Thursday, October 20, 2016

“Six of One, Half a Dozen of the Other”

Lately I was watching an old favourite British television series, “The Prisoner”, starring Patrick McGoohan.  The series ran for a mere 17 episodes, ending in 1968.  In its time it was ground-breaking, combining psychological drama with biting social commentary and allegorical symbolism—perhaps a little too ground-breaking, which is why it ended after a mere 17 episodes.  McGoohan had previously starred in the spy series “Danger Man” (shown in America under the title “Secret Agent”), and viewers were looking for more of the same.  They wanted another Danger Man with spy gadgets and fist fights, not a Kafkaesque critique of society.   
The series featured McGoohan as someone who had suddenly resigned from his government spy job.  He was abducted and woke up in a place called “the Village”, a self-contained community purporting to provide its happy contented citizens with all they needed, but in fact was a political prison where people like McGoohan were kept—a kind of up-scale luxurious gulag.  No one had any names there, but simply numbers.  McGoohan was Number Six.  The head administrator, replaced at regular intervals, was Number Two.  No one ever saw Number One, though he ran everything.  The series revolved around Number Six’s attempts to resist indoctrination and to escape.  Under the image of the Village the series offered a critique of our own society, which depersonalizes and offers pleasure and security in exchange for true freedom.  I only noticed much later that there was no church in the Village.  The dead there were carried out to burial to the accompaniment of a brass band, which only ever played marching songs.
            Its second episode was entitled, “Free for All” and featured Number Six running for office in the Village—in particular, for the job of being Number Two.  The current Number Two argued that lack of political opposition was not good for their community:  “These people don’t seem to appreciate the value of free elections.  They think it’s a game.”  Number Six, though sceptical that anything could really change if he won, was persuaded to run in hopes of changing the system and freeing other citizens.  The episode ends with him winning, but discovering that in fact the election was indeed a sham and simply another attempt to demoralize and break him.  Another Number Two succeeded the old Number Two, but the totalitarian grip of the Village on its citizens remained intact.  The election turned out to be a game after all.  Someone made an ironic pun at the expense of Number Six with words of the old saying, “Six of one, half a dozen of the other”:  it didn’t really matter who one voted for—the real power remained in the fact of the Village itself. 
            McGoohan’s point was that all societies program their citizens, and feed them only the information they want them to have, thus pre-determining their choices within certain parameters.  True freedom in this age is largely illusory, unless it is rooted within the human person who is able to see through the lies which pervade society.  It was hard for me not to think of current events as I watched the old series, for some of its lessons are timeless.  For a Christian, the lessons learned from Number Six’s struggles within the Village are threefold.
            Firstly, all human societies form part of the World, which lies under the power of the Evil One (1 John 5:19), whatever political system that society utilizes and whichever leader it follows.  That does not mean, of course, that it is a mere toss up between a liberal democracy which allows dissent and a totalitarian regime where dissenters disappear overnight into a gulag.  The former is definitely preferable, and I am happy to inhabit one.  It also does not mean that it does not matter which leader we choose, for some leaders if chosen will do more harm than others.  But it does mean that we must not mistake our liberal democracy for the Kingdom of God, or think that it is somehow exempt from the power of the Evil One.  If Satan is the god of this age (2 Corinthians 4:4) then in some sense he is a god in America as well as in Russia, Syria, or any other part of this world.  We should vote, and may debate (politely, please), and maybe even campaign for the political candidates of our choice.  But we must do so knowing that no leader will bring in the Kingdom of God, and that our ultimate allegiance lies with Jesus Christ, not with any earthly leader or system.  At the end of the day, the World is still the World.
            Secondly, we can expect then that the World will lie to us and offer us a steady diet of falsehood from the father of lies.  We cannot always know which bits we find in our media are the lies, but we can be sure we are being lied to somehow.  All the more sensible to sit rather lightly on all that we think we know.  We must constantly remind ourselves that in this age, “we see through a glass darkly” and “know in part”— knowing perhaps even less than we imagine we do.  At best the World offers us half-truths, and the problem with half-truths is that one usually fastens on the wrong half.  It is only in Christ and the Holy Tradition of His Church that fullness of truth can be found, unmixed with any error.  I used to think it was a tad irresponsible of C.S. Lewis not to read newspapers on the basis that they contained so many distortions and lies.  Now I am not so sure that he wasn’t on to something.  I still read papers and listen to the news, but I believe less and less of what I am told. 
            Thirdly, our hearts must be set on the day of our escape from this World at the Second Coming and on our entry into true freedom, for such an attitude is the only path to true interior freedom and authentic personhood here and now.  One problem with becoming immersed in politics is that we run the risk of forgetting what the true and lasting issues of life and death really are.  We are meant to keep at least one eye on the horizon, with the prayer “Maranatha!” in our heart, for our true citizenship is not here but in heaven (Philippians 3:20).  A very early prayer said, “Let grace come and let the world pass away!”  I often think of that prayer whenever I vote, and am sometimes tempted to write it on the ballot.  But whether I utter the prayer or not, the world certainly will one day pass away, and grace certainly will one day come.  “Six of one, half a dozen of the other”?  Certainly that seems true in this age.  But there remains a third option, what St. Paul called “the Blessed Hope”.  May that hope be realized soon.          

Thursday, October 13, 2016

An Insignificant Sound

           When I was converted to Christ through the Jesus People movement, there were no praise bands.  (A "praise band", for those unfamiliar with the term, is a band with electric guitars and drums which plays "contemporary Christian music" at the front of evangelical churches.)  In those happy and innocent days, young Christians would meet together in a variety of venues such as the beach, a hall, or someone's home, and pray and sing to the Lord, often using musical compositions or choruses written by themselves.  It was all very informal and spontaneous.  There was then no "Christian music industry"; enthusiastic young believers just played the guitar out of joy and sang to God.  In those post-hippie days, such singing often resulted in a crowd gathering to listen, and the one singing would then share the Gospel with them.  The contemporary praise band evolved from such early and unsophisticated spontaneity.
My involvement in this movement centred on a meeting of young people in Toronto, the so-called "Toronto Catacombs", led by Merv and Merla Watson.  Like many in the Jesus Movement, some of the young people would bring their guitars to the meeting as well as their Bibles, and would play them as everyone sang choruses.  The group of players up front grew, and came to include some people playing the flute and the accordion.  And--this is important--one young man playing a single bell.  Yes, a bell.  At certain times he would strike the bell, producing a sweet note.  Of course with people playing guitars, flutes, and an accordion, to say nothing of the many voices singing loudly with spiritual gusto, he was utterly drowned out.  You could see him striking the occasional note, but could never hear him.  One time, someone asked him about this.  Why did he continue to strike the bell and sound notes that no one else could hear?  "I'm not playing for you," was his reply.  "I'm playing for the Lord.  He can hear me.  And that's all that matters."
I have never forgotten this reply, and it has become more and more important to me throughout the years, especially when I am tempted to become discouraged with my own poor attempts at prayer.  St. Seraphim praying with power on a rock for a thousand days, or St. Mary of Egypt levitating a foot off the ground in her communion with God are all very impressive, but at times these things leave me feeling very keenly the inadequacy and poverty of my own prayer life.  I cannot pray for a thousand days nonstop.  And never mind about levitating--most of the time it's all I can do to keep my mind from wandering.  Why bother?  What do I have to offer?  I can picture the angels looking down from heaven at me and saying to each other, "What does he think he's doing?  You call that praying?"  
It is then that I remember the insignificant sound of the bell.  It might have been insignificant in the estimation of others, but not to God.  Let others play the guitar or the flute or sing as melodiously as they could.  My friend with the bell would offer what he had to offer, even if it were but the single sweet sound of an almost inaudible note.  He was playing for the Lord, and he refused to compare his contribution to that of others.  It is the same with us.  In heaven, a deafening thunder of praise, a continual cataract of doxology, pours forth from the angels, from the vast army of cherubim and seraphim, "the voice of a great multitude and the sound of many waters, and of mighty peals of thunder, saying, 'Allelulia!'" (Rev. 19:6).  We are privileged to add our few and little notes to this vast chorus.  It might not sound impressive.  It might be as nothing to the prayers of the saints and the praises of the angelic powers.  It might be all but lost in that thunderous swell--an almost inaudible sound, a single note added to theirs.  But to the Lord our note is not lost among the others, nor is it insignificant.  God delights in our prayers, when we offer them to Him with a heart of love.  As my nameless brother said long ago, we are singing for the Lord.  He can hear us.  And that's all that matters.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Remembering Fr. Pihach

Saturday morning began with a thunderbolt:  a dear fellow-priest from my diocese began his phone call to me early that morning with the words, “Did you hear about Fr. Alexander?”  I had not heard about Fr. Alexander Pihach, but soon was informed that he had died suddenly and unexpectedly earlier that day.  After travelling to Toronto from Saskatoon on his way to Moscow where he served as priest at the Representation Parish of St. Catherine’s, and arriving in Toronto very late, he had been picked up at the airport and was eating at the home of a fellow priest in Toronto when he suddenly collapsed afterward on his way to bed and died.  He had been lately been given a clean bill of health after his cancer treatments, and was looking forward to many more years of fruitful ministry.  He was 64.
            I was not the only one who felt as if he had been struck by lightning.  Fr. Alexander (or “Fr. Dennis” as he had been known for years) had served as Chancellor in the Canadian diocese for many years, and as Rector of parishes across the country.  He was well-known, and even more well-loved.
            I met him when I was still an Anglican priest investigating Orthodoxy.  I had travelled three hours from northern Saskatchewan to the city of Saskatoon to observe the odd phenomenon of an Orthodox Liturgy being served in English.  Dennis was a deacon at the parish there.  I had many questions, most of them dumb.  I also asked him, “What’s the deal about this ‘jurisdictions thing’”.  He and his priest exchanged a meaningful glance, and then Dennis answered, “The only place to talk about Orthodox jurisdictions is either on your knees or in a bar.”  I didn’t understand it then, and could only later appreciate the combination of wit, wisdom, pragmatism and humour that characterized Dennis Pihach.  It was a combination that would later help keep many people sane when he served as Chancellor for the diocese through some interesting years to come.
            If I had to pick one phrase that described my friend of many years, it would be the phrase “holy pragmatism”.  Fr. Dennis was above all things a holy pragmatist, determined not to die on any hill but the one chosen by God.  He knew how to roll with the punches (and there were many punches), to find the one thing needful, to keep both his integrity and his sense of humour—no mean feat—and to share his wisdom and perspective with those who needed it most.  He had the gift of friendship, of connecting with people very different from him in both point of view and temperament, and of enriching them by that gift.  He had no time for pretentious unreality (what the world calls “BS”), and sat lightly on worldly honours.  If Fr. Dennis/ Alexander thought that something was nonsensical or that a man was an idiot, the thing in question probably was nonsense, and the man probably was an idiot.  He had a judgment and discernment that could be relied upon, and yet he despised no one.  He saw the Church with all its flaws, and loved her just the same.

            Fr. Dennis/ Alexander was a big man, and his big frame contained a big heart.  Those of us who knew him well knew that we had a place somewhere in that heart.  He would sometimes call me from Moscow (across heaven knows how many time zones) just to talk and connect and encourage.  Alas for me and for us all:  our phones may now ring many times, but he will never again be on the other end of the line.  We are all the poorer for his passing, and will not soon see his like again.  May his memory be eternal.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Concerning Burning

     The burning of books is objectionable on principle.  Indeed, whenever I hear of books being burnt, I always think of the famous quote by Heinrich Heine, who was born a Jew but converted to Christianity, and who died 1856.  He said, “Where they burn books, in the end they will burn people.”  (There is a fine irony in his far-sighted wisdom, since his books were among the many consigned to the flames by the Nazis in the 1930s.)  The reason that book-burning is objectionable is that consigning something to the flames means not just its destruction, but many circumstances its renunciation, and asserts its total lack of value.  And pretty much all books have value—even the books the contents of which we disagree with.  We may disagree with the ideas some books contain, but the idea of a book itself—that is, offering ideas from one person to another—is valuable and good, for all books involve sharing and dialogue, and all human dialogue has value.
            In the same way that burning books is bad, burning people is bad also.  Put another way, cremation is not a part of our Christian Tradition.  Asserting this flies in the face of much modern North American culture, where cremation is rapidly becoming the preferred method of dealing with the bodies of the dead, but Orthodoxy continues to make this assertion nonetheless.  As far as the historic practice of the Church is concerned, cremation involves the burning of people.
            Modern secular culture denies this.  It says that people—human persons—are to be sharply differentiated from their bodies, so that cremation burns not the person, but the body of the person.  The person—the real person—is identified with the soul, and this soul resides in the body in the same sort of way that a letter resides in an envelope.  In the case of letters and envelopes, the envelope has no real and lasting function apart from the safe delivery of the letter, and after the letter is received, the envelope may be thrown away.  After all, it is the letter which is of value, and it is the letter which we keep.  In the same way, modern secularism holds that the soul is the real person, and the body only the temporary container or vehicle for the soul.  When the soul departs from the body at death, the body has no more lasting value than the envelope has after the letter is removed.  Both may be thrown away, or burned. 
            Over against this, the Church asserts that the body is not simply the container of the soul but, along with the soul, also partakes of the beauty and image of God.  It is therefore not so much the case that we have bodies, but that we are bodies—as well as being souls and spirits.  The body is made by God, and shares His image—not of course that God has two eyes and a nose and ears, but that the body’s beauty and grace have their source in God.  And not only does the body partake of God’s grace in its creation, but also in its redemption, for it is the body which is baptized and chrismated, the body which receives the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist, the body which will one day be raised to new immortal life at the final resurrection.  In a word, the human body is holy, and is central to our total salvation.  Like all holy things, it must be treated reverently.  As said above, consigning something to the flames speaks of its lack of value.  This practice made sense in paganism, for pagans denied that bodies had ultimate value (that was why the philosophical Athenians scoffed when St. Paul began asserting that bodies would rise again; see Acts 17:32).  Pagans could cremate and burn their dead and be consistent with their religious beliefs.  Christians cannot, for Christians believe that the body has too much value to be consigned to the flames.
            There are other problems as well with the present practice of cremation.  For one thing, some in the funeral industry who promote cremation do not tell the whole truth about it.  In particular, they fail to mention the truth that bones do not burn.  Flesh burns, and hair burns, and fat burns, if the fire is hot enough.   (When it does, it is not an edifying spectacle.  Indeed, some people who have witnessed it have said that if many knew exactly what occurs in the process of cremating a body, they would not have gone through with it.)  But bones do not burn, however hot the fire may be.  What then is done with them after cremation?  They are put through a grinder, and ground down to tiny bits.  I am told that cleaning such grinders is not easy to do, and the bits from one body can get mixed the bits from another.  Some have told me that talcum powder is sometimes added to make the bits look more like ashes.  This of course is an attempt to hide from the truth that bones do not burn.
            There are other problems as well.  I have been present when the ashes were deposited in their designated place in burial grounds.  Prayers were said for the departed, referring to the dead in personal terms, as a “who”.  The worker from the funeral crematorium then came, bringing the ashes in a plastic bag.  The departed had now become not a “who”, but a “what”, for the worker said, “Where would you like me to put it?”  Note:  not “him” or “her”, but “it”.  The worker was not heartless, and I’m sure meant no disrespect.  He was only doing his job, and stating the obvious:  cremation had turned a person into a thing, something able to be carried in a plastic bag under one’s arm and stuffed into a small funerary cylinder.  Cremation meant depersonalization.
            Here then is the main difference between cremation and the historic burial practice of the Church—the latter alone does justice to the personhood of the departed and to the sanctity of human flesh.  This is not to judge or condemn anyone who has allowed the cremation of loved ones, for we all do the best we can, and times of bereavement and grief are not the best times to relearn and rethink.  But though the Church does not judge, it does offer a better way.  We do the most honour to our beloved departed when we avoid cremation, when we commit them reverently in the ground.   We need not burn the bodies of those we love.  Instead, we place their bodies in the good earth, and their souls in the hands of the good Lord.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Chieti, Reunion, and the Rush to Embrace

On September 21, 2016, the Joint Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church met in Chieti and released an agreed statement with the long title, Synodality and Primacy during the first Millennium: Towards a commonunderstanding in service to the Unity of the Church”.  It did not chart the way forward toward consensus, but did agree upon a common understanding and interpretation of the past—a not inconsiderable achievement.
            This achievement was significant because Roman Catholicism, represented by its polemicists, formerly held to a view of history in which the Orthodox East of the first millennium embraced a view of the papal primacy more or less identical with that of post-Vatican I, in which the eastern part of the Church submitted to the Pope as the head of the Church with jurisdiction and canonical rule over its totality.  In this view of history, the East rejected its former attitude of complete submission to the Pope’s authority and was therefore guilty of the sin of schism and rightly anathematized as heretical and schismatical.  The only path forward therefore for the East was one of repentance and return to their former submission to the Pope.  That is what passed for ecumenism in the old days. 
            The Roman Catholic Church has since modified its view of history.  In the words of the Catholic Herald reporting the meeting in Chieti, “The document has accepted a reading of the first Millennium which is more in tune with the way Orthodoxy has tended to see it than that favoured by Catholic apologetics until recent times…It recognises that even in the West the understanding of Roman primacy was the result of a development of doctrine, particularly from the fourth century, and that this development did not occur in the East”.  This is a great step forward, since any further progress toward unity must at least agree upon what did or did not actually occur in the past.  Both Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy regard the praxis of the early church as in some way authoritative, so it is imperative that they agree about of what the praxis consisted.  The consensus achieved at Chieti is therefore to be welcomed and celebrated.
            But not, I think, over-stated.  That is, as even the Catholic Herald discerned, it is far too early for those hoping for an imminent reunion of Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy to uncork the champagne.  When and if the hoped-for reunion takes place, it will not take place because a few people have met someplace to produce an agreed statement.  If it takes place at all it will take place because everyone everywhere throughout the Roman Catholic Church and Orthodoxy sees that the two groups have become so similar in their approach to life, in their dogmas, and in their spirituality that staying apart is manifestly stupid.  That is, the unity will be apparent as a reality on the grass-roots parish level, and not simply on the level of ecclesiastical bureaucracy with delegates meeting somewhere in the stratosphere to produce yet another agreed statement (which statements already exist in enough profusion to wallpaper the Vatican or the Phanar).
            Some people (who always seem to end up on Facebook) have suggested that before reunion can take place the Roman Catholic Church and Orthodoxy, the former must first renounce its attachment to the papal dogmas pronounced at Vatican I, its views of ancestral sin and the Immaculate Conception, its view of Purgatory, etc., etc.  Others have retorted that such an insistence simply sets conditions whereby a reunion will never occur, and is therefore ill-considered, if not actually churlish.  But surely reunion is not the issue?  Rather truth is the issue, and reunion can only be based upon agreement in the truth.  Orthodoxy must not insist upon (for example) Roman Catholicism abandoning its views on Purgatory because it wants to rub the Pope’s nose in the polemical mess of history, but because those views are in fact erroneous.  It would be happy if the Roman Church abandoned those views even if reunion never took place, simply because truth is preferable to error.
            The sad and sober fact is that the hoped-for reunion is miles away because the Roman Catholic communion differs from Orthodoxy in many things which are essential to the fullness of life and the healthy functioning of the Church.  One thinks here for example of the Roman Catholic Church’s virtual abandonment of its ascetical tradition, wherein Lenten fasting is made optional in North America and the Eucharistic fast reduced to one hour prior to receiving the Eucharist.  One thinks of its legalistic view of divorce and remarriage, of its centralism whereby the Pope is made the pilot of the entire Church in a kind of cult of celebrity.  These things are objectionable not simply because they are barriers to reunion, but because they are barriers to spiritual health, and Rome should dump them even if they never spoke another word to the Orthodox. 
Roman Catholics do not need to embrace the entire liturgical tradition of Orthodoxy and begin celebrating the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom as is currently celebrated among us.  Their own classic Roman Mass is valid and wonderful as it is (or was).  The Orthodox do not insist that Rome “return to Orthodoxy” in the sense that it scrap everything western to embrace everything eastern in its stead.  But Orthodoxy does or should insist that Rome return to its own primordial western traditions of the first millennium, when it functioned efficiently as part of the historic Pentarchy, as the elder brother among its other patriarchal brothers.  When this occurs, with all the liturgical, ascetical, canonical, and dogmatic consequences this implies, all will see that there no longer remains any reason for East and West to remain out of communion.  The reunion then will not be a controversial possibility to be debated, but an obvious reality to be celebrated and sealed.  But until this occurs, reunion between Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism will not be a godly possibility, and such a reunion would only result in a schism among the Orthodox.  And any heart, Roman Catholic or Orthodox, which desires the unity of East and West, will regard such a future schism with horror.