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Archive for March, 2008



Do I count this as a liquid asset?


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More on the alleged plurality of means by which one may remove flesh from a feline

So, I had a conversation a couple of days ago with one of the people who wrote letters of recommendation for me. This person wasn’t directly involved with the admission process, but had knowledge of what had happened, and was pretty up front with me about it. I wasn’t told anything I hadn’t already figured out, but this person remained encouraging, and had some concrete suggestions about better paths for me.

The bottom line seems to be this — there’s not really a way to make me look like a conventional applicant on paper. (Read this for what I’m talking about.) It’s one thing for faculty members to say, “Well, he doesn’t fit in this particular box, but he’s very capable, he’s a known quantity and has proven himself,” but when it comes down to having to make hard decisions, admissions committees have to look at me and say, “He may be capable and a known quantity, but he doesn’t fit into the same box as everybody else we’re admitting.” Without a liberal arts undergraduate degree, my application goes into a different pile than those who do, and that’s not the pile which makes it to the next round of cuts, regardless of my other qualifications. There was the hope on the part of those who supported me that I would be able to transcend these limitations, but sheer numbers did not allow for that.

As I said, this wasn’t anything I hadn’t already figured out. Two years ago I was told what ducks I needed to get in a row for grad school, but the person giving me this advice also said, quite bluntly, “Even then, if it’s somebody like me reading your application, you’re not going to have a lot of luck.” With a non-liberal arts background, plus the fact that within five seconds it becomes clear that it took me eleven years to finish a four year degree (i.e., I was a dropout), I was told, my letters of recommendation appear to be talking about a totally different person and can’t be seen as reliable. The person I was talking to on Tuesday told me that, unfortunately, all of that may be harsh, but it is not necessarily wrong, particularly when a humanities department is faced with more graduate applications than they’ve ever had before. “The reality is, we’re admitting people who have the option to turn us down to go to Princeton, Yale, Duke, and Columbia,” I was told. There is also the issue that my particular academic interests are generally more specifically addressed at religiously affiliated institutions, not big liberal arts universities. Being a “non-traditional applicant” combined with my interests being, in the long run, not the greatest fit in the world for how things are done here, and the work I’ve done over the last couple of years simply does not level the paper playing field.

So what will? In an ideal world, my interests would have been identified, encouraged, and fostered during my early teens, I suppose, but this isn’t what happened, and in the woeful absence of a Time-Turner, I must find a different path.

The suggestion which has come from a couple of people, including the person with whom I was speaking on Tuesday, is that I might be best served at this point by getting a Masters from an institution where that’s the highest degree they offer. In particular, an M.Th. from a seminary would likely be a great way for me to go. St. Vlad’s was brought up as being probably a great fit; I’ve mentioned that before as a possibility, so we’ll see. I’d have to do the M.A. before the M.Th., so we’re talking about 2-3 years to finish both, but I’d come out on the other end with a substantial piece of research (the M.Th. thesis is 100-200 pages), connections to some good places, presumably some very helpful letters of recommendation, and all of that within the context of concurrent and ongoing Orthodox spiritual formation. (I’m not going to get into the argument right now about whether or not St. Vladimir’s is “truly Orthodox.”) There’s something about that idea which is a little freaky to me — that is, my thesis advisor also potentially being my confessor — but there’s also something refreshing about the idea of being at an institution for a little while which would be the polar opposite of what I’ve been around for the last five years. All factors taken into account, it will likely be a couple of years before I can actively pursue that route, but it’s at least good to know that there are still possibilities for me.

Another concrete piece of advice I was given — and this is the kind of thing I wish I had heard two years ago — is, as alluded to earlier, that people with my interests generally go to religiously-affiliated institutions for their training, particularly Catholic institutions. Notre Dame, Catholic University, Fordham, etc. Not only that, but those are also the institutions where they typically wind up getting jobs. I was advised that this is the network which I need to be figuring out how to cultivate now, and that someplace like St. Vlad’s will do probably do more to make me competitive for PhD programs, and ultimately jobs, at those kinds of schools than anything else I could realistically do right now.

In the end, all is not lost, and nothing will have been wasted. There are, nonetheless, some concrete lessons I have learned over the last few years which I would like to pass on to whomever might find them valuable. I’m looking at having to spend my 30s doing what I should have done in my 20s, and that’s a substantial chunk of life to simply get pushed back ten years — don’t let this happen to you!

If there is anybody reading this, or who ever will read this, who might be considering dropping out of school…

DON’T.

I know the arguments. I made them all, twelve years ago. None of them are insuperable. Dropping out seemed like the only thing I could do at the time for all kinds of reasons, and maybe it was, but I nonetheless am still paying the price for that choice. A break in your transcript before the completion of a degree will always raise red flags for certain kinds of people in certain kinds of roles who are evaluating you for certain reasons — Just. Don’t. Do. It.

If your kid has any kind of a love of learning, reading, writing, in general thinking and synthesizing — This Is Not A Bad Thing. It’s not even an unpractical thing, and it certainly doesn’t have to be a perplexing thing. Cultivate it. Encourage it. Guide it. Provide a structure for it. There are jobs for people like them. They don’t have to be accountants or lawyers to make a living. They can go to grad school, if they do it right they can go to grad school without too much of a mountain of debt, and they can become academics. These are, in fact, “real jobs.” It’s also self-perpetuating to some extent — the more we cultivate this kind of thing in our kids, the more jobs there will be in the long run for people like that.

If you can have your kid learn a “dead language” when they’re thirteen — heck, when they’re six — do it. It’s going to be a lot easier for them then than it will be when they are 29, and it will open up new worlds to them and to you. Besides, the ability to learn another language is itself a discrete ability, and when you learn Latin or Greek you understand better why “practical” languages like French or Spanish are the way they are. You can learn French or Spanish without it, sure, but it’s sort of like learning music by ear vs. reading the notes. You have a more in-depth comprehension of how it’s working on several levels.

If you’re an atheist reading this, then feel free to ignore this paragraph, but help your kid cultivate a real, lasting faith to go with their intellectual curiosity. It’s the only thing that will put it in any kind of meaningful perspective. The alternative ultimately leads to nihilism.

If you’re struggling with any of these kinds of choices, drop me a line. Let me help. richardtenor (AT) gmail.com, richard_barrett (AT) mac.com, or rrbarret (AT) indiana.edu. Learn from my mistakes — it’ll help make them worth it.

Hmmmmmmm.

Anybody want to tell me what’s fascinating about this?

(Hint: it is a combination of a particular word used, and who it is using it.)

(Part of why that strikes me is that literally seconds before coming across it, I had just read some absolutely blistering anti-Catholic polemic by somebody whom I won’t name and to whom I will not link, because I don’t particularly want to give this level of total uncharity additional traffic. At least with the “Orthodox worship skulls” site I linked to a bit ago, there was some humor which could be found in the near self-parody of the content — but there’s no way any of the content of this site could be read in that manner. I’ll just give you a small sample:

I make no secret of my feelings toward the Evil Empire calling itself the Roman Catholic Church or the priestly hierarchy that controls it. […]

Do I hate the Roman Catholic Church? Absolutely and irrevocably. Because it is an evil and satanic entity that strives to hold souls captive to a Pagan emperor and Pagan deities.

Do I hate the shamans who are the Catholic priestly hierarchy? Absolutely and irrevocably, for they are corrupters holding a billion souls in thrall.

Do I hate Catholics? Other than priests and religious? Not at all. To hate individual prisoners of the Whore on the Tiber would demand that I hate my own wife, children and a multitude of other relatives.

Yiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiikes. It makes Jack Chick look as harmless as Jack Kirby.)

His All-Holiness’ book

217qkj0zbl_aa180_.jpg Patriarch Bartholomew’s book, Encountering the Mystery: Understanding Orthodox Christianity Today arrived yesterday. Metropolitan Dumbledore… er, Kallistos provides the Foreword; Dr. Dn. John Chryssavgis contributes a rather lengthy biographical essay. I am through the Foreword and will work my way through Dr. Dn. Chryssavigis’ material this evening. Likely this book will serve as my Lenten reading in capacity, probably in conjunction with Oliver Clément’s Conversations with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, which UPS’ website tells me was delivered today.

(Funny story about the Clément book: I saw it at the St. George bookstore after the Triumph of Orthodoxy Vespers on Sunday. It was $15, and noting a fairly substantial — if not downright questionable — markup on a couple of other items, opted to not get it. Upon getting home, I checked the St. Vlad’s Press website, and found that the book was on sale for $3 — $9 after shipping, but still well worth resisting the impulse purchase.)

The first thing that jumps out at me in the Foreword is liberal use of words to which I try to avoid, like “dialogue.” However, the Patriarch of Constantinople using the word “dialogue” somehow seems more appropriate to me than, well, me using it. I will therefore reserve judgment.patriarch_bartholomew.jpg

The second thing that is crystal clear is that part of the point of this book, even if it isn’t the prophetic witness regarding the situation in Turkey that some would have preferred, is to give Americans a reason to care that the Patriarch exists.

I’ll have more to say as I go on, but for now — I am at the very least respectfully intrigued.

(And yes, I think the same can be said of the Patriarch’s appearance that can be said of Met. Kallistos’. Check how I’ve tagged this post, then click on the tag, if you don’t understand what I mean.)

Dr. Liccione: “My prayer…is to be shown a way out of the box I’m in”

Dr. Liccione at Sacramentum Vitae writes several things which resonate strongly in an essay entitled “Redeeming secularity.” Putting some pieces together with other things he has posted recently, I am tempted to speculate that he has received some news that wasn’t that for which he was hoping, and that perhaps is not dissimilar to the news I received last month (although, one would suppose, regarding faculty placement), leaving him with the same question with which I’m wrestling: what now?

Speculation (a four-syllable euphemism for “guessing”) aside, one way or the other, I can’t help but empathize with the following:

Ever since I made a more-or-less adult commitment of faith, I haven’t wanted in my heart to be a layman at all… The question for me then became: how could I do some sort of “ministry,” my chief and indeed only abiding occupational interest, as a married Catholic man? […] And I have yet to resolve that question. I still don’t want a secular “career” any more than I ever did. I want a vocation focused on the only matters in which I have an abiding interest for their own sake: those having directly and explicitly to do with the truths about God derivable from both natural reason and his own self-revelation. Indeed, I’m such a Catholic nerd that I have a very hard time understanding why most intelligent, orthodox Catholics don’t want the same for themselves. […] [M]y heart does not change; my real interests and aspirations remain as they are, which is what they have always been. I pursue my real interests in my spare time; this blog is a part of that. I look on my unfulfilled aspirations as a sign from God that his work-in-progress known as Mike Liccione needs a lot more work in order to be credible again in something called “ministry.”

I still don’t want a secular “career” any more than I ever did. Isn’t that the truth. My interests, situation, and ecclesiastical alignment are not precisely coterminous with those of  Dr. Liccione, but his tone nonetheless makes this something with which I can unreservedly identify, words which, with minor adjustments for my own situation, I could have written myself.

But, the voices ask, what if I’m just still not “getting it?” […] There is no “neutral zone” for a Christian. For those who stay the course of sanctification, all is holy, all is redeemed. So, the challenge I confront is to encounter the “priesthood of Christ,” and join myself to it, without being able to spend the bulk of my time dealing explicitly with the things that priests and theologians, as such, deal with. I really don’t experience that encounter subjectively, but I acknowledge it happens whenever I offer myself, my actions, and my sufferings to the Lord in complete detachment from everything but him and his commandments of love. Perhaps that’s all there is to becoming his priestlings once we leave the church building with the Body of Christ in our bellies. I suppose there isn’t much alternative anyhow, if I am to be immersed in our world’s secularity, spending the bulk of my time and energy pretty much as most people do.

All well and good — but:

But that’s still not my heart. I still have to force myself to thank him for being put on such a path. Which means I’m not really grateful.

Sigh. Yes, indeed.  And then the kicker:

And what does that do to my own priesthood as a believer? I’d rather not think about that.

No, nor would I. That’s the hard truth, isn’t it?

Of course the solution is simple: “Say yes, joyfully.” Alas, easier said than done.

That’s only so painful because it is so true.

My prayer this Triduum is to be shown a way out of the box I’m in. I can only hope that’s the right prayer.

For you and me both, Dr. Liccione.

“Are we saved by the same forces that sell a Chevrolet?”

Given my previously posted thoughts on this topic, I am extremely appreciative of Fr. Stephen Freeman’s post, “Means and Ends:”

…[I]n our modern world, some denominations (and “non-denominations”) have themselves become a members of the market, recognizing the unbeliever as a consumerof religion, and itself as a purveyor. God, or salvation, becomes the commodity.

I suppose there are some who would say that in a pluralistic country which lacks a national religion, this is inevitable; religion, being entirely a matter of choice, is effectively entirely a matter of subjective opinion — that is, taste —  thereby being forcibly relegated to the marketplace of ideas, and that This is a Good Thing in a Free Society. There are certainly Christians who point to this and say, see? This is why we need to be “relevant.”

I’m not sure I have an answer to the secularist who would make this argument. I nonetheless say to my fellow Christians: we can, and must, do better. (Please note the “we.”) Mars Hill was not, in short, the excuse for Christianity to become a disposable consumer product, which is too often what seems to happen when we make “relevance” our goal. We can, and must, engage the culture, but this should elevate the culture, not bring the faith down.

Wasted opportunities for a good chat over a beer

I’ve suggested before that “dialogue” is too lofty a word for us Joe Schmoes here in the trenches. I don’t really want to have a “dialogue” with people who have ecclesiastical disagreements with me; I’d rather have a conversation over a beer. That seems to me to be more a appropriate aim for us Reg’lar Folks.

My apathy towards “dialogue” notwithstanding, I think when questions get asked and answered publicly about those with whom we disagree, we should at least make efforts to answer the questions honestly, even if that means — gasp —  deferring to those with whom we disagree so that they may define themselves.

What am I talking about? First off, read this. Now, Campus Life’s Ignite Your Faith is a daughter publication of Christianity Today, so I hardly expect it to quote the Catholic Catechism, but I also don’t expect it to take a tone which approaches “Well, Jimmy, the Papists want to put God in a box so they can have an excuse to worship idols and preach works-based salvation, but we’re the real Christians, so we don’t.”  Marshall Shelley, it is to be hoped, would be better than this.

I sent them this response. Nearly five months later, I have yet to receive any response whatsoever. It’s probably better I don’t hold my breath. To be fair, me getting at all worked up over this is probably tantamount (to paraphrase Robin Williams) to coming out of a, um, house of ill repute complaining that you didn’t feel loved. I just find it unfortunate that many will read Mr. Shelley’s answer to this kid’s very honest question and accept it uncritically.

To whom it may concern:

In regards to Marshall Shelley’s answer to the question, “What Are Sacraments?” —

A question such as “What are sacraments?” could and should be seen as an opportunity to honestly examine the differences between various sorts of Protestantism and communions which adhere to an older tradition, such as Roman Catholicism and/or Eastern Orthodoxy, and explore what the relationship between us is. Unfortunately, the answer Mr. Shelley provides does neither of these things, being rather a woefully knee-jerk misrepresentation of sacramental theology that borders on being not much more than an anti-Catholic strawman.

First of all, the word “sacrament” is a perfectly biblical word; it is nothing more than the Latin translation of the Greek word “mysterion”, which simply means “mystery” and appears twenty-two times in the New Testament according to Strong’s. Indeed, “Mystery” is the word still given preference over “Sacrament” for many Orthodox Christians.

Second, the assertion that “[t]he early church believed preaching was the main way of sharing of God’s plan of salvation with others” is somewhat confusing, at least in terms of trying to draw a connection to sacramental practice. There is, to be sure, no question about the importance of preaching even in the extra-biblical textual sources (for example, the Didache says “My child, day and night you should remember him who preaches God’s word to you, and honor him as you would the Lord”, Did. 4:1), but to suggest that this is somehow over and above, or as opposed to, sacramental practice is at odds with both the witness of the New Testament and early church history. To be fair, Mr. Shelley correctly links sacramental practice to liturgical practice (although to say that sacraments are exclusively manifested liturgically is a severe overstatement), but this is not in opposition to preaching. The Book of Acts often places even preaching in this liturgical context, such as in 2:42: “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine, and fellowship, and in breaking of the bread, and in the prayers.” Acts 13:2 is often translated so that the church in Antioch “ministering to the Lord,” but the Greek verb used is leitourgein, “liturgize.” The letters of Ignatius of Antioch also underscore this liturgical context, as does the Apology of Justin Martyr:

“And this food is called among us the Eucharist… For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh. […] And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons.” (First Apology, 66-7)

Third, the clericalism assumed by Mr. Shelley to be held by those who use the word “sacrament” is frankly bizarre. It is true that the priest stands in persona Christi, but insofar as a priest participates in a sacrament he is allowing himself to be used as a vessel of the Holy Spirit, not somehow casting a magic spell which compels the Holy Spirit to action. The liturgical texts employed by Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox make this quite explicit. There is nothing to say that the Holy Spirit cannot work in other ways; “the wind blows where it will,” after all. Nonetheless, as Paul exhorts the Corinthians, “Let all things be done decently and according to order,” and again, the early church writers make it plain that these functions have been in place since the earliest of days, and that they are strictly a matter of function, not a matter of quality or access.

Fourth, it is not entirely true that Protestants believe in “two ordinances” instead of “seven (or however many) sacraments.” This is true of some Protestants; however, Anglicans profess seven sacraments, and Lutherans also use the word “sacrament” (although they profess two).

This still leaves the question, “What is a sacrament?” A sacrament is, plainly, a way in which the Holy Spirit interacts with the created order in a transformative manner. The philosopher theologians of Roman Catholicism such as Thomas Aquinas analyze this in terms of concepts such as matter, substance, accidents, etc. which make the whole notion sound very technical, but it can be understood far more simply. At the Eucharist, the Holy Spirit interacts with the bread, the wine, the celebrant, and the people; as a result, it is not just the bread and wine that are changed, but all participating. At Baptism, the Holy Spirit interacts with the water and, again, the people, transforming those being baptized. Sacraments are, really, nothing short of miracles, and miracles which are considered to be normative. In that sense, then, to limit the number of sacraments to seven is somewhat missing the point; any time the Holy Spirit interacts with the world, it is a sacrament.

In Christ,

Richard Barrett
Bloomington, IN


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