I have been going through a transition of sorts. Actually a return. I can’t explain it, but I am recalling the summer of 1993 (25 years ago… Ugh!) and the beginning of my journey to Orthodoxy. The recollections are so clear. Clearer than they have been for some time.
Here is what I remember: I remember Umberto Eco, Anton Ugolnik, and Sergei Bulgakov.
Umberto Eco: In 1993 I read Foucault’s Pendulum for the first time. The book is monstrous. It is saturated with allusions to actual events, to philosophical and theological concepts, to a widely diverse array of topics and ideas. And in the end it signifies absolutely nothing. In many ways it is a laborious journey to nowhere. It drives home Eco’s sense of the importance of details that is joined with the pointlessness of one’s journey. I could not help but get the sense that one of the characters was Eco. And just think: Eco was not a believer (well, maybe he was…), but he spent all of that time working over details and concepts and philosophies and cabals and yet… It was all seemingly pointless. To use one’s brilliance to go nowhere… Imagine if you actually had someplace to go.
Anton Ugolnik: I had met Fr. Ugolnik in 1989, in the closing weeks of my college experience. Who knew that it would be so transformative. I read his book, The Illuminating Icon, in the summer months between college and seminary. It was excellent. For me it served at minimum three major purposes. First, it helped to introduce Eastern Orthodoxy to me in an excellently constructed book (he is a professor of English after all…); second, it helped to show the tenacity of Orthodoxy under communism (under any regime, honestly); and third, it helped to show that Orthodox Christianity is far from a rigid, rules-driven, legalistic faith. It has its fasts and its canons, but Orthodox Christianity is organic, and takes the mandate of Christ, “Love God with all your mind” seriously. It is an all-encompassing faith, integrating all of the senses. It is a rich faith, requiring you to use your brain but not to worship it.
Sergei Bulgakov: A controversial figure in Orthodox circles, I suppose, but one that should not simply be dismissed out of hand. The man was a brilliant scholar. He was a polymath. He was an economist who wrote lucidly and powerfully about a type of economics that took Christianity seriously (something that neither socialism nor capitalism do). He wrote lengthy volumes on the Forerunner, the Mother of God, Christ, the Church, the Holy Spirit, and much more. He wrote devotions. The man was amazing. I found in him and in Pavel Florensky (a physicist and priest) powerful examples of doing everything as best as one possibly can. Given my background in electrical engineering and physics as well as religion, you can see how intriguing these figures would be.
Flash forward to now. It’s as if I have awoken from my dogmatic slumbers (hi Karl.). I remember. I remember why I love the Orthodox faith, I remember the beauty of creation and that the heavens are indeed telling of the glory of God. I remember as a younger adult how I understood that the study of the natural sciences helped to point to God’s glory. I understood that it did not so much reveal as confirm it. Christ reveals it, the creation says amen. I understood that then, and I understand now.
And more: we are not in a vacuum, we are not in diaspora. As American or western Orthodox believers we are not alone. We think the same way, we reason the same way as believers of other faiths. We have some theological and historical concerns to straighten out, but in the words of Steve Hogarth of the band Marillion, “there’s more that binds us than divides us.” To live only in the differences is both unhelpful and inaccurate. I’ll let David Bentley Hart’s comments suffice (see “The Myth of Schism“).
I will have more to say. Much more. These are interesting times. We have work to do. And most of the work is in using what God gave us to the best of our abilities to His greater glory. The field is ripe. Time to get busy.
I have a bandsaw. It’s a good one, not a plastic, big-box, disposable one, but a bring-by-pup-truck one that takes two people to construct and some training to use well. It has many moving parts, each with its own set of parameters and eccentricities. Once it is set up, it still requires care, because it has a sharp moving blade and a very powerful motor. It is not a kid’s toy. I would not let one near it, not until they’re twelve, anyway.
One you turn it on you can become captivated by the draw of it all. The sound of the current playing with the magnets, the whooshing of the wheels coming to speed; the metallic hum of the now nearly invisible blade as it sings its siren song to any soft object that it would happily – and dutifully – rend asunder. And that sound of rending too is unique and draws near to melodic, a musical tearing of one into two, straight, curved, or some more complicated mixture of the two.
It is easy to see why it is so powerfully desirable: it is powerful yet elegant, destructive yet creative, divisive yet musical.
And once you have one, every task looks like a job for the band saw. Every board should make the blade sing, no matter how thin or thick, no matter how hard or soft. To the bandsaw, every plank is just waiting for its “real” shape to be sheared out of it.
While this song is true at the onset, it soon becomes clear that the siren song is not a welcoming call at all, but an invitation to ruin. Many a board was sacrificed, too many lost without any opportunity to explore their own ring-demarked legacy. Too many boards faced a battle of the blade where either board was sundered or blade was broken. Either way the music was less than pleasant, a requiem rather than a celebration.
Such is the way, this dance between man and machine, where machine dictates the terms and man must say yes or suffer. Machines do simplify, but at a cost: all to often they render false choices, leaving destruction in their wake.
Better to take a step back, unplug the machine, get to know the wood, and skillfully discover its form-yet-to-be-revealed. Machines shorten the decision-making process, and all too often lead to a collection of scrap as opposed to anything of lasting beauty.
Beauty, after all, is what it is all about. Taking time to discover the beauty of a thing (or a person) is crucial to the meaning of existence in this world. To settle for mechanical short-cuts diminishes the act of discovery, and renders subject to object, shoves life towards death, and pushes beauty towards desolation.
We must have the determination to overcome temptations comparable to the sorrows of the first Christians. All the witnesses of Christ’s Resurrection were martyred. We should be ready to endure any hardship.
Theology is the content of our prayers.
The good man thinks to himself in this wise: Every one who has strayed from the truth brings destruction on himself and is therefore to be pitied. But of course the man who has not learned the love of the Holy Spirit will not pray for his enemies. The man who has learned love from the Holy Spirit sorrows all his life over those who are not saved, and sheds abundant tears for the people, and the grace of God gives him strength to love his enemies.
What shall I render unto Thee, O Lord,
for that Thou hast poured such great mercy on my soul?
Grant, I beg Thee, that I may see my iniquities,
and ever weep before Thee,
for Thou art filled with love for humble souls,
and dost give them the grace of the Holy Spirit.
O merciful God, forgive me.
Thou seest how my soul is drawn to Thee, her Creator.
Thou hast wounded my soul with Thy love,
and she thirsts for Thee, and wearies without end,
and day and night, insatiable, reaches toward Thee,
and has no wish to look upon this world, though I do love it,
but above all I love Thee, my Creator,
and my soul longs after Thee.
The Lord greatly loves the repenting sinner and mercifully presses him to His bosom: “Where were you, My child? I was waiting a long time for you.” The Lord calls all to Himself with the voice of the Gospel, and his voice is heard in all the world: “Come to me, my sheep. I created you, and I love you. My love for you brought Me to earth, and I suffered all things for the sake of your salvation, and I want you all to know my love, and to say, like the apostles on Tabor: Lord, it is good for us to be with You.”
We suffer because we have no humility and we do not love our brother. From love of our brother comes the love of God. People do not learn humility, and because of their pride cannot receive the grace of the Holy Spirit, and therefore the whole world suffers.
Understand two thoughts, and fear them. One says, “You are a saint,” the other, “You won’t be saved.” Both of these thoughts are from the enemy, and there is no truth in them. But think this way: I am a great sinner, but the Lord is merciful. He loves people very much, and He will forgive my sins.
Enlightened by baptism, people believe in God. But there are some who even know Him. To believe in God is good but it is more blessed to know God. Nevertheless, those who believe are bless, too, as the Lord said to Thomas, one of the twelve: ‘Because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.’
If we were humble the Lord in His love would show us all things, would reveal to us all mysteries, but our trouble is that we are not humble. We puff ourselves up and boast over trifles, and so make both ourselves and others unhappy.
The Lord, though He is merciful, oppresses the soul with hunger on account of her pride, and withholds grace from her until she has learned humility. I was perishing from my sins, and would long ago have been in hell, had not the Lord and His most holy and blessed Mother taken pity on me. O, her quiet, gentle voice! A voice from heaven the like of which we shall never hear on earth! And so now in tears I write of the Lord of Mercy, as He were my own Father. It is sweet for the soul to be with the Lord: Adam tasted the sweetness of this bliss in paradise when he saw the Lord with open eyes, and we feel in our souls that He is with us according to His promise: ‘Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world.’
The Lord is with us. What more cou8ld we desire? The Lord created man that we might live and bask in Him for ever – that we might be with Him and in Him. And the Lord desires to be with us Himself, and in us. The Lord is our joy and gladness, and when pride causes us to withdraw from Him, it means that of our own accord we deliver ourselves up to suffering. Anguish of heart, dejection and evil thoughts lacerate us….
The proud man fears obloquy, while the humble man cares nothing. He who has acquired Christ-like humility will ever upbraid himself, and it rejoices him to be abused, and grieves him to be acclaimed. but this humility is still only elementary – when the soul comes to know the Lord in the Holy Spirit, how humble and meek He is, she sees herself as the worst of all sinners, and is happy to sit in shabby raiment in the ashes like Job, while she beholds other men in the Holy Spirit shining in the likeness of Christ.
May the Merciful Lord give all men to savor Christ’s humility which passes description. The soul will then know no further desire but will live for ever in humility, love and lowliness.