30 April 2009

Christos anesti!

Given the events of the past few weeks (Holy Week and Pascha preparations, last week of class and finals, the repose of my father-in-law and our trip to Cleveland for his funeral, and now a touch of bronchitis), I feel a little like St. Thomas the Monday after Pascha. Let me wish to one and all a belated but blessed Pascha: "Christos anesti!"

15 April 2009

John Carson Howard, 23 June 1923-14 April 2009

I just received word from my wife in New Mexico that my father-in-law reposed last night.
Words fail.
May his memory be eternal!

14 April 2009

A bit of "The Brothers Karamazov"

Beloved fathers and teachers, I was born in a distant province in the north, in the town of V. My father was a gentleman by birth, but of no great consequence or position. He died when I was only two years old, and I don’t remember him at all. He left my mother a small house built of wood, and a fortune, not large, but sufficient to keep her and her children in comfort. There were two of us, my elder brother Markel and I. He was eight years older than I was, of hasty, irritable temperament, but kind-hearted and never ironical. He was remarkably silent, especially at home with me, his mother, and the servants. He did well at school, but did not get on with his school-fellows, though he never quarrelled, at least so my mother has told me. Six months before his death, when he was seventeen, he made friends with a political exile who had been banished from Moscow to our town for freethinking, and led a solitary existence there. He was a good scholar who had gained distinction in philosophy in the university. Something made him take a fancy to Markel, and he used to ask him to see him. The young man would spend whole evenings with him during that winter, till the exile was summoned to Petersburg to take up his post again at his own request, as he had powerful friends.

It was the beginning of Lent, and Markel would not fast, he was rude and laughed at it. “That’s all silly twaddle, and there is no God,” he said, horrifying my mother, the servants, and me too. For though I was only nine, I too was aghast at hearing such words. We had four servants, all serfs. I remember my mother selling one of the four, the cook Afimya, who was lame and elderly, for sixty paper roubles, and hiring a free servant to take her place.

In the sixth week in Lent, my brother, who was never strong and had a tendency to consumption, was taken ill. He was tall but thin and delicate-looking, and of very pleasing countenance. I suppose he caught cold, anyway the doctor, who came, soon whispered to my mother that it was galloping consumption, that he would not live through the spring. My mother began weeping, and, careful not to alarm my brother, she entreated him to go to church, to confess and take the sacrament, as he was still able to move about. This made him angry, and he said something profane about the church. He grew thoughtful, however; he guessed at once that he was seriously ill, and that that was why his mother was begging him to confess and take the sacrament. He had been aware, indeed, for a long time past, that he was far from well, and had a year before coolly observed at dinner to your mother and me, “My life won’t be long among you, I may not live another year,” which seemed now like a prophecy.

Three days passed and Holy Week had come. And on Tuesday morning my brother began going to church. “I am doing this simply for your sake, mother, to please and comfort you,” he said. My mother wept with joy and grief. “His end must be near,” she thought, “if there’s such a change in him.” But he was not able to go to church long, he took to his bed, so he had to confess and take the sacrament at home.

It was a late Easter, and the days were bright, fine, and full of fragrance. I remember he used to cough all night and sleep badly, but in the morning he dressed and tried to sit up in an arm-chair. That’s how I remember him sitting, sweet and gentle, smiling, his face bright and joyous, in spite of his illness. A marvellous change passed over him, his spirit seemed transformed. The old nurse would come in and say, “Let me light the lamp before the holy image, my dear.” And once he would not have allowed it and would have blown it out.

“Light it, light it, dear, I was a wretch to have prevented you doing it. You are praying when you light the lamp, and I am praying when I rejoice seeing you. So we are praying to the same God.”

Those words seemed strange to us, and mother would go to her room and weep, but when she went in to him she wiped her eyes and looked cheerful. “Mother, don’t weep, darling,” he would say, “I’ve long to live yet, long to rejoice with you, and life is glad and joyful.”

“Ah, dear boy, how can you talk of joy when you lie feverish at night, coughing as though you would tear yourself to pieces.”

“Don’t cry, mother,” he would answer, “life is paradise, and we are all in paradise, but we won’t see it; if we would, we should have heaven on earth the next day.”

Everyone wondered at his words, he spoke so strangely and positively; we were all touched and wept. Friends came to see us. “Dear ones,” he would say to them, “what have I done that you should love me so, how can you love anyone like me, and how was it I did not know, I did not appreciate it before?”

When the servants came in to him he would say continually, “Dear, kind people, why are you doing so much for me, do I deserve to be waited on? If it were God’s will for me to live, I would wait on you, for all men should wait on one another.”

Mother shook her head as she listened. “My darling, it’s your illness makes you talk like that.”

“Mother darling,” he would say, “there must be servants and masters, but if so I will be the servant of my servants, the same as they are to me. And another thing, mother, every one of us has sinned against all men, and I more than any.”

Mother positively smiled at that, smiled through her tears. “Why, how could you have sinned against all men, more than all? Robbers and murderers have done that, but what sin have you committed yet, that you hold yourself more guilty than all?”

“Mother, little heart of mine,” he said (he had begun using such strange caressing words at that time), “little heart of mine, my joy, believe me, everyone is really responsible to all men for all men and for everything. I don’t know how to explain it to you, but I feel it is so, painfully even. And how is it we went on then living, getting angry and not knowing?”

So he would get up every day, more and more sweet and joyous and full of love. When the doctor, an old German called Eisenschmidt, came:

“Well, doctor, have I another day in this world?” he would ask, joking.

“You’ll live many days yet,” the doctor would answer, “and months and years too.”

“Months and years!” he would exclaim. “Why reckon the days? One day is enough for a man to know all happiness. My dear ones, why do we quarrel, try to outshine each other and keep grudges against each other? Let’s go straight into the garden, walk and play there, love, appreciate, and kiss each other, and glorify life.”

“Your son cannot last long,” the doctor told my mother, as she accompanied him the door. “The disease is affecting his brain.”

The windows of his room looked out into the garden, and our garden was a shady one, with old trees in it which were coming into bud. The first birds of spring were flitting in the branches, chirruping and singing at the windows. And looking at them and admiring them, he began suddenly begging their forgiveness too: “Birds of heaven, happy birds, forgive me, for I have sinned against you too.” None of us could understand that at the time, but he shed tears of joy. “Yes,” he said, “there was such a glory of God all about me: birds, trees, meadows, sky; only I lived in shame and dishonoured it all and did not notice the beauty and glory.”

“You take too many sins on yourself,” mother used to say, weeping.

“Mother, darling, it’s for joy, not for grief I am crying. Though I can’t explain it to you, I like to humble myself before them, for I don’t know how to love them enough. If I have sinned against everyone, yet all forgive me, too, and that’s heaven. Am I not in heaven now?”

And there was a great deal more I don’t remember. I remember I went once into his room when there was no one else there. It was a bright evening, the sun was setting, and the whole room was lighted up. He beckoned me, and I went up to him. He put his hands on my shoulders and looked into my face tenderly, lovingly; he said nothing for a minute, only looked at me like that.

“Well,” he said, “run and play now, enjoy life for me too.”

I went out then and ran to play. And many times in my life afterwards I remembered even with tears how he told me to enjoy life for him too. There were many other marvellous and beautiful sayings of his, though we did not understand them at the time. He died the third week after Easter. He was fully conscious though he could not talk; up to his last hour he did not change. He looked happy, his eyes beamed and sought us, he smiled at us, beckoned us. There was a great deal of talk even in the town about his death. I was impressed by all this at the time, but not too much so, though I cried a good deal at his funeral. I was young then, a child, but a lasting impression, a hidden feeling of it all, remained in my heart, ready to rise up and respond when the time came. So indeed it happened.

Joy and sorrow...and joy

The press of academic work has kept me from posting recently. Meanwhile, life goes on:

The joy of Holy Week services. Last Friday evening's Lazarus canon...Saturday morning's divine liturgy (I love the services of Lazarus Saturday; they put the events of Holy Week into perspective. Christ goes willingly to the Cross, as the Lord of life whom death cannot hold.)...Sunday morning's Palm Sunday liturgy with our procession around the church building...Sunday and Monday evening's Bridegroom Matins services ("I see thy bridal chamber adorned, O my Savior; but I have no wedding garment..."). This evening, again, we will have Bridegroom Matins.

The sorrow of marking the last few days and hours of my father-in-law's earthly pilgrimage. He was diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease about a year ago, and has gone steadily downhill. Now he's having multiple organ failure. My bride went out to New Mexico to be with him. I used to joke that his only fault was his rooting for the Cleveland Browns. Remember the servant of God John in your prayers, please. Our sorrow is deep...

...and yet our joy is even deeper. For we face his repose in the full knowledge that death does not have the last word. Allow me to say, in anticipation: "Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!"

01 April 2009

Skeptical of Orthodoxy?

"The human mind is a frail instrument, easily deluded, and most capable of building brilliant systems of thought and life that have no correspondence to reality whatsoever." So says a blogger, in explaining why his "Orthodox adventure" is over.

There's no disputing that many people have been deluded by various systems of thought. But since delusion, like stupidity, is an equal opportunity employer, we have not yet successfully escaped delusion until we are skeptical of skepticism too. To err, after all, is Humean.

One might further ask the young man, "Have you come to this conclusion by means of your mind?" If so, and if conclusions are no stronger than the instrument by which they are attained, he has further reason to be skeptical of his skepticism.

We do not argue that gold is worthless because some or many are deluded by fool's gold. No one counterfeits the currency of Zimbabwe (and soon, sadly, no one will counterfeit dollars either). That is not to say that some given miraculous story is true; only that it is not necessarily false. To rule out all stories of the miraculous is no less an error than admitting them all. If Satan gives "lying signs and wonders," are there not also true ones?

A more profitable way to consider claims of the miraculous in Orthodoxy, and to compare them to other claims of the miraculous, is to ask what theological underpinnings support them. This would be to follow the instructions God gave through Moses (Deut. 13:1ff).

I am not Orthodox because of signs and wonders, but because the Orthodox Church continues to teach the fullness of the Christian faith now, as it has for the past 2,000 years. I rejoice that the living Christ continues to work with his divine energies through his body, and I acknowledge Nektarios of Pentapolis no less than Spyridon of Trimythous as wonderworkers.

Said blogger, by a felicitous inconsistency, does not apply his skepticism to the words and works of Christ, noting that "Jesus doesn't lie. Jesus can't be tricked. . . Jesus doesn't pass off speculation as fact. All of those are things that humans are very, very prone to." Here at last we reach the logical conclusion of the semi-Manichean anthropology which some forms of protestantism so easily fall into: Jesus isn't human.