Monday, April 28, 2008

Seven Paschal Surprises

1. I had not anticipated that the services on Friday and Saturday would not be depressing and guilt-inducing, but rather, joyful in a piercing way—light, clean, not heavy, and certainly not manipulative the way some (not all!!) non-Orthodox Holy Week services can sometimes be.

2. I had not anticipated the complete wonkiness of the Orthodox presentation of time—throughout the week and weekend, matins and vespers seemed to have been reversed, and sometime in the midst of Holy Saturday, all the officiants changed their vestments to white, and the purple Lenten candles were replaced by white Paschal candles—but no, it wasn't actually Easter yet. What was it? Some kind of threshold time? All times seemed to be somehow juxtaposed upon, or embedded in, each other. And apparently, the entire season of Pascha is regarded as whole, a single day, "the day without evening," "the eighth day."

3. I had not expected to find out that hell has its very own lamentation, song, regret, and here it is:

Today hell cries out groaning:
I should not have accepted the Man born of Mary.
He shattered the gates of brass.
As God, He raised the souls that I held captive…

Today, hell cries out groaning:
My dominion has been shattered.
I received a dead man as one of the dead,
but against Him I could not prevail.
From eternity I had ruled the dead,
but behold, He raises all.
Because of Him, I perish.

Today, hell cries out groaning:
My power has been trampled upon.
The Shepherd has been crucified and Adam has been raised.
I have been deprived of those whom I ruled.
Those whom I have swallowed in my strength
I have given up.
He who was crucified has emptied the tomb.
The power of death has been vanquished.

4. I had not expected to experience the sensation of being on a fast-moving train, the Pascha express, that was proceeding with phenomenal power and purpose, whether or not I was personally on or even near its time-table. I felt this most strongly on Saturday night as I got into the car to head to church—I didn't feel ready! There were aspects of Great Lent and Holy Week that I hadn't sufficiently taken in!—Wait, slow down, back up even, pause, let me process some stuff!—but no, the train was on its way, and I was, in some disoriented, stunned sense, aboard, thinking of the bright blur of Turner's famous painting, "Rain, Steam, and Speed." Nor, ultimately, despite my ongoing struggle with various aspects of Orthodoxy, did I have any desire to disembark. And a few hours later, it was as if St. John of Chrystostom's astounding sermon was speaking directly to my condition:

"…If any have laboured long in fasting,
Let him how receive his recompense.
If any have wrought from the first hour,
Let him today receive his just reward.
If any have come at the third hour,
Let him with thankfulness keep the feast.
If any have arrived at the sixth hour,
Let him have no misgivings;
Because he shall in nowise be deprived therefore.
If any have delayed until the ninth hour,
Let him draw near, fearing nothing.
And if any have tarried even until the eleventh hour,
Let him, also, be not alarmed at his tardiness.
For the Lord, who is jealous of his honour,
Will accept the last even as the first.
He giveth rest unto him who cometh at the eleventh hour,
Even as unto him who hath wrought from the first hour.
And He showeth mercy upon the last,
And careth for the first;
And to the one He giveth,
And upon the other He bestoweth gifts.
And He both accepteth the deeds,
And welcometh the intention,
And honoureth the acts and praises the offering.
Wherefore, enter ye all into the joy of your Lord;
Receive your reward,
Both the first, and likewise the second.
You rich and poor together, hold high festival!
You sober and you heedless, honour the day!
Rejoice today, both you who have fasted
And you who have disregarded the fast.
The table is full-laden; feast ye all sumptuously.
The calf is fatted; let no one go hungry away.
Enjoy ye all the feast of faith:
Receive ye all the riches of loving-kindness…"

5. To drastically and perhaps confusingly shift to a completely different simile, I had not anticipated the marble-cake-like experience of the Pascha service, which refused to remain "one thing" for me. There were moments of heart-rending glory followed by floods of internal darkness when I was overwhelmed with distressing emotions of sorrow and temptations of envy, rage, insecurity, and a certain degree of desolation. There was also numbness, as if there was just too much beauty and glory to take in, so that I couldn't feel anything at all (perhaps there must be too much in order for there to be enough? Or had my glory calibrator simply cracked in the flood surges of everything going on around me?), as well as physical nausea and dis-ease because of the heat and the necessity of breathing much-re-breathed air. And I was surprised to discover the next day at Paschal Vespers that all the negative feelings and temptations were gone, as if they'd been vaporized. I still wonder why they'd been there, and why they departed.

6. I hadn't expected to not feel tired despite the intensity of the services and the massive loss of sleep on two nights. Not only was I not tired, but I couldn't really nap very well on Saturday and Sunday, though I'd expected to be wiped out. What happened? Did God give me grace in order to surprise me? In something of the same vein, I had not anticipated that finally eating the few things from which I'd abstained during Great Lent would not be a big deal and would not, actually, be all that satisfying.

7. And certainly, I had not anticipated the beauty of aftermath: At 3:30 a.m. or so on Sunday morning, when I left the feast, I went back through the sanctuary, and was amazed to come upon a scene of combined hominess and holiness. The aroma of incense and the weight of glory were still heavy/light in the air, and the room was a wreck—crumbs on the floor, service booklets and candle stubs of various sizes on the few pews, children's jackets, sweaters, blankets, and diaper bags, etc. on the pews and floors—it looked as though a whirlwind had just blown through, and it looked like a living room after a wondrous party, and it looked heaven, all at the same time!

Sunday, April 27, 2008

"The angel rolled away the stone from the tomb not to let a biologically revived but physically entrapped Christ walk out, but to reveal that 'He is not here; for He has risen, as He said.'"
from the Introduction to The Paschal Service by Very Rev. Paul Lazor

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

"The Difference Between a Theory and a Confrontation"

From Arthur Vogel's book The Power of the Resurrection. Vogel begins the chapter by describing a time when he found that the composition of his Easter sermon seemed especially easy:

"A special inspiration seemed to strike and the flow of thought quickened. When the grip of the inspiration relaxed, I took a step back to see what I had done, secretly feeling quite proud of myself. Then, just as suddenly as the ideas had come, my heart sank. I realized I had not proclaimed the resurrection as I had first thought at all; instead, I had been drawing general conclusions about the way any creature would be related to God regardless of whether or not Jesus had been raised from the dead.

The ease which had suddenly come to my writing had not been inspiration about the resurrection; instead, the ease came because I was no longer writing about the resurrection! I had started out to proclaim the unexpected good news of Jesus Christ's rising from the dead, but I had subtly slipped into drawing predictable conclusions from predictable ideas.

Is anything lost in beginning to talk about the resurrection of Jesus Christ and concluding by talking about the power of God in general terms? Indeed there is, if our consideration is diverted from the life of the historic person Jesus to the deduction of abstract ideas from abstract ideas. In the latter case we deduce conclusions from premises which have no special location in the world; in the former case we are taught something about ourselves because of what happened to a specific person, Jesus of Nazareth. It is the difference between a theory and a confrontation.

At the moment to which I referred in writing my sermon, I also realized how far much of my past preaching had been from the true Christian message. More than that, I realized with new depth how a life could be filled with the attempt to teach about the Christian God and yet be kept from doing so by the very use of the Christian proclamation that Jesus is the Son of God! The heart of the matter is whether Jesus is used as an example of something we know about God without reference to Jesus, or whether Jesus makes God present in such a radically new way that previous ways of knowing God are forever surpassed in him.

As I had begun to develop the importance of the resurrection for our lives in the world, I discovered I had unconsciously begun to substitute the word 'God' for the 'Christ.' This was the escape I had made, the ease I had provided for myself...What I had done, I discovered to my embarrassment, and what I had been doing for much of my life, I discovered to my chagrin, was to dilute Christianity's claims by substituting for the presence of Christ the abstractness of 'God' as an idea. I thereby removed myself from confrontation with the person who rose from the dead, so that he could not question me about my allegiance to him. I was saved from decision.

If the power of the resurrection is related to 'God' without constant reference to God's presence in Christ, the resurrection is easier for us to handle. It then becomes something to think about rather than someone calling to us and asking whether we hear him. That way the resurrection can be explained as a doctrine; it begins and ends in words. As such it will never embarrass us by its demands, but it will also never save us by its power...

To talk about God is easier than to talk about Jesus Christ, for Jesus is too concrete, too demanding, too meaningful. Here we discover the risk we must take in order to receive the power of Christianity, but the excitement of Christianity is discovered at the same time....because it is something that happened--and still happens. Because it is a happening, it is historical. Its truth is found in singular events, not general principles, and its credibility is based on eyewitnesses, not theories.

The lives we live are filled with particularity. No one else is exactly like me. No one else can live my time for me..." And in his book Radical Christianity and the Flesh of Jesus, Vogel says, "We cannot live our full lives in the fleshless world of ideas and geometrical color configurations...We cannot be ourselves in an abstract world...It is too thin...Christianity begins in the flesh, and it begins in the movement of the fleshly life of Jesus...He came not to tell us about God but to take us into the life of with Jesus is the only way to solve the problem of living with Jesus...There is nothing to know of Jesus but the dynamism of his life; the quickening of our lives by his life is his presence with us....Everything is moving, dynamic, spontaneous; nothing is frozen, static, calculated...We can freeze to death while thinking of fire, and we get no real help in our lives from God by merely thinking about God...Christian living does not proceed from thought to action...
If we try never to discuss Jesus or deal with Jesus in less than a truly personal manner, that context will change many of the things we say about him--and many of the things we say we are doing for him..."

Monday, April 14, 2008

Everyone you meet...

This is what one of Kevin Brockmeier's characters understands (from his book The View from the Seventh Layer)

"There was no one alive who did not contribute his share of mystery to the world."

Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Odds

The Circle Around the Zero

A lover doesn't figure the odds.

He figures he came clean from God as a gift without a reason, so he gives without cause or calculation or limit.

A conventionally religious person behaves a certain way to achieve salvation.

A lover gambles everything, the self, the circle around the zero!

He or she cuts and throws it all away.

This is beyond any religion.

Lovers do not require from God any proof, or any text, nor do they knock on a door to make sure this is the right street.

They run, and they run.

~ Rumi ~

(Version by Coleman Barks, Feeling the Shoulder of the Lion)



I think that one person's complexity tends to dazzle, while another's simplicity can offer a kind of rest.
With God, however, I think it may be the other way around. It's God's simplicity that is dazzling, and God's complexity that is our rest.

Friday, April 4, 2008

"Blessing Said When Encountering a Large Crowd of People"

"Blessed are You Who knows all of the secrets. Praised are You Who created all of this strangeness and distinctiveness. Praised are You for never putting it all back together again."
Irwin Kula, Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life

More Simple Ways to Quench the Spirit and Protect Your Heart from Experiencing Intimacy with God

7.) Perpetually second-guess any moments or instances of peace or hope that you are tempted to enjoy.

("Despise not the day of small things..." Zech. 4:10)

8.) Overdefine what it means to experience God's presence, so that your definition rules out the following:

a.) everything that is not explicitly "religious" in content/tone

b.) everything associated with the imperfect, the incomplete; the stunted and the stunned; the distracted, the dislocated; the torn, the tossed, and the turning; the ragged, rotting, and raw; the botched and the bleeding; the broken, the unspoken; the tentative and the trembling--everything that struggles and staggers, all that is perplexing, under-the-radar, out-of-your-control.

c.) anything that doesn't "feel" like "something"

d.) anything you haven't "earned" in some way

e.) anything that is familiar to you

("Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, 'Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.'
But Naaman became angry and went away, saying, 'I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the LORD his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy! Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?" He turned and went away in a rage.
But his servants approached and said to him, 'Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, "Wash, and be clean"?' So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean." 2 Kings 5)

9.) Take personally each of your thoughts, emotions, and transitory physical states--they are all your fault, and every one of them of them accurately and completely represents your spiritual condition. You are not inadvertently absorbing any of them from situations and people in your vicinity or in your world, and none of them is coming as a stealth attack or even a bombardment from the enemy of your soul, whose strategy is to first torment you and then blame you for the torment.

( "Put on the whole armor of God,so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood & flesh,but against the rulers, against the authorities,against the cosmic powers of this present darkness,against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God,so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day,and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of trutharound your waist,and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whateverwill make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith,with which you will be able to quenchall the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation,and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. Ephesian 6:11)

10.) Remember that monitoring and immediately confessing to God every single imperfect thought, feeling, impulse, or mental image is much more important than delighting, however brokenly, in God and in the people around you.

(Many, O LORD my God, are the wonders which You have done, And Your thoughts toward us; There is none to compare with You. If I would declare and speak of them, They would be too numerous to count. Ps. 40:5)

11.) Keep in mind that the holiness of God is pretty much the bane of your life.

("Sing to the LORD, O you saints of his, and give thanks at the remembrance of his holiness." Ps. 40:5)

12.) And most importantly, live, pray, and believe in the context of a transactional relationship with God, in which you are the initiator of every interaction.


Six Simple Ways to Quench the Spirit and Protect Your Heart from Experiencing Intimacy with God

1. Complicate, idealize, mystify, and obfuscate the concept of friendship with God, making it so abstract and placing it so far out of reach that it is completely unattainable, or attainable only by some imaginary, unreal, perfected projection of yourself that has nothing to do with your actual flesh-and-blood existence.
( "For indeed, it is not to angels that He gives His help, but to to people like us..." Hebrews 2:18)
2. Assume that knowing God is for every other person but you, and every other time but now--it's for later, after you've solved X or taken care of Y.
( "Today if you will hear His voice, do not harden your hearts." Hebrews 4:7)
3. Avoid all risk and all adventure in your choices, your thinking and feeling, and your prayers--what if you get something wrong? Don't budge even an inch until you have absolute certainty, which includes knowing ahead of time all the potential implications and ramifications of every move, both inner and outer.
( "But My righteous one will live by faith, and if he shrinks back, My soul will have no pleasure in him." Hebrews 10:38)
4. When God comes to your remembrance at any given moment between or in the midst of tasks, rather than simply giving thanks for God's presence, or allowing yourself to feel whatever you are feeling in God's presence, use up that little gap of time by attempting to evaluate things between you, to repent of not thinking of God sooner and more frequently, and to assess and repair what may or may not be broken in your connection with God. Then become involved in the tasks at hand until you remember God again. Repeat process, ad infinitum.
("Better is one day in Your house than thousands elsewhere." Psalm 84:10)
5. When you are uneasy or unsettled for any reason, find some way to distract yourself, such as snacking, purchasing something, checking your email, etc., rather than experiencing the unsettledness in the context of companionship with God.
( See line from Psalm above.)
6. At all costs, avoid silence and solitude, since you must somehow address and deal with every thought or emotion that pops up when you are by yourself, rather than simply letting some of them go.
("Deep calls to deep at the sound of Your waterfalls; all Your waves and billows have gone over me." Psalm 42:7
"My soul, wait silently for God alone, for my expectation is from Him." Psalm 62:5

Tuesday, April 1, 2008


The first two sections of Troy Jollimore's poem "Light"



When the gates were finally thrown open and the world
was filled with light,
no one, at first, could see a thing--it was overwhelming:
from utter, infinite darkness into blazing, limitless
but then they began to adjust, and to look on things
for the first time.
And they were amazed to discover that some things--
ice, to take an example--
looked the way they felt; and that some--like rain,
for instance--
looked the way they sounded; and that the wind, which could
feel like rushing water
and sound like a wounded animal, did not, at least for the most part,
look like anything at all. It was all so new to them
that they declared a public holiday and closed down all the shops,
the banks, the government offices, the libraries, the schools,
and they just walked around and looked at things, then gathered to compare notes,
and each person wondered whether or not he ought to admit to the others
that he wasn't sure that he liked it, that he felt just a bit afraid.


All that time they'd been carrying eyes around, not knowing
what they were for.
It was good to know. It was good, they all agreed, to have that