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Posts Tagged 'C. S. Lewis'

(hack) Thanksgiving leftovers (koff)

It’s the first day of December. How the heck did that happen?

On the way out to New Mexico last week, I sat between a married couple who were both sick and kept coughing across me. It was Southwest Airlines, so seating was first come first serve, and they made it clear they would rather have me in the crossfire than give up either an aisle or a window seat. It must have been clear how this came across, because as we were getting off the plane, the wife said to me, “Don’t worry, you won’t catch anything from us — we’ve had this for the last four weeks.”

My stepfather was sick when I got to New Mexico. Flesh of My Flesh was sick on Thanksgiving day. My mom was getting sick over the weekend as we were preparing to leave.

So, perhaps it was inevitable, but Sunday evening I started developing a sore throat on the flight home, yesterday it was getting worse, and today I’m staying home trying to keep from getting worse or giving it to lots of people. I hate to be “that guy” who suspiciously gets sick immediately following a break, but here we are.

As I drink my gallon of Throat Coat tea, there are a few things upon which to muse:

  • My review copy of Cappella Romana’s recording of the Michaelides Divine Liturgy arrived in my absence, as did the Ensemble Organum disc I mentioned earlier. A full review will come shortly; for the moment, I will say only that both are worth your time and represent, in an odd way, flip sides of the same coin.
  • If you do iTunes, Lycourgos Angelopoulos’ 1993 album of Byzantine hymnody for Christmas has been rereleased in that format. It has been out of print for years as an actual disc, although there seem to be some used copies on Amazon. (Note that the iTunes release has a slightly different title: The Glory of Byzantium: Christmas Hymns.)
  • Rod Dreher is leaving the Dallas Morning News to become director of publications for the John Templeton Foundation. Close to four years ago, I started hearing various grumpy old men murmuring about “crunchy cons”. My godson Lucas at some point started reading the book and recommended I read it. It resonated quite a bit with me as somebody who looks more to Russell Kirk than Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin as a model of what conservatism should look like, and the point of the book seemed to me to be to ask how conservatives might, y’know, actually conserve something other than money or power or status. I gave copies of it to a lot of people, and I’m reasonably sure I know everybody in Bloomington who has read it (I’ll let you decide if I’m joking). I’ll fess up that, while a lot of Dreher’s critics had no patience for how he discussed food, I really appreciated what he had to say about a sacramental approach to it, and even if Michael Pollan isn’t using the word “sacramental”, his work and Dreher’s demonstrate that it can be a topic where liberals and conservatives can make common cause (and of course, Dreher interviewed Pollan for The American Conservative last year). Since the book came out, it has seemed as though he was searching unsuccessfully for a way to follow up what should have served as a strong statement of purpose; what he touted as a “sensibility” never quite materialized as a movement, exactly, eventually Crunchy Cons went out of print, and the hinted-at sequel about “the Benedict Option” never materialized, presumably because (as he kept saying in his blog) his newspaper job had become an exercise in self-preservation. A lot of water has flowed under the bridge in the last four years; Dreher converted to Orthodox Christianity, and right now conservatism seems to be floundering on the very cultural essentials the importance of which he was trying to stress, consequently lurching even more towards negativity and hostility. My hope is that a break from political commentary will allow Dreher to follow up on the issues discussed in Crunchy Cons from a more purely cultural perspective, because I think that’s where his heart has wanted to go with it anyway.
  • There was an interesting article in the New York Times this last Sunday about the traditional Latin Mass. Even more interesting has been the discussion of it in places like The New Liturgical Movement and Commonweal. I’m really not sure what a “liturgist” is — a liturgical scholar? a liturgical composer? a person who interprets rubrics? — but what I find striking is how for many modern Catholics, it seems like the rupture from tradition is in fact a selling point. I was in a large, old stone Catholic church once where they were doing a lot of work to restore the interior. The high altar was still in place, and I asked somebody if it ever got used; the person I asked looked highly offended that I would even dare to mention the high altar’s existence, and said, “No, Vatican II turned the altars around and returned the focus of the Mass to the people,” and made it clear that was the end of the conversation. Sometimes it seems like the majority of Westerners truly and actively yearn for their worship to be sentimental, banal, and tacky. At any rate, I don’t have a dog in this fight (except insofar as I strongly disagree with certain parties who think Orthodoxy needs its own Vatican II), but it seems to me that the traditionalist and modernist narratives are irreconcilable, as the comments on Wolfe’s article indicate. What I will say is that the invocation by a commenter at Commonweal of C. S. Lewis (“The modern habit of doing ceremonial things unceremoniously is no proof of humility; rather it proves the offender’s inability to forget himself in the rite, and his readiness to spoil for every one else the proper pleasure of ritual”) seems quite apt, and the apparent need, not just for the 1970 Missal to be embraced but for anything that ever came before it to be wiped from the face of the earth, is very telling — at least to me. At the risk of elevating aesthetics over all other concerns, I’ll point out that the Mass of St. Gregory inspired people like Josquin and Palestrina; the kinds of composers the Novus Ordo appears to have inspired are, shall we say, not even close.

Okay. I need more tea.

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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?

Yesterday, tomorrow, and beyond (with a little bit about today)

Local coffeehouse The Pourhouse Cafe is a ministry of Sherwood Oaks Christian Church, one of the bigger (if not the biggest) evangelical megachurches in Bloomington. They don’t have “owners, but donors,” it’s staffed by volunteers, it’s part of their college ministry, and all of the profits go to charities in Third World countries. I’ll also note that what it cost to get it up and running is more than All Saints’ entire annual budget, which gives you an idea a) of how big and how rich Sherwood Oaks is, b) the converse truth with respect to All Saints, and c) why All Saints is not in the coffeehouse ministry business (although it’s something Fr. Peter has said he’d like to get into eventually).

Anyway, they have live music every so often, and last night my friend Lacey Brown was playing (with husband Phil Woodward on guitar and all-around personification of awesomeness John Berry on drums), so I dropped in. I also got to hear Brooks Ritter (who reminded me a lot of Glen Hansard) and Jamie Barnes (maybe somebody can tell me — any relation to Paul Barnes? They sure look alike). I enjoyed the music and the musicians a lot, and while I was very much aware that this wasn’t exactly my scene (for reasons of age, at least — it scares me that that at not-quite-32, there’s already at least a narrow generation gap between me and people in their 20s), I was also scratching my head thinking, “How do we get some Orthodox Christian musicians/musicans who are Orthodox Christians exposed in this venue?”

Well, to some extent, it’s already happened; The SmallTown Heroes played here a couple of weeks ago. Still, I kinda wonder — what if, say, a men’s sextet did a set of Byzantine chant in English? No context, no preparation, just did it? What would the pomo crowd get out of something like that? Would it just turn them off? Would they connect with it, instinctively sensing something genuine, and want to know more? Maybe it’s worth a try… maybe not.

What does seem to be worth a try is NaNoWriMo, which starts tomorrow. I can easily write 50,000 words in a month; I’m pretty sure I’ve done at least that some months with this blog (hard to say for certain, since WordPress.com blogs don’t provide you with a way of checking), so it will be just a matter of redirecting some of the effort. As a result, there may be light blogging in the coming month, but I’ve got something I’ve been picking at in one form or another for four years, and it’d be really nice to actually finish a draft of something. This little story of Matthias and Isaac is really kind of peripheral to that of Petros’, and its Petros’ story I started out telling (back when I was still calling him Peter Lewis), but this way I can write something a bit more bite-sized, something that serves as a “test reel,” if you like, or “proof of concept,” and go back later if it turns out anybody cares. It’s somewhat as if C. S. Lewis first wrote a novella within the timeframe of Prince Caspian, about a side story happening to Reepicheep in which Caspian and the Pevensies were sort of side characters who were mostly there as background color. (Not that anything I’m doing will be anything remotely near to the Narnia books in terms of quality; I’m just using that to try to explain something without explaining much of anything.)

Anway, in fits and starts over the last several months, I’ve spat out about 5,000 words already, and I saw guidelines that said while it’s “discouraged” to use NaNoWriMo to finish something you’ve already started, as long as you write at least 50,000 words, it’s fair game. I don’t know that this story is 55,000 words long, but I’ll find out. I need to just make myself do it and finish a draft, see how it holds together. So, November could be interesting.

Finally — I’d just like to note that as of today, October represented, in terms of total traffic for the month, a spike of 296% from the previous month and 244% from my previous best month. So, now that I have five regular readers, I hope y’all stick around!

Repost: An Interesting Point of Convergence

This is an old post from the .Mac days (14 February 2007 to be precise). A comment on this post over at the Ochlophobist’s blog reminded me of it (and seems to suggest that Fr. Alexander did, in fact, express some specific thoughts regarding Fr. Seraphim), and it seemed appropriate to put here. Enjoy.

I’m reading Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s Great Lent: Journey to Pascha as my Lenten discipline. I was struck by the following passage:

…Christian love is sometimes the opposite of ‘social activism’ with which one so often identifies Christianity today. To a ‘social activist’ the object of love is not ‘person’ but man, an abstract unit of a not less abstract ‘humanity.’ But for Christianity, man is ‘lovable’ because he isperson. There person is reduced to man; here man is seen only as person. The ‘social activist’ has no interest for the personal, and easily sacrifices it to the ‘common interest.’ Christianity may seem to be, and in some ways actually is, rather sceptical about that abstract ‘humanity,’ but it commits a mortal sin against itself each time it gives up its concern and love for the person. Social activism is always ‘futuristic’ in its approach; it always acts in the name of justice, order, happiness to come, to be achieved. Christianity cares little about that problematic future but puts the whole emphasis on the now–the only decisive time for love. The two attitudes are not mutually exclusive, but they must not be confused. Christians, to be sure, have responsibilities toward ‘this world’ and they must fulfill them. This is the area of ‘social activism’ which belongs entirely to ‘this world.’ Christian love, however, aims beyond ‘this world.’ It is itself a ray, a manifestation of the Kingdom of God; it transcends and overcomes all limitations, all ‘conditions’ of this world because its motivation as well as its goals and consummation is in God. And we know that even in this world, which ‘lies in evil,’ the only lasting and transforming victories are those of love. To remind man of this personal love and vocation, to fill the sinful world with this love–this is the true mission of the Church. (Fr. Alexander Schmemann, Great Lent, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 25-6)

Compare this to the oft-quoted passage from C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, III.10:

Hope is one of the Theological virtues. This means that a continual looking forward to the eternal world is not (as some modern people think) a form of escapism or wishful thinking, but one of the things a Christian is meant to do. It does not mean that we are to leave the present world as it is. If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next. The Apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English Evangelicals who abolished the Slave Trade, all left their mark on Earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this.Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither. It seems a strange rule, but something like it can be seen at work in other matters. Health is a great blessing, but the moment you make health one of your main, direct objects you start becoming a crank and imagining there is something wrong with you. You are only likely to get health provided you want other things more–food, games, work, fun, open air. In the same way, we shall never save civilisation as long as civilisation is our main object. We must learn to want something else even more.

These are clearly parallel statements, and I’d suggest they ultimately reflect the heavenly economy discussed in Mark 8:35: “For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it.” Additionally, I’m not aware of Fr. Alexander having ever expressed any specific thoughts about Lewis (which isn’t saying very much, to be sure), but I at least wonder about the possibility of Lewis having directly influenced the Great Lent passage. Also, think about the literal meaning of the Greek word for sin, άμαρτία, “missing the mark.” According to both of these passages, “aiming for earth” will always result in a “missing of the mark.” To avoid sin, to hit the mark, we must “aim for heaven,” for something “beyond this world.”

What is also interesting about both of these passages to me is their unexpected resonance with the views of Fr. Seraphim Rose on what he identified as a modern manifestation of the heresy of chiliasm. Specifically, this term referred to the condemned belief that Christ will reign on earth for a thousand years before the end of the world, but Fr. Seraphim also used it to refer generally to a belief in the possibility of perfecting this world. (For a thorough treatment of Fr. Seraphim’s views on this point, see Hieromank Damascene’s Father Seraphim Rose: His Life and Works, St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood Press, 242ff.)

Consider the following from Fr. Seraphim’s Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future (St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood Press):

The careful observer of the contemporary religious scene…cannot fail to notice a very decided air of chiliastic expectation. […] Thus, many traditionalist Roman Catholics believe in the coming of a chiliastic ‘Age of Mary’ before the end of the world, and this is only one variant on the more widespread Latin error of trying to ‘sanctify the world,’ or, as Archbishop Thomas Connolly of Seattle expressed it… ‘transforming the modern world into the Kingdom of God in preparation for His return.’ Protestant evangelists such as Bill Graham, in their mistaken private interpretation of the Apocalypse (Revelation), await the ‘millennium’ when ‘Christ’ will reign on earth. (177)

He continues:

The life of self-centeredness and self-satisfaction lived by most of today’s ‘Christians’ is so all-pervading that it effectively seals them off from any understanding at all of spiritual life; and when such people do undertake ‘spiritual life,’ it is only as another form of self-satisfaction. This can be seen quite clearly in [a] totally false religious ideal… [which promises] an experience of ‘contentment’ and ‘peace.’ But this is not the Christian ideal at all, which if anything may be summed up as a fierce battle and struggle. The ‘contentment’ and ‘peace’ described in these contemporary ‘spiritual’ movements are quite manifestly the product of spiritual deception, of spiritual self-satisfaction–which is the absolute death of the God-oriented spiritual life… Christian spirituality is formed in the arduous struggle to acquire the eternal Kingdom of Heaven, which fully begins only with the dissolution of this temporal world, and the true Christian struggler never finds repose even in the foretastes of eternal blessedness which might be vouchsafed to him in this life[.] ( 187-8 )

Fr. Seraphim, as is typical, is uncompromising in his criticism of the modern world, and his language is therefore far more militant than that of Lewis or Fr. Alexander, but the bottom line for him is clearly the same: if we do not begin and end with the eternal Kingdom of Heaven as our goal, we are deceiving ourselves and nothing will be accomplished for this earth anyway. Again, I’m not aware of Fr. Seraphim having ever commented directly on Lewis (which is, again, not saying much); certainly he knew of Fr. Alexander (although it ‘s not clear that the reverse is true), and published some fairly savage criticism of him. However, I believe points of correspondence such as this one show that they had more in common than perhaps they would have wanted to admit, and that this is further made clear by a comparison of of Fr. Alexander’s published journals (The Journals of Father Alexander Schmemann, 1973-1983, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press) to Hieromonk Damascene’s biography of Fr. Seraphim and writings such as God’s Revelation to the Human Heart. (I have far more to say about the apparent tension between these two men, and believe it ultimately had more to do with ecclesial politics than actual tenets of faith, but that is an essay for another time.)

Three very different kinds of Christian thinkers in very different contexts: Lewis was a low-church Anglican and academic writing a popular apologetic. Fr. Alexander was an Orthodox priest and scholar writing a devotional book. Fr. Seraphim was a former Eastern philosophy scholar turned Orthodox ascetic and monastic writing a critique of contemporary spirituality. All wind up emphasizing essentially the same point nonetheless: Christian spirituality is formed in the arduous struggle to acquire the eternal Kingdom of Heaven. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither. Christian love aims beyond this world.

I will note that there are subtle differences in how this point is presented: for Lewis, aiming at heaven is something we do; it requires an act of will from our end. For Fr. Alexander, aiming beyond this world must occur in the context of Christian love. For Fr. Seraphim, acquiring the Kingdom (aiming for heaven, if you will) requires struggle on our part. Strict Calvinists might argue that Lewis and Fr. Seraphim’s constructions are absolutely in error, that our total depravity renders any act of will or struggle on our part towards heaven impossible. However, given the concept in Orthodox Christianity of συνεργεία or cooperation between divine grace and human freedom (cf. 1 Cor 3:9, “We are fellow-workers with God”), this objection may be set aside. I’d argue that all three perspectives are in fact correct; it does require an act of will on our part, it must come from love (making it a cooperation with God, since God is love, cf. 1 John 4:8), and it is a struggle.

The point bears repeating: Christian spirituality is formed in the arduous struggle to acquire the eternal Kingdom of Heaven. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither. Christian love aims beyond this world. How different a concept of “social justice” this forms from that which the secular humanists, and even those on the Christian left, preach.

Still searching for the perfect blogging platform…

OK, here’s a brief rundown of what’s come before:

richardbarrett.blogspot.com continues to exist, alas unloved and unupdated as it is and will remain.

The Dell blog existed for a specific purpose; I still get the occasional e-mail and phone call, so it will stay up so that people have some kind of a road map of how somebody once managed to penetrate Dell’s corporate hierarchy, but I don’t plan on updating it regularly by any means, since I no longer spend any money with Dell at all.

The .Mac blog was fun, and everything that was posted there will stay posted there. Thing of it is, for much of what I was doing, iWeb is just plain unwieldy, and you just can’t do stuff with it that Blogger and WordPress can without a lot of extra work. Plus, text often winds up getting published as a graphic, so search engines won’t find things. There’s at least one posting from the .Mac blog where that’s a major problem (and it will probably find its way here in hopes that it solves that problem). I will probably still use it as a photo album–someday I’ll get the Oxford pictures up, I promise.

So, on the advice of a friend (hat tip to Anna Pougas on her patronal feast! Many years!), I’m giving WordPress a shot. I’m adding three words to the .Mac blog’s title so that I’ve got Latin, Greek, German AND Syriac all represented–why not, really? (And please don’t leave a bunch of comments explaining why not–it’s a lark. Deal with it.)

To explain:

Leitourgeia—Greek, noun, meaning “public work” (“work of the people” being another common understanding), as in “liturgy.”

kai—Greek, conjunction, meaning “and.”

Qurbana—Syriac, noun, meaning “offering” or “Eucharist.”

Contra—Latin, preposition, meaning “against,” as in Athanasius contra mundum, St. Athanasius of Alexandria having stood fast for the Orthodox Christian faith in the face of the Arian heresy.

den Zeitgeist—German, accusative singular, meaning “Spirit of the Age,” as in the chapter “Through Darkest Zeitgeistheim” in C. S. Lewis’ The Pilgrim’s Regress, where the protagonist John faces the most horrible monster Lewis has ever depicted, the Spirit of the Age.

Also, Lewis wrote an introduction for an English-language edition of St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation.

So, we’ll try this for awhile, see what happens.


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