Friday, August 28, 2009

A Daughter's Perspective - Life Update

This morning, my daughter emailed me the text of an essay she had written as a class assignment. She didn't mention the specific instructions for the essay, but I concluded it must have focused on struggles in the student's life in some way.

I like to believe that I've always had a close and open relationship with my child. To say that I consider her very intelligent and insightful is not just a parental boast, I've consider the issue very objectively over the years (that is, with as much objectivity as a parent is capable of incorporating into such deliberations). Yet, I have been truly moved by her essay. She presents a side of herself that I honestly did not think she was mature enough to have, much less embrace.

While I would candidly offer that she could give a second draft of the essay expanding on a couple of things that I know she is hinting at but not clearly stating, I am honestly astounded at her reflection. I present it below with one spelling error corrected and the poetry at the end formated in verse form (she had formatted it as prose at the end of a paragraph -- I can't help myself, old teaching habits!) .

To anyone suffering grief, I hope it proves as inspiring as I have found it to be.

English 4
19 August 2009

In My Life, I’ve Loved Them All

“In my life, I’ve loved them all,” were a few words from the Beatles’ song “In My Life”. In my life, there have been many hardships that I’ve gone through. People very close to me have died of diseases which had no cures. These two people and events have helped me become the person I am today: my grandfather and Alzheimer’s disease, and my mother and Brain Cancer.

My grandfather had Alzheimer’s disease which he lived with for a few years. During the summer, I would help my grandmother by staying home and keeping my grandpa calm and making him lunch or taking my grandma to the store. There were times when my grandfather would get into extremely bad moods and he would get violent. He would curse at some of the people in the house and he almost hit my mom. Luckily, she was able to calm him down and he would be quiet for a time and fall asleep. Honestly, it drove me crazy, but in the end it taught me to be patient with people because sometimes they don’t know what they are doing. It also taught me self-control. Every now and then, he would shout at me for not letting him outside because my parents told me not to let him. I had to control myself not to shout back, but to ask him calmly to go back into the living room and sit down. He died in 2007.

The second hardship I’ve had to overcome was when my mother was diagnosed with Brain Cancer in 2008. When my father told me, I was in tears. When I looked over at her I saw that she had an optimistic look on her face. It shocked me. How could she be so happy when she had a level four brain tumor? It baffled me, but a little while later, I realized that she was scared but she was just happy to be alive at that moment. At first, she seemed to act normally. Well, at least after the emergency surgery she had only a day or so after discovering the disease. My mother would walk and talk like she always did. But then her one tumor turned into four, then 5 or 6. She had another surgery, and then was taken home for her final days. During this time, I learned that life is the shortest thing we have. A person has to learn that life is so important that it should not be wasted. She lived with the disease for eight months, only eight short months. I learned how hard it is to take care of another person, because that is what I had to do for a while. I do not know how people with seven children do it. My mother taught me, through her disease, to look for the goodness in other people and to look at the silver lining instead of the dark cloud.

I have learned a lot through these hardships. By looking for the good things in life, my attitude has gone from unhappiness to joy. I love going to school now because of all of the new possible events that can make my day and life better. I used to try to make someone happy every now and again, but now I try to make my friends laugh more and I try to teach them that life can be very rewarding when looked at in an optimistic point of view. My grandfather and my mother were good people with good morals. They taught me how to behave, right from wrong and so many other lessons in life.

A quote once again from the Beatles’ song “In My Life”:

“And these memories lose their meaning,
when I think of love as something new,
though I know I’ll never lose affection,
for people and things that went before,
I know I’ll often stop and think about them,
in my life I love you more.”

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Grist to the Mill

Over at Ierinikon, a nineteenth century tract from an Anglican source discusses the division of the Eastern and Western Church. While the author was an early proponent of the "branch" theory of ecclesiology, long refuted, it makes for interesting reading.

The comments, to date, are also worth consideration. I hope to see the conversation there continue.

The piece is entitled, "A Tractarian perspective"; the original title being:

On the Present Apparent Conflict Between “Orthodoxy” and “Catholicism"
From Dissertations on Subjects Relating to the “Orthodox” or “Eastern-Catholic” Communion (1853), by William Palmer, M.A., Fellow of St. Mary Magdalene College, Oxford, and Deacon.

Like all nineteenth century academic writing from the British Isles it's heady reading, but worth expanding one's twentyfirst century short attention span.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Food, Dancing - What More Could One Want?

Sometimes we all need a good laugh, a catchy tune, or a nice dish of comfort food.

Personally, I'm a Fattouche man but, hey!

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Metropolitan Philaret on the Example of Ancient Christians

The Holy Apostle Paul in his epistle to the Philippians wrote that they shone as lights in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation (Phil. 2:15). A lofty spiritual disposition and irreproachably clean, strictly, chaste life; these were the characteristic traits of the Philippians Christians, for which the Apostle Paul praised them. We live in later times; nineteen centuries separate us from those days in which the Apostle Paul wrote his epistles. But now, just as the Christians of the first centuries, we are encircled by an environment full of shamelessness and perversion. May the high and holy example of the ancient Christians teach us to be as steadfast and firm in the observance of the laws of Christian morals, and not accede to the temptations which surround us.

Metropolitan Philaret of New York

In the above quote, Metropolitan Philaret, who some consider a saint, speaks clearly of the great need we have to struggle against sin. We should also recognize the importance of his reference to “the high and holy example of ancient Christians” as teachers and role models in faith and morality and what this teaches us. Our Faith is not a thing to be reinvented or remodeled from time to time or generation to generation.

As Eastern Christians we take very seriously that continuity with the “ancient Christians” who have preceded us. While for at least a few centuries in the West it has been fashionable to seek new ideas, new approaches, new interpretations, etc., as though only through continuously reanalyzing every assumption, belief, or proposition can Truth be found; we recognize the legitimacy of Tradition and the validity of not attempting to “re-invent the wheel” when Truth has once and for all been revealed. Therefore, we are not merely content to worship according to the prescripts of rituals that go back millennia, we are consoled and strengthened in the assurance of Truth this worship celebrates. These rituals and devotions work for us because we recognize in them a spiritual power that has stood the test of time.

Byzantine Christianity has remained unchanged throughout centuries marked not only by triumphs (which actually prove little) but also through centuries of suppression and the attacks of cultures and rival religious ideas that have often sought to defeat it by means of arguments, ridicule and the sword. The ability of this Orthodox Faith to continue to inspire, encourage, and enable countless millions to find hope and joy despite temptations, torments, and worldly ‘evidence’ that another approach should be preferable reveals an overarching inner conviction that guides and guards the faith of these children of God.

This inner conviction that is at once intellectually valid and mystically transforming has a power that can only be termed spiritual. It is not so much that it helps me discover who I am, it reveals who and what I am called to be. Our humanity is not confined to the limitations of this century, this culture, or this technology (and the lie that technological advancement somehow indicates an increase in the teleological value of a culture). Our Christianity, replete with devotions and practices that some may initially find arcane at best or even irrationally superstitious, proves to have an inner coherence that is not only perfectly logical as a ‘system of belief’ but in fact is a way of life that breaks us free of the imprisoning delusions of individuality and “predetermined” patterns of existence that actually do no more than limit and diminish our humanity.

By adhering to this “ancient” way, the ultimate freedom of our humanity comes into focus as an ongoing becoming. I am not a victim confined to the place and time of my earthly existence but a child of God having an autonomy through which my life possesses an inherent dignity and ability to surpass these ‘victimizing’ factors. Free will, freedom of choice, the supremacy of love to transform my life, and therefore my very humanity, reveals a spark of divinity within me that energizes limitless potential for real personal growth. This personal change is not some external reaction to outside stimuli, it is a living transfiguration mystically driven by the Grace of God. Humanity’s true fullness only reaches its apogee and victory in a surrender whose reality is Love, not some static submission to an opposing force. It is life restored by the God who is Love.

It is this inner healing and transforming power to experience life with godly eyes that lies at the heart of our Christian life. This capacity invigorates every aspect of our humanity infusing it with Divine freedom. Only True Faith can accomplish this; and it is for this reason that we not only follow the ‘ancient’ ways but delight in them. This is the Faith that offers true human life and freedom. This is the Faith that overcomes the “shamelessness and perversion” of temptations that only promise freedom but deliver only decay and a diminished life. This is the true life in Christ we celebrate.

Thanks be to God.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Another Family Update

As those of you who wander across this blog on occasion may recall my wife Presbytera Karen fell asleep in the Lord on 4 July. I must now report that my father has also fallen asleep in the Lord, on 4 August.

Since my mother fell asleep in 2003, life for my father has been most difficult. To say that she was the center of his life would be an understatement. Theirs was as a storybook romance. They met at a football game while in high school, he from the “visitor” side, and she on the home-team side. She was three years younger than he, and after a three-year courtship they married.

Like all those who came of age in the mid-twentieth century, they struggled with maintaining their marriage (and sanity) amidst the momentous changes and difficult challenges of that turbulent time, which included my arrival on the scene (having had to deal with me as a teenager should be considered meritorious towards sainthood in and of itself).

My mother was a woman of simple faith, who lived the faith more clearly than she could explain it. She had suffered from breast cancer and almost reached the “five year” mark when recovery complications from surgery suddenly took her life. While I grieved for her, I have never had doubts that ultimately she would be accounted among the just on the day of resurrection.

But my father, like many of that era, suffered from a defective understanding of the Faith, which led him at best to consider himself an agnostic. Several times over the years we would talk about the Faith and he would comment that he wished he could believe but just couldn’t.

For him, my mother's passing was a wound from which he never recovered emotionally. Although surrounded by siblings, family and friends, he closed himself off and spent countless hours working on jigsaw puzzles. It was a “hobby” that became an obsession. He claimed it was the only way he had to pass time even as we all encouraged him to get out and be with people.

When Matushka died last month, my father traveled to be with us for the funeral. He came with my uncle, who expressed great concern over his health. My Aunt had begged him not to go and my uncle noted that the drive had been exhausting for him. Indeed, he was obviously too ill to have come, but would brook no denial of his intentions. The day after Karen’s funeral he and my uncle returned home – another exhausting drive.

Two days later he was in the hospital and was almost immediately placed on a ventilator. It was not very surprising.

He had long suffered emphysema, and since my mother’s passing had begun to drink too freely, stopped exercising and stopped caring for his diet. This all had led to diabetes (which he ignored as much as possible), congestive heart failure (which any action to stave off via exercise the emphysema complicated), and pancreatitis (generally caused and exacerbated by his drinking).

Over the course of last month my uncle and I were continually in contact with each other and the doctors, as they struggled to control his condition and we hoped to talk him into moving in with my family on his release. Unfortunately, his health continued to deteriorate and ultimately I had to go oversee his wishes to be removed from artificial extraordinary devices.

I felt it my duty at least to offer him the opportunity to convert; but I had little hope he would be receptive.

Yet, he was receptive.

In the final hours before the ventilator was removed, they discontinued the sedatives so that he and I could ‘communicate’ to some extent. By a series of eye blink responses and my crosschecking that his ‘answers’ were not just random or vaguely understood responses; he accepted the Catholic Faith and so received Last Rites. This not only brought great joy to me for his sake, it also clearly brought him personally a measure of peace that both of my aunts, who were present, commented on.

As I have had to begin the sorrowful work of taking care of his estate, I have come across too many jigsaw puzzles to count – in boxes, half-finished on tables, or glued in place and framed. He had just kept on buying them, working on them, and finding more.

It has struck me that for him no puzzle seemed to bring him satisfaction. He just continued to find more and more puzzles to work on. It also struck me that since my mother’s passing his life had become a jigsaw puzzle in which she was that missing piece he kept desperately hoping to regain. Yet, in a broader sense, the missing piece was God. His defective concepts of God and the Faith had led him to despair many years ago, and the loss of my mother had merely brought home to him the magnitude of that despair and hopelessness.

I believe his attendance at Matushka’s funeral provided the opportunity for him to reexamine his assumptions about life and the Faith. In the end, I believe he realized that God’s Love was (and is) greater than any of his doubts, fears or any sin.

In the end, he realized that accepting forgiveness is not a bond of servitude but a gateway to freedom and true life.

In the end, he found he could accept that freedom, that life and the Faith. He finally discovered that one jigsaw puzzle piece that truly completes the picture and brings with it Divine Peace.

In the end, he - like St Constantine - may have waited until the end, but in the end he died a Christian.

Thanks be to God.

As for your humble servant, his daughter and mother-in-law; please keep us and my father's siblings in your prayers.

UPDATE: With modifications, this eulogy became part of a sermon I delivered today (8 August) at the graveside service for my father. The Scripture text that prefaced it was St Matthew 21.28-32.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

The Importance of Orthros

In the Byzantine Tradition, the Divine Liturgy is the highest expression of our adoration and devotion to the All Holy Trinity. In the Divine Liturgy we hear the word of God in the Scriptures and homily, and we receive the Precious Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is in the Divine Liturgy that we have the most intimate possibility of receiving God’s healing and Holy Grace.

Yet the Divine Liturgy is only part, the central and most important part, but only part of the salvific worship life of the Church. The Apostles and Church Fathers instituted a series of opportunities for worship that work together to encourage, establish and strengthen our spiritual life. These various opportunities crystallized in the various Offices and Services that grace the Church day, the week and the year.

Central to all of these various Divine Services are the Psalms and sacred hymnody. The hymnody of the Church (the Troparia, Kontakia, Akathists and Canons) presents the essential Truths of our Faith in poetic imagery like Divine fruit that is sweet and nutritious to our souls. The system of Sacred Chant (the Eight Tones) and the hymns and Psalms that feature prominently in these Services help prepare our hearts to receive the Grace offered in the words of the Holy Gospel and in the great Gift of Holy Communion. Over time, they aid in our formation as God’s children and increase our understanding of the Sacred Mystery of our Salvation. As Eastern Christians we should not limit our worship to attendance at the Divine Liturgy only.

As an analogy, we might say that the Divine Liturgy and other Holy Services of our Faith are like a medical regime to restore physical health. If we only focus on directions to take a particular medicine that in itself may be most important to restore our health, we may yet not achieve recovery to the extent that would have been possible had we followed the entire course of therapy, for other elements of the prescribed regime also contribute to health. Similarly, the Divine Liturgy and other Holy Services combine to form a spiritual therapy designed to heal us of the defacing effects of sin and to restore us to the health of our original creation. Further, this treatment is able to take us beyond that original purity to the fulfillment of THEOSIS (divinization - maturing in the image and likeness of God). Under this regimen we fulfill the purpose for which we were created and achieve the fullness of our humanity. Therefore, limiting ourselves to the Divine Liturgy only risks limiting our growth as a child of God.

Orthros, the principal morning Service of the Horos (Divine Services associated with various hours of the day), is celebrated immediately before the Divine Liturgy on Sunday morning in our Melkite Byzantine Tradition. To ignore or omit Orthros is to limit the potential for spiritual growth so important to our Christian life. Therefore, recognizing that the powers of this corrupt world seeks to minimize and impede even the short time we offer to God in Church on Sunday, our parochial celebration of Orthros is typically modified, somewhat shortened and leads immediately into the Divine Liturgy. In attending Orthros worshippers enjoy a better preparation of their hearts and minds for the majestic worship of the Divine Liturgy that follows it.

In Orthros, the various Troparia speak to the glory of the Lord’s Holy Resurrection, the season (such as Great Lent, or the Pre-Nativity Fast), and the relevance of a particular daily commemoration of the Church calendar. Orthros thus contributes to a more intimate worship that reaches its climax in the Divine Liturgy. It helps free our minds of the various snares of the corrupt world of sin, and in promoting our personal participation in a particular celebration of the Divine Liturgy increases our ability, if we will receive it, to experience the fullness of our true humanity.

As Orthros is primarily composed of sacred hymnody, in this beautiful spiritual pearl we can all experience moments of deep personal reflection and perhaps even take advantage of the opportunity for Holy Confession. The various hymns of Orthros, chanted to the mystical melodies so beloved in our Byzantine Tradition, will refresh our appreciation of the importance of the Faith in our lives. For our children, being present and hearing these hymns will ensure that the sacred teachings of our Church enter into their hearts and help them to grow spiritually as they grow physically. In short, we will all be better able to cleanse our spirits and prepare to receive the manifold Grace offered to us in the Divine Liturgy.

In the course of the week we devote hours to movies, sporting events, social gatherings, and countless other activities that can only bring temporary joy to our earthly life. It is a little thing to offer an extra half hour to our Lord who is both the origin and true goal of our life, and whose Holy Incarnation frees us to discover the divine fullness of our humanity through the Gift of His great mercy and love for mankind.

Thanks be to God!