Friday, March 27, 2009

From My Grandmother, For Fergus and Jamie

My grandmother, Geraldine Ruth Woodbridge (eternal be her memory), whose youngest child died as a young girl on Easter Sunday in the mid-1950s, wrote the following for someone (we don't know for whom) who must have suffered the loss of a child, as well. She then published it in a lenten collection of writings from members of Aldersgate Methodist Church in Tulsa, OK. I do hope it speaks how I can't to baby Fergus' family and to baby Jamie's. Forgive me, as the note is in her handwriting, and one part I was unable to read completely clearly.

"Words will never express or help at this time, but there are some of us who have been along this pathway and do understand.

"The long days of hope and despair. The day-to-day clinging and releasing of our loved one.

"We go through the gamut of prayers, first for miracles, then strength to get through each day, each month, each year; next comes prayers for ___ pain of pain, and finally, 'Thy will be done.'

"Still the grief is there so much more than you thought possible after praying 'Thy will be done' for so long. Do not let anyone tell you "Time heals all wounds." It doesn't. All it does is give you time to live with it and with God's strength and love you go on living for the living and believing God had a plan for taking them. You see, I do understand, as I have also lost a child."

Monday, March 09, 2009

Memory Eternal

During the Theophany season, my wife and I hosted an open house which many families from our parish attended. Our dear friends, the godparents of our oldest daughter, also attended. Their younger child, James, pictured above with our younger daughter at the open house, recently lost his life in a tragic accident. We traveled to attend the funeral this weekend, at which I was honored to be able to chant part of the psalter over what is far and away the smallest casket I have ever seen. The Orthodox maintain that, though the spirit has departed the body, the body yet remains a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19), Whom Jamie received upon being baptized and chrismated, and communed with the precious and immaculate mysteries of the Body and Blood of our Lord and Victor over death, Jesus Christ. We thus pray the psalter in its entirety over the body as a means of commending it to God through the words that speak what it seems no other corpus of words can speak.

Last night, we prayed an extended panikhida (memorial service for the departed), parts of which were repeated in this morning's funeral service. The local mission's choir led us all in the well-known hymns and melodies, and the sound filled the spaces with sweet mourning. There is a sense in which liturgy carries one when one cannot carry oneself, and both the parents as well as their non-Orthodox family members and friends seemed to be carried along as well by the current of our common work, the refrain of "Give rest to the soul of the infant, O Lord" serving as the lapping of the waves that carressed the ragged, shocked souls there. Jamie's father had said in the week preceding the funeral that, if any good would come from this, that people would be touched by the Holy Spirit through the Church's offering of the babe to Her Lord; may his words be made true.

The service for the burial of an infant is uniquely comforting, for it is, in essence, the acknowledgement of a true saint in our midst, for God "hast accepted this undefiled infant...before he had been tempted by earthly sweetness, counting him worthy of eternal good things, as the lover of mankind." Indeed, the weeping is infinitely greater for Jamie's parents, as these verses exclaim:
No one is more pitiful than a mother,/
and no one is more wretched than a father,
for their inward beings are troubled/
when they send forth their infants before them./
Great is the pain of their hearts because of their children,/
and still more when these are pleasing of speech,/
as they call to remembrance/
their words with the song://

For often before the grave they beat their breasts and say:/
"O my son, and sweetest child!/
Hearest thou not what thy mother says?/
Behold, also, the womb that bore thee./
Why speakest thou not with us,/
as once thou didst speak?/
But thout art silent/
and speaketh not with us://

"O God, God, Who hast summoned me;/
Be Thou the consolation of my household now,/
for a great lamentation has befallen them./
For all have fixed their gaze on me,/
having me as their only-begotten one./
But do Thou, Who wast born of a Virgin Mother,
refresh the inward parts of my mother,/
and bedew the heart of my father with this://
Yet in the weeping, the funeral lamentation is: alleluia. The priest of the mission then stood following the reading of the gospel and read what Audra and I consider to be the best sermon either of us have ever heard. He began by saying that, a week ago, little Jamie had been scooting around the floor of the mission in his cute little way, giving big sloppy smacks to the icons and the cross, as he had not yet learned how to purse his lips in a "proper" kiss. He reminded us of how we were to approach the kingdom of God as Jamie did, as a child, trusting in what God has given us through our baptism into and clothing with Christ, through His giving us the Holy Spirit in chrismation, through His abiding in us through the mysteries of His body and blood.

Jamie, he said, related to Christ more deeply than any of us there, as with age and intellect need not always come wisdom or spiritual maturity. He had just taken his first steps a few days before and had just begun to put partial words together, "yet what is walking," Father asked, "when you can run in the Kingdom of God? What is running, when you can fly in the celestial realms? What is speech, when the language of the Kingdom of Heaven is silence?" Jamie, he stressed, now gazed into the face of the Ancient of Days, who is perfect Love and Peace. His infancy, far from making him less in the Kingdom of Heaven, made him infinitely more, and he would carry the touches, the voices, the scents, and the sights of all those whom he had encountered in this life into the next, where he would meet his God and ours, and from whence he would await the day when, rising in the body, he would shine like Christ on Mount Tabor, revealing the glory of his Creator as one of His holy ones.

The little one's death cannot be explained away, cannot be dealt with with reasons. God does not dismiss our pain, nor does He give us theological syllogisms from which to derive some sort of artificial comfort. We must mourn. Yet, in that mourning, our God enters into our pain, enters into our life, and Himself suffers. The most eloquent word of the Cross is the silence of the dead Christ, for, in providing no words or explanations, He nonetheless travels the painful road with us, as us, helping us to see that this painful road will end in Tabor's glory. His mother, likewise, who watched her only Son die, shows us the way in which we can hold both suffering and peace in our hearts by clinging to the Cross.

Father then instructed us on what the Orthodox call "The Last Kiss." All Orthodox funerals are open-casket, yet Jamie had a shrowd over his face so that only his forehead showed. Following the hymns all who wish to do so may come and kiss the body, thus venerating it one last time as holy temple. After I kissed his forehead, my words to him were, "Dear child, may God give you rest 'till the day you breathe again."

May the infant James' memory be eternal, and may he pray for us all.

Monday, March 02, 2009

"Draw Near Unto My Soul and Deliver It"

A blessed fast to all observing.

Why do we fast? So that we may be saved. Such an answer no doubt scandalizes Christians belonging to certain confessions, but it is indeed a truth that is overlooked in our contemporary culture so often that it is no wonder that indulgence and a subsequent addiction to constant satiety are hallmarks of said culture. In saying that we fast so that we may be saved, however, it is important to understand what is being said, as well as what is not being said.

I do not mean to say here that we fast so that fasting itself may save us, or that we, by fasting, may come to merit salvation. God saves. The Father, through a gracious act of His Son and by the power of His (the Father's) Holy Spirit, draws us to Himself and causes us men made of scorched earth to bloom once again with the blossoms of His eternal light.

Several different events as of late have caused me to think about these things. A very dear friend of mine who is an Evangelical Protestant asked me recently if the Orthodox ever "do evangelism." After outlining his "M.O.," so to speak (he was clear that this was a simple theme that could and should be varied through careful evaluation of the individual one was --hopefully--listening to), he then asked what we would say if someone, like the Philippian jailer, asked us what he must do to be saved. A couple of recent podcasts on AFR -- namely this one and this one -- confirmed what I'd mostly been thinking: if one were to ask me what they had to do to be saved, I would start off by telling them (first of all) that Life Itself (Himself, really) awaits, and that It (He) seeks to turn us back from eventual oblivion. What we must do is love His Light rather than our darkness, His Life rather than our death.

This is no easy task, for as one author puts it, we encounter this love and engage it "in fits and starts." Yet engage His unmoving Life and Love we must, for from that one living, loving presence we will eventually experience either everlasting punishment or times of refreshment that go from glory to glory, ever more radiant.

Great Lent is a time to remember that God is not the factor to be determined in our salvation; in one sense we're all already saved. The factor is our response to God. We encounter God's sovereign rule over Creation enacted not by any actual action He must take over it, but by His very, unmoving being over it. The psalmist reminds us that Creation is dismayed when He hides His face, dead and dust when He takes away our breath. When He "send[s] His Spirit, we are created, and He renews the face of the earth."

The introductory hymn of Great Lent is a petition: "Turn not Thy Face away from Thy child, for I am afflicted; hear me speedily; draw near unto my soul and deliver it." Here we hear the human soul's ultimate cry: we thirst for Him in a land barren, and untrodden, and unwatered; though we speak of Him as "turning His face away" and "drawing near," these obvious anthropomorphisms fall short of He who is everywhere present and filling all things. It is we who must needs open ourselves to His gracious presence and, in so doing, find salvation.

This salvation, more than simply a dealing with a checklist of transgressions our Creator has against us, is moreover a renewal of life and a reversal of the ancestral curse -- a curse which leads to an endgame of a perverse hesychasm whose silence and stillness is that of isolated torment and not of communal illumination.

Father Stephen Freeman stated the following (source):
The “Great Crisis,” if I can coin a term, is the threat of non-existence, or relative non-existence. Classical Orthodoxy, following St. Athanasius does not threaten humanity with pure non-existence, but with a dynamic movement towards a “relative” non-existence.

The Great Crisis is therefore not at all the same thing as an impending punishment from an angry God. This is not our fate. Rather it is the continued living in increasing modes of non-existence as we refuse to live in communion with the Only True God Who is the Lord and Giver of Life.

Because this is true, every work of our salvation begins in communion with God, continues in communion with God, and is fulfilled in communion with God. Thus our lives can never be defined extrinsically (from the outside), but only mystically and existentially.

The Great Crisis is answered in Pascha (the fullness of Christ’s resurrection) and has never been answered in any other manner.
So, then, the question Well, a checklist could be made: catechism, baptism, chrismation, communion, prayer, confession, fasting, almsgiving...the last four of which we Orthodox Christians need to commit ourselves again to come this season, but there is still a sense in which that story -- that something is fundamentally wrong, not only with me, but with the cosmos, and that it was not always this way, and that it really should be some other, better way, and that somehow we all dream that Someone should and will come along and make all crooked paths straight -- needs to be accepted before anything could progress in this hypothetical dialogue. If one is convinced that this is the best of all worlds -- or that, if it is not, then I am surely not a direct part of its not being so -- then all else is wasted breath.

Such a convincing cannot be mustered up by an appeal to God's Law or a subsequent appeal to "square with the house." Salvation is not a mathematical, debit-and-credit equation. We are speaking here of One Who has already saved us, already told us He has shed Life on the graves and that we will some manner. To be saved, then, we must die before we die, and that dying is a daily thing. One of the ways we die with Him is through letting go of a little food, a little drink, a little time...a little of "me," in other words, and let Him warm whatever seeds have been planted in whatever way He knows how. Our job is to till, to water, to break open the soil of our hearts through prayer, fasting, repentance, almsgiving -- all the while waiting on the Lord to grant us healthful seasons and abundance of the fruits of the heart which will spring up to adorn His Vinyard.

This quote from Father Stephen, to close (source):

It is as though at death our bodies have a wisdom we have lacked for most of our lives. It knows that what it needs is not food - but something deeper. The soul seeks and hungers for the living God. The body and its pain become a distraction. And thus in God’s mercy the distraction is reduced.

Christianity as a religion - as a theoretical system of explanations regarding heaven and hell, reward and punishment, is simply Christianity that has been distorted from its true form. Either we know the living God or we have nothing. Either we eat His flesh and drink His blood or we have no life in us. The rejection of Hesychasm is the source of all heresy.

Why do we fast? We fast so that we may live like a dying man - and in dying we can be born to eternal life.