Friday, August 14, 2015

'Are You Flossing?' — Spiritual Insights from the Dentist's Chair

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

My trip to the dental office on Wednesday proved to be anti-climatic, as the encounter between two clashing worldviews (those who floss and those who do not) never materialized.  This was due to the fact that my hygienist for the morning was Tracy, and she and I know each other well from the past.  (From past conversations she always asks if and when my parish is planning another mission trip to Guatemala). And having a good memory of her patients' dental habits, she remembered that I am not a flosser, so she tactfully decided not to ask the big question:  "Are you flossing?" And I was prepared to just say no. Tracy is a very conscientious hygienist, so that level of restraint was admirable in my view. 

However, this did not prevent the day from being enlightening as I learned something that could be recast in a theological "key."

In those few precious seconds between the invasive dental pick and the "water-pistol," I thought to engage in some dental office small talk, so searching for a "hot topic" and playing to Tracy's strength, I asked her:  "Just what is the distinction between plaque and tartar?" 

This was Tracy's specialty, so I was the recipient of an impressive summary that proved to be a bit technical, but clearly well-expressed and with genuine enthusiasm.  (To get a feel for this dialogue, you may imagine trying to make small talk with me by asking:  "Just what is the distinction between ousia and hypostasis in Trinitarian theology?")  When all was said and done, I learned that tartar is "calcified plaque."  Quite interesting.

After a thorough and very professional teeth cleaning, I set off for home with that expression of "calcified plaque" in my mind. I was playing a CD of the Vespers of Dormition, and then it struck me:  The passions are "calcified" sin! 

If calcified can be loosely translated as "hardened" then the point is very clear.  For when a particular sin becomes habitual — "hardened" — the Fathers tell us that it then becomes a "passion."  And the passions, according to the Fathers, not only invade the heart, but actually "harden" the heart, spiritually conceived.  (To employ another metaphor, we could describe this condition as a spiritual cardiac sclerosis, perhaps).  As Archbishop Kallistos Ware summarizes this teaching, he writes:

By "passion" here is meant not just sexual lust, but any disordered appetite or longing that violently takes possession of the soul: anger, jealousy, gluttony, avarice, lust for power, pride and the rest.  (The Orthodox Way, p. 116)

Once hardened in the heart, the real spiritual center of our being, the battle to remove the passions becomes especially fierce, to the point that we speak of "warfare against the passions."  We can live with this condition on the surface quite well, perhaps, but underneath the surface the "soul-destroying passions" continue their erosive effect on our entire being.  Then we face the danger of being a "white-washed tomb" according to Christ.  Or something like the "picture of Dorian Gray."

This comes to mind as Tracy was telling me that the visible plaque or tartar on the surface of the teeth can be removed rather easily; but it is the "invisible" traces of those invasive bacteria underneath the gums that needs to be "dug out" if your mouth and teeth are going to be healthy - hence the unpleasantness of that pick and the occasional sensitive nerve that once struck, can make you squirm a bit. 

It is one thing, then, to flash a set of white teeth, but it is more important to remove that "calcified plaque" that we call tartar, not only on the surface but underneath the gums as well.  So, it is one thing to "look good" on the surface and project an image of moral rectitude, if not religious piety; but another thing to remove the "soul-destroying passions" underneath the neat exterior so as to become "pure in heart."  For, as Archbishop Ware further writes:

Many of the Fathers treat the passions as something intrinsically evil ...  Some of them, however, adopt a more positive standpoint, regarding the passions as dynamic impulses originally placed in man by God, and so fundamentally good, although at present distorted by sin ... Uncontrolled rage must be turned into righteous indignation, spiteful jealousy into zeal for the truth, sexual lust into an eros that is pure in its fervor.  The passions, then, are to be purified, not killed; to be educated, not eradicated; to be used positively, not negatively.  To ourselves and to others we say, not "Suppress," but "Transfigure." (The Orthodox Way, p. 116)

Now that an expert has told me that "tartar is calcified plaque" I will remember that as a helpful metaphor that can be applied to our spiritual lives, for the "passions are calcified sin."  The "passions" are removed by prayer, fasting and almsgiving; by Confession and Communion; by meditation upon the Scriptures; by those "tools" given to us by God so that we may emerge victorious in this life and death struggle for the "salvation of our souls," what St. Peter hopes is the "outcome of our faith." (I PET. 9)

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