Friday, August 8, 2014

The Terrific Cost of Choice

Reflections on Charles Manson and Saint Herman of Alaska

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

It was forty-five years ago today - August 8, 1969 - that some of the most horrific and heinous crimes in American history were committed in California.  These were the so-called "Manson murders" in which seven people were brutally killed in the seemingly safe haven of their homes by the drug-induced followers of the cult leader Charles Manson, a self-styled "modern-day messiah."  (Actually, two of the killings occurred two days after the initial five on August 8). Unfortunately, the name of Charles Manson remains well-known to this day within the ranks of the infamous and defamed characters of American crime history - especially among those who were alive and old enough to grasp the gruesome nature of those murders forty-five years ago.  I belong to that group as I was sixteen years old at the time, and I remember fairly-well the shock that these murders evoked in the entire nation.  The murders, the arrests, the bizarre antics at the trial of the "Manson family" and the unfolding of the details of this sordid case became something of a fixation for the entire nation up to the time of the sentencing of the killers.  The inevitable book to follow, Helter Skelter, was a huge best-seller for years and I believe still remains in print.  These murders brought to a sober and even stunning end the fantasy-like idealization that had accompanied the "hippie movement" of the 60's.

"My Life After Manson."

This was an event of the past tucked away in the far recesses of my memory, I can assure everyone. I am not writing this with any continuing fascination with the case. However, I happened to come across a short ten-minute video-documentary while reading the New York Times on the internet the other day entitled "My Life After Manson."  This was an interview with one of Manson's cult followers, Patricia Krenwinkel.  Incarcerated for forty-five years now, she is the longest-serving woman within the California penal system.  She was initially on death-row, but that sentence was commuted. The interview is of a woman who must now be about sixty-five years old, alone in the frame against a stark black background. By appearance and dress (she is not wearing a prison uniform) she could be anyone's grandmother.  I found this to be an arresting piece based upon what Patricia Krenwinkel had to say of her past and the tremendous effort she has made through the years to come to terms with that past in order to be the woman she is today.

Recognizing herself as a "different person" today, she openly called herself a "coward" for participating in a "situation" that she could only describe as "disastrous, horrendous and abominable."  She briefly described an unhappy childhood and adolescence during which she "never fitted in" with her surrounding world, and following an older and equally unhappy step-sister, she "dropped out" by eighteen and began a life of self-destruction fueled by alcohol and drugs.  Inevitably, she encountered the Manson circle and "initially accepted everything that that man told me." She was obsessed with "wanting to please," "feel safe," and have someone "care for me," for she had "never felt that" previously in her life. In the process she now realizes that she "gave up the person I could have been," and that she was "throwing away the rest of my life."  Perhaps the most telling and even poignant remark she made was that she only "wanted to be loved," but that she had a "skewed definition of love," and that eventually it "only ended up wrong."  (I often think to myself just how many hardened criminals are now in prison because they never experienced anything even resembling love in their lives.  That is not a sentimental dismissal of their crimes, for which they deserve punishment, but simply a recognition of how a "loveless life" is so much more prone to choose the "road to perdition"). Thus, she found herself "broken beyond repair" on death-row by the time she was twenty-three years old, and during which she spent twenty-three hours in the day in a small cell.

She basically describes an experience of deep repentance — in rather raw terms — of facing up to a past filled with unimaginable sin and evil.

How could this possibly happen?  It seems that Patricia Krenwinkel has been spending the better part of her forty-five years in prison in a quest for self-knowledge and self-understanding. She claims that she reached a point where she had to "make the decision of my life," recognizing that "everything that I had ever believed was wrong," in the process "pulling apart the enmeshed garbage" that she sank her life into.  And this, she further adds, was the "most difficult thing" imaginable. Her comments from this point on were quite intriguing because she basically describes an experience of deep repentance, though that word or any mention of God or the "spiritual" never enters into her chosen vocabulary.  What she described was therefore a kind of secular repentance, fueled by what seemed to be a deep remorse.  In this quest for self-knowledge, she spoke in terms that could best be described as a "confession" that she was "responsible for the damage, wreckage and horror" that destroyed so many lives forty-five years ago.  She claims to take on that sense of responsibility every day of her life.  Yet this has given her the freedom to recreate her life, and to embrace, in her words, "my beliefs" and "my choices."  What must she think of Charles Manson today? In other words, Patricia Krenwinkle now admits that she has learned about choice "at a most horrific cost."  All in all, this short documentary was a moving piece in which a human person openly speaks - in rather raw terms - of facing up to a past filled with unimaginable sin and evil. Living with that self-knowledge must now be an unimaginable burden. Only God knows how this all works itself out.

With St. Herman we encounter an "angel in the flesh" and with Charles Manson we encounter a "demon in the flesh."  The one embodies the "mystery of holiness" and the other the "mystery of evil."  The saint was deified and the sinner was dehumanized...

Tomorrow — August 9 — we commemorate St. Herman of Alaska.  On the one hand, there is St. Herman; and on the other hand there is Charles Manson.  What an abyss lies between the two!  What a stark contrast between light and darkness!  Or between the beauty of the image enhanced by choosing the good and the deformed ugliness of choosing evil. With St. Herman we encounter an "angel in the flesh" and with Charles Manson we encounter a "demon in the flesh."  The one embodies the "mystery of holiness" and the other the "mystery of evil."  The saint was deifed and the sinner was dehumanized.  This brings to mind the memorable words of one of Dostoevsky's most memorable characters, Dmitri Karamazov.  In grappling with the "mystery of beauty" that can deflect one from the "ideal of the Madonna" to the "ideal of Sodom," Dmitri articulates his perplexity with the following words:

No, man is broad, even too broad, I would narrow him down.  Devil knows even what to make of him, that's the thing!  What's shame for the mind is beauty all over for the heart.  Can there be beauty in Sodom?  Believe me, for the vast majority of people, that's just where beauty lies - did you know that secret?  The terrible thing is that beauty is not only fearful but mysterious. Here the devil is struggling with God, and the battlefield is the human heart.  (The Brothers Karamazov, Bk. 3, Ch. 3)

This is not the usual material that I choose for these "Fragments for Friday," but this particular story was a reminder of how the heart can wander into very dark territory.  We need our own vigilance so that the "ideal of the Madonna" always prevails over the "ideal of Sodom."  May God protect us!

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Obedience, and the Feast of Divine Beauty

Dear Fathers,  Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

    Today is the Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord, a Feast of light and glory celebrated every year on August 6.  The account of the Transfiguration can be found in three of the Gospels - MATT. 17:1-9; MK. 9:2-8; LK. 9:28-36.  There is also a powerful eyewitness account of  the event written by the Apostle Peter in II PET.1:10-19.  All of these scriptural accounts deserve a careful and prayerful reading. The transfigured Lord reveals the splendor of a human being fully alive, for Christ reveals to us the perfect image of humanity transfigured by the glory of God.  That is why "his face shone like the sun, and his garments became white as light" (MATT. 17:2).  The hymnography of the Feast makes this point over and over:

In His own person he showed them the nature of man, arrayed in the original beauty of the image ...
Thou has made the nature that had grown dark in Adam to shine again as lightning transforming it into the glory and splendor of thy divinity.
(Vespers Aposticha of the Feast)  

Christ reveals both our origin and our destiny on Mt. Tabor.  As the "radiance of the Father" (HEB. 1:3)  He is the perfect and natural Ikon/Image of the invisible God (COL. 1:15).  As human beings created according to the image and likeness of God, we are actually "images of the Image." What Christ is by nature, is what we are meant to be by grace - "partakers of the divine nature"  (II PET. 1:4)  This is promised and pledged to us in the Age to Come when "the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father," (MATT. 13:43) but revealed now in Christ Who is the incarnate Son of God.  A revelation, no doubt, of extraordinary beauty!   Thus, the Transfiguration is a Feast of divine beauty.  Can anything more splendid  possibly be envisioned?

     In other words, whatever Christ does or says, is what a perfect human being united to God would do or say.  He not only reveals God to us, but also humanity.  Look at Christ and you are looking at what it means to be truly and genuinely human.  He is what Adam was meant to be, but failed to be because of sin.  As Christ is without sin, He is the "last (and perfect) Adam."  He is also the "man of heaven"  because He reveals to us what heaven is like, where we will bear his image (I COR. 15: 47-49).   All of this was revealed to the disciples on Mt. Tabor when, with even more than the dazzling and startling power of an unexpected flash of lightning, Christ was "transfigured before them."  In that glorious splendor, the disciples Peter, James and John received a glimpse of the End of Time before it has actually come.  That is a good deal to take in at once, so it is no wonder that the disciples "fell on their faces and were filled with awe" (MATT. 17:2,6)!   It is simultaneously no wonder that Peter made a suggestion to the Lord - "I will make three booths" - in the hope of prolonging this experience.  Through them, and our celebration of the Feast, we receive that same glimpse.  The King reveals to us His Kingdom, so that we may be attracted to it and then live for it.  In that sense we are future-oriented as Christians.

    But if Christ is the perfect human being, then He is such because of His obedience to His heavenly Father.  He is always "obedient unto death, even death on a cross"  (PHIL. 2:8).  This is why the Lord came down from the mountain. Neither He nor the disciples were able to linger there.  He had yet to accomplish His "exodus" at Jerusalem. ( LK. 9:31)  This is clearly an allusion to the Cross and Resurrection.  In fact, Christ was "made perfect" because "he learned obedience through what he suffered"  (HEB. 5:8-9).  Christ was never not obedient to His Father!   He always said to His heavenly Father: "not my will, but thine, be done"  (LK. 22:42).  His authority and glory are firmly grounded in that obedience.  The result and consequence of this obedience is expressed by the Apostle Paul by his use of the word "therefore" in the following passage:

Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.  (PHIL. 2:9-11)

     St. Paul, however, is not finished with drawing out further consequences for us with another "therefore:"

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.   (PHIL. 2:12-13)

    It seems rather clear, "therefore," that we must be obedient to God - like Christ was at all times and in all things - if we are to share in His glory at the End of Time.

Friday, August 1, 2014

A Matter of Choice: The Holy Maccabean Martyrs

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

"We are ready to die rather than break the laws of our fathers."  (II MACC. 7:2)

On August 1, we commemorate "The Holy Seven Maccabee Children, Solomone their mother, and Eleazar their Teacher."  They were all put to death in the year 168 B.C.  They were thus protomartyrs before the time of Christ and the later martyrs of the Christian era.  They died because they refused to reject the precepts of the Law when ordered to do so by the Syrian tyrant Antiochus Epiphanes IV.  After conquering the Holy Land, Antiochus wanted to subvert the uniqueness of the Jews and force them to assimilate to the standards and practices of the prevailing Hellenistic culture.  By attacking the precepts of the Law, Antiochus was aiming to destroy the very heart of Judaism.  The Jews would then become like the "other nations," and perhaps their smoldering resentment against their conquerors would be extinguished.  This, of course, did not happen, because the Maccabean revolt, led by Judas Maccabaeus, not only resisted but expelled the Hellenized Syrian invaders and restored the Kingdom of Israel to its former glory days one last time (142 - 63 B.C.) before the Romans under Pompey reduced the Kingdom of Israel to a conquered province.

To return to the story of the Maccabees, we find them, under the guidance of their teacher Eleazar, resisting the decree that they eat pork, which was prohibited by the Law.  Understanding that this was a threat against their entire traditional way of life, Eleazor refused and was subsequently tortured until he died.  He was simply asked to "pretend" to eat the meat, so as to encourage others to do so.  In reply, his dying words as recorded in II MACC. 6:24-28, eloquently attest to his fidelity to the Law of God:

Send me quickly to my grave.  If I went through with this pretense at my time of life, many of  young might believe that at the age of ninety Eleazar had turned apostate.  If I practiced deceit for the sake of a brief moment of life, I should lead them astray and bring stain and pollution on my old age. I might for the present avoid man's punishment, but, alive or dead, I shall never escape from the hands of the Almighty. So if I now die bravely, I shall show that I have deserved my long life and leave the young a fine example to teach them how to die a good death, gladly and nobly, for our revered and holy laws.

Following the death of Eleazar, the seven Maccebee brothers were arrested together with their mother, Salomone.  They were also tortured for refusing to eat pork, and one of them said:  "We are ready to die rather than break the laws of our fathers"  (II MACC. 7:2).  Enraged by such pious resistance, the tyrant ordered that all seven brothers be tortured by various inhuman means.  All of this was witnessed by their mother who watched all seven of her sons perish in a single day.  Acting "against nature," she encouraged her children "in her native tongue" to bravely withstand the assaults on their tender flesh:

You appeared in my womb, I know not how; it was not I who gave you life and breath and set in order your bodily frames.  It is the Creator of the universe who moulds man at his birth and plans the origin of all things. Therefore he, in his mercy, will give you back life and breath again, since now you put his laws above all thought of self.  (II MACC. 7:22-23)

We find in her last sentence, a clear allusion to belief in the resurrection from the dead.

Especially poignant is the death of her last and youngest son.  He was promised riches and a high position if he only agreed to "abandon his ancestral customs."  The mother was urged to "persuade her son," which she did in the following manner:

My son, take pity on me.  I carried you nine months in the womb, suckled you three years, reared you and brought you up to the present age.  I beg you, child, look at the sky and the earth; see all that is in them and realize that God made them out of nothing, and that man comes into being in the same way. Do not be afraid of this butcher; accept death and prove yourself worthy of your brothers, so that by God's mercy I may receive you back again along with them.  (II MACC. 7:27-29)

In v. 28, we may hear the clearest declaration of the belief that God creates "ex nihilo" (from nothing) in the entire Old Testament.

The youngest of the brothers then died after both witnessing to the meaning of their martyrdom and warning the tyrant of his own inevitable fate:

My brothers have now fallen in loyalty to God's covenant, after brief pain leading to eternal life; but you will pay the just penalty of your insolence by the verdict of God.  I, like my brothers, surrender my body and my life for the laws of our fathers. ... (II MACC. 7:36-37)

We then simply read that "after her sons, the mother died."  (II MACC. 7:39)

It is difficult to say to what extent we can actually relate to all of this today.  We may deeply respect the devotion to the Law that is exhibited in this moving story of multiple matyrdoms - and perhaps be especially moved by the beautiful words of the mother that express our own belief in the creative power of God, His providential care for us and the ultimate gift of resurrection and eternal life with God - but this is far-removed from our contemporary Christian sensibilities.  In fact, such devotion today could very well strike us as overly-zealous, if not fanatical.  The prospects of such martyrdoms are not exactly on our radar screens.  Be that as it may, I believe that we have something more than passingly important that we can learn from this ancient story.

We begin the Dormition Fast today. We are encouraged by the Church - our "Mother" we could say - to embrace the fast with the certainty that we are being guided into a practice that is designed to strengthen our spiritual well-being.  This is part of an Orthodox way of life that has been witnessed to for centuries by the faithful of the Church.  We could also say that such practices belong to the "laws of our fathers."  By embracing such practices we continue in the traditions that have been handed down to us.  To ignore such practices is to break with that Tradition.  That can lead to an erosion of our self-identity as Orthodox Christians, especially considering our "minority status" in the landscape of American religion.  The spirit of the tyrant Antiochus Epiphanes is alive and well in the constant temptation we face to assimilate to the surrounding culture.  But that "culture" is often reduced to finding the meaning of life in "eating, drinking and making merry."  There are no official decrees that demand that we abandon our Faith.  But there is a never-ending drone that 'pollutes" the atmosphere with the seductions of a Godless way of life, precisely because of of how pleasingly it is presented.  In other words, a dear price is paid for the comforts of conformity.

We are hardly being asked to be martyrs; but to manifest some restraint and discipline in order to strengthen our inner lives as we fast bodily to some extent.  If we convince ourselves that this is inconvenient, uncomfortable, or undesirable, then we place ourselves outside of the very Tradition we claim to follow and respect.  Older members of the community can bear in mind the words of Eleazar and realize that we are setting an example for our younger members.  We are responsible for preparing the next generation.  Mothers - and fathers! - can exhort their children in a way that is encouraging and not just demanding.  This has nothing to do with mere "legalism," but with a way of life that has been practiced for centuries by Orthodox Christians, and which is just as meaningful today as in the past. And, as with the Seven Maccabee Children, it is ultimately a matter of choice.