Thursday, April 28, 2011

Descent Into Hell: Choosing Unreality

Charles Williams' Descent Into Hell presents a strikingly Orthodox vision of the nearness of heaven and hell. In the novel, heaven and hell are not places or realms, but perspectives on reality, leading perhaps to realms and other-worldly places. Early in the novel, in a chapter entitled "Quest of Hell," Lawrence Wentworth chooses hell. He chooses hell by choosing unreality, by choosing to act childishly and call it manly.*

Wentworth is a fifty year old scholar who was "the most distinguished living authority on military history." He had enjoyed a peaceful and successful life as a single man. But Wentworth was beginning to feel his age, beginning "almost to hear time scamper[ing] by," and found himself paying a lot of attention to Adela, a mildly flirtatious single young woman--part of a group of young people who met in his home to listen to his biweekly lectures on military history. And he had become painfully aware that Adela had the power "either to increase or abolish his awareness of his age."

But Adela was actually attached to Hugh, a young man of "flagrant masculinity," who had decided that Adela would marry him--when he was ready. Wentworth became aware of this attachment one evening and his anger was piqued. And then it got worse.

Adela and Hugh decided to skip out on the next little gathering at Wentworth's for a date in London, but in order not to offend Wentworth (for he knew important people and "could perhaps be useful for her career"), they made it seem as though their absences were unconnected: Adela wrote on Wednesday that she had to be in the city, while Hugh phoned on Thursday when the gathering usually began saying he had to work late and asking that Wentworth give his regards to Adela. Yet Wentworth deep-down knew that they were together. And it tormented him. His intelligence protested that the facts told him they were not, "but of that saving intelligence his now vibrating nervous system took no notice whatsoever."

Wentworth was so distracted by the tormenting thought that Adela and Hugh were together that he almost completely ignored the only real person who showed up for the meeting that evening. And after attempting a conversation about something important to her and realizing that Wentworth was completely distracted, Pauline made an excuse to leave, much to Wentworth's relief. Now that "this superfluous being had been dismissed," he could give himself to his imagination, playing out the dictates of his emotions. Soon emotion and imagination mixed sufficiently to produce passion, passion in the Orthodox sense of the word: a demonically perverted natural power whipped up into a driving force.

Wentworth was making a deliberate choice, although he felt himself just standing there exercising no conscious thought at all. Soon he "yielded--to the chaos within rather than the chaos without." That is, he accepted the irrational, passion-driven delusion of his mind as reality over the rational though uncontrollable reality outside him. "A remnant of intelligence cried to him that this was the road to mania, and self-indulgence leading to mania. Self-preservation itself urged him to remain [at home and not go out looking for Adela and Hugh together]; lucidity urged him, if not love." Yet "the shadow provoked him." He told himself that he was not spying, he would just go for a walk. He set out, he made his choice (although it didn't feel like a choice, it seldom does): "He desired hell."

One of the snares of hell is its power to weave webs. Once delusion becomes reality, more delusion is necessary to defend the shadow, the vanity, the sweet hidden secret. He was not acting as a child, Wentworth told himself as he walked toward the train station. He was a man--he had a right to walk where he wanted to. He insisted he was no child.

But Williams powerfully points out as the chapter ends that admitting one generally acts as a child, that one often is just playing a childish game within him or her self, is the beginning of the process of becoming one of the little children our Saviour spoke of. But Wentworth would have none of it: he was a man, and a man has a right to go for a walk.

*note that the English word "virtue" comes from the Latin, "man," so to call what is childish manly is like calling what is sinful, virtuous. And once light is darkness, "how great is that darkness" (Matt. 6:23).

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

joy Without The Joy

The Canucks won last night: game seven, in overtime. Those of you who are not Canadian may not know what a big deal it is for your local NHL team to win a big game. I knew this was a big game, so I decided to go out and watch it.

Bonnie and I have this compromise about watching sporting events. Since I have a sports-watching addiction that I always have to keep an eye on, Bonnie has asked that we not keep a TV in the house (wise woman). In exchange, I get to use the money we save on cable to go to a local pub and watch an occasional Big Game and enjoy a pint (or two) of ale. Last night Bonnie and I went together to a new place to watch the game and sample their house ale.

The place was packed with fans all wearing Canucks jerseys and waving white towels. Clearly they came for the game, but I think the half-priced pints helped pack the place too--just a guess.

I get a little emotional, sometimes, watching sports--football is my favourite, but over the last eight years in Canada I've learned to appreciate hockey too. I have even been known to yell at a television. Nevertheless, Bonnie and I were not prepared for what we saw last night. Did you know the word "fan" comes from "fanatic"? They were singing, they were shouting, they were chanting. It was almost like a religious experience (of an old fashioned, chandellier-swinging, Pentecostal variety). The nearest thing to it I have ever experienced was at a Texas Tech home game: religious intensity of a more Baptist tenor, but just as sincere.

What surprised us most was what happened when the Canucks' Alex Burrows scored in sudden-death overtime. It was not the screaming, jumping, hugging or dancing on the bar. What surprised us is that although we were completely ignored for the whole game (sitting in a back corner and wearing nothing Canuck), once the game was over, complete strangers (who had been hugging and high-fiving each other) came up to our table and wanted to high-five us, shake our hands and I think would have hugged us too if we had stood up. The joy was palpable. It reminded us of Pascha--sort of.

To express the Joy of Pascha, the hymns of the Church encourage us to hug and kiss each other and to call everyone (even those who hate us) brother and sister. The Resurrection of Christ is celebrated with singing, shouting, hugging and kissing, and even (depending on the local custom) with tumblers of wine or vodka. Whee! Christ is risen!

And yet all of this outward joy is merely an attempt to give voice and action to a Joy that cannot be expressed. A Joy that would exist without the loud singing and without the hugging and kissing and even without the wine or vodka.

Perhaps that's why sports fans are so fanatical. Without the inexpressible Joy of the risen Christ dwelling in your heart, its hard to celebrate anything unless you work really hard at stirring up the emotions. A game seven overtime win is certainly emotional. Lots and lots of beer clears away any natural restraint that might get in the way of exuberant celebration. And there you have it: joy without the Joy.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Kindness and Hypocrisy

Repentance involves a certain pretending, a certain holy hypocrisy. In order to love your enemies--and your enemies are more often members of your house than they are murderers and thieves and strangers--you can’t rely on your feelings. Popular culture tells us that love is a feeling, but the Christian saints tell us that love is a choice. Love is what you do regardless of how you feel.
There are times in life when those we love the most are very hard to like. How do we love someone we don’t even like?
A wise priest once said to my wife, “You don’t have to like someone to be kind to them.” Kindness like the other fruit of the Spirit describes how we behave and respond to others and our disposition within ourselves. Kindness (and joy, peace, self control, mercy, etc.) are not dependent on whether or not we like the people who are around us. The fruit of the Spirit is dependent on (… wait for it…) the Spirit. It is dependent on our relationship with God.
When I explain this to people sometimes they complain to me that such behavior is hypocritical. Generally, I can only agree with them--but then again, a lot depends on how you define hypocrisy. I like to point out to those with this complaint that the human mind along with its emotions is very fickle. Contradictory and absurd ideas float through and often lodge in our minds. Moods swing depending on blood sugar, monthly cycle, sleep cycle and (for some) success or failure of sports teams, stock markets, business deals, political ideals or even the perceived likes or dislikes of others. Not to be a “hypocrite,” not in some way to monitor our behavior so as not to subject those around us to the tyranny of our passing feelings and thoughts, that is the ultimate hypocrisy.
The practice of kindness is both a craft and an art. We learn how to love. And part of that learning process is a sort of modeling, a sort of practice, a sort of doing what doesn’t feel natural but is kind.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Christian or Crusader?

“Vipers.”  “Sons of your father the Devil.” “Hypocrites.”   “Whitewashed tombs full of dead men’s bones.”  Jesus uses some very harsh language when he speaks to the religious leaders of his day.  In many ways His use of such strong language seems to contradict His own instruction to His disciples:  “Be gentle as doves.”  “Condemn not.”  “Bless those who persecute you.”  And “First remove the plank from your own eye.”  Even in Jesus’ life we can discern two modes of behavior toward the religious leaders.  During the teaching stage of His ministry, Jesus speaks harshly both to and of the religious leaders, but as he moves toward his suffering and death, Jesus “answers nothing.”  Or as St. Peter says, “When He was reviled, he reviled not again.”
Some have suggested that Christians are called to follow Jesus’ example (during the teaching stage of his ministry) in the use of harsh language, even condemnation, of hypocritical, corrupt and unjust people and institutions.  While there may indeed be circumstances in which it is appropriate, even necessary, for a Christian to harshly condemn others, I suggest that to do so is very dangerous.  Consider for a moment the following.
Jesus was not a hypocrite.  
Jesus could say to the crowd who was about to stone the adulterous woman, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”  Why could He say such a thing and get away with it?  Because He was without sin.  Jesus could call men hypocrites because He was not a hypocrite.  Before a Christian calls anyone a viper, he had better be certain that there are no serpentine deceptions hiding in his or her own heart.
Jesus knew the hearts of men.
Jesus knows what human beings are made of, what a mess of impulses and contradictory thoughts and urges fallen human beings are.  Jesus knew, for example, that Caiaphas (the high priest) was a hypocrite while Nicodemus (a leader of the Jews) and Joseph of Arimathea (a wealthy man) and Zacchaeus (a wealthy tax collector) were not.  People are seldom as easy to read as we think.  There are men and women who have so purified their senses that they are granted a glimpse into the hearts of others.  We call such people saints.  Unfortunately, most Christians have not done a very good job of purifying their own hearts.  Consequently, it is very dangerous for them to judge the hearts of others based merely on what their senses perceive.  We must remove the beam from our own eye (heart, soul, mind) before we can help our neighbour with the speck in his or hers.
“Does that mean,” someone recently asked me, “that I’m supposed to say nothing?”  My answer is a reluctant and qualified, no.  It is reluctant because it is good to be quiet for a long time.  Silence helps us see more clearly: see ourselves first and thus others more clearly.  Someone once pointed out to me that (in John’s Gospel) Jesus took the time to “braid a whip of cords” before he drove the money changers from the Temple.  I think most Christians need to spend quite a bit of time braiding together our dispersed thoughts and feelings into a unified whole (i.e. cleanse the inner Temple) before we start trying to cleanse any outer temples.
This time of silence also plays another important role: silence teaches us our own poverty.  When we act in the strength of our own arm (to use an Old Testament metaphor), when we do what is within our own power to do, we are sometimes deluded (or at least distracted) into thinking that our own sword is delivering us (with all due referential glory to God for “helping me”).  If we are not careful, Christians become mere Crusaders (Jihadist, if you like), violently (by word or deed) imposing on others a righteousness that we ourselves cannot follow.  Silent suffering makes us face our poverty of Spirit, and this is the first rung on the ladder of the Kingdom of God.
Yes, there are times when a Christian must speak and act--even forcefully.  Christians are called to use whatever worldly influence they have for the sake of righteousness; however, we must be very careful.  It is a very Christian irony that only when we are certain that we are not qualified to speak as Jesus did, that we begin to become people who might be able to speak as Jesus did.  It is only when we are sure that whatever words or influence or resources we have will make very little difference in influencing others toward righteousness that, perhaps, we discover (usually in hindsight) that we have been allowed to participate with God in the salvation of others.
During this week of Christ’s Passion, He let Himself be spit upon, slapped, slandered, and unjustly condemned, and said almost nothing.  Perhaps by paying attention to this example, we will become people who may also become able to follow His other examples.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Reflections from Project Mexico

Duing this week before Lazarus Saturday, the hymns of the church reflect on the two stories of Lazarus. The first story is the parable of Jesus about the rich man and the beggar named Lazarus. The second story is the historical account of the raising of Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha, from the dead. In the Church's theological reflection, these two Lazaruses are elided. One story helps interpret the other. The Lazarus of the parable is set every day at the gate of the rich man to beg. He longs for the crumbs that fall from the rich man's table, but receives nothing. The dogs lick his sores (perhaps meaning that the ungodly and irreligious were kinder than the believing brother--a story many could tell). One of the verses from Monday evening vespers for the sixth week of Lent compares our mind (nous) to Lazarus set before the gates of repentance, but the lazy and passion-driven rich man of my body refuses to give my soul one spiritual crumb. That is, "the poor" are not just those with less money than I have. The poor man and the rich man both live inside each of us. Sin has fractured our personalities; consequently, we have to choose who we are, who we are becoming. Whom we feed, we become. Some of us have so starved our spiritual selves, that like the historical Lazarus, we need to be raised from the dead and freed from our grave clothes. Others of us, like the weak beggar of the parable, beg from our lazy and passion-driven selves just a little spiritual food, a little prayer, a little discipline, a little spiritual reading--something to feed the gnawing hunger of our minds (nous). And although this theological reflection (found in the Church hymns for this week) may seem to us selfish, it is not at all. By healing myself, by feeding the poor spiritual man in my own heart, I become someone who can actually help others. Anyone who has tried, really tried, to help the poor knows that material resources given with the best intention often do little more than bandage a cancer. Sometimes freely given material resources make situations worse. To really help others, one must see clearly and discern rightly. A physician must heal himself so that he is able to heal others. I am not suggesting that anyone should wait until he or she is healed before he or she tries to help others. It is always good to do good. However, pay attention. If in trying to do good you find that you are not, the problem my lie in yourself. The poor man within you needs to be cared for: your soul, your spirit, your relationship with God must be nurtured. Then as you are healed, you will find resources (not just material) to heal others. In fact, you may find that those whom you think are poor (and may indeed be materially poor) are the ones who give to you. In the parable, we begin by thinking Lazarus is the poor one, only to find out in the next life that he is the wealthy one. Enough reflection. I have to go back to pounding nails. By the way, I'm feeling much better today, but several others have got the bug now. Keep us in your prayers and share in this work with us!

Monday, April 11, 2011

Project Mexico Update

Dear Readers, When we arrived six days ago, I thought I would make a little report each day to let you know how things are going. I didn't. We started Wednesday morning looking at a huge slab, 50' X 200' with threaded studs placed at stategic places around the perimeter and in two rows 15' apart up the center. There was a pile of 2" X 4", 2" X 6", 4" X 4", 4" X 6", 4" X 12" and 6" X 6"--all 12' to 24' long (and a huge stack of 1\2" plywood). In our sweaty little hands were blueprints that had already been adjusted several times. Our job has been to get this building ready for a steel roof that the next group will put on. Wednesday, Thursday and Friday we began the day with matins at 7:30, ate at 8:00 and started work. We took a half hour for lunch at around 1:00 and worked to 6:00, prayed the appropriate service for the day, and ate dinner at 7:30. Does anyone know how much a 15' 4" X 12" weighs after it has spent the night in the rain? A lot. That's as accurate as I can tell you. Speaking of rain... It's not been bad. Just enough to keep it chilly--you'd think Canadians could handle a little Mexican cold, but the hoodie and vest seem pretty thin when the wind is blowing right off the stormy ocean. The real rain showed up Friday night. There is no dirt in this part of Mexico, only clay--sticky clay. So much clay stuck to our boots that we stopped trying to knock it off. Speaking of things that showed up on Friday, most of us got a flu bug. Only a couple of us have it bad enough to stay in bed during the day, but all of us have taken our turn praying before the porcelin throne. Now it might seem like I am complaining. I'm not. I'm explaining. I wouldn't be anywhere else. What transformation would my heart experience if doing good were easy? We have had some the the deepest and most edifying talks among ourselves that I have ever had with any group of lay people. A little bit of suffering is a gift to the soul. This morning in matins one of the verses talks about God mercifully breaking the hard shell that I have formed around my heart. May God grant that my little offering in Mexico will soften a little bit my heart. The real gift, of course, are the boys who let us serve them so that we can be healed. God did not put the poor beggar Lazarus outside the rich man's gate in order to save Lazarus. He did it to save the rich man--to save both really. But the rich man refused to love and be loved. I know in the grand scheme of things, there are probably more economically efficient ways to help orphan boys in Mexico than flying a bunch of Canadians down to do construction work. But God has given us these boys to love, and to be loved by so that we both can be saved. May God grant it.

Monday, April 04, 2011

The Adjustment Bureau: Leprechauns in Hats

(Spoiler Alert)
In the movie The Adjustment Bureau, we are asked to believe in a world manipulated by angel-like beings (wearing hats) who cause little accidents or coincidences that keep our lives “on the plan.” The plan, one supposes, is God’s plan; but nothing so explicit is said.
The main character, David Norris (Matt Damon), is a young U.S. Representative running for Senate who meets (through an arranged coincidence) Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt) who inspires him to make his best political speech ever. However, when another prearranged accident doesn’t happen (angel-like being literally sleeping on the job), David and Elise meet again and form an attachment that is not according to the plan. The rest of the movie plays out how the angel-like beings, using increasingly invasive tactics, attempt and eventually fail to keep David away from Elise.
David is helped along the way by Harry Mitchell (Anthony Mackie), the sleeping angel-like being who feels sorry for David and helps him beat the system. In the end, however, what makes David successful is his willingness to sacrifice everything (i.e. successful political career) for love, and Elise’s willingness to return similar self-sacrificing love. In the face of such self sacrifice, the “Chairman” (the God-like plan maker) rewrites the plan to include their love.
The movie plays with the concepts of free will and predestination/fate, and really it is more about fate than predestination. The angel-like beings behave much more like leprechauns than angels. That is, they play little tricks that make doing what you want to do, what is not according to their plan, more inconvenient--not impossible, as we see with David and Elise, but just more difficult. In the world of The Adjustment Bureau, just as in our everyday lives, fate is what happens when you do not push and strive for what you want to be. The “plan” is our life on autopilot.
Many of us confuse predestination with fate. Fate is just what happens, what the leprechauns plan, what chance dictates, what comes naturally from nature and nurture. Predestination, on the other hand, is God's calling to conform us to the image of Christ, to make real human beings out of us. Predestination is not what automatically happens. Predestination is a destiny we must choose, and not only choose but fight for. It is the destiny that existed in the mind of God when the first human being was created in the image of God. To use the language of Psalm 82, God created human beings to be gods (c.f. John 10:34,35), and gods determine their own fate.
Certainly one of fates that many choose is at the end of the path of least resistance: the plan of the leprechauns. Anyone who would be noble or magnanimous or loving quickly discovers that virtue is always inconvenient. Love requires sacrifice--and not a little. To break free from the plan, one must sacrifice everything, walk the narrow way, take up their cross and follow Christ, for whoever would save their life will lose it and whoever loses their life will find it.

I can generally recommend The Adjustment Bureau. It is an action romance that makes you think. Like most contemporary movies, it is not for everyone. The film is rated PG-13 for lots of passionate kissing and colourful language.