Friday, May 25, 2007

Innocents Abroad

One follow-up project that I took away from reading Orientalism was to track down some of the 19th-c. works by American writers who traveled in Palestine. The book focused mostly on British and French sources, so it was little more than a passing reference, but I was especially interested to see what Mark Twain had to say about the place and the people he met there. Over the past few days, I've been reading his book, The Innocents Abroad, which recounts his journeys on one of the first pleasure cruises, specifically commissioned to take a group of Americans around Mediterranean Europe, the Holy Land, and Egypt. I didn't want to take too much time away from reading what I consider to be more important, worthwhile, enjoyable, etc., so I skipped ahead to the latter part of their visit to Greece (which he describes as a bleak wasteland, economically run-down, with a pathetic populace--the worst possible contrast to its ancient greatness) and read through Constantinople, a trip across the Black Sea to meet with the Tsar, Anatolia, Syria, and finally Palestine. I broke off before they finished with Egypt and sailed home again.

As one might expect, Twain pokes fun at just about everyone--his shipmates (many of whom are more zealous pilgrims than he), their guides, the locals, and even the animals and landscapes. His outlook is very American; he measures everything he sees by familiar standards. He finds little of beauty or value in these foreign lands or their inhabitants. Of the parts that I read, he seems most impressed by generous hospitality, particularly when his group meets the Russian Tsar and when they spend the night at "Mars Saba" [sic]. He seems most disturbed by the oppressive conditions he sees throughout the Ottoman Empire.

More than once while traveling through Anatolia and Syria, Twain laments the living conditions of the Arabs and says that if Russia ever goes to war again with the Turks it would be much better for Britain and France to let them alone. On one such occasion, he writes:
If ever an oppressed race existed, it is this one we see fettered around us under the inhuman tyranny of the Ottoman Empire. I wish Europe would let Russia annihilate Turkey a little--not much, but enough to make it difficult to find the place again without a divining-rod or a diving-bell.
He has enough of his own prejudices, but at least he has a heart. It is nothing new for him to criticize the insensitivity of his companions in their zeal to collect relics, but particularly poignant is his account from Nain:
A little mosque stands upon the spot which tradition says was occupied by the widow's dwelling. Two or three aged Arabs sat about its door. We entered, and the pilgrims broke specimens from the foundation walls, though they had to touch, and even step, upon the "praying carpets" to do it. It was almost the same as breaking pieces from the hearts of those old Arabs. To step rudely upon the sacred praying mats, with booted feet--a thing not done by any Arab--was to inflict pain upon men who had not offended us in any way. Suppose a party of armed foreigners were to enter a village church in America and break ornaments from the altar railings for curiosities, and climb up and walk upon the Bible and pulpit cushions? However, the cases are different. One is the profanation of a temple of our faith--the other only the profanation of a pagan one.

From Constantinople the group crosses the Black Sea and is invited to meet with the Czar. Twain is skeptical of the event beforehand, but comes away thoroughly impressed. The Russian nobility he meets are so down-to-earth and so friendly toward the Americans that he even seems to revise some of his general outlook on royalty. It's interesting to see the favorable relationship between the two countries at this stage, which is a far cry from anything we've seen since the start (or end) of the Cold War.

I think it's worth quoting here almost the entire section about their stay at Mar Saba (which he consistently misspells). Twain does not seem to have much respect for the monastic life--not surprisingly, given his American Protestant background. He likewise seems to have little appreciation for the differences between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Although he knows they are different sects--elsewhere he refers to the constant fighting between the various Christian groups over the holy sites in Jerusalem--he seems to consider them all Catholics (which in a sense, I suppose they are). At any rate, for readers who might not know, Mar Saba is a Greek Orthodox monastery in the wilderness between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea. They stop there to spend the night on their way back from the latter:
We stayed at this great convent all night, guests of the hospitable priests. . . . The present occupants of Mars Saba, about seventy in number, are all hermits. They wear a coarse robe, an ugly, brimless stove-pipe of a hat, and go without shoes. They eat nothing whatever but bread and salt; they drink nothing but water. As long as they live they can never go outside the walls, or look upon a woman--for no woman is permitted to enter Mars Saba, upon any pretext whatsoever.

Some of those men have been shut up there for thirty years. In all that dreary time they have not heard the laughter of a child or the blessed voice of a woman; they have seen no human tears, no human smiles; they have known no human joys, no wholesome human sorrows. In their hearts are no memories of the past, in their brains no dreams of the future. All that is lovable, beautiful, worthy, they have put far away from them; against all things that are pleasant to look upon, and all sounds that are music to the ear, they have barred their massive doors and reared their relentless walls of stone forever. They have banished the tender grace of life and left only the sapped and skinny mockery. Their lips are lips that never kiss and never sing; their hearts are hearts that never hate and never love; their breasts are breasts that never swell with the sentiment, "I have a country and a flag." They are dead men who walk.

I set down these first thoughts because they are natural--not because they are just or because it is right to set them down. It is easy for book-makers to say "I thought so and so as I looked up on such and such a scene"--when the truth is, they thought all those fine things afterwards. One's first thought is not likely to be strictly accurate, yet it is no crime to think it and none to write it down, subject to modification by later experience. These hermits are dead men, in several respects, but not in all; and it is not proper, that, thinking ill of them at first, I should go on doing so, or, speaking ill of them I should reiterate the words and stick to them. No, they treated us too kindly for that. There is something human about them somewhere. They knew we were foreigners and Protestants, and not likely to feel admiration or much friendliness toward them. But their large charity was above considering such things. They simply saw in us men who were hungry, and thirsty, and tired, and that was sufficient. They opened their doors and gave us welcome. They asked no questions, and they made no self-righteous display of their hospitality. They fished for no compliments. They moved quietly about, setting the table for us, making the beds, and bringing water to wash in, and paid no heed when we said it was wrong for them to do that when we had men whose business it was to perform such offices. We fared most comfortably, and sat late at dinner. We walked all over the building with the hermits afterward, and then sat on the lofty battlements and smoked while we enjoyed the cool air, the wild scenery and the sunset. . . .

When we got up to breakfast in the morning, we were new men. For all this hospitality no strict charge was made. We could give something if we chose; we need give nothing, if we were poor or if we were stingy. The pauper and the miser are as free as any in the Catholic Convents of Palestine. I have been educated to enmity toward every thing that is Catholic, and sometimes, in consequence of this, I find it much easier to discover Catholic faults than Catholic merits. But there is one thing I feel no disposition to overlook, and no disposition to forget: and that is, the honest gratitude I and all pilgrims owe, to the Convent Fathers in Palestine. Their doors are always open, and there is always a welcome for any worthy man who comes, whether he comes in rags or clad in purple. The Catholic Convents are a priceless blessing to the poor. A pilgrim without money, whether he be a Protestant or a Catholic, can travel the length and breadth of Palestine, and in the midst of her desert wastes find wholesome food and a clean bed every night, in these buildings. Pilgrims in better circumstances are often stricken down by the sun and the fevers of the country, and then their saving refuge is the Convent. Without these hospitable retreats, travel in Palestine would be a pleasure which none but the strongest men could dare to undertake. Our party, pilgrims and all, will always be ready and always willing, to touch glasses and drink health, prosperity and long life to the Convent Fathers of Palestine (chap. 55).
Readers already favorably disposed toward monasticism will probably have no trouble at all refuting Twain's initial assessment of these monks and can quickly skip ahead to his appreciation for their selfless hospitality. For others, it may help to clarify some things. True, monks spend much of their lives secluded from things we would consider normal parts of human existence. Some of those things we would all do better to avoid; others are a necessary sacrifice in the spiritual struggle these men (and women) have chosen. But not all monks live completely apart from the outside world. Many maintain contacts and regular interaction with family, some are sent out to serve the Church as priests and bishops, and when their numbers were much larger, there were Orthodox monks who engaged in various social services. Keep in mind, too, that the world comes to them, as most of them do practice rigorous hospitality. Mar Saba receives weary travelers in Palestine; St. Catherine's blesses Bedouin in the Sinai wilderness; Mt. Athos in Greece sees so many visitors that it has to strictly regulate the flow to keep from getting inundated.

And of course, the monks themselves are human (whatever Twain's suspicions). Indeed, their primary business in the monastery is not escape but struggle within themselves. If they leave the world, it is so they can focus on the more pressing battle inside. Other elements of humanity also persist--they weep (boy, do they weep!), they laugh, they paint, they sing, and they struggle along in their relationships with each other, more strenuously than do most of us on the outside. Yes, they hate; by God's grace, they learn to love; and although they may not be the greatest of patriots, they are connected with a land, a people, and a faith. One thing he is right about--they are dead men--but it is this that makes them so alive!

Thursday, May 24, 2007

night, night, skeleton

I suppose it's probably a common feature of four-year-olds that they're all a little weird. I tend to think of Ian as uniquely weird, but then, he's the only four-year-old I spend much time with.

A few months ago, he latched onto a new best friend. A girl his age might have a favorite doll; a boy might have a stuffed animal or action figure. Ian has "Skeleton." He was invited a while back to an Egyptian-themed birthday party and came away with a couple of little, rubber skeletons. Somewhere along the line, he decided they needed taking care of. It's not unusual for him to take one in the car and insist on buckling it into its own seatbelt. He also puts it to bed when he's getting ready to take a nap or go to sleep for the night. Ian doesn't sleep with toys, so Skeleton goes to bed in our room.

Last night, we didn't notice when he put Skeleton to bed, but Julie found him when we came into the room later on:

Not only does Skeleton need to be tucked in under the sheet (of course), but since Ian now insists on going to bed with a tissue handy, Skeleton needs one too.

We scheduled a tour at the hospital that's supposed to prepare siblings for the arrival of their new baby brother or sister. It said he should bring along a stuffed animal, so he can practice holding the baby. I suggested to Julie that we bring Skeleton, but I guess he probably is too small to serve the intended purpose.

Lest I close this post without making some connection to Orthodoxy, here's part of a funeral hymn, by St. John of Damascus, of all people (currently the prime candidate for Ian's patron):
I called to mind the Prophet, how he cried: I am earth and ashes;
and I looked again into the graves, and beheld the bones laid bare;
and I said: Who then is the king or the warrior,
the rich man or the needy, the upright or the sinner?
Yet give rest with thy Saints unto thy servant, O Lord.

. . . and messier, and messier . . .

Ugh! More info on the situation with the Jerusalem Patriarchate and the kingdom of Jordan. Much of it is a recap of what was already known, but two things that stood out to me:
  • "But the problem has taken on other dimensions. According to information obtained by the National Herald, Jordan has also informed the former Patriarch Eirineos that it once again recognizes him as the canonical and legitimate Patriarch of Jerusalem."
  • "In March 2005, however, the Palestinian Authority charged its legal advisors, Elias Khouri and Jaward Bulus, to investigate the issues concerning the Patriarchate of Jerusalem and the property dealings under Patriarch Eirineos. The Palestinian Authority produced a 26-page document, which clearly exonerates Eirineos and lays the blame squarely on Papadimas who it clearly characterizes as duping the former patriarch."
I just hope that, whatever comes of all this, the Church can get on with her business of saving souls. We may not be able to do much about governments playing their games, but if the Church is also divided, it's that much worse.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

no further desire for the things of the earth

It's difficult to explain to those outside the appeal of Orthodoxy. If anything, it gets more difficult the further I go. Maybe I'm losing touch with the outside perspective, but I think at least some of it is just the real gulf that lies between Orthodox life and that of others, even other Christians. Maybe a clue lies in how much of what I'm learning is experiential. Yes, I do a lot of reading, but I honestly don't know how much I'd get out of what I read if I weren't also living an Orthodox life (as limited as it is). Now, I need to be careful here. When I talk about an Orthodox life, I have in mind what you might call an ideal, or a high standard. Clearly, Orthodox people can live their lives in many different ways. I've commented before on the disconnect when popular movies portray people from an Orthodox culture as completely incapable of understanding what a vegetarian is, much less why someone would choose to live as one. My first exposure to Orthodoxy was in terms of its fasting practice, which makes everyone a vegan for about half the year, aside from the monks who give up meat altogether. But clearly there are those who have some cultural association with Orthodoxy but practice it in less rigorous forms.

I need to be careful, because the point is not to say that such people are not Orthodox. At the same time, there is some cause for defining Orthodoxy in terms of what it ought to be, not the lowest possible standard of what Orthodox people might actually practice. Somewhere between the lifestyle of a person who thinks lamb is vegetarian and that of an anchorite monk is a reasonable standard of what Orthodox life should be. That is, in a sense, what I'm shooting for as my point of comparison. So, there are Orthodox people who attend church once or twice a year and show up right before and leave right after taking communion. There are also Orthodox people who attend church several times a day and spend a majority of their day in prayer. But somewhere in between, many Orthodox clergy will say that you should be in church every Sunday possible, and you're best prepared for Sunday if you're there Saturday night, and you should be there for feast days if you can get the time off of work. And many parishes have regular weekday services as well--vespers once or twice, or maybe a weekly moleben--which presumably they wouldn't have if they didn't expect at least some of their congregation to attend.

So in general, it's safe to say that Orthodox attend church more often and for longer services than you might expect in a lot of Protestant denominations. (Not speaking statistically, but in terms of norms and expectations.) And there are lots of good theological reasons for this, but as I've pointed out before, Bp. THOMAS may boil it down most succinctly when he says in his New Jersey accent, "If you don't like church, you gonna hate heaven." Orthodox spend a lot of time in church, because they prioritize worship. In a sense, this life is dress rehearsal for heaven, and when we look at the portrayals of heaven in Scripture, worship is what we see. If we don't actually love worship right now, we need to do everything we can to change that before we get there.

This brings me to another point--discipline. In a conversation today after church, it came up that Evangelicals often preach the right priorities, but they don't necessarily know how to get there. Sure, you'll hear from the pulpit that worship is important, that life should be centered on Christ, that prayer should be consistent, that it should be a joy, etc. But how do you get there? In an extreme form, I remember discussing with an Evangelical friend this approach to spiritual growth that he'd newly discovered. Our relationship with Christ should be one of love, and we shouldn't do things that we don't genuinely want to do. We shouldn't force ourselves into certain modes of "devotion," because then we're just going through the motions. Now, I may have misunderstood his point, but it sounds to me like the right goal but the wrong way to get there. Sure, we ultimately want it all to be about love for Christ. We want it to be what we do naturally, because we want to, because we love him. But how do we get from here to there? The historic and traditional answer of the Church is, discipline. I don't think this idea is completely lost from Evangelicalism, but it seems to be getting there.

I think it goes along with a fear of externals. Protestantism began in part out of a concern that the RCC was all show and no substance. Sure, people come to church and go through the motions, but where are their hearts? So Protestant religion became largely internalized--a lot of the external elements went away, which probably contributed to the individualization of Western religion, as each person focuses exclusively on his own heart, and which eventually degenerated in Western culture to the point of celebrating our flaws. Any focus on external conformity is dishonest; if people can't accept us (if we can't accept ourselves) with all our problems, who needs them?

So, external reverence in church? Be suspicious, because it could just be put-on conformity to someone's expectation. Forcing yourself to pray when you don't feel like it? Pointless, or worse, because prayer should come from the heart. And certainly we should be cautious about doing things externally, without the heart engaged. On the other hand, if we do away with externals altogether, we lose the opportunity to grow. Read Orthodox spiritual writing, and there is no question--prayer should be from the heart. No question--worship is not just a series of motions and rote responses. But by doing them even when we're not sincere, or not ready to talk directly to God, we force ourselves into the right mindset. We condition ourselves to want the real thing, even if all we can muster at the moment is a half-hearted compliance. And when you're standing there for morning prayer and realize you're just running through the same words you say every other morning, without taking them to heart, then in that moment you have a choice to make. Sure, you can keep plugging along without thinking, but you can also stop yourself, concentrate your attention, and start again. If you weren't standing there for your morning routine, and you didn't feel like praying, you'd probably just ignore it altogether.

I guess the question is, is it better to have five minutes of sincere worship in a week, with the rest of your time consumed on yourself, or to spend five hours in church, sometimes praying from the heart, sometimes from the head, sometimes struggling to pay attention at all, but through all of it stretching toward the goal that we were told wouldn't be easy? And the same goes for all the rest of this external stuff we do. The 50 times a day that I adjust the cross around my neck (which after several months I'm still not used to) are 50 times a day when I might be thinking about taking up my cross to follow Christ. Every morning and evening when I stand for prayer, I have another chance to seek the face of Christ. I don't cross myself every time an emergency vehicle passes with its siren going, but the times when I choose not to (so as not to draw attention to myself) I'm that much more conscious of the need to pray.

It may be that in heaven I won't need these externals, these disciplines, these habits and reminders to keep my heart where it belongs. Not that the externals will go away--from everything we see about heaven in Scripture, it doesn't seem like they will. They'll just always be 100% consistent with the internal feelings. Orthodoxy may seem weird, extreme, overly formalized, with too many rules, etc. I suppose in contrast with our usual Western society it couldn't seem any other way. But is that necessarily a bad thing? To put it as concretely as possible, if I'd rather be in church than watching TV, where's the weird in that? St. Silouan the Athonite writes:
My soul ever years after God and prays day and night, for the name of the Lord is sweet and dear to the prayerful soul, and warms the soul to love of God.
I have lived a long life on earth, and seen and heard many things. I have heard music which delighted my soul, and I would think, If this music is so sweet, how greatly must the heavenly singing in the Holy Spirit, glorifying the Lord for His sufferings, delight the soul!
We live a long time on this earth, and we love the beauty of the earth--the sky and the sun, lovely gardens, seas and rivers, forest and meadow, music, too, and all the beauties of the world. But when the soul comes to know our Lord Jesus Christ, she has no further desire for the things of the earth.

I'm not there yet, but if there's any argument to be made for why Orthodoxy is right, it's that I know the way to get there!

Thursday, May 17, 2007

in defense of geocentrism

Food for thought, from Vladimir Lossky's The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (pp. 105-106 in the English edition):
In the face of the vision of the universe which the human race has gained since the period of the renaissance, in which the earth is represented as an atom lost in infinite space amid innumerable other worlds, there is no need for theology to change anything whatever in the narrative of Genesis; any more than it is its business to be concerned over the question of the salvation of the inhabitants of Mars. Revelation remains for theology essentially geocentric, for it is addressed to men and confers upon them the truth as it is relative to their salvation under the conditions which belong to the reality of life on earth. . . .

It is the mystery of our salvation that is revealed to us by the Church, and not the secrets of the universe in general which, quite possibly, does not stand in need of salvation; this is the reason why the cosmology of revelation is necessarily geocentric. It also enables us to see why copernican cosmology, from a psychological or rather spiritual point of view, corresponds to a state of religious dispersion or off-centeredness, a relaxation of the soteriological attitude, such as is found in the gnostics or the occult religions. The spirit of the insatiable thirst for knowledge, the restless spirit of Faust, turning to the cosmos breaks through the constricting limits of the heavenly spheres to launch out into infinite space; where it becomes lost in the search for some synthetic understanding of the universe, for its own understanding, external and limited to the domain of becoming, can only grasp the whole under the aspect of disintegration which corresponds to the condition of our nature since the fall. The Christian mystic, on the other hand, entering into himself, and enclosing himself in the "inner chamber" of his heart, finds there, deeper even than sin, the beginning of an ascent in the course of which the universe appears more and more unified, more and more coherent, penetrated with spiritual forces and forming one whole within the hand of God.
I wish I'd encountered something like this before I discovered (and wholeheartedly embraced) so-called "scientific creationism." (I'm not denying that there are some good scientists out there arguing against the excesses of Darwinism, but there's also a lot of drivel.) For one thing, it could have saved me a lot of time and energy spent fighting the wrong battles. I'm appalled now to think back on how closely I identified in my teenage mind evangelism with a lot of arguing about macroevolution or the age of the earth.

. . . but sometimes things do come together

After yesterday's depressing post about the situation in Jerusalem, a refreshing wind blows down from the north. This morning, instead of the Jesus Prayer running through my head, it was the Paschal Troparion:

Christ is risen from the dead,
trampling down death by death,
and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!

(Sorry--it was the Greek version. I did make sure to get in a Russian tune for the occasion, but the song in my heart is Greek!)

I'd seen the news that in Moscow Pat. Alexy and Met. Laurus signed the Act of Canonical Communion between ROCOR and the MP, thus healing almost a century of division in the Russian Church. For the first time, the heads of both churches celebrated Divine Liturgy together! Life awakens, where once there was death. Glory to Christ! Glory to him forever!

It's a monumental day for Russia, but also a for the whole Orthodox world. (And I'm glad to see that it made the news on our parish site, even though we're Antiochian :-) First, it gives hope that old wounds can heal. (Although, by Orthodox standards, this would was still quite fresh.) Second, we should all rejoice that communion is restored not only within the Russian Church, but between the ROCOR faithful and their brothers and sisters in the other canonical jurisdictions. May God grant that we will see it in practice! Third, let's not forget that spiritual strength for one is spiritual strength for all. There is great opportunity in this moment for the Russian Church. Both sides have a chance to learn from each other as they move forward, and as the Russian Church grows, we are all better off. (The same could be said for any other jurisdiction--it's not just my usual Slavophilia bleeding through.)

I like that this was done on the day of the Ascension. As I experience Orthodoxy, I'm growing in my appreciation for the way that God's works unfold in our time-bound existence. Jesus trampled down death and gave life on the day that he rose, but the work continued in his ascension to the Father, taking human nature into the heavens, seated forever at God's right hand. Our salvation in baptism unfolds through so many events in our lives, grace received through so many people and events. And in the same way, this act today is but one moment in the ongoing rebirth of the Russian Church. From the fall of the atheist regime, to newfound freedom of the Church, to the canonization of the New Martyrs, to the countless talks and prayers and actions that paved the way toward this moment. And the process will continue indefinitely into the future.

Still, it is joy to see this moment. Many years to the Patriarch, the Metropolitan, and all who were privileged to be there! Many years to those who couldn't be there in person but have prayed for this day! Many years! Many years!

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

what a mess!

For those of you who haven't followed this issue so far, let me summarize briefly the situation. Sometime more than two years ago, some prime real estate in East Jerusalem was sold. Well, it wasn't exactly sold--it was leased for 99 years. The land belonged to the Orthodox Patriarchate, which is probably the largest landowner in Palestine and also leases, among other things, the ground on which the Israeli Knesset sits. The deal had been done in secret, through intermediaries, but when the dust settled, it appeared that a man close to then-Patriarch Irineos was responsible, and the buyers were rabid Zionists who presumably wanted yet another foothold in Arab territory. Irineos was subsequently removed from office by his own diocese (to the extent possible when he refused to assemble the synod) and by the heads of the other autocephalous Orthodox churches. A replacement was installed, Theophilos III, and everyone lived happily ever after.

No, it's not an American story--it's a Palestinian one. Things change slowly in the Orthodox Church, and although the Ottoman Empire has been dead for some time now, the Jerusalem Patriarchate is still bound by an old Ottoman law, according to which the civil authority has veto power over any new patriarchal appointment. This next part is going to sound a bit weird--that's not so bad, if the civil authority is the Ottoman Empire. (I told you it was a Palestinian story.) But today, the canonical territory of the JP spans three civil domains--Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian Authority. If you need to, go back and re-read what precipitated this whole situation. Does anyone really expect that those three are going to reach a consensus? For the past two years, Jerusalem, in addition to the usual confusion of having pretty much every other Christian camp represented, has had two Orthodox patriarchs--the one recognized by his diocese and the rest of the Orthodox world, and the one who says he never did anything wrong and refuses to step down. And because the Israeli government still hasn't decided on the matter, he regularly shows up for stuff, with Israeli police escort.

Well, that was a pleasant couple of years. So what's changed now? This week, the Jordanian government withdrew its support for Theophilos, reportedly because he hasn't acted with enough force to overturn the land deal that started the whole mess. Now, I'm not there--I have no particular connection to this situation. I'm just a guy who reads the news and whose heart aches for the Orthodox Christians in Palestine. I don't know exactly what, if anything, Theofilos has done about the land deal, or even if there's anything that can be done at this point. But clearly a line has been drawn in the sand over there, and it's completely political. On one hand, Israel has made it rather clear that even appointing a different patriarch over this issue, regardless of how zealous he is for the Arab cause, is not going to get their approval. On the other hand, Jordan doesn't seem happy with anything less than decisive action.

Where can the JP possibly go from here? Reinstate Irineos? Jordan would never approve, and they'd have mutiny from the people. Keep Theofilos? How can he do his job without approval from any of the governments in question? (I haven't heard so far whether the PA will also withdraw, but it was rumored last week.) Appoint a new patriarch? How? If the new patriarch is less activist on the land deal than Theofilos, Jordan will probably not like him. But anything else, even if he represents no significant change on the issue, will be a negative move from Israel's perspective, because it will be a response to Jordan's desires. Add to all this the ongoing desire for an Arab patriarch (which I'm inclined to agree would probably not be the best move at this point, since a Greek patriarch is better positioned to deal with Israel), and finding a solution seems pretty hopeless.

I don't know what the answer is. Is it possible to disentangle from the civil governments in the region and let the Church just do whatever it's going to do? (I suspect it's much more complicated than that, especially since a large part of what the Patriarchate is there for is to maintain the holy sites.) Should the JP split along the national boundaries that exist? But what would that even mean? Given the size of the Orthodox population, three autocephalous churches seems excessive. If there were two, which would include the West Bank? Which would include Gaza? And the big question, which would include East Jerusalem? For that matter, would it even solve anything? What would happen to the Arab Christians under an Israeli church, where any viable patriarch must play ball with a hostile government? And that's the biggest question in all of this. Palestinian Christians have enough problems to deal with--what's to become of them?

Lord, have mercy!

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

immigrant problem

This country has an immigrant problem. There are far too many of them, to the point where they're starting to outnumber the natives. It wouldn't be so bad if they'd assimilate, but they live in their own communities, with their own practices, keeping their own cultural identity. Their religion is different, their food is different, and they insist on speaking their own language. They even expect the government to honor their religious obligations, give them time off for their holidays, and provide a forum for their religious expression.

Some people might think that closing the borders will fix the problem, or at least keep it from getting worse, but it's already way too late for that. If there's one thing these immigrants do, it's proliferate. If starting today not another immigrant enters, they'll still overwhelm the population within a few decades. Drastic measures are needed:
  • give them only the worst jobs, the hardest labor--make sure they die early from the strain
  • thin the herd--mandatory abortions, sterilization, taking away their children should all be on the table
  • squash anything that looks like a potential uprising with even tougher measures; they can only be ruled by strength

Our way of life is at stake! We won't remain the greatest nation on earth for long, if we don't do something. Egypt for the Egyptians! Let your voice be heard! Tell Pharaoh to do something about those Asians before it's too late!

While listening to a talk about the Exodus, I was struck by the similarity with our situation today. I'm not saying everything is the same, but if we're going to find ourselves anywhere in the story, as Westerners I think we're most in danger right now of playing the role of the Egyptians. Let's not forget that "orphan" and "widow" are often grouped together with the foreigner/sojourner/stranger/alien as objects of compassion. If anything, the last group takes a special place, because the Israelites were called to remember what happened to them when they were foreigners living in Egypt. We who are always foreigners in this world should remember as well.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

all about the Jesus Prayer

As it happened, the other books that I brought with me on vacation both dealt largely with the Jesus Prayer, or perhaps more accurately, prayer of the heart (of which the Jesus Prayer is the primary instrument). I expected it of The Way of a Pilgrim (actually, the volume contained both The Way of a Pilgrim and The Pilgrim Continues His Way), but not so much of the book about St. Silouan. I'm not saying it was a bad thing to have everything focused on prayer (although again, it was nice to have Orientalism to break things up)--just unexpected. Indeed, if anything, my only regret is that I spent too much time reading and not enough praying while I was on vacation! I like about St. Silouan that he learned more by doing and listening and less by reading. (He found it too distracting to read, but he could pray while he listened.) I still have a long way to go through that book, so I'll reserve further comment at this point.

The Pilgrim books were simple but powerful. It's hard not to envy his simple life and devotion to prayer. He comes off sometimes as a bit obsessive, but I suppose I should experience prayer of the heart before passing judgment. And I can be obsessive enough with things that interest me! (Usually, things that are much less important.) I also have an inclination to pooh-pooh his constant desire to stop wandering so he can settle down and just pray--I've tended to fantasize about some kind of a wandering hermitage, but again, I've never experienced either one. As far as that goes, my inclination to wander is much less now than it used to be.

And this fantasy brings up another challenge for me--the principle about avoiding imagination. It seems to be a common theme running through these writings about prayer of the heart (I also looked up the Philokalia sections referenced in the Pilgrim books for beginners, and it was emphasized there too), that although all imagination is not necessarily evil, it gets you into trouble more often than not. At its worst, imagination can come from demonic influence, and the untrained spiritual warrior might not be able to tell the difference. But even at its best, imagination often leads to pride. I wouldn't have made this connection myself, but it resonates with my experience now that I think about it.

I spent a good deal of my adolescence on a riding lawnmower. We had something like 5.5 acres of land, much of which was grass, and a fairly puny lawnmower that didn't cut a very wide path and didn't move very fast. (It was also weak, so the longer the grass got, the slower you had to go.) I could get my weekly mowing done by spending pretty much every evening at it during the week, or all day Saturday (maybe a bit left for Sunday, depending on how quickly the grass dried out in the morning). The mower was too loud to get much out of listening to head phones, and I wasn't very good at steering while reading (believe me, I tried), so I was mostly just alone with my thoughts. I sometimes sang to myself, but mostly I just thought about stuff. Sometimes I would put myself into stories I'd read, or possible future scenarios in my life. I also learned to rehearse debates in my head on various topics.

In later life, the same habits have continued whenever I'm alone with my thoughts--driving in the car, riding the bus, out walking, etc. They have their limited usefulness, but I can't say I've ever really gained much. Conversations and scenarios usually don't go as I imagine them ahead of time. At most I get "out of my system" things I probably shouldn't actually say. But I do find that when I'm imagining things, I'm usually the center of the universe. I'm the hero of my own stories (however subtly), and the things I imagine myself doing are generally better than what I actually do in real life. As for my rehearsed conversations, they're practically monologues, with someone else asking questions or making comments just to provide me with a platform. Not that any of this should be surprising--it's my imagination, so why wouldn't I be the star? But of course unsurprising is hardly the same as healthy.

When it comes down to it, my mind is constantly going. If there's an important lesson in all this, I need to learn stillness. The point is not to empty one's head, but it is to focus one's attention on Christ, rather than one's own agendas. I have a long way to go in that area.

One more reflection on all this business of prayer in the heart. Almost everything I read about it starts from the assumption that the Spirit is already present through baptism. As a catechumen, am I just wasting my time in this area? Or is the most I can hope for right now just to establish a habit that will actually produce fruit at some later point, when I have a sacramental life? Needless to say, I'm not expecting to see the divine light any time soon (I should hope I wouldn't expect that in any case!), but how much can I really anticipate in this area? Would it be better to devote my efforts and attention elsewhere?

Saturday, May 05, 2007


It turns out that I could have got by with one less book than I brought on vacation. Even so, the variety was nice. I'll come back to the two Orthodox books a bit later, but perhaps the biggest surprise was Orientalism, by Edward Said. I said that I'd been wanting to read this book for quite some time. A bit more explicitly, I had identified it as a book that I wanted to get from the library, but my attempts so far had been foiled. I knew it was available from the public library, but my preference was generally to check books out from school if I could. As a grad student, I could get them for a semester at a time, which is much better than the three weeks or something that you get otherwise. But every time that I went to the library at school it was checked out. I had other stuff to read, so I just kept it on the list and kept watching. Now that I'm done with school, I identified the books I could get elsewhere and requested a few, including this one.

I'm glad it took me as long as it did to get around to reading it. I expected the book to deal with a lot of the political issues I've been thinking about over the past few years, which was how I discovered it and why I was interested in it to begin with. What I didn't quite expect was how it would tie this area of interest back into my academic pursuits over the past several years. Said lays out Orientalism from its beginnings primarily as an academic field, through its absorption into colonial politics, and into the general backdrop that it forms for just about all Western perceptions of the Middle East today. Actually, the sequence is not that neat--it was already political from the start, but the type of people doing the primary work were more self-consciously academics working in the humanities. He focuses on English and French academics, since at that early stage (late 18th c. - early 19th c.) they were doing most of the work (and had most of the resources). Later in its development, Orientalism is taken over primarily by Americans, not coincidentally as America becomes the more significant player in Middle Eastern politics.

What I found most disturbing about the book was the way Semitic philology developed as an academic justification for colonialism. Again, calling it a "justification" doesn't quite do justice to Said's point, since the two were intertwined in so many ways. But the academic field was crucial in giving politics the appearance of science. At the same time, it was a very conscientious enterprise of defining Orientalism as science, because the philological approach was meant to supplant the religious one.

One thing that struck me as I was reading Said's arguments was that they naturally excluded the domain of Eastern Christendom. His focus was on "European" ideas, or more specifically those of France and Britain. The West in view is therefore strictly Western--Western colonialism, Western heirs to the Crusades, Western Europe. Even so, he occasionally mentions Russia as somehow implicated in the same arguments (if perhaps to a lesser degree), though he never says exactly how. Perhaps more frequently Russia shows up as the opponent of the Western powers, who are concerned about its colonial advances into the region. But I wonder exactly how the Christian East would fit into the overall picture. Russia has dealt with Islam as an internal reality for pretty much its entire history. Most other Orthodox nations have at one point or another been subjected to Muslim rule. And of course much of the Orthodox world is part of the Near Orient. Said does point out that France in particular tended to take an interest in the Oriental Christian minorities, and that in general Western powers found it useful to champion Oriental minority groups (Christians, but also Kurds, Druze, etc.). But let's face it--the relationship between these groups and the West has its own long, complex history.

I don't think reading this book in itself ever would have been enough to make me turn my back on Semitics as a profession. On the contrary, it could have had the opposite effect, depending on other circumstances. I might have found a role to play as one who operates within the field from a more sensitive perspective. But whatever choice I might have made, it would have been an ideological one; and looking back on the decision years later, I could easily have regretted it. Did God specifically keep me from reading it until things had already taken their course? I really can't say. But I'm glad the decision I actually made was for other motivations, less subject to the whims of my own volatile opinions.