Archive for ‘favorite passages’

July 31, 2017

by considering yourself a victim you but enlarge the vacuum of irresponsibility that demons or demagogues love so much to fill

Whenever you are in trouble, in some scrape, on the verge of despair or in despair, remember: that’s life speaking to you in the only language it knows well. In other words, try to be a little masochistic: without a touch of masochism, the meaning of life is not complete. If this is of any help, try to remember that human dignity is an absolute, not a piecemeal notion, that it is inconsistent with special pleading, that it derives its poise from denying the obvious. Should you find this argument a bit on the heady side, think at least that by considering yourself a victim you but enlarge the vacuum of irresponsibility that demons or demagogues love so much to fill, since a paralyzed will is no dainty for angels.

By Joseph Brodsky [unknown source, posted by friend on social media].

July 31, 2017

not a globe thousands of kilometers around

…And following that train of thought led him back to Earth, back to the quiet hours in the center of the clear water ringed by a bowl of tree-covered hills. That is the Earth, he thought. Not a globe thousands of kilometers around, but a forest with a shining lake, a house hidden at the crest of the hill, high in the trees, a grassy slope leading upward from the water, fish leaping and birds strafing to take the bugs that lived at the border between water and sky. Earth was the constant noise of crickets and winds and birds. And the voice of one girl, who spoke to him out of his far-off childhood. The same voice that had once protected him from terror. The same voice that he would do anything to keep alive, even return to school, even leave Earth behind again for another four or forty or four thousand years.

Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card.

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July 2, 2017

public life is not larger than private life, but smaller

From G.K. Chesterton’s “Turning Inside Out” in Fancies vs. Fads, 1923:

The passage from private life to public life … is always of necessity a passage from a greater work to a smaller one, and from a harder work to an easier one. And that is why most of the moderns do wish to pass from the great domestic task to the smaller and easier commercial one. They would rather provide the liveries of a hundred footmen than be bothered with the love-affairs of one. They would rather take the salutes of a hundred soldiers than try to save the soul of one. They would rather serve out income-tax papers or telegraph forms to a hundred men than meals, conversation, and moral support to one. They would rather arrange the educational course in history or geography, or correct the examination papers in algebra or trigonometry, for a hundred childrcn, than struggle with the whole human character of one. For anyone who makes himself responsible for one small baby, as a whole, will soon find that he is wrestling with gigantic angels and demons.

In another way there is something of illusion, or of irresponsibility, about the purely public function, especially in the case of public education. The educationist generally deals with only one section of the pupil’s mind. But he always deals with only one section of the pupils life. The parent has to deal, not only with the whole of the child’s character, but also with the whole of the child’s career. The teacher sows the seed, but the parent reaps as well as sows. The school-master sees more children, but it is not clear that he sees more childhood; certainly he sees less youth and no maturity. The number of little girls who take prussic acid is necessarily small. The boys who hang themselves on bed-posts, after a life of crime, are generally the minority. But the parent has to envisage the whole life of the individual, and not merely the school life of the scholar. …Everybody knows that teachers have a harassing and often heroic task, but it is not unfair to them to remember that in this sense they have an exceptionally happy task. The cynic would say that the teacher is happy in never seeing the results of his own teaching. I prefer to confine myself to saying that he has not the extra worry of having to estimate it from the other end. The teacher is seldom in at the death. To take a milder theatrical metaphor, he is seldom there on the night. But this is only one of many instances of the same truth: that what is called public life is not larger than private life, but smaller. What we call public life is a fragmentary affair of sections and seasons and impressions; it is only in private life that dwells the fullness of our life bodily.

June 21, 2017

the ultimate mystery of evil must also be a personal one

Of Water and the Spirit: A Liturgical Study of Baptism by Alexander Schmemann.

It is not our purpose to outline, even superficially, the Orthodox teaching concerning the Devil. In fact, the Church has never formulated it systematically, in the form of a clear and concise “doctrine.” What is of paramount importance for us, however, is that the Church has always had the experience of the demonic, has always, in plain words, known the Devil. If this direct knowledge has not resulted in a neat and orderly doctrine, it is because of the difficulty, if not impossibility, rationally to define the irrational. And the demonic and, more generally, evil are precisely the reality of the irrational. Some theologians and philosophers, in an attempt to explain and thus to “rationalize” the experience and the existence of evil, explained it as an absence: the absence of good. They compared it, for example, to darkness, which is nothing but the absence of light and which is dispelled when light appears. This theory was subsequently adopted by deists and humanists of all shades and still constitutes an integral part of our modern worldview. Here the remedy against all evil is always seen in “enlightenment” and “education.” For example: explain to teenagers the mechanics of sex, remove the “mystery” and the “taboos,” and they will use it rationally, i.e. well. Multiply the number of schools and man, who is naturally good, will ipso facto live and behave rationally, i.e. well.

Such however is certainly not the understanding of evil in the Bible and in the experience of the Church. Here evil is most emphatically not a mere absence. It is precisely in presence: the presence of something dark, irrational and very real, although the origin of that presence may not be clear and immediately understandable. Thus hatred is not a simple absence of love; it is the presence of a dark power which can indeed be extremely active, clever and even creative. And it is certainly not a result of ignorance. We may know and hate. The more some men knew Christ, saw His light and His goodness, the more they hated Him. This experience of evil as irrational power, as something which truly takes possession of us and directs our acts, has always been the experience of the Church and the experience also of all those who try, be it only a little, to “better” themselves, to oppose “nature” in themselves, to ascend to a more spiritual life.

Our first affirmation then is that there exists a demonic reality: evil as a dark power, as presence and not only absence. But we may go further. For just as there can be no love outside the “lover,” i.e. a person that loves, there can be no hatred outside the “hater,” i.e. a person that hates. And if the ultimate mystery of “goodness” lies in the person, the ultimate mystery of evil must also be a personal one. Behind the dark and irrational presence of evil there must be a person or persons. There must exist a personal world of those who have chosen to hate God, to hate light, to be against. Who are these persons? When, how, and why have they chosen to be against God? To these questions the Church gives no precise answers. The deeper the reality, the less it is presentable in formulas and propositions. Thus the answer is veiled in symbols and images, which tell of an initial rebellion against God within the spiritual world created by God, among angels led into that rebellion by pride. The origin of evil is viewed here not as ignorance and imperfection but, on the contrary, as knowledge and a degree of perfection which makes the temptation of pride possible. Whoever he is, the “Devil” is among the very first and the best creatures of God. He is, so to speak, perfect enough, wise enough, powerful enough, one can almost say divine enough, to know God and not to surrender to Him—to know Him and yet to opt against Him, to desire freedom from Him. But since this freedom is impossible in the love and light which always lead to God and to a free surrender to Him, it must of necessity be fulfilled in negation, hatred and rebellion.

These are, of course, poor words, almost totally inadequate to the horrifying mystery they are trying to express. For we know nothing about that initial catastrophe in the spiritual world—about that hatred against God ignited by pride and that bringing into existence of a strange and evil reality not willed, not created by God. Or rather, we know about it only through our own experience of that reality, through our own experience of evil. This experience indeed is always an experience of fall: of something precious and perfect deviated from and betraying its own nature, of the utterly unnatural character of that fall which yet became an integral and “natural” part of our nature. And when we contemplate evil in ourselves and outside ourselves in the world, how incredibly cheap and superficial appear all rational explanations, all “reductions” of evil to neat and rational theories. If there is one thing we learn from spiritual experience, it is that evil is not to be “explained” but faced and fought. This is the way God dealt with evil. He did not explain it. He sent His Only-Begotten Son to be crucified by all the powers of evil so as to destroy them by His love, faith and obedience.

This then is the way we must also follow. On this way we inescapably meet the Devil at the very moment we make the decision to follow Christ.

June 11, 2017

it is built primarily on the double rhythm of preparation and fulfillment

Of Water and the Spirit: A Liturgical Study of Baptism by Alexander Schmemann.

We must realize first of all that preparation is a constant and essential aspect of the Church’s worship as a whole. It is impossible to enter into the spirit of liturgy, to understand its meaning and truly to participate in it without first understanding that it is built primarily on the double rhythm of preparation and fulfillment, and that this rhythm is essential to the Church’s liturgy because it reveals and indeed fulfills the double nature and function of the Church herself.

On the one hand the Church herself is preparation: she “prepares” us for life eternal. Thus her function is to transform our whole life into preparation. By her preaching, doctrine and prayer she constantly reveals to us that the ultimate “value” which gives meaning and direction to our lives is at the “end,” is “to come,” is to be hoped for, expected, anticipated. And without this basic dimension of “preparation” there simply is no Christianity and no Church. Thus the liturgy of the Church is always and primarily a preparation: it always points and tends beyond itself, beyond the present, and its function is to make us enter into that preparation and thus to transform our life by referring it to its fulfillment in the Kingdom of God.

Yet, on the other hand, the Church is also and essentially fulfillment. The events which gave her birth and which constitute the very source of her faith and life have taken place. Christ has come. In Him man was deified and has ascended to heaven. The Holy Spirit has come and His coming has inaugurated the Kingdom of God. Grace has been given and the Church truly is “heaven on earth,” for in her we have access to Christ’s table in His Kingdom. We have received the Holy Spirit and can partake, here and now, of the new life and be in communion with God.

It is in and through liturgy that this double nature of the Church is revealed and communicated to us. It is the proper function of the liturgy to “make” the Church preparation and to reveal her as fulfillment. Every day, every week, every year is thus transformed and made into this double reality, into a correlation between the “already” and the “not yet.” We could not have prepared ourselves for the Kingdom of God which is “yet to come” if the Kingdom were not “already” given to us. We could never have made the end an object of love, hope and desire if it were not revealed to us as a glorious and radiant beginning. We could never have prayed “Thy Kingdom come!” if we did not have the taste of that Kingdom already communicated to us. If the liturgy of the Church would not have been “fulfillment,” our life could never have become “preparation.” Thus this double rhythm of preparation and fulfillment, far from being accidental, constitutes the very essence of the liturgical life of the Church, of the liturgy not only in its totality but also in each of its component parts—each season, each service, each sacrament.

March 20, 2017

destroying sin through the instrumentality of death

There is a whole lot in my paltry readings of Maximus the Confessor that I don’t understand. However, I continue, and Maximus rewards patience time and again.

Here’s a recent example. Maximus says that Jesus came to give human death a new purpose. He made death into a weapon that we can use against our own sin. This confused me a lot at first, so let me set up the theological background a little more.

Death is simply a natural result of sin. We sometimes read Genesis as if God proclaimed that death would be the punishment for sin. In fact, God was not “assigning a consequence” but simply pointing out a reality about life. Death is fair (or just) because it is a natural extension of sin. This is because sin is turning away from God who is the loving source of life.

Moreover, death became tied up with human nature because our first sin caught us all in bonds of pain and pleasure. Our first sin left us serving a vicious tyranny of the urgent, always fleeing a pain or pursuing a pleasure that seemed more near-at-hand than God’s presence. It became natural for humans to pursue anything but God, and mortality became a human characteristic. It is terrible to think of death as natural to those made in God’s image, but we all learn to see each other in this world as destined for death instead of God. Socrates takes it as an axiom that “man is mortal.”

Maximus also points out that death and suffering are merciful because they keep us from going too far off course while we wander between increasingly extreme fears of pain or desires for pleasure. Although death is merciful in a way, God did not impose death on us as either a kindness or a punishment (most fundamentally). Death is simply reality apart from life with God. As love and the source of life, God hates death.

Moving a step further, human death attacks the core of God’s purpose in creation. Humans were made uniquely to ensure that all creatures would enjoy and display God’s love. By sinning (turning from God to pursue another source of goodness), the image bearers of God tangled up their own natures with death itself, entrapped there by pain and pleasure. Instead of promoting and protecting life in all creation, God’s image became connected to death by our sin. God’s image brought death to the world.

To set up a little background, I’ve wandered from Maximus’ main point (and wandered into a few points of my own, no doubt). Maximus is focused on explaining exactly how salvation is accomplished by Jesus Christ within this situation. Because God’s image became connected to death by our sin and brought death to all creation, Maximus shows how Christ becomes a human and used human death as an ingenious weapon against sin. Maximus says that Jesus Christ “turned death from a weapon to destroy human nature into a weapon to destroy sin.” This attack on our sin gives us a new weapon and opens a way for the curse on all of creation to be undone. Christ surprised the devil and death itself by giving this new purpose to human death. By becoming human and repurposing death, God restored to humans a way to serve again as the image of God.

Maximus explains at length how this was possible. Christ fully took on our own human desires for pleasure and our fears of pain, all the realities of our sins, while remaining free from committing any sins of his own. Therefore, death was not a natural or just consequence for Christ. The normal purposes of death did not apply to Christ, and he was able to give death a surprising new purpose. I won’t go into further details, but this surprise move required all that Jesus Christ was (as fully God and fully human).

This noble use of death to restore life with God is full of profound encouragements and implications regarding how to suffer and to carry our own cross with Jesus Christ each day in this life, even into our own eventual deaths. Amazingly, Maximus claims that “the baptized acquires the use of death to condemn sin.” Christ has now given death to each of us to use as a weapon against our own sin. Christ changed the function of death for all of those who unite themselves to Christ. In Christ, humans can learn to accept everyday experiences of suffering and death in ways that free us from our sin. Maximus is giving a theological basis for the Christian practices of asceticism and mortification (which are very easily abused and misunderstood).

Pointing continually to the work of Christ, Maximus points us to the only perfect example of how to use death as a weapon against sin. However, Maximus the Confessor, as a follower of Christ, is himself a profound example. All those tortured for Jesus Christ were called “Confessors.” In Maximus’ case, he insisted on confessing the truth even when they promised to cut out his tongue and remove his right hand for preaching or writing one more word about who Jesus was. That didn’t stop him.

Here are some passages from Maximus himself (from Ad Thalassium 61 “On the Legacy of Adam’s Transgression”):

For if the deviance of free choice [by Adam] introduced passibility, corruptibility, and mortality in Adam’s nature, it only followed that in Christ, the immutability of free choice, realized through his resurrection, introduced natural impassibility, incorruptibility, and immortality.

…He exhibited the equity of his justice in the magnitude of his condescension, when he willingly (κατὰ θέλησιν) submitted to the condemnation imposed on our passibility (τὸ παθητόν) and turned that very passibility into an instrument for eradicating sin and the death which is its consequence—or in other words, for eradicating pleasure and the pain which is its consequence. For it was in human passibility that the power of sin and death (the tyranny of sin connected with pleasure and the oppression associated with pain) all began. Indeed, the rule of pleasure and pain over our nature clearly originated in the liability to passions. Wanting to escape the oppressive experience of pain we sought refuge in pleasure, attempting to console our nature when it was hard-pressed with pain’s torment. Striving to blunt pain’s spasms with pleasure, we merely sanctioned against ourselves a greater debt (cf Col 2:14) of pain, powerless to disconnect pleasure from pain and its toils. But the Lord exerted manifest strength of transcendent power by inaugurating for human nature a birth unchanged by the contrary realities (of pleasure and pain) which he himself experienced. For having given our human nature impassibility through his Passion, remission through his toils, and eternal life through his death, he restored that nature again, renewing the habitudes of human nature by his own deprivations in the flesh and granting to human nature through his own incarnation the supernatural grace of deification.

…Therefore death, in its dynasty, dominates all of human nature because of the transgression. …But the Lord, …naturally willed to die…. Clearly he suffered, and converted the use (χρῆσις) of death so that in him it would be a condemnation not of our nature but manifestly only of sin itself.

The baptized acquires the use of death to condemn sin. …Such will ensue if indeed the saints, for the sake of truth and righteousness, have virtuously finished the course of this life with its many sufferings, liberating their nature within themselves from death as a condemnation of sin and, like Christ, the captain of our salvation (Heb 2:10), turned death from a weapon to destroy human nature into a weapon to destroy sin.

From the translator’s notes:

Maximus repeats here his slightly earlier affirmation that Christ “converted the use of death” (τὴν τοῦ θανάτου χρῆσιν ἀντέστρεψιν) so as to condemn sin and not human nature itself. We already see in Ad Thal. 42 (translated above) Maximus’s larger perspective on Christ’s assumption of human passibility in its fullness, becoming the “sin” which is a consequence of the fall (but not the “sin” committed in moral acts) and so for our sakes taking on the mortality which is its condemnation. Recalling here the christianized Stoic idiom of “good use” of the human passions (cf Ad Thal. 1), Maximus describes Christ “using” death, the ultimate “passion” and the end of human passibility, as a redemptive instrument. Elsewhere, Maximus speaks of Christ’s blameless use of the fear of death (Disputation with Pyrrhus, PG 91:297B), for Christ alone turns it into a “voluntary” fear that encourages the Christian faithful in their own confrontation with death (Opusc. 7, PG 91:80D; cf Comm. on the Lord’s Prayer, CCSG 23:34, 135–35, 142).

…Maximus is insistent that the Christian appropriates Christ’s own good “use” of the ultimate passion of death (see note 9 above) by his or her own discipline of mortification. One should not overlook his important distinction between destroying death and destroying sin through the instrumentality of death.

March 7, 2017

souls often harden during the course of life

From Eugene Vodolazkin’s Laurus:

Leave her here, wept Arseny’s soul, she and I have become entwined. Get used to separation, said Death, it is painful, even if it is only temporary. Will we recoginze each other in eternity? asked Arseny’s soul. That depends in large part on you, said Death, Souls often harden during the course of life, and then they barely recognize anyone after death. If your love, O Arseny, is not false and does not fade with the passage of time, one might ask, why would you not recognize each other there, where there be not illness, not sorrow, not groaning, but where there shall be everlasting life? Death patted Ustina’s soul on the cheek. Ustina’s soul was small, almost childlike. Her response to the affectionate gesture was more likely fear than gratitutde. This is how children respond to those who take them from their kin for an indefinite period: life (death) for them will, perhaps, not be bad, but it will be completely different from what they are used to, lacking the former stucture familiar events, and turns of speech. As they leave, they keep looking back and seeing their frightened reflections in the teary eyes of their kin.

December 29, 2016

I can offer no suggestion except that Santa Claus gave it to me in a fit of peculiarly fantastic goodwill

Excerpted from a 1903 article by G.K. Chesterton in Black and White called “My Experiences with Santa Claus” (reprinted in the London Tablet in 1974):

What has happened to me has been the very reverse of what appears to be the experience of most of my friends. Instead of dwindling to a point, Santa Claus has grown larger and larger in my life until he fills almost the whole of it. It happened in this way.

As a child I was faced with a phenomenon requiring explanation. I hung up at the end of my bed an empty stocking, which in the morning became a full stocking. I had done nothing to produce the things that filled it. I had not worked for them, or made them or helped to make them. I had not even been good—far from it.

And the explanation was that a certain being whom people called Santa Claus was benevolently disposed toward me…What we believed was that a certain benevolent agency did give us those toys for nothing. And, as I say, I believe it still. I have merely extended the idea.

Then I only wondered who put the toys in the stocking; now I wonder who put the stocking by the bed, and the bed in the room, and the room in the house, and the house on the planet, and the great planet in the void.

Once I only thanked Santa Claus for a few dolls and crackers. Now, I thank him for stars and street faces, and wine and the great sea. Once I thought it delightful and astonishing to find a present so big that it only went halfway into the stocking. Now I am delighted and astonished every morning to find a present so big that it takes two stockings to hold it, and then leaves a great deal outside; it is the large and preposterous present of myself, as to the origin of which I can offer no suggestion except that Santa Claus gave it to me in a fit of peculiarly fantastic goodwill.

December 29, 2016

they were not going to waste anything they possessed between them

From “Watership Down” (chapter 18) in Watership Down: A Novel by Richard Adams:

Since leaving the warren of the snares they had become warier, shrewder, a tenacious band who understood each other and worked together. There was no more quarreling. The truth about the warren had been a grim shock. They had come closer together, relying on and valuing each other’s capacities. They knew now that it was on these and on nothing else that theirs lives depended, and they were not going to waste anything they possessed between them.

December 29, 2016

as though they felt the propriety of paying respect to the adversary who has put up so good a fight

From “The Raid” (chapter 25) in Watership Down: A Novel by Richard Adams:

When several creatures—men or animals—have worked together to overcome something offering resistance and have at last succeeded, there follows often a pause—as though they felt the propriety of paying respect to the adversary who has put up so good a fight. The great tree falls, splitting, cracking, rushing down in leaves to the final, shuddering blow along the ground. Then the foresters are silent, and do not at once sit down. After hours, the deep snowdrift has been cleared and the lorry is ready to take the men home out of the cold. But they stand a while, leaning on their spades and only nodding unsmilingly as the car-drivers go through, waving their thanks.

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