There is no need at all to make long discourses; it is enough to stretch out one's hand and say, “Lord, as you will, and as you know, have mercy.” And if the conflict grows fiercer say, “Lord help!” God knows very well what we need and He shows us His mercy.
Abba Macarius

«— Funereal Reflections
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Chasing After Nothing

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Like Solomon of ancient memory, I have been chasing after nothing.

On my way to and from St. John the Forerunner parish in Indianapolis this weekend, I listened again to Protopresbyter Thomas Hopko’s keynote address at the Six Days of Creation icon workshop sponsored by Lexington’s local Antiochian parish earlier this year. Wonderful stuff. Instead of parochially relating the hexaemeron to icon painting specifically, he related to creativity in general. To my everlasting delight, he used Flannery O’Connor’s “Writing Short Stories” (in Mystery and Manners) and Wendell Berry’s “Christianity and the Survivavl of Creation” as ancillary texts. I sincerely hope that he will someday publish the address as a paper, if he has not already.

One thing that struck me as I was driving home was the importance of a person to be what he is, not what he wants to be, in order to create a true work. Fr. Thomas was underscoring the need to create works that reflect reality in order to be true, good, and beautiful, using a triad of attributes which Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann said was required of every true work:

  1. unequivocal affirmation of creation as good
  2. an element of tragedy in reflection of the fall and the diffusion of sin through man’s activity in the world
  3. an element of redemption in reflection of God’s activity through man in Jesus Christ crucified and raised from the dead — not by way of propaganda, as some Christians have falsely believed; what we mean here is an element of redemption in every work of art reflecting the ultimate redmeption of all reality in Christ by the Father

Fr. Thomas said that we do not create works that reflect the world as we wish it could be, but as it truly is. In other words, saccharine is right out. Fiction is not Mr. Roger’s Land of Make-believe.

In this context, Fr. Thomas emphasized that the creator must recognize his own gifts and weaknesses. One cannot be an iconographer if he does not have first the gift (or charism) of drawing. One cannot be a writer of fiction if he does not have first the gift of storytelling. Each person has his own unique gift of creation, but he cannot by pretence be what he is not. The first step is to recognize the unique grace that one has been given by God.

Recognizing oneself is a deeply difficult task. As I look back on my life — especially the last eleven years — it strikes me that I have been evading realizing my true self by pursuing a phantasm of the man I wish I could be. Instead of being the man God created, I have longed to be someone else. Again we find that there is no new sin; every sin is contained in the original sin. Having once tasted of the fruit, it is impossible to forget the knowledge of its taste. “The only sin is not wanting God.” Indeed. I have wasted much time running after things that are not-God, ungodly things. Nothing is ungodly in itself, but chasing what has not been given by God as communion with him is a chasing after nothing, a chasing after death. When you have defined yourself by that very chase, it is indeed a crucifixion and a death to embrace God.

Thanks be to God for Pascha. Christ is risen. Indeed.

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Filed under: — Basil @ 10:35 pm

«— With the Blessed, Give Rest
—» Chasing After Nothing

Funereal Reflections

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Our two-day sojourn into the heart of the South was wonderfully eventful. In Knoxville, the starter in father’s van gave out. This set us behind, of course, but we were undeterred. Fr. J popped for a rental car and Fr. D left the van with a local Dodge shop. We only lost two hours at most.

Upon arriving, we went straight to Barnabas’ home, where we were welcomed with his trademark Georgian hospitality. Barnabas is a beautiful man. Spending time with him this week reminded me how much I miss seeing him more regularly. He, too, was formerly a priest in the EOC.

Unfortunately, through a strange sequence of events not appropriate for publication, the funeral services were held in a funeral home. In spite of this, the celebrations were beautiful. The first evening, the icons that I brought with me for my daily prayers proved useful — even though they were tiny in comparison to the space — when we celebrated the panikhida memorial service. I sang in the choir with Barnabas, Athanasius, Matushka* Terri, Matushka Rozanne, Subdeacon Philip, and another woman whose name I cannot remember.

The next day we had lunch at Cracker Barrel. It was fascinating to listen to Fr. J. and Fr. P. talk about church politics. I think Fr. D. is correct when he says that the bright side to American Orthodoxy is that all this “juris-my-diction crap”** keeps us humble. What a triumphal lot of sinners we would be if we had our act together.

The funeral itself was a bit of a whirlwind. I was sight-reading for much of this music; other bits were slightly familiar tones without written music — notably Tones VIII and V, but it took awhile to remember what the bass line is supposed to be. Not very easy with someone singing a random close-but-wrong note in my ear. Obviously, he was doing his best, but it was throwing me off nevertheless.

We did pretty much the entire funeral — so I’m told — which is a bit of a surprise given the number of non-Orthodox we had in attendance. As it was their first funeral in the Orthodox Church, both Fr. J. and Fr. D. were interested to see what could be abbreviated. They were of the opinion that abbreviations should have been made for this celebration, but of course they deferred to the senior priests who were presiding. Unfortunately, we were not able to observe the final kiss, as the coffin had already been sealed. Instead, we had eulogies from family members.

The most impressive by far was the graveside service. The coffin is blessed with water and oil. Incense is poured over it as it is lowered into the grave. Throughout, we’re repeating some of the same hymns we’ve been singing. Then, as the people come forward and cover the coffin with earth, we sing robustly the Easter hymn, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.”

As we sojourned back to Kentucky, Fr. D. noted at dinner that it was perhaps the best form of closure that he had ever seen.

* priest’s wife; common term of endearment, from Russian diminutive form of “mother” back

** allusion to The Matrix, not Fr. D’s words back

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Filed under: — Basil @ 4:08 pm

«— Call to Post
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With the Blessed, Give Rest

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Last night, Photius Loudermilk fell asleep in the Lord. He was a beloved spiritual father. Formerly a priest in the EOC, he gave up his position to become fully united to the Orthodox Church. In falling asleep, he is still technically a layman, but it is hard not to believe that he remains a priest forever, in the order of Melchizidek.

I will blog later this week about my reflections on his funeral. There will be at least three priests in attendance, possibly many more. I would not be suprised to see a hierarch or two. Fr. D. already had a moving experience of seeing Photius in the sanctuary, vested as a priest, during the Divine Liturgy. “It was as if he was standing to my right, concelebrating with me.” Remarkably, father was able to make it without completely losing his compsure.

Memory eternal.

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Filed under: — Basil @ 6:29 pm

«— A Little Self-Promotion
—» With the Blessed, Give Rest

Call to Post

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Today, we began the Christmas Fast. Although it actually begins on November 15, today is a Friday fast, making the Christmas Fast begin today for all practical purposes.

And I am so not ready.

As Joel mentioned recently, I have been facing a rough battle of late in the spiritual warfare. I will not give you specifics, but it comes down to the disjunction between trust and despair. Are God’s instructions for the human machine the best that I can do? Or is there goodness to be found in my passions? It’s the same old question our ancestors faced. The same serpent keeps sowing the same seeds of distrust — and I believe the lie, just like my ancestors.

In the midst of my struggle, I laid aside my daily prayers. I was weary and distracted, and frankly, I did not want to talk to God. This was not a coincidence. These past two weeks feel like a very directed onslaught against me. Not that I’m special, but I feel like Batman in the KnightFall series — I have had every one of my enemies thrown against me, and now I don’t have the strength to fight back. I’ll have a broken back soon. And now the fast begins. I am so not ready.

I am so not ready.

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Filed under: — Basil @ 10:10 pm

«— How Do You Say…
—» Call to Post

A Little Self-Promotion

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Gimme, gimme, gimme! I want, I want, I want! *whine*

Hallowe’en exits, and in retail outlets all over the country, trees, garlands, lights and music come out of the closet. On November 15, Orthodox Christians begin fasting in preparation for the Nativity of Our Lord. Since the season of shopping for Christmas is upon us, I thought I would take the oppurtunity to point my faithful readers to my Amazon.com Wish List. Not because I’m a greedy, self-centered bastard, but because you are so kind and gracious.

Recently, Chicago signed with Rhino Records and began releasing reissues of their catalog with additional tracks. Continuing this process, they now reissue their 1998 Christmas album — Chicago 25 — with new tracks produced by Phil Ramone (Billy Joel, James Taylor, Paul Simon) who also produced their album Hot Streets 25 years ago. Already a hot, groovin’ project, these new songs add a funky sophistication to the tracks produced by the E Street Band’s Roy Bittan. The reissue is retitled Christmas: What’s It Gonna Be, Santa?

The CD opens with a new arrangement of “Winter Wonderland.” Robert Lamm sings the lead, and his smooth baritone is backed up by Bill Champlin and Jason Scheff. Harmonically and rhythmically, this arrangement defies expectations.

I still believe “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is perhaps the best version of this piece that I’ve heard. I’m always fond of Bill Champlin’s blue-eyed soul vocal stylings, and they really shine on this track. His bluesy voice also makes “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer” and “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” enjoyable listens. He arranges “What Child is This” and the tune written with his wife Tamara, “Bethlehem,” with a bluesy traditional Christmas carol feel — quite an interesting combo.

Lee Loughnane’s arrangement of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” brings a straight-forward rock feel to the minor melody, and Jason Scheff’s tenor polishes it off with his usual vocal clarity. Loughnane also arranges “Let It Snow.” In a rather unusual move, Loughnane sings lead on this and a few other tracks on the CD, as does guitarist Keith Howland. One of the things that has always impressed me about Chicago is their vocal diversity and their ability — since all of the vocalists are also instrumentalists — to let anyone sing if they want.

It’s good to see these guys still having fun making music. Hopefully, a new CD — their 27th — will be released sometime in the next year. I have both this album and their box set retrospective on my Wish List.

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Filed under: — Basil @ 11:11 am

«— Holiday Googles
—» A Little Self-Promotion

How Do You Say…

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Yesterday was the commemoration of Ss. Akindinus, Pegasius, Anempodista, Aphthonius, and Elpidiphorus. We had a quite a laugh trying to pronounce all of these names — some of which had different transliterations in the various texts we were using. So for a straw poll, how are these names pronounced? It’s all fun, but extra credit will be given for answers that reference the etymology of the names from Persian through Greek to Latin, and how other similar Latinate names are pronounced when thoroughly Anglicized — Athanasius or Ignatius, for example.

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Filed under: — Basil @ 4:00 pm