Archive for February, 2008



St. Richard of Wessex

st_richard_of_wessex.jpg There isn’t exactly a ton known about St. Richard of Wessex (alternately known as St. Richard of Swabia and St. Richard the Pilgrim), whose feast is celebrated today. All we really know for sure is that he was an English saint who, after reposing in Italy, was venerated in Germany. There is far more known about his children, Ss. Walpurga, Winebald, and Willibald, and his brother, St. Boniface (aka St. Wilfrid) than about him. Nonetheless, here is a fairly reasonable summary of what can be said about St. Richard, from this website.

Died 722. Perhaps Saint Richard was not really a king–early Italian legend made him a prince of Wessex–but his sanctity was verified by the fact that he fathered three other saints: Willibald, Winebald (Wunibald), and Walpurga (Walburga). Butler tells us that “Saint Richard, when living, obtained by his prayers the recovery of his younger son Willibald, whom he laid at the foot of a great crucifix erected in a public place in England, when the child’s life was despaired of in a grievous sickness. . . . [he was] perhaps deprived of his inheritance by some revolution in the state; or he renounced it to be more at liberty to dedicate himself to the pursuit of Christian perfection. . . . Taking with him his two sons, he undertook a pilgrimage of penance and devotion, and sailing from Hamble-haven, landed in Neustria on the western coasts of France. He made a considerable stay at Rouen, and made his devotions in the most holy places that lay in his way through France.”

He fell ill, died suddenly at Lucca, Italy, and was buried in the church of San Frediano. A later legend makes him the duke of Swabia, Germany. Miracles were reported at his tomb, and he became greatly venerated by the citizens of Lucca and those of Eichstatt to where some of his relics were translated. The natives of Lucca amplified accounts of his life by calling him king of the English. Neither of his legends is especially trustworthy–even his real name is unknown and dates only from the 11th century. A famous account of the pilgrimage on which he died was written by his son’s cousin, the nun Hugeburc, entitled Hodoeporicon (Benedictines, Encyclopedia, Farmer, Gill, Husenbeth, White)

In art, King Saint Richard is portrayed as a royal pilgrim (ermine- lined cloak) with two sons–one a bishop and one an abbot. His crown may be on a book (Roeder). He is venerated at Heidenheim and Lucca (Roeder).

sanfrediano.jpgSome additional information about St. Richard and his family can also be found here. I hope that at some point I can visit the church of San Frediano in Lucca (pictured) to venerate his relics. I almost had a chance to go a few years ago, but it didn’t pan out.
A word about names. “Richard” is a Germanic name which means “Powerful ruler”; I expect it is related to the modern German word “Reich” and the name “Reichert”, and I’d be really surprised if it weren’t cognate with the Latin “rex”. If they presumed the anonymous saint was a king, “Richard” would have been a perfectly descriptive name to ascribe to him.
For my part, I was thrilled to discover the existence of a pre-schismatic St. Richard. Richard is my name, and count me as part of the camp that believes that names are given and not chosen, so I was overjoyed when it turned out that my given name was a perfectly good Orthodox saint’s name. Of course, having a feast day doesn’t mean he’s on my priest’s list of saints to commemorate, so it’s a name day that virtually nobody (and I mean nobody) ever remembers, but oh well.
St. Richard of Wessex, pray to God for us!

A one-sided interfaith dialogue

With a tip of the hat to Dr. Liccione, I give you “Is religion losing the millennial generation?” from the weekend’s USA Today. I won’t belabor any point Dr. Liccione hasn’t already made, except to take some of what he says a step further and to suggest that the way these students “invent” their religions indicates that for them, religion is best when it functions as a mild, feel-good, universally-affirming entertainment — not unlike, perhaps, a Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan comedy.

That said, there’s this point —

Study after study has shown that American college students are fleeing from organized religion to mix-and-match spirituality.

True; let’s also note, however, that this trend also exists within organized religion. My emergent church friends like to tell me that their idea is to take the best of all Christian traditions, put ’em all into the same pot, and then have everybody put something else intensely personal into the mix, so that the end result is (as they argue) something totally new. They may not be busting down the door of their parents’ or grandparents’ churches, but they want to build a modern church using the best of what those congregations had to offer. No, they say, we don’t want to be Orthodox and limit ourselves to a particular tradition, but icons, incense, and chant seem like they’d be cool to use as building blocks for something else. Their argument is that, sure, maybe that’s reinventing the wheel, but wouldn’t it be limiting the creative movement of the Holy Spirit to have it any other way?

Then there’s this point:

…I can’t help but think that priests, rabbis, imams and ministers would do well to engage in interfaith dialogue not only with one another but also with this “spiritual but not religious” generation.

It is certainly true that we need to do a better job of engaging the “spiritual but not religious,” but I think it would be a mistake to suggest that it’s “interfaith dialogue.” “Nothing” is not a different kind of “something”; it is nothing. The job we need to do is, while having compassion and charity for how they’ve arrived where they are at, showing them why having something is better than having nothing.

It will be a tough job, no question about it. Part of the problem — and I think this is demonstrated by the article — is that if they don’t think it’s real in the first place, then why does it matter which made-up version to which one ascribes? Then it really is a question of which one is more entertaining, which one gives you a fuzzier feeling in your stomach. So how do you engage so that they see that there is in fact something real there with which to connect?

It’s going to take some work.

On being late to parties

It often happens to me that I come to a particular conclusion on my own in isolation, only to find out much later that not only are there educated people who are thinking the same way, but there have been educated people thinking about it for years and have a formal way of talking about it.

When I was a child of eight or nine, I formulated a set of principles regarding how to describe the sounds we use to form words; I tried explaining them to my parents, who didn’t understand anything I was saying, patted me on my head and treated it similarly to when, at age five, I told them I was going to build a time machine. (Long story. Short version: I built it, but it didn’t work.) When I was seventeen, in my freshman Italian Diction for Singers course, I learned the International Phonetic Alphabet and was floored to realize this was exactly what I was trying to explain to Mom and Dad ten years earlier when they were giving each other looks saying, “Are you sure this is our kid?”

When I was thirteen, I discovered this awesome movie on VHS that neither my parents nor any of my friends had ever seen. It was called Blade Runner. It was 1990.

When I was sixteen, realizing I was extremely hard on my footwear, I shopped around for a good, durable shoe that could last me a couple of years. After a bit of research, I bought a pair of Dr. Martens, only to discover that the alterna-kids had been wearing them for a couple of years by that point.

Then there are parties to which I’ve been late as an adult.

All of this is to say — because I’ve evidently been far more sheltered than I realize, it’s always a shock to me to find out that there are smart, credentialed people out there who have had “my ideas” — well before I was born, in some cases. It’s a good shock, more often than not; it tells me I’m not as crazy as I sometimes think I am.

So, with that as background — my whole life, I’ve felt quite conflicted in terms of where I fall on the political spectrum. In broad strokes, we may say that I’ve never felt conservative enough for the Republicans or liberal enough for the Democrats, or at least never on the right issues, for either platform to particularly want me. I’ve often self-identified as a “moderate,” which I’ve sometimes joked as meaning “Everybody wants my vote but nobody wants to admit they agree with me.”

Let me give an example to demonstrate how this is problematic. I’ve come to the conclusion over the years that I’m pro-life, but I’ve further concluded that in order to be completely consistent and intellectually honest, “pro-life” can’t just mean “anti-abortion.” It has to mean pro-life. All life. Therefore, if abortion isn’t justifiable, neither is capital punishment, nor war. However, insofar as “pro-life” means “anti-abortion,” I vehemently disagree with people who blow up abortion clinics and attempt to kill doctors who work at Planned Parenthood. I would rather see about volunteering at a Crisis Pregnancy Center (which is itself problematic, partially because I’m a guy and partially because many of those places are set up around an Evangelical Protestant paradigm and want you to sign a “Statement of Faith” which includes things with which Orthodox and Catholics disagree) or supporting peaceful, positive events like the Walk for Life or some such.

Anyway, the point is, already I’ve taken a stance that pretty much rules out any ability to identify with Democrats, and also eliminates the Republicans as political allies, by and large.

This has had no small impact on how I’ve practiced my faith; there was a point, particularly in my late teens, when I was hesitant to identify myself as a Christian, because the biggest and loudest examples I saw of Christianity were abhorrent to me. Particularly given how I grew up, I knew of only three ways: Evangelical Christianity, which certainly had the most airtime and seemed to yell the loudest, but which also seemed to put forth the most effort in pointing the Almighty Finger; Roman Catholicism and anything which looked, sounded, or smelled like it, which I had been carefully taught was not Christianity and was potentially the most dangerous force on earth; and finally, the blatant non-Christian cults, which, I had been taught, included Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witness, and Unitarian Universalism. My Evangelical friends didn’t understand my discomfort with identifying Christianity with the Republican party OR with the handwaving and shouting that went on at the church at which I (sort of) grew up; my liberal, “spiritual but not religious” friends didn’t understand why I couldn’t see that Christianity was fundamentally stupid and evil.

Over the years, these issues have sort of shaken themselves out. When I first discovered Russell Kirk and his six tenets of conservatism, I thought to myself, “If that’s what a conservative thinks, then I guess I’m a conservative.” Kirk’s classical conservatism was radically different from the angry, anti-intellectual neo-conservatism to which I had been primarily exposed growing up — a philosophy that steadfastly refused to define itself any further than, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Kirk, Orthodox Christianity, Crunchy Cons, G. K. Chesterton — these have all to some extent provided answers and explanations, if not easy resolutions, to many of the tensions I perceived growing up. If they haven’t provided answers, they’ve at least given a window through which I can see the other people who are thinking the same way I am — however few there may be.

Having developed at least a loose framework for the way I’m learning to see things, I have two words with which I want to leave off for now.

Those two words are: Christian communitarianism.

So. Discuss. I think I have a bit of reading to do, on the other side of which it might turn out that it’s nothing. Or, it may very well be another party to which I’ve simply come late, in which case let me know, and then give me a few minutes so I can run out and bring back some beer — or at least read some Wendell Berry.

Is it February already?

It’s been one of those proverbial long weeks. Rehearsals for a choral concert (my first extra ecclesiam gig in a couple of years), a vocabulary quiz in Syriac (which was, shall we say, humbling), plus all of my normal stuff. We’re reading the Gospel of St. Mark in my Syriac class; a moment of unintentional humor may be found in 15:34 — “Jesus cried out in a high voice: ‘My God, my God, why have you left me?’ which is, ‘My God, my God, why have you left me?'” I guess it tells you that the Syriac scribes were following as closely as they could.

I’m still waiting, by the way.

The current issue of AGAIN has a few things worth noting. More than anything, I want to point out the article by my friend Maggie Downham, “The Raphael House: An Orthodox Response to Poverty.” It’s a combination of elements of her senior thesis, “Eastern Orthodox Theology and Virtue Ethics,” with things she’s experienced since she moved to San Francisco to work for Raphael House. The article isn’t yet available online, but here is an excerpt or five (and I wouldn’t post so many if I didn’t think they were worth your time and/or if AGAIN were easily obtainable at Borders):

In 1971, Raphael House of San Francisco became the first shelter in the city to focus on the needs of the family as a holistic entity… [Its] approach to poverty goes well beyond the provision of shelter, however. While there are numerous family shelters in San Francisco, an Orthodox presence at Raphael House creates a very different atmosphere and purpose from those of its secular counterparts… [I]t is the sacramental focus of the Church that makes Raphael House a working whom in which the Liturgy is the focus and renewal of those who both live and serve here. The shared experience of the Kingdom and partaking of the Eucharist make it possible for this community to serve the residential families in a way that goes deeper than provision.

[…] The Church as the koinonia is charged with the responsibility to love its neighbor as Christ has loved His people. It is union with Christ through the cup that strengthens the people to return to the world as one body, just as they entered into it, and to perform the Liturgy after the Liturgy. Having been to the Kingdom, they are now able to understand what the world needs… The formation of the koinonia in the Liturgy is not complete or sufficient in and of itself. Instead, the purpose of the koinonia in the Liturgy is to work on behalf of all people everywhere and at all times, manifesting the social responsibility the koinonia has to the people and the world at large… It is the mission of the Church to make known to the world the love of Christ that is manifested to them through participation in the Liturgy and their mystical entrance into the Kingdom of God… Theoretically, the Church is the embodiment of what the world should be, for it is the manifestation of the reality that is to come. In this way, the Church is to transform the world… [T]he Church’s mission… is to transform the world into the Kingdom through the love and light of Christ it receives in the Liturgy.

[…] Addressing social ills, then, becomes more than an external issue. It is a spiritual matter at its root. Healing people is a matter of reaching out to their souls, of addressing the spiritual violence and evil that roars within. Our work should be oriented toward holistic healing: first spiritual healing, followed naturally by healing the physical consequences of spiritual ills.

It is the responsibility of the Orthodox to make our voice known and to take decisive action if we are going to transform the world.

So — how best to respond to her rallying cry? I’ve got some ideas, sure, on what might charitably be called a sliding scale of practicality. Some of them I’ve discussed here and elsewhere. I’m not sure, in general, that I’m the person to propose them so that anyone will listen. Maggie might be, however.

I’ll just say that I met Maggie when she arrived here to finish her undergrad studies, and in the nearly three years I’ve known her she has never ceased to amaze me, for all kinds of reasons (all of them good). I think she’s got a book in her, and that the work she’s doing (of which this article is just the tip of the iceberg) is very important. Her biographical blurb says that she “hopes to explore her interest in the connection between Orthodox theology and social action through her involvement in the nonprofit sector and in future graduate studies”; let it be so!

Along similar lines — elsewhere in AGAIN, a book due out in March by His All Holiness Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, Encountering the Mystery: Understanding Orthodox Christianity Today is discussed (“Conflicted Hearts: Orthodox Christians in an Age of Globalization,” John Couretas). Rod Dreher spoke somewhat dismissively of the book, essentially saying it wasn’t the bold work of prophecy he wanted the Patriarch to have written (and he’s not the only one to have expressed that criticism), but I have pre-ordered it and will discuss it further once I have read it. Couretas certainly makes it sound interesting one way or the other:

The patriarch sees how viewpoints on social questions informed by faith are “proving to be the subjects of renewed interest and attention” in politics and policy circles. Yet he provides a caution: It is not social dogma or political ideology that should be at the center of the Christian’s concerns, but the “sacredness of the human person, created in the image and likeness of God.”

Sounds like a book Maggie should read, too.

The letter column in the same issue of AGAIN also contains a letter from John Truslow, Jr., which makes the excellent and indisputable point that in the United States, Orthodox Christianity is not even a single pixel of a blip on the cultural radar, and up until recently we’ve tossed around demographic data which were inflated at best. He then takes this wonderful, important point and hangs exactly the wrong hat on it:

How we do things either helps or hinders the unchurched from coming to Christ and His Church and either encourages or discourages communicants — particularly “the next generation” of younger Orthodox — from either remaining Orthodox or moving on to other Christian faith communities, many of which are intentionally very attractive (and good for them for bothering to be attractive!). Our theology and morality are not up for negotiation. Everything else we do should be the subject of endless review and creative change.

I cannot disagree with Mr. Truslow in the least that we need to engage our culture more fully, and that disappearing Orthodox youth is a gaping wound we need to figure out how to close, and fast. I find his argument to be rather troubling nonetheless. Rather than shoot off my own mouth about it, I will direct the reader to Fr. Stephen Freeman’s recent blog entry, “At the Edge of Tradition”:

[…] The content of the Tradition is not a set of ideas – but a reality – God with us.

And this is the problem that always accompanies attempts to reach that reality through reform. It is not our reformation that is the problem in the first place. We cannot reform ourselves into union with Christ. We can submit ourselves to union with Christ and not much else. We can cooperate with union with Christ.

[…] You do not appropriate something whose content is God. You are Baptized into it. You are Chrismated into it. You are absolved for ever having lived apart from it. You are fed it on a spoon. You are splashed with it. But you cannot appropriate it. To paraphrase: Your life’s too small to appropriate God.

This is very much the point Maggie makes above: the Liturgy, what the Church does, is how we engage the world. As she says, it is in having been to the Kingdom in the Liturgy that we know what the world needs — not, emphatically not, knowing what the world needs, we now know how to serve the Liturgy.

I would also caution Mr. Truslow of the lessons learned the hard way by the Roman Catholics in Chicago as they’ve been trying to figure out how to stop losing Latinos in droves: “We keep trying to imitate the Protestants, but it doesn’t work.” Why does it seem like we’re trying to talk ourselves into making same mistakes everybody else has made in the last forty years? Maybe we all need to go back and re-read Laurence Iannaconne’s “Why Strict Churches Are Strong.” (Hint: it isn’t exactly because of “endless review and creative change”.)

If we want to engage the culture, then we need to show the culture more of what Orthodox Christianity is, not only try to carefully show them the parts we think they can handle. We’re told to not hide our lights under bushels; we aren’t told to still try to dim the lights when they aren’t covered so that we don’t blind people. This is certainly food for thought, too.

How about this — there are “evangelism packs” of books like Josh McDowell’s More Than a Carpenter; can’t we do something similar with Metropolitan Kallistos’ The Orthodox Church — say, five-packs that we then just give away randomly? He’s the closest thing to an Orthodox equivalent of C. S. Lewis that we have, after all.

…and then I discover that this group exists. Hmm. Y’know, I remember in the summer of 2004, something of a big deal was made over Bush visiting the Knights of Columbus during his campaign. As I recall, I wondered to myself — do the Orthodox even have an organization like that for presidential candidates to snub? Maybe we do. I think I’m interested in finding out more… but I’m also wary. There’s another, shall we say, “concerned laypeople” organization (which shall remain nameless for a couple of reasons) that I almost joined until I realized that what they were advocating was, for all intents and purposes, congregationalism with bishops being kept around for show.

Okay, it’s after midnight. In pace in idipsum dormiam et requiescam.


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