Archive for March, 2009



Fr. Joseph Huneycutt: “The problem wasn’t the Church, Orthodoxy, or Mercy, you see. It was me.”

I have a dear friend who has been in varying degrees of a deep spiritual funk for most of the time I have known him/her. We’ve had a number of long talks about how it manifests, what brings it on, what’s exacerbating it now, etc. On Saturday this person called me, sounding like their soul was about 250lbs. lighter, and when I asked how they were I got the response, “I’m great! How long has it been since you heard me say that?” It seems that perhaps, just perhaps, my friend has found at least a first step out of the morass that doesn’t involve loss of faith.

This friend was very much on my mind when I read this posting from Fr. Joseph Huneycutt:

The following reply was sent, a few years back, to a frustrated Orthodox Christian who had written me with thoughts of leaving the Orthodox Church. I found this while looking through some old files. I post it here for the sake of others who may find themselves in a spiritual funk. Forgive me.

Dear XXX,

First off, please forgive the delay in my reply. I have nothing but excuses, save fear of failing you in my answer.

I was once in a similar state as you now find yourself. I got to the point where, though I found comfort in praying the services and serving as pastor, I hated everything “Orthodox”. A magazine would arrive with a picture of a priest in vestments — a service, baptism, or some such — and I would look at the picture with loathing and cast it aside in anger. It usually found its way to the back of the bathroom toilet. Then I’d have a visceral reaction every time I saw it.

I hated all things that looked and smacked of “Orthodoxy” — all the while trying to lead a small community. It was awful.

I won’t go into the details of how I got to that point, but (forgive me here, please) I remember walking into the church early one morning and cursing myself before all the saints portrayed on the icons. It was a horrible two years.

That said, it was years ago, here I am … still.

Back in 2006, I was hearing confessions at St George, Houston, during one of the Presanctified Liturgies. The church was dark and full, lots of confessions, the choir was singing beautifully. I wept.

It occurred to me that that very moment, when I felt close to God and heaven, would not have been possible if I had not held on during those terrible years. You might not be able to hear this in your current state but, really, it’s all — ALL OF IT — worth it.

During those years of struggle I tried everything — confession, counseling, crying, cussing, prostrations, Jesus Prayer, gossip — everything! What can I say? I’m a poor priest and a great sinner. But, like you, I truly believe that the Orthodox Church is the fullness of Christ in the world. Honestly, in hindsight, I thank God that I was ordained; else, in my weakness, I might surely have left the Church.

Now, years later, things are drastically different. Oh I’m still worthless if you scratch me hard enough. But I look back on those bad years in awe. My life, ministry and outlook are so much — so vastly — different now, through no feat of my own, save hanging in there.

Oh sure, there was God’s mercy, etc, yada, yada, yada. But, spoiled that I am, I expected that. Besides, some things sound trite when you’re in a funk. God is, after all, God; of that I had no doubt. Though unconscious of it, I had plenty of doubts about me.

What is remarkable is that I stayed. And that has made all the difference. The problem wasn’t the Church, Orthodoxy, or Mercy, you see. It was me.

I needed the Church.

I have added you to my poor prayers; I covet yours. (You’re welcome to vent this way if needed.)

With love in Christ,

Fr Joseph

Two weeks down of Lent. We all have a funk ahead of us between now and beholding the empty tomb. Perspective can be everything, sometimes.

St. Tikhon: “The light of the Orthodox Faith has not been lit to shine only for a small circle of people”

With a tip of my hat to The American Orthodox Institute Blog, I give you the close of his last homily to his American flock, on the Sunday of Orthodoxy, 1907:

But it is not enough, brethren, only to celebrate “The Triumph of Orthodoxy.” It is necessary for us personally to promote and contribute to this triumph. And for this we must reverently preserve the Orthodox Faith, standing firm in it in spite of the fact that we live in a non-Orthodox country, and not pleading as an excuse for our apostasy that “it is not the old land here but America, a free country, and therefore it is impossible to follow everything that the Church requires.” As if the word of Christ is only suitable for the old land and not for the entire world! As if the Church of Christ is not “catholic”! As if the Orthodox Faith did not “establish the universe”!

Furthermore, while faithfully preserving the Orthodox Faith, everyone must also take care to spread it among the non-Orthodox. Christ the Savior said that having lit the candle, men do not put it under a bushel but on a candlestick so that it gives light to all (Matt. 5.15). The light of the Orthodox Faith has not been lit to shine only for a small circle of people. No, the Orthodox Church is catholic; she remembers the commandment of her Founder, “Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature and teach all nations” (Mark 16.15; Matt. 28.19).

We must share our spiritual richness, truth, light, and joy with others who do not have these blessings. And this duty does not only lay upon the pastors and the missionaries but on the lay persons as well, since the Church of Christ, according to the wise comparison of the Holy Apostle Paul, is the body, and every member takes part in the life of the body. By means of all sorts of mutually binding bonds which are formed and strengthened through the action of every member according to his capacity, the great Church body receives an increase unto the edifying of itself (cf. Eph. 4.16)

To a particular anonymous “clergyman in this region”

From the comments section on OCANews:

I am so sick and tired of hearing all this non-sense and garbage. The bottom line is that many of these Bishops, namely Bishop Mark, have over-stepped their bounds and began doing practices that threatened the unity of this Archdiocese. I know this for fact as I have personally witnessed this behavior as a clergyman in this region. I happen to agree with the detroit clergy and applaud them for saying what many of us are were already thinking. May God grant Met Philip Many Years!!!

These are strong words indeed. In the interest of taking such accusations seriously, since clearly Bp. MARK’s practices, according to the perspective of this clergyman, threatened the unity of the Diocese of Toledo and the Midwest, to say nothing of the entire Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, I invite the cleric to explain to me, a convert of Danish and English extraction with not a drop of Syrian, Lebanese, or Palestinian blood anywhere in his veins, just what those practices were and why they were divisive or overstepping his bounds.

I will acknowledge my own sin of judgment and pride in saying that my first thought upon reading this is, “Which practices were these? Not allowing bingo? Asking that his churches be the instruments of charity and not the recipients? Insisting that parishes pay their priest according to guideline? Telling parish councils that they were to treat the priest as the person placed in charge by the bishop and not as an employee? Not allowing non-Orthodox — to say nothing of non-Christians — to be communed? Standing firm on priest assignments when the priest hadn’t done anything wrong? Insisting that services be scheduled according to Archdiocesan norms?” I freely admit that as my judgmental, uncompassionate bias, and I ask the forgiveness of all who read this.

So, please, Father, whoever you may be, explain it to me. I have had many wonderful firsthand experiences of Bp. MARK, and when I read words like yours, I just don’t get it. Help me get it, please. Help me understand just what it was that threatened your well-being and our unity that required this treatment of Bp. MARK and his brother bishops.

Seriously — this is an open invitation. E-mail me something I can post, leave a comment, whatever you want to do. Tell your side of the story. It is Lent; let us promote what goodwill and understanding we can during this season.

The door is open.

Asia News: Journey begins toward convening of grand pan-Orthodox synod

Perhaps this could be the topic of my West European Studies Masters thesis. From Asia News:

The invitation letters have gone out for the two preparatory meetings that will be held in June and December. Ten topics of discussion. The ecumenical patriarchate has been trying to hold a synod of Orthodox Churches since 1901.

Istanbul (AsiaNews) – With the sending of letters of invitation to all the heads of the Orthodox Churches for the two preparatory meetings for the grand pan-Orthodox synod, scheduled for June and December of this year, Bartholomew has set in motion the decisions made at the recent pan-Orthodox meeting in October, held in Constantinople, and attended by deceased patriarch of Moscow Alexy as his last act in life.

Bartholomew has stepped up the pace for the convening of the grand synod, which has the objective of responding to all of the problems that have built up over the course of centuries, and continue to plague relations among the Orthodox Churches, with extensive repercussions for the dialogue between Orthodox and Catholics as well. The schism of 1054, with all of its grave consequences for the universal Church, also deprived the Orthodox Church of the necessary impetus and ability to be constantly present in the course of history.

In the recent past, a first initiative for the convening of a pan-Orthodox synod was undertaken by Patriarch Ioakim III in 1901. He wanted to smooth over the tensions among the autocephalous Orthodox Churches, in the conviction that only an Orthodox Church engaged in a constant and constructive inner dialogue could face the challenges of the contemporary world and act with one voice and one heart. This initiative did not succeed, in part because the Orthodox Churches, which had recently emerged from
Ottoman rule, were seeking their identity in an exaggerated identification with the nation, and the full breadth of the Christian message was not instilled in their clergy.

After various mishaps, in 1961 a pan-Orthodox conference was convened in Rhodes, with significant pressure from patriarch Athenagoras, for the purpose of preparing an Orthodox synod. This conference was also followed by numerous obstacles, because as theologian Giorgos Tetsetis observes, the local Churches did not have a clear idea of what they wanted from the Synod.

Now, the letters sent for the two preparatory meetings to be held in June, in Cyprus, and in December, in a place to be determined, present the following topics:

  1. The Orthodox diaspora, where the jurisdiction over the Orthodox flock beyond national borders will be defined. According to the canons now in effect, before the growth in the phenomenon of emigration the faithful outside of their home country belong to the ecumenical patriarchate.
  2. The manner of recognizing the status of autocephalous Church.
  3. The manner of recognizing the status of Church autonomy.
  4. Dypticha, meaning the rules of mutual canonical recognition among the Orthodox Churches.
  5. Establishing a common calendar for feasts. For example, some Churches celebrate the Nativity on December 25, others 10 (sic) days later.
  6. Impediments and canonicity of the sacrament of matrimony.
  7. The question of fasting in the contemporary world.
  8. Relationships with the other Christian confessions.
  9. The ecumenical movement.
  10. The contribution of the Orthodox in affirming the Christian ideals of peace, fraternity, and freedom.

The first four questions were the cause of friction in 1993 and 1999 with the patriarch of Moscow, because of participation in the work of the autonomous Estonian Church, with Moscow does not recognize.

“It is time,” says Fr. Tetsetis, a theologian for the ecumenical patriarchate, “that our Church finally realize that it is doing poorly as a whole. The Church needs an open and sincere dialogue. Because it is only then, with its rich tradition as a compass, that it will be able to emerge from its blind alley and together face its existential problems, which are becoming increasingly severe and complicated. It is only then that the importance of the Ecumenical Patriarch’s initiative can be understood.” According to the journalist Aris Viketos, the letter from Bartholomew is being well received in the Orthodox world.

Well, the misunderstanding about the difference between calendars aside, isn’t that interesting. Oh, to be a lay observer in the planning meetings…

Xenophobia, xenophilia, and watching what everybody else is doing

There’s a C. S. Lewis quote from Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer that Orthodox love to pull out:

What pleased me most about a Greek Orthodox mass I once attended was that there seemeed to be no prescribed behaviour for the congregation. Some stood, some sat, some knelt, some walked; one crawled about the floor like a caterpillar. And the beauty of it was that nobody took the slightest notice of what anyone else was doing. (p. 10)

My instinct is that the reason why this dynamic worked is because except for him and his wife (elsewhere he mentions attending the Divine Liturgy when they were honeymooning in Greece), everybody and their families had been Orthodox as long as anybody could remember, and it was an entirely natural thing to be there and to be doing whatever they were used to doing.

I suggest that we Orthodox Christians in America, cradle and convert alike, have been less successful in reproducing this dynamic, and it seems to me there are a number of reasons for this. For us converts, we’re new to this, everything is totally unfamiliar, and we’re all here because we think Orthodox Christianity is Right and therefore we want to do things the Right Way.

I might also suggest that the presence of pews or rows of seating otherwise in many American churches, contributing to the sense of passive participation as it does (see article by Paul Meyendorff here), also makes us even more afraid to do something different from what the congregation as a whole might be doing.

So, to some extent, we think we have to take notice of everybody else; we’re all sort of nervously and self-consciously glancing sideways at the rest of the congregation, not wanting to stick out like a sore thumb and wanting to Do Thing the Right Way.

Among cradles, I’ve seen definite reactions to what they perceive as “things only done in the Old Country”; I’ve seen ethnic Arabs freak out when fasting gets talked about, or when there’s a conversation about possibly removing chairs from the nave, for example. I’ve also seen a Romanian woman get very nervous and almost confrontational when it seemed like women wearing headscarves was something that might catch on at a particular parish.

I’d say that for both cradle and convert alike, there can be a worry that, if you do something that I don’t, it’s because you think that you’re holier than I am, and if what you do catches on and becomes normative, I’m going to be judged because I don’t. Another nuance could be that there’s something disingenuous-seeming about somebody telling you how non-legalistic and non-clericalist Orthodox Christianity is, just before that same person, say, does three metanias before asking for a priest’s blessing, kissing his hand, and then looking at you expectantly to see if you’re going to do the same thing. (In the interest of clarity, I don’t shake priests’ hands, I kiss them, so this is not a knock against that practice by any means.)

It’s an odd mixture of self-consciousness and pride. Is that uniquely American? Could be — I’m not sure.

There’s a deeper aspect to taking too much notice of what other people are doing, however, and that’s a particular xenophobia, as well as its twin, xenophilia, that can occur with converts. There’s the person who wants to be Orthodox for convictions of faith, but upon encountering anything the slightest bit Greek, Arabic, Russian, or otherwise non-Western, gets extremely uncomfortable and wants to write off all of these things as ethnic custom, “little-t tradition,” that we should jettison as quickly as possible and replace with practices which seem more “American.” There’s also the exact reverse of this person, who will tell you why the Orthodox traditions of <fill in the blank with a country name> are actually the “purest” version of Orthodox practice, and anything else is a deviation.

These are two manifestations of the same overall problem: preoccupation with something which seems exotic, which we could restate, in keeping with our present theme, as preoccupation with what somebody else does.

Realistically, this is going to take a few generations to work out, but I think figuring out how to be Orthodox Americans in a non-self-conscious manner is going to be a necessary step towards unity, and, to get back to what I was saying yesterday, I think having our own saints, our own indigenous models of sanctity, will be one of the major things that helps us do that.

One other thought along these lines — as some have pointed out, there is an irony to a foreign-born hierarch telling American-born priests what is American and what isn’t. Surely, as the natural reaction to this goes, this isn’t 1970 anymore, and people aren’t going to make negative assumptions about somebody with a beard these days.

Here’s where I think the disconnect is — I think Met. PHILIP and company have a very Wall Street-level perspective of what “being American” is. I think the question they’re asking is, “What do wealthy, powerful Americans do, how do they dress, how do they act?” This is not totally unexpected, given that Met. PHILIP has made it clear that those are the very people he wants to be able to influence. Those are, nonetheless, exactly the people who don’t care about Orthodox Christianity, simply because they are least likely to have any reason to care. What we do will be far more effective in the long run, I am convinced, if we ask ourselves what the urban poor, the lower class, and the rural would do and to what they can relate. If you’re going to build a big church in a bad part of town, throw your doors open to your neighbors — don’t do everything you can to keep them out. Minister to the masses, and the classes will follow. Minister to the classes, and the masses aren’t going to care. Isn’t that what Christ told us to do in the first place?

Sunday of Orthodoxy qua Orthodoxy in America

This last Sunday, being the first Sunday in Great Lent, was the so-called “Sunday of Orthodoxy,” commemorating the victory of iconodules over iconoclasm at the Seventh Ecumenical Council (“Nicea II — The Wrath of Arius”). In years past, there has been a Sunday evening Vespers in Indianapolis, participated in by all the area clergy and their parishes. This year, instead of Vespers, a morning Divine Liturgy was planned at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church, who had just started worshiping in their new building in December.

All Saints’ participation was determined rather late in the game; being an hour and twenty minutes south, and with some of our parishioners commuting from as much as an hour away even further south, it took some figuring out. Ultimately our deacon stayed behind and served a Typika for those who weren’t going to Indianapolis, allowing Fr. Peter to concelebrate and a group of us from All Saints to attend.

The morning was stunning in several respects. For the occasion, a new icon was commissioned of All Saints of North America, which now includes Indiana-born St. Barnabas. The original was put out for us to venerate, and we were all given prints of it as well. I’ve jokingly called Holy Trinity’s new building the satellite campus of Hagia Sophia, but it really is frickin’ huge. As the pictures make clear, I think we had close to a thousand people in there, and people were still having to gather in the narthex. We had everybody, too (among the clergy as well as the people); Serbians, Greeks, Arabs, Bulgarians, Russians, Ukrainians, Romanians, American converts, and even a handful of Copts, Ethiopians, Eritreans and Indians. (Okay, I’m not sure we had any Finns or Estonians.) The communion of the faithful easily took half an hour, and that was with six chalices, I believe. Add another twenty minutes or so for the communion of the clergy.

Some general observations: Holy Trinity is an example of a church which I think would be too big for me to be comfortable in it as my home parish. It is a beautiful building, and it will only get more beautiful as they fresco it, marble the floors, put up the iconostasis, etc., but I’d rather see the design principles applied to a church maybe a quarter of the size. (This begs the question of why Holy Trinity, which I believe has something like 600 people, doesn’t plant some churches, but never mind that now.) I’ve heard it suggested that past 250 souls or so, you really overtax a priest’s ability to minister; I’ll throw out another possible metric, which is that you don’t want the building to be any larger than that in which the cantor can sing comfortably and be understood and heard without needing a microphone. (This assumes that churches are being built with attention to acoustics, which isn’t even necessarily the case with Holy Trinity, unfortunately — there were one or two odd decisions made on that front.) That said, I think it’s wonderful that a traditional-looking Byzantine temple now exists which is large enough to hold everybody in the metro area. I somewhat wonder if perhaps, with Detroit being, well, Detroit, there might not be talk behind the scenes of moving Metropolitan Nicholas’ throne to Indianapolis, hence the building being a size more appropriate to a cathedral than a parish church.

I wound up joining the choir; Max Murphy, my counterpart at Ss. Constantine and Elena, conducts the choir for these big combined services and I sing for him when I am able. The music was, more or less, OCA music with some simplified Byzantine things reworked for a large ensemble. My trouble is that the Orthodox musical heritage is so much richer than the utility music which tends to dominate services like this, but the reason why it dominates services like this is because it is easily scalable to huge ensembles (as well as makes congregational singing reasonably easy). Mark Bailey once told me that Kievan common chant is great because you can get 50 people singing the front page of the New York Times to it in fifteen minutes; on the other hand, he freely admitted, the downside of Kievan common chant is that you can get 50 people singing the front page of the New York Times to it in fifteen minutes. There wasn’t an overabundance of Kievan common chant at this service, but the principle was still largely the same. At any rate, it was, mostly, the music that virtually everybody in the Indianapolis area sings except Holy Trinity (and All Saints, for that matter), so it was familiar to Max, the majority of the choir, and a good chunk of the congregation.

There were some interesting moments during the procession of the icons; Fr. Taso (the pastor of Holy Trinity) originally asked the congregation to all sing the litany responses in their own languages, in the spirit of our coming together as a symbol of our unity as Orthodox Christians. This didn’t quite work the way he intended, so ultimately he led us in the Tone 4 threefold English “Lord, have mercy” common to Greek parishes (and Antiochian parishes during Holy Week if one is following Kazan). That worked just fine (although it was different from the responses the choir prepared — Max gave up when he realized that Fr. Taso was going off-script).

One always wonders what happens behind the scenes when that many clergy gather on another priest’s turf, particularly when the event functions something of a “coming out party” for said turf, but Fr. Peter made a point of bringing up that very question last night after the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts. “It was very peaceful, as surprising as that sounds,” he said. “Fr. Taso called us all together and said, ‘Brothers, what do you want to do?’ To have the protos do something like that, particularly at a Greek church, is unheard of.” (When there were some inevitable uncomfortable chuckles, he said, “That’s not a swipe against the Greeks — they’d tell you the same thing!”)

Given events of the last few weeks, there have been conversations about what Orthodox unity in America means, if it can even happen at all now, if we’re looking a big step backwards, what’s the path from here, etc. etc. etc. I think that to some extent these nervous questions are a bit misguided; it’s not exactly like the AOCNA and OCA were preparing to announce an administrative merger next week and the news out of Damascus derailed it at the last second. However, I think we can look at events like this Sunday of Orthodoxy Divine Liturgy and make some informed guesses about what the practical side of jurisdictional unity might look like.

  • Somebody’s going to have to be the protos, as it were, and it’s probably going to be whoever has the resources to be so effectively, including the space to be a meeting ground for everybody. This was true in 1975 when Met. PHILIP and Met. MICHAEL unified the Antiochian churches in this country, and Met. MICHAEL stepped down; it will still be true going forward.
  • Along similar lines, there will be a group who is numerically dominant. There were ten or so parishes represented at Holy Trinity this last Sunday, and at least half of the congregation was Holy Trinity’s own people.
  • It will be up to the group who is numerically dominant and who functions as the “protos” to be a loving and welcoming brother in Christ. It will be up to the others to be receptive to that, and to return it in-kind.
  • It might be a bit of a cacophony for awhile until people figure things out. The job of the dominant group will be to help guide everybody into unity, and to do so in love.

Looking at these points, I’d argue this wouldn’t be a bad model for how things should be now, even, with or without unity on paper.

One other thought for the moment. That icon of All Saints of North America? A couple of them are American born; some of them were active in America. However, with the exception of St. Peter the Aleut (who was martyred young), none of those saints were both born here and active here. Let me suggest that before we have an indigenous church, we’re going to need indigenous saints. Some might argue that we should start with Fr. Seraphim Rose (which reminds me — I’m reading The Soul After Death right now); while recognizing he’s a controversial figure, I don’t really think that it’s in question that he is a native-born model of sanctity. I personally think he is a saint, and I believe he interceded to heal my mother from a heart issue a few years back, but I also think it will take time for the amen of American faithful to be uttered. I know a priest, and perhaps a bishop or two, who I believe might be glorified after their respective reposes. I have heard some suggest Lynette Hoppe; certainly this book seems designed to make that case. There are others I can think of, too.

My point is, until there are models of holiness who have been raised up out of “our people,” as it were, I’m not sure it makes any sense to be so neurotic and anxious about our earthly organization. Once we start producing saints, administrative questions will take care of themselves. The importance of saints who are local and recent, I have come to realize, is that they shine forth the light of Christ in a way that is immediate. What is more powerful, reading a story about somebody who supposedly did something fifteen hundred years ago, or hearing first-hand accounts of people who did those very things within the last few years? We run a great risk by holding ourselves at a distance from saints — they are less convicting that way, I suppose, meaning they’re more comfortable to be around, but they are also less compelling and convincing.

In other words — if we want a solution to the jurisdictional problem in this country, maybe what we need to do is, before we write a letter or join a lay activist organization or start a blog (all potentially worthy things to do, don’t get me wrong), we need to go out and be saints.

We will see.

A reasonable question about Watchmen

An e-mail from a reader which asks an entirely fair question, and one which I wondered if I wouldn’t get from somebody:

Are you sure you want to recommend (and so enthusiastically!) … Watchmen?  It’s one thing to set such evil images before your own eyes, but must you also encourage others to do the same?  (See Psalm 101:3).  Do you really want to reward the makers of this film with your money?

I respect this question, and I do not take its points lightly. What I can say is that if I thought the film was intended to be, or best understood as, a cheap piece of trashy violence, I would neither see it nor recommend it. I don’t waste a second of my time with junk like the Saw films or Friday the 13th or Hostel or things like this. Nor does a sheen of “art” excuse everything; The English Patient is a beautifully done piece of garbage, in my opinion, which ultimately says that committing adultery is worth dying for, if it means you’re following your heart.

I’ll note, again, that I spent some time tonight listening to my priest discuss enthusiastically the Orthodox Christian merits of The Matrix, a movie which contains much violence and disturbing imagery. The Passion of the Christ is, of course, notorious for its level of gore, which I would argue exceeds that of Watchmen. The Mission, one of the most profoundly Christian movies I’ve ever seen, contains extensive nudity and quite a bit of violence interspersed with religious imagery, particularly at the end. (Don’t tell me that the nudity, being non-sexual, makes it okay; that didn’t keep parents from having their kids excused from watching it when my English teacher showed it in class my senior year of high school.)

Let’s not even talk about Shakespeare and Hamlet’s “country matters.” Or most opera.

This begs the question — what is the merit of Watchmen? I would argue that it is, at its core, a movie which suggests that whether or not God exists, we’re best off assuming He does and that He’s watching rather than deciding He doesn’t and putting ourselves in His place. This is as yet, shall we say, under-theorized, but this is part of why I say, go see it, and then we’ll talk.

At one point, a Jewish character in the movie, who has invented a superhero identity for himself, asks another superhero whose identity has heavily American patriotic overtones and who is breaking up a riot too violently for the other’s taste, “Whatever happened to the American dream?” and the patriotic hero replies, “It came true. You’re looking at him.” Now, when you realize that the way a couple of Jewish kids from Cleveland tried to actualize the American dream for themselves by inventing the first widely-known superhero who himself had American patriotic overtones (I am referring to neither a bird nor a plane), you understand what this scene is actually about. If Superman were to actually exist in real life, and be American (something explicitly said in the film), it would be monstrous; it would be an establishment of other gods in the place of the True God; it would be chiliasm. It would lead to the destruction of everything we claim to hold dear as Americans and as Christians.

All of this aside, however, one must follow their own conscience, and I don’t encourage anybody to seek out things which would make them stumble or to go against their better judgment. Do not go see it if that would be the case.

I’ll also point out that the movie is rated R, it is rated R for good reason, and that needs to be respected — in other words, it is not a movie to which I advise anybody to bring their kids. As with the source material, the violence and sexual material is used to explore, and comment upon, both the themes of the story as well as the medium through which the story is being told. I will qualify here that I don’t have a lot of perspective on how old somebody would need to be to be able to deal with this; as I said earlier, my first encounter with the source material was at age 13 or thereabouts. Then again, my first book was Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, which I read at the age of 4.

Varii (go see Watchmen) and (go see Watchmen) sundries (go see Watchmen)

A “Byzantine” monastery from the late 5th/early 6th century has been found about five miles west of Jerusalem, reports CNN:

During the first few weeks, the team exposed the church’s narthex, the broad entrance at the front of the church, whose floor is covered with colorful mosaics in geometric patterns, he said.

“Unfortunately, at the conclusion of the excavation this mosaic was defaced and almost completely destroyed by unknown vandals,” Mor [the leader of the excavation] said.

Ouch. On the other hand, I smile at this detail (particularly since I just finished my first-ever attempt at homebrewing):

The excavators also partly exposed a complex wine press, said Mor. Grapes grow well in the region, and it’s likely the monks sold the wine.

And it’s in my period and region, too. Hmmmmmmmmm.

The screenwriter of Watchmen urges people who liked it to see it again, preferably this Friday or Saturday (a tip of the hat to WatchmenComicMovie.com):

This is a movie made by fans, for fans. Hundreds of people put in years of their lives to make this movie happen, and every one of them was insanely committed to retaining the integrity of this amazing, epic tale. This is a rare success story, bordering on the impossible, and every studio in town is watching to see if it will work. Hell, most of them own a piece of the movie.

So look, this is a note to the fanboys and fangirls. The true believers. Dedicated for life.

If the film made you think. Or argue with your friends. If it inspired a debate about the nature of man, or vigilante justice, or the horror of Nixon abolishing term limits. If you laughed at Bowie hanging with Adrian at Studio 54, or the Silhouette kissing that nurse.

Please go see the movie again next weekend.

You have to understand, everyone is watching to see how the film will do in its second week. If you care about movies that have a brain, or balls, (and this film’s got both, literally), or true adaptations — And if you’re thinking of seeing it again anyway, please go back this weekend, Friday or Saturday night. Demonstrate the power of the fans, because it’ll help let the people who pay for these movies know what we’d like to see. Because if it drops off the radar after the first weekend, they will never allow a film like this to be made again.

Fine by me — er, seeing it again, that is, not the other proposition. Who wants to see it with me on Saturday sometime?

I saw Watchmen in IMAX last Friday. It is worthy of its own post, and that might happen after I see it a second time, but I will say for the moment that it is a challenging, adult, in-your-face, no-holds-barred piece of art which is worth seeing and to which it is worth reacting. Yes, it is violent and the violence makes you giggle in a way which makes you very uncomfortable with yourself after the fact. Yes, there is a bizarre use of Leonard Cohen’s original recording of “Hallelujah” (which, I must say, is very jarring listening to begin with when you’re used to the — dare I say it? — superior Jeff Buckley version). Yes, I read the book — I read it for the first time probably twenty years ago and have read it any number of times since then, including reading it aloud to my wife. I’ve read much of what’s been published about Watchmen the book and have been following its development as a film since way back in the day when Comics Scene had a half-page interview with Sam Hamm about his screenplay and about how Terry Gilliam would direct it. Hamm, as I recall, speculated about perhaps Michael York as Adrian Veidt and Robert DeNiro as Edward Blake. Might have been interesting.

Anyway, go see it. I’ll go see it with you. Blade Runner shouldn’t have taken as long as it did to be recognized, and I’d hate to see a similar fate befall Watchmen. It’s a big-budget Hollywood art movie, much like The Dark Knight was, but unlike TDK this doesn’t have much in the way of presold factors that allow people to be fooled into thinking it’s just an action movie. It’s not perfect, but that’s okay. Just go see it, and then we’ll talk.

After the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts tonight, Fr. Peter was talking about how Orthodox Christianity permeates the first film of The Matrix trilogy. “It’s all about the Fathers,” he said. “It’s an Orthodox movie through and through.”

“If that’s the case,” I replied, “it must be advocating specifically the Western Rite.”

“Why is that?” Fr. Peter asked, tilting his head at me with a quizzical expression (which is not uncommon).

Without missing a beat I looked him right in the eyes and said, “There is no spoon.”

I will be going to Confession this weekend, I imagine. I don’t look forward to the penance.

Philoponoi

There’s a new project with which I’m helping. It’s still very much not quite together, but bookmark it and I’ll keep you posted as more happens over there. It’s called Philoponoi.

Nice ways to spend Valentine’s Day or, things I’ll probably only ever be able to pull of once, part VII

Monday was our last day in England. We had an early flight out of Heathrow on Tuesday, so we had to make the day count as much as possible.

First order of business was food and real coffee. (Did I say that I don’t understand this Nescafé nonsense?) Megan wanted to try a full English breakfast, so off we went. Several restaurants within a few blocks of our hotel advertised a full English breakfast, but upon closer inspection of menus all were missing a vital ingredient — that being, of course, black pudding. In fact, black pudding seemed to be nowhere to be found anywhere, with it being replaced wholesale by tomatoes. That being the case, we finally settled on a café in Leicester Square called Fiori Corner. It was good food despite a lack of blood sausage, and I can recommend it, but do be aware that they are cash only, and they will charge for coffee refills.

Following breakfast, we headed for the British Museum. Let me tell you, if you’ve never seen it before, the British Museum is huge — so huge that if you don’t know what you’re looking for, you might very well assume that what you’re looking at isn’t the British Museum, because no museum would ever be that big. (By the way, the British Museum is right across from a thoroughfare called Coptic Street, and about the history of which I would be fascinated to learn more.) Oh, and by the way, while the entrance is free, everything else is not. You’ll pay, I think, £6 or so for a reasonably basic guidebook and map, and more depending on how detailed and complete you want it.

Hey -- eyes up here, pal.

Hey -- eyes up here, pal.

The British Museum is also so big that there’s just no way you’re going to see everything in a day, or even in a week, maybe. You really have to pick a specific area of interest and spend time there. We decided on Anglo-Saxon England and Medieval Europe, while quickly walking through some other areas on our way to find the Rosetta Stone. Among other things, we saw the Sutton Hoo exhibit, which while having a rather high percentage of replicas and reconstructions is still fascinating — particularly since I took a class a few years ago where the professor had worked on the site in her grad school days and incorporate the material into her lectures.

Following the British Museum, we went to the Royal Academy of Arts for their Byzantium exhibit with a stop at a place called Rendezvous in Leicester Square for gelato. It was good and hit the spot, but it was definitely expensive. I’ll also point out that the sign they had posted to let people know they can’t sleep in doorways is a bit odd. It looks like the caption should be, “No sensual reclining in doorways.”

From Leicester Square, it’s maybe a ten minute walk tops to RAA; it looks a lot farther on the map than it actually is. Piccadilly Circus, by the way, is somewhat Blade Runner-esque; if I had been there at night it would have seemed even moreso.

RAA, unlike the British Museum, is not free; bring a student ID if you have one — it’ll save you a few pounds on the entrance fee. You also pay for a specific exhibit, not general admission to the museum. Also, unlike the British Museum, there is no photography allowed.

The Byzantium exhibit is stunning; the examples of iconography are really breathtaking  and leave you wanting to venerate them, even though there are ropes that quite handily keep you from doing so. There was also a 13th-century Syriac Gospel lectionary on display; that was pretty darn cool. Something that rankled a bit was the caption on the wall about church life that talked about how the iconostasis was to keep the unholy masses from even being able to see the altar and how the chanting was done by all-male voices, words that seemed specifically chosen to play up how backwards these Byzantines with their alien form of Christianity were, but I suppose the real question is, what should I have expected?

A humorous moment was at an icon depicting St. Thomas with the Risen Christ; while looking at it, I heard a woman’s voice say, “There’s Thomas, doubting away.” I glanced at the person who said this, and it was a woman who looked to be of Indian descent, prompting me to think, “Hey, he’s your patron saint, lady.”

One of the big takeaways for me from the Byzantium exhibit was how Orthodox Christianity didn’t engage Byzantine culture; it was the culture, in a way that I don’t know Christianity can ever be again, anywhere. I’m not sure what that means in the long run; that may be a blog post for another time.

A leisurely walk from RAA to Westminster Cathedral for Sung Mass took us through Green Park and past Buckingham Palace. We bought some tea and some other gifts from one of the many Buckingham Palace gift shops; Megan hoped to find a tea cozy, but those turned out to be as hard to find as black pudding, for some reason. Finally we had coffee at the Costa across the street from the Cathedral, and then it was time for Mass.

The boys, alas, were not in residence, and neither was Martin Baker, so it was just the lay clerks serving as the choir. Nonetheless, it was quite beautiful, as beautiful as I’ve ever seen a Mass in the Ordinary Form. Very much worthwhile.

We walked back to the hotel afterwards, with me pausing to be amused by a sign from the Considerate Builders Scheme, and started packing things up. We decided to go to the Sherlock Holmes Pub and Restaurant for dinner; please let me caution you against making the same mistake. It is a tourist trap with a capital T, capital TR. The food is expensive and not good enough to merit the price (although now I know what “Toad in the Hole” is, and it would be curious to try it again someplace better), and overall it is just not worth it at all.

The next morning, breakfast was at one of the Starbucks locations in Heathrow; seemed like it was time to start re-acclimating to the American world. At long last, around 10:30pm, reluctant to wake from the dream, we stumbled across the threshhold of our little house in Bloomington, with our once-in-a-lifetime long Valentine’s Day weekend adventure completed, and the real world now calling us back.

Having the story to tell, and the memories we have of there with each other, is worth it.

Pictures can be found here.


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