Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Can't Get No Satisfaction... Thank God!

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Relatively speaking, the meditation being presented here was written some time ago - Fall 2007.  I am quite sure that anyone who read it then has long forgotten it!  But for those who are new to the parish, and for those who are willing to give it another read, I thought that it would have a certain resonance since we will be chanting the Akathist Hymn "Glory to God For All Things" tomorrow evening as we acknowledge the Church New Year beginning on September 1.  I say that because there are certain thoughts expressed in the Hymn that led me to write this particular meditation.

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Can't Get No Satisfaction... Thank God!

"My soul thirsts for God, for the living God." —Psalm 42:2
"I can't get no satisfaction" —The Rolling Stones

"We thank God for the gift of "blessed dissatisfaction!"

"I (Can't Get No) Satisfaction" by the Rolling Stones must be considered one of the great all-time "classics" of the pop/rock music world. 

I remember it well from the Summer of 1965. With its driving guitar riff and raspy-voiced lyrics giving a kind of pop-articulation to the disaffection of the lonely and alienated urbanite who, try as he might, just cannot succeed at "satisfying" the material and romantic/sexual goals droned into his mind on the radio and TV; this song - regardless of its actual intentions - managed to say something enduring about the "human condition." (I wonder if the various members of the Rolling Stones ever experience any genuine satisfaction after many years of fame and fortune). 

Be that as it may, a rather odd connection came to me between this song and a verse from "The Akathist of Thanksgiving" that we will sing and chant for the Church New Year on September 1. In Ikos Six of the akathist, one of the verses in the refrain reads as follows:

Glory to You, Who have inspired in us dissatisfaction with earthly things.

Both the Stones' song and the Orthodox hymn speak of "no satisfaction" or "dissatisfaction." However by "earthly things," the author of this remarkable hymn, does not mean the natural world in which God has placed us. The refrain of Ikos Three makes that abundantly clear:

Glory to You, Who brought out of the earth's darkness diversity of color, taste and fragrance,
Glory to You, for the warmth and caress of all nature,
Glory to You, for surrounding us with thousands of Your creatures,
Glory to You, for the depth of Your wisdom reflected in the whole world ...

To the purified eyes of faith, the world around us can be a "festival of life" ... foreshadowing eternal life" (Ikos Two). The "earthly" can lead us to the "heavenly."

"Earthly things" in the context of the Akathist Hymn and the Orthodox worldview expressed in the Hymn, would certainly refer to the very things the Rolling Stones song laments about being absent - material and sexual satisfaction seen as ends in themselves. But whereas the song expresses both frustration and resentment as part of the psychic pain caused by such deprivation, the Akathist Hymn glorifies God for such a blessing! In the light of the insight of the Akathist Hymn, we can thus speak of a "blessed dissatisfaction." The Apostle Paul spoke of a closely-related "godly grief." (On this point, I would imagine that the Apostle Paul and Rolling Stones part company).

This just may prove to be quite a challenge to our way of approaching something like dissatisfaction.

Our usual instinct is to flee from dissatisfaction "as from the plague." Such a condition implies unhappiness, a sense of a lack of success, of "losing" in the harsh game of life as time continues to run out on us; and the deprivation and frustration mentioned above. 

Why should we tolerate the condition of dissatisfaction when limitless means of achieving "satisfaction" are at our disposal? To escape from a gnawing sense of dissatisfaction, don't people resort to alcohol, drugs and sex as desperate forms of relief? Or unrestrained and massive consumer spending? And we should not eliminate "religion" as one of those means of escape. 

If those means fail, then there is always therapy and medication as more aggressive means to relieve us of this unendurable feeling. 

Sadly, many learn "the hard way," that every ill-conceived attempt to eliminate dissatisfaction through "earthly things" only leads to a further and deeper level of this unsatiable affliction. Sadder still, there are many who would "forfeit their soul/life" just to avoid the bitter taste of dissatisfaction!

If the living God exists as we believe that He does, then how could we not feel dissatisfaction at His absence from our lives? What could possibly fill the enormous space in the depth of our hearts that yearns for God "as a hart longs for flowing streams." (Ps. 42:1) 

It is as if when people "hear" the voice of God calling them - in their hearts, their conscience, through another person, a personal tragedy - they reach over and turn up the volume so as to drown out that call. 

If we were made for God, then each person has an "instinct for the transcendent" (I recall this term from Fr. Alexander Schmemann), that can only be suppressed at an incalculable cost to our very humanity. 

In His infinite mercy, the Lord "blesses" us with a feeling of dissatisfaction so that we do not foolishly lose our souls in the infinitesimal pseudo-satisfactions that come our way. Therefore, we thank God for the gift of "blessed dissatisfaction!"

When we realize that we "can't get no satisfaction," then we have approached the threshold of making a meaningful decision about the direction of our lives. The way "down" can lead to that kind of benign despair that characterizes the lives of many today. The way "up" to the One Who is "enthroned above the heavens" and the Source of true satisfaction. 

The Rolling Stones uncovered the truth of an enduring condition that we all must face and must "deal with." I am not so sure about the solution they would ultimately offer ... but in their initial intuition they proved to be very "Orthodox!"

I look forward to seeing many of you at the service so that the remembrance of God and thankfulness for the glorious gift of life can be further planted in our minds and hearts.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Farewell to Rio

Dear Parish Faithful,

Ironic indeed, that the Olympic Games - which display an array of highly-disciplined specimens of  physical prowess and stamina, male and female - should create a vast multitude of "coach potatoes" who remain more-or-less immobile before their TV sets cheering on their respective heroes. As I always find the Olympic Games quite entertaining, I must confess to having been a member of that vast multitude for the past two weeks. 

Enjoyable as it was, glad the Games are over!  Be that as it may, it is always impressive to see these athletes and their dedication, training, and skill on full display. 

These Games had their share of drama, high moments of sheer excellence, and unanticipated heroes; yet almost eclipsed by the embarrassing farce/scandal of some of our American swimmers . Truly an object lesson in telling the truth from the outset, unpalatable as it may be.

The Apostle Paul drew on the Corinthian Games of his day, by transforming some of the athletic events on display into useful metaphors that drive home an essential point of Christian discipline or what we would ultimately call asceticism:

"Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize?  Every athlete exercises self-control in all things.  They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Well, I do not run aimlessly, I do not box as one beating the air; but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified."  (I COR. 9:24-27)

We can see the joy of receiving a gold medal - the perishable wreath of the Apostle Paul's time - in the face of an Olympic champion.  So the imperishable wreath/medal  serves as one more metaphor for eternal life with God. And having witnessed a few disqualifications during the Games, it was clear about how painful and disappointing such a turn of events can be.  Therefore, a sobering reminder of the Apostle Paul concerning our perseverance in "contesting" for the Kingdom of God.

With the approach of the Church New Year it is time to get off the couch!

Monday, August 15, 2016

The Dormition of the Theotokos - Celebrating a 'deathless death'

Dear Parish Faithful,

"A Christian ending to our lives, painless, blameless and peaceful ... let us ask of the Lord."

We just completed our celebration of the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos with Great Vespers yesterday evening and the Divine Liturgy this morning.  "All things considered" - meaning that this year the cycle took place from Sunday evening to Monday morning - we had good participation for the Feast and two wonderful services.

In the center of the church was the tomb with a beautiful icon of the Mother of God in blessed repose to be venerated by the faithful.  (This icon will remain in the tomb which will be put back in its new normal spot in the back of the church, where everyone can venerate the image until the leave-taking of the Feast  on August 23).  We also blessed flowers at the end of the Liturgy, adding beauty to the Feast as we did last week with our fruit baskets at Transfiguration.

Dormition, of course, means "falling asleep," the Christian term par excellence for how we approach the mystery of death. And here we further approach the paradox, from a Christian perspective, of death itself - the "last enemy" that causes great anguish and grief; but yet which now serves as a passage to life everlasting, and thus a cause for festal celebration in the death of the Mother of God. For the Virgin Mary truly died, as is the fate of all human beings; and yet "neither the tomb nor death could hold the Theotokos" who has been "translated to life by the One who dwelt in her virginal womb!" Without for a moment losing sight of the reality of death (notice the weeping apostles around the body of the Theotokos on the Dormition icon), from within the Church we can actually celebrate death during this "summer pascha" because of the Resurrection of Christ.

Thus, the Feast of the Dormition clearly raises the issue of death and dying, and what we mean by a “Christian ending to our life.”  For the moment, though, here is a challenging paragraph from Fr. Thomas Hopko about some of our own misconceptions – basically our fears – that often find us wandering far from an Orthodox approach to death and dying:

I believe that the issue of death and dying is in need of serious attention in contemporary Orthodoxy, especially in the West, where most members of the Church seem to be “pagan” before people die and “Platonists” afterwards.  By this I mean that they beg the Church to keep people alive, healthy, and happy as long as possible, and then demand that the Church assure them after people die that their immortal souls are “in a better place, basking in heavenly bliss” no matter what they may have done in their earthly lives.  —  From Christian Faith and Same-Sex Attractions, p. 89, note 2.

To add a bit more to this, here is a passage from Bp. Ilarion Alfeyev, that reinforces the Christian understanding – and hope – that accompanies us at the moment of death:

For the non-believing person, death is a catastrophe and a tragedy, a rupture and a break.  For the Christian, though, death is neither a catastrophe nor something evil.  Death is a “falling asleep,” a temporary condition of separation from the body until the final unification with it.  As Isaac the Syrian emphasizes, the sleep of death is short in comparison with the expectant eternity of a person.  — From Orthodox Christianity, Vol. 2, p. 496.

St. Gregory of Nyssa states this Christian hope with clarity:

By the divine Providence death has been introduced as a dispensation into the nature of man, so that, sin having flowed away at the dissolution of the union of soul and body, man, through the resurrection, might be refashioned, sound, passionless, stainless, and removed from any touch of evil.  – Great Catechetical Oration, 35.

This is precisely why we can call the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos, “pascha in the summer!”   The Virgin Mary and Theotokos died a “deathless death.”  Now we have the opportunity to participate in this mystery in the celebration of this event as nothing less than a Feast. 

Friday, August 12, 2016

Cultivating the Image of Divine Beauty

Dear Parish Faithful,

We are about to reach the Leavetaking of the Transfiguration of Christ tomorrow. Just a few last thoughts before we get there.

The mysterious presence of Beauty is revealed on Mt. Tabor in an overwhelming manner when Christ is transfigured there resplendent in divine glory. This is the beauty of the first-formed human creatures, created to reflect the beauty of the divine nature, for by grace they - and we - were created in the image and likeness of God.  And they were placed in a world that also reflected this divine beauty.  That is why God, after completing the creation process, declared that is was all "very good."

Yet, the presence of sin marred that beauty. This lost beauty was restored to humanity when the Son of God assumed our human nature, uniting it to His divine Person and revealing the glory of God in a human being. Thus, on Mt. Tabor, Christ reveals the beauty of His divine nature and the beauty of our created human nature. This is why the Transfiguration is often referred to as a Feast of Beauty.

The Russian novelist Dostoevsky (+1881) famously and somewhat enigmatically once said:  "Beauty will save the world." Yet, Dostoevsky also realized that in a world filled with sin, beauty can evoke responses that fall short of any saving value. In fact, beauty can even degenerate toward sin and sensuality, as one of Dostoevsky's greatest creations, Dmitri Karamazov, acknowledged with great anguish. 

Therefore, for Dostoevsky beauty itself had to be "saved" and linked to Truth and Goodness. Thus, for the Russian novelist, beauty is not simply an aesthetic concept, but one that must have a moral, ethical and spiritual dimension for it to be rightly perceived and experienced. And for Dostoevsky as well as for not only great artists, but the great minds of the Church, beauty is not an abstract concept or Idea. Beauty is a Person, and this Person is Christ.  In Christ, Truth, Goodness and Beauty are harmoniously united.  This is why Dostoevesky also spoke of the "radiant image of Christ."  In another famous passage from his pen, found in a letter of his, Dostoevsky articulated his personal "creed:"

I have constructed for myself a symbol of faith in which everything is clear and holy for me.  The symbol is very clear, here it is:  to believe that there is nothing more beautiful, profounder, more sympathetic, more reasonable, more courageous and more perfect than Christ and not only is there nothing , but I tell myself with jealous love that never could there be.

It is these qualities that make Christ such an attractive figure that a well-disposed mind and heart not unduly influenced by the marks of a fallen world will almost naturally turn to as an "ideal," but again as a concrete living Person. There is a passage from Fr. Alexander Elchaninov (+1934), taken from his personal diary after his death, that captures that same intuition as found in Dostoevsky:

It is impossible not to love Christ. If we saw Him now, we should not be able to take our eyes off Him, we should "listen to him in rapture;" we should flock round Him as did the multitudes in the Gospels.  All this is required of us is not to resist. We have only to yield to Him, to the contemplation of His image - in the Gospels, in the saints, in the Church - and He will take possession of our hearts.

Here, again, there is an inherent moral, ethical and spiritual dimension from that beauty that flows outward from Christ. This is rendered in the form of very practical and concrete advice in the words of Vladimir Solovyov (+1900), for many the greatest Russian philosopher known to us:

Before any important decision, let us evoke in our soul the image of Christ. Let us concentrate our attention upon it and ask ourselves:  Would He Himself do this action? Or, in other words: Will He approve of it or not? 
To all I propose this rule: it does not deceive. In every dubious case, as soon as the possibility of a choice is offered to you, remember Christ.  Picture to yourself His living Person, as it really is, and entrust Him with the burden of your doubts. 
Let men of good will, as individuals, as social factors, as leaders of men and peoples, apply this criterion, and they will really be able, in the name of truth, to show to others the way toward God.

This concreteness is all the more interesting, for Solovyov was often a highly speculative thinker. That what he wrote just over a century ago is hardly a public ideal any longer is to our great loss.  It is our role to maintain and cultivate the image of divine beauty in our lives as seen in the face of the incarnate Christ a sacred obligation. 

Friday, August 5, 2016

A Feast of Divine Beauty

Dear Parish Faithful and Friends in Christ

This weekend, we will celebrate the Great 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 - Matthew 17:1-9, Mark 9:2-8 and Luke 9:28-36.  There is also a powerful eyewitness account of the event written by the Apostle Peter in 2 Peter 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” (Matthew 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 Mount Tabor.  As the “radiance of the Father” (Hebrews 1:3), He is the perfect and natural icon/Image of the invisible God (Colossians 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” (1 Peter 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” (Matthew 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 and human 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 become 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 (1 Corinthians 15: 47-49).  All of this was revealed to the disciples on Mount 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” (Matthew 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” (Philippians 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 ( Luke 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” (Hebrews 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” (Luke 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" (Philippians 2:9-11).

Saint Paul, however, is not finished with drawing out further consequences for us with another “therefore” as he continues,

“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” (Philippians 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 both here and at the End of Time.