18 June 2009

Grandmothers' wisdom

I grew up in the same home town my family had lived in for generations. So it was that both sets of grandparents lived there, within walking distance from our house. For years I had a ritual of going to each of their houses once a week for dinner: a hamburger and mashed potatoes.

Perhaps another time I'll write something about my grandfathers; now I want to say something about my grandmothers.

Every kid should have one grandparent who thinks the world revolves around them. For me, that was Grandma Schultz. She and Grandpap Schultz had two children, both of them girls. She told me, again and again, "You're my favorite boy." ("But Grandma," I'd object, "I'm your only boy." "Never mind," she answered. "You're still my favorite boy.") Each year she would take me to downtown Pittsburgh on my birthday. We ate at Stouffer's, a very fancy restaurant. Then she would take me to Gimbels or Kaufmans or Hornes and let me get any one thing I wanted. Sometimes it would be a toy. Sometimes it would be a Hardy Boys book. She never fussed about the cost. She let me feel completely free to choose.

Grandma loved to bowl, and she took me and my sisters bowling from time to time. She wasn't the best cook: her hamburgers might be a bit burned, sometimes I ate TV dinners, and she would serve instant mashed potatoes ("Ersazt Kartoffeln!" my grandfather would protest). But I always knew she loved me. She didn't have to say it. I could tell.

Grandma Schultz taught me how to deal with people. When I was little, each day after lunch my mother and I had a ritual. She would want me to take a nap. And I wouldn't want to. So she would try to reason with me, or compel me. Sometimes she won, and sometimes I did. But on those days I was at Grandma's house for lunch, after lunch she'd say, "Would you like to go to a party?" "Sure!" I'd answer. So she said, "Let's go upstairs." I went up the steps with her and she led me to the spare bedroom. "You can go to Lily White's party," she'd say. "How?" I replied. "Just lie down on this bed--it's magic--close your eyes and breath very slowly, and you'll be right there." It worked like a charm, every time--even though she'd done it many times before.

Grandma Hogg loved me, too. She cooked better hamburgers than Grandma Schultz, and she always made real mashed potatoes--you could tell by the lumps. She was rather strong-willed, which was a necessity in dealing with my Grandpap Hogg. When she was a little girl, she used to walk outside her house and stand in the streetcar tracks as a streetcar was coming. She would hold up her hand and stop the streetcar till the driver had to come out and move her on to the sidewalk.

Her life hadn't been easy. But she kept on keeping on, she endured.

Both grandmothers had words of wisdom I remember to this day.

Grandma Schultz used to say, when something bad happened, "It will get better before you get married." She was right; her words worked like magic--right up to the day, 31 years ago yesterday, that I got married.

Grandma Hogg's advice for bad times kicked in at that point, and remains true today. "You'll live to suffer more." So last year, when a lady hit-and-ran my car, I thought of Grandma Hogg's words. When I wonder what will happen about this or that issue that faces me, I remember.

Grandma Schultz died about a year after I was married--June of 1979. I went to see her in the hospital with my new bride, and she said, "You were made for each other." She was right.

Grandma Hogg endured till 1994. She was 90 1/2 years old when she died. I saw her in the hospital, and to this day I remember her brown eyes looking intensely at me from her bed. I remember thinking, "This is the last time I'll see her in this life." And it was.

Thank God I have a wonderful wife, and kids--I've never needed Grandma Hogg's words for her, or for them. But those are other stories, for other times. I share both grandmothers' words of wisdom with them from time to time. And now I've shared them with you!

09 June 2009

Marina and Nathan Sterk

This past Saturday at 2 pm, my daughter Marina was married to Nathan Sterk. The photo shows the crowning service. What a joy it was to see so much family and so many friends! The liturgy was held at St. Nicholas in Grand Rapids, our mission's mother parish.

Now life begins to return to normal--whatever that is... :-)

04 June 2009

Suberranean scribbling: creative memories

"Creative Memories" is the name of a scrapbooking company. It's also something we're all prone to. Under the influence of strongly-held views, events and stories can change to become nearly unrecognizable.

Such is the case with Luther's recollection of a story from the fathers about St. Anthony. Luther loved the lives of the desert fathers, and on more than one occasion makes reference to them. But over time, his memory of those stories begins to change them subtly, to bring them in line with the views he developed in the Reformation.

I had quoted this story a little while ago in the context of another post. Here it is again:

"When blessed Antony was praying in his cell, a voice spoke to him, saying, "Antony, you have not yet come to the measure of the tanner who is in Alexandria." When he heard this, the old man arose and took his stick and hurried into the city. When he had found the tanner...he said to him, "Tell me about your work, for today I have left the desert and come here to see you."
He replied, "I am not aware that I have done anything good. When I get up in the morning, before I sit down to work, I say that the whole of this city, small and great, will go into the Kingdom of God because of their good deeds, while I alone will go into eternal punishment because of my evil deeds. Every evening I repeat the same words and believe them in my heart."
When blessed Antony heard this he said, "My son, you sit in your own house and work well, and you have the peace of the Kingdom of God; but I spend all my time in solitude with no distractions, and I have not come near the measure of such words."

Now here is that same story, as told by Luther (ht to Pr. Weedon on his blog):

"Anthony is amazed at the comparison and goes to Alexandria with the intention of seeing the man who is his equal in sanctity. I do not know what grand things he promises himself from that cobbler; but when he came to him, he found that he gained his livelihood by working with his hands and in this manner supported himself, his wife, and his children. So he said: “Please, my dear cobbler, I know that you worship God faithfully and serve Him truly. Tell me, therefore, what you do, what you eat, what you drink, how or when you pray. You do not spend entire nights without sleep when you devote yourself to prayer, do you?” “Not at all,” said the cobbler. “In the morning and in the evening I give thanks to God for His faithful protection and guidance. I ask for forgiveness of all my sins for Christ’s sake, and I humbly pray that He would guide me with His Spirit and not lead me into temptation. After this prayer I get busy with my leather and provide sustenance for myself and those who are mine. Besides this I do nothing except to beware lest anywhere I do something against my conscience.”
When Anthony hears this, he is amazed, and he realizes that self-chosen forms of worship are no worship and that therefore no trust at all should be put in them. This blessing not only happened to Anthony himself but is also a warning to all posterity—a warning by which God wanted to help His church, lest it indulge in self-chosen forms of worship, which always bring with them this pernicious pest of self-reliance, which must be crushed."

Some of the differences are minor; Anthony's tanner has become a cobbler, and has apparently acquired a family. Anthony's tanner mentions only his morning and evening prayer; in Luther's version the tanner's prayer is explicitly contrasted with the monastic hours.

But others are major. Can anyone imagine the mature Luther urging this form of prayer: "...before I sit down to work, I say that the whole of this city, small and great, will go into the Kingdom of God because of their good deeds, while I alone will go into eternal punishment because of my evil deeds. Every evening I repeat the same words and believe them in my heart"?

For Luther, Anthony is the proto-monastic, who is yet capable of recognizing the superiority of the peasant's Small-catechism faith and life. Luther claims that the peasant teaches Anthony the uselessness of self-chosen forms of worship (a key criticism Luther makes elsewhere against monasticism); but the historical Anthony never forswore the monastic life. The Lutheran peasant has a measure of certainty; Anthony's peasant has what we might call the "monstrum certitudinis": he is certain of himself that he is going into eternal punishment, yet keeps working. It would be much more accurate to say that he anticipates the words of St. Silhouan: "Keep your mind in hell, and do not despair."

Here already in the great Reformer we see the tendency so commonly found in his followers: to take the patristic witness and filter it through Lutheran dogma. Rdr. Christopher Orr has pointed out this selective reading on many occasions. Perhaps the only cure for this malady is to read the fathers by themselves, on their own terms.