forget themselves in the presence of something greater than themselves; something (as the common phrase goes about a joke) that they cannot resist.
  • For solemnity flows out of men naturally; but laughter is a leap. It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light. Satan fell by the force of gravity.
  • Man is more himself, man is more manlike, when joy is the fundamental thing in him, and grief the superficial.
  • Moderate strength is shown in violence, supreme strength is shown in levity.
  • It is the test of a good religion whether you can joke about it.
  • Angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly.

And this one (which most directly sheds light on the hornbill passage at the start of this post):

Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate. This gives to the typically Christian pleasure in this earth a strange touch of lightness that is almost frivolity. Nature was a solemn mother to the worshipers of Isis and Cybele. Nature was a solemn mother to Wordsworth or to Emerson. But Nature is not solemn to Francis of Assisi or to George Herbert. To St. Francis, Nature is a sister, and even a younger sister: a little, dancing sister, to be laughed at as well as loved.

In another vein, however, Chesterton suggests that God’s laughter is a serious (even terrible) thing—too wonderful for us—something that we must be protected from or that we are mercifully incapable of hearing:

We are perhaps permitted tragedy as a sort of merciful comedy: because the frantic energy of divine things would knock us down like a drunken farce. We can take our own tears more lightly than we could take the tremendous levities of the angels. So we sit perhaps in a starry chamber of silence, while the laughter of the heavens is too loud for us to hear.

In a later passage, Chesterton suggests that divine laughter is not so much inaudible to us as it is mercifully hidden us:

The tremendous figure which fills the Gospels towers in this respect, as in every other, above all the thinkers who ever thought themselves tall. His pathos was natural, almost casual. The Stoics, ancient and modern, were proud of concealing their tears. He never concealed His tears; He showed them plainly on His open face at any daily sight, such as the far sight of His native city. Yet He concealed something. Solemn supermen and imperial diplomatists are proud of restraining their anger. He never restrained His anger. He flung furniture down the front steps of the Temple, and asked men how they expected to escape the damnation of Hell. Yet He restrained something. I say it with reverence; there was in that shattering personality a thread that must be called shyness. There was something that He hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray. There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.

In an even more serious-sounding passage that I cannot find, Chesterton says (if my memory serves me), that exposure to the raw power of our Creator’s laugh, in our current sickened condition, would virtually unmake us. Certainly God’s laughter in some Old Testament passages is something very close to judgement. We may also, perhaps, learn something about God’s humor (and I say this tentatively because I doubt that I am right but I still think it worth considering) through a study of the lives of holy fools or through the preaching and the satirical skits of certain Old Testament prophets (see God’s compromise with Ezekiel in 4:15, for example).

Of course, this point about God’s laughter being dangerous is part of a larger theme in Chesterton as well as Lewis and Tolkien: heavenly things are so good that they (in one sense) pain or hurt us in our current condition. In The Great Divorce, Lewis famously describes people from hell stepping off of a bus that has taken them to heaven. They decide that the grass in heaven is too painfully real. They would rather return to hell than endure the too-substantial grass of heaven. However (and Lewis would agree), God’s goodness is always and ultimately wholesome, even when it pains us. We see this perfectly in Jesus Christ. His divine humor may have been heavily veiled as Chesterton suggests, but Jesus clearly teased and jested with those closest to Him. This simple human laughter of Jesus never comes up directly in scripture, but it is easy to imagine what a gift it would have been in the hearts of those who loved Him. In helpful contrast to Chesterton’s reflections on Christ’s awful and hidden divine humor, Patrick Henry Reardon talks about Christ’s sense of humor, and Reardon fully humanizes it. He makes the case that Christ regularly enjoyed laughter with those closest to him:

Jesus related to these original disciples—even from the beginning—as ‘individuals,’ as particular men. He does not permit their specific identities to become lost in the group. Philip, Andrew, Thomas, and the others preserve their individual characters. Observe, for instance, how he teases them. Jesus’ irony toward Nathaniel is a perfect example of this [John 1:45-47].

…What shall we say of the nickname Jesus gave to the two sons of Zebedee: James and John? He called them “sons of thunder,” which in our modern idiom would be “hotheads.” One suspects the brothers received this moniker because … they [once] said, “Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, just as Elijah did?” (Luke 9:52–54)

…Luke relished the irony of it: John bar Zebedee … got his wish … when the church at Jerusalem sent him … as one of its delegates to call down on the Samaritans the true fire from heaven—the Holy Spirit.

…Peter, when he felt enthusiastic, imagined himself invincible … [and ] readily mistook a rush of adrenaline for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit…. Jesus surely recognized the name’s improbability in Peter’s case. The only time [that Peter] showed any rocklike quality was on that memorable occasion when he attempted to walk on water!

…In all these instances, we perceive a light and jocund side of Jesus’ relationship with these men, whom he chose ‘that they might be with Him’ (Mark 3:14). With these disciples, Jesus carried himself as a man among men, to whom he was bound by the sorts of habits, attitudes, and discourse [by which] normal men establish friendships and maintain loyalties.

There are some clear parallels between Reardon’s portrait of Jesus (jesting with his closest followers) and Lewis’ portrayal of Aslan (the first joker encouraging laughter over the vivacious Jackdaw). However, there is also a comforting difference between these two accounts. The humor exercised by Jesus is more gentle, subtle, and deeply personal than that of Lewis’ Aslan. To those learning to follow Him, Christ is a gentle friend (in the aggregate at least).

Finally, in Reardon’s account, Jesus’ joking is connected almost entirely to renaming and nicknames. It is remarkable that Jesus’ humor is bound up so closely with something that is so central to His identity as the Logos, by whose words all things are made and sustained. Naming is a task that God calls humans to share with Him, and Adam’s naming of each animal might have involve more laughter than we imagine. Chesterton may be onto something with his idea that the angels themselves are still learning to laugh at the hornbill. Furthermore, simply by process of elimination, it seems possible that humans with a healthy sense of humor could provide an important example for any angels who are still learning to see God’s mirth on display throughout creation. This line of thinking about Jesus’ enjoyment of clever nicknames also puts new possibilities into play when it comes to the intimate name that Christ has prepared for each of His saints (Revelation 2:17). Each of God’s children may be revealed as an even better joke than the Jackdaw before all is said and done. For my part, I take some comfort in the hope of garnering a few laughs as the trillion-and-first joke when my own time comes.

Nonetheless, if I make light of myself, this is not to make light of humanity or of my own high calling to communion with God. (As Chesterton says: “Only man can be absurd: for only man can be dignified.”) In Christ, Peter did live up to his nickname.

June 17, 2016

he wondered whether even the archangels understood the hornbill

He remembered a hornbill, which was simply a huge yellow beak with a small bird tied on behind it. The whole gave him a sensation, the vividness of which he could not explain, that Nature was always making quite mysterious jokes. Sunday had told them that they would understand him when they had understood the stars. He wondered whether even the archangels understood the hornbill.

From Thursday by G.K. Chesterton.

June 13, 2016

I never shall think that the mass of ordinary men are a pack of dirty modern thinkers

I don’t think, and I never shall think, that the mass of ordinary men are a pack of dirty modern thinkers.

…Vulgar people are never mad. I’m vulgar myself, and I know. I am now going on shore to stand a drink to everybody here.

G.K. Chesterton in The Man Who was Thursday.

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June 13, 2016

far more interested in hearing about the tournament than in worrying about deaths that had happened hundreds of years ago

“Death toll,” Hermione whispered, looking alarmed. But her anxiety did not seem to be shared by the majority of students in the Hall; many of them were whispering excitedly to one another, and Harry himself was far more interested in hearing about the tournament than in worrying about deaths that had happened hundreds of years ago.

“There have been several attempts over the centuries to reinstate the tournament,” Dumbledore continued, “none of which has been very successful. However, our own departments of International Magical Cooperation and Magical Games and Sports have decided the time is ripe for another attempt. We have worked hard over the summer to ensure that this time, no champion will find himself or herself in mortal danger.”

From J.K. Rowling in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

June 12, 2016

their faces were elongating into sharp, cruel-beaked bird heads

At this, the veela lost control. Instead of dancing, they launched themselves across the field and began throwing what seemed to be handfuls of fire at the leprechauns. Watching through his Omnioculars, Harry saw that they didn’t look remotely beautiful now. On the contrary, their faces were elongating into sharp, cruel-beaked bird heads, and long, scaly wings were bursting from their shoulders — “And that, boys,” yelled Mr. Weasley over the tumult of the crowd below, “is why you should never go for looks alone!”

From J.K. Rowling in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

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June 11, 2016

Myrrh, Mercy, and Oil: Deciding What to Do with It All

I don’t know what to do with two small zip-lock baggies of myrrh that my wife and I collected last Sunday (June 5, 2016) from a miraculous myrrh-streaming icon of the Theotokos in Taylor, PA. These two swabs of white cotton soaked in a bright yellow-orange oil are shut up tightly inside plastic, but they still give off a pungent, sweet fragrance that definitely includes rose blossom (along with other scents that are less easily discerned, such as two that my children suggested: “honey comb” and “new doll”).

On the Sunday of Orthodoxy this year (March 20) my kids and I went to church, and the priest said that he had thrown out the notes for his homily yesterday evening after he participated in the Triumph of Orthodoxy vespers at a neighboring parish where several churches from the region were gathered together. During this joint prayer service (which celebrates the restoration of icons after a dispute about them within the early church), my priest witnessed the myrrh-streaming icon of the Theotokos that was visiting from Taylor, PA. In addition to watching sweet smelling oil flow from its surface, he heard stories of the many blessings and healings associated with this icon. For several years, visitors to this icon had been healed from cancer and other diseases that doctors had declared incurable by medical means. My priest is Father Peter of St. John Chrysostom Antiochian Orthodox Church in York, PA, and the priest visiting with the the myrrh-flowing Kardiotisa (“The Tender Heart”) icon was Father Mark of St. George’s Orthodox Church in Taylor, PA. (See image of the Kardiotisa icon at bottom of this post.)

One story told by Father Mark touched Father Peter in particular. It was about a teenage girl who struggled with a horribly negative self-image and who faced harsh bullying at school. When anointed by myrrh from the icon, she was delivered from thoughts of self harm and became a strong and confident young lady who was filled with thanksgiving for God, her family, and her friends. Father Peter also relayed how God clearly did not discriminate between various types of believers when it came to granting mercy through this icon. Those healed included Christians from many traditions as well as Muslims and others. Father Peter had seen many other myrrh streaming icons over his decades of ministry, but this experience had clearly moved him in a fresh way.

While he spoke, I was thinking of my mother who was diagnosed over a year ago with stage four breast cancer that doctors said could never be eradicated by medical means. My eight year old son was evidently thinking of my mother as well. He leaned over to me and whispered, “We should take grandma to see this icon.” After the service, he and I joined the line of those going forward to be anointed with the sweet-smelling oil collected from this icon.

As I said, that was March 20, and it was June 5 before we made it there with my mother. Our visit to St. George’s Orthodox Church in Taylor, PA was rescheduled twice. Then, on the morning of the visit, it was difficult to get up on time, to pack up and clean the house where we were staying for the weekend as an extended family, and to keep our cool while following GPS directions that took us via an extremely strange and circuitous route. (Truth be told, I did not fully keep my cool during this last leg of the road trip.) We made it to the Sunday morning service (called the Divine Liturgy) about half way through (near the end of the sermon), and my extended family followed me quietly into seats within the first two rows of pews on the far right side of the sanctuary. We did our best to pray and sing our way through the remainder of the highly elaborate and largely unfamiliar service. Visiting along with my mother and I that morning, there were also my wife and two children, my father, my young twin sisters (the same age as my daughter), and two of my grown siblings, a brother and a sister (a mother of five) who had her baby boy along with us.

At the end of the service, Father Mark had a lengthy announcement about the proposed purchase of a walk-in freezer for the congregation as well as comments about a recent chemical analysis of the myrrh from the streaming icon (an analysis by a Ukrainian association of chemists that had not been sanctioned by the bishop but that had produced some fascinating results that Father Mark detailed quickly to his congregation). He finally concluded the service by inviting anyone to come forward and to receive an anointing with myrrh from the icon. Every member of my family and extended family came forward, and a visiting priest gave the blessing and the anointing, placing a small dab of myrrh in the sign of the cross on each of our foreheads with his thumb. As we were all going up front for this, my wife checked that all of our family members had noticed the location of the streaming icon near the center of the sanctuary. Its entire surface was visibly wet with myrrh, and some oil could be seen on the outside of the icon’s protective case.

My mother needed to use the restroom after this, and I hung out near the sanctuary hoping to catch a word with Father Mark, who I had corresponded with several times over the past few weeks in preparation for this visit. He was busy with a portion of his congregation offering a prayer service for a recently departed member of their church. I checked on my family situated in the social hall attached to the church and returned to the sanctuary, where I waited and finally had an opportunity to greet Father Mark. He was praying with a devout and emotional young couple who were clearly also there to seek help from Mary at her myrrh-streaming icon. Father Mark was also busy with some of his deacons and several remaining members of the congregation, lifting the protective cover from the icon and examining the cotton swabs packed into a tray along the icon’s bottom edge to collect the myrrh. He and several others were expressing joy at the quantity of myrrh as it dripped from the protective case itself, and one woman reached out to catch the drops before they fell to the floor.

With some persistence, I was able to get Father Mark’s direct attention and introduce myself. He seemed to vaguely remember corresponding with me, and then he warmly welcomed my entire family and extended family. He asked each person to hold out their hands as he held up the icon and waited for one drop of myrrh to fall into the hands of my father, mother, four siblings, wife, son, and finally my little nephew. My daughter quietly declined. During this time, as the drops fell one-by-one into outstretched hands, two older women from the congregation were alternately praying out loud and chattering with members of my family (telling them many stories about the icon). Father Mark invited us to leave any written prayer requests in little decorated blue boxes at the back of the church. These requests would be read out loud in the sanctuary and placed into a large wooded chest that was kept near the icon. One of the elder ladies explained that a member of the congregation had given this chest to the church for this purpose and let us know that hey had another chest stored within their altar area that was already filled with paper slips holding prayers from previous visitors. In one last effort, I asked Father Mark if he would pray specifically for my mother right then and there. He agreed and prayed for her out loud before the Mother of God’s myrrh-streaming icon. Father Mark was a generous and unassuming man who radiated simple joy and good humor. I felt bad to ask for so much, but he gave graciously.

As we were finally leaving, several members of the congregation came forward to receive pieces of cotton that were torn off, one-by-one, from the larger swabs that were packed into the trough at the base of the icon. These were soaked with myrrh and were placed in small zip-lock bags for members of the congregation to take with them. My mother and sister hesitated at first. However, Father Mark was clearly liberal in the distribution of these bags, and they each ended up with one. My grown sister overheard Father Mark telling a little girl in the congregation to take one with her and teasing the girl by telling her to go and tell her brother that Father Mark said he couldn’t have one today. My wife and I each got a separate bag as well.

Scripture is full of references to oil used for cooking, with sacrifices, and for anointing. All four Gospels speak of the myrrh bearing women who came to anoint Jesus with the same kind of expensive perfumes that Mary had poured over his feet and wiped off with her hair not long before his crucifixion. These ladies are described beautifully in the book Christ in His Saints by Patrick Henry Reardon. He explains that they spent a lot of money and some no doubt risked the wrath of their unbelieving husbands to get up before sunrise and take this myrrh to anoint the dead body of their Messiah whom they had seen placed within a cave behind a massive stone and under the watch of a professional Roman guard. How they planned to move the stone and get past the soldiers is unclear, but one thing is clear: they had not imaged the possibility of a resurrection. When they arrived, however, the stone was gone, and they met angels instead of soldiers. Reardon ends his account of these devoted women with an intentional note of irony by asking us to consider “all of that myrrh gone to waste.”

In 1 Kings 17 and then again in 2 Kings 4, we read of first Elijah and then his disciple Elisha making a jar of oil flow continually in the service of God as well as an old widow who is seeking to care for her destitute family. In a vision from Zechariah 4, we again see an endless supply of oil. In this account, two olive trees provide a continual stream of oil to keep a beautiful lamp stand alight with seven flames (like the lamp in the tabernacle and temple as well as the seven lamps that represent each of the churches written to by Jesus Christ at the beginning of St. John’s Apocalypse).

In many of these Biblical references, the oil is connected to the Spirit of God bringing light and life to all His creatures. And there is also another theme, one of anointing with medicines and perfumes. The word “mercy” in English is the translation of the Greek word eleos. This word is based on an older Greek root meaning olive oil, a substance that was used as a soothing agent for bruises and wounds (as we see in the story of the Samaritan who was a good neighbor).

Keith Green sings: “My heart is hard, my prayers are cold / And I know how I ought to be / Alive to You and dead to me // Oh what can be done for an old heart like mine / Soften it up with oil and wine / The oil is You, Your Spirit of love.”

And before this, Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote within an astounding poem: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God. / …It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil / Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?”

This song and this poem both capture a lot, in different ways, about God’s presence as it has been mediated to us all daily, in unexpected ways. After writing all this, however, I am not much closer to making a decision about what to do with my bag of myrrh. My wife and I have shared a few ideas with each other, both immediately afterward and in the following days. Regardless, I am simply grateful to have had its beautiful smell in my home for this week and to be faced with the strange dilemma that it brings. I’ll probably try to share my myrrh somehow (the wise men gave away all of their myrrh after all), and I will also seek ideas from others who are older and wiser than myself. And your suggestions, dear reader, are welcome too.

[Note: shown in the photo at the top of this post are the two bags that I mention, containing cotton swabs soaked with myrrh. Also in the picture is my son’s small prayer book (a recent gift to him from my mother) and two small (prayer-card-sized) icons gifted to us by friends about a year ago (depicting Hawaii’s Myrrh-Streaming Iveron Icon and Saint Elizabeth the New Marty who is a granddaughter of Queen Victoria).]

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