Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink[!]

Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink
Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain;
Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink
And rise and sink and rise and sink again;
Love can not fill the thickened lung with breath,
Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone;
Yet many a man is making friends with death
Even as I speak, for lack of love alone.
It may well be that in a difficult hour,
Pinned down by pain and moaning for release,
Or nagged by want past resolution's power,
I might be driven to sell your love for peace,
Or trade the memory of this night for food.
It may well be. I do not think I would.

Edna St. Vincent Millay

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Congratulations Ryan!

Childhood friend getting married! Story at Eleven! Congratulations Ryan! I hope you handle marriage better than you appear to be handling this paddle ball set! (I found these pictures through Google) Let no one say that I have never been invited to a wedding at the Central Park Boathouse. I'll have a martini garcon. Shaken and stirred!

Sunday, March 2, 2008

To the Ochlophobist-Part 2

Your remarks on my latest post deserve fuller treatment than I have given them, but I would like to continue swinging away at your original comment.

You say: “For the record, in much of the monastic literature I am familiar with, the very opposite of “strive to make the words and emotions your own” (in a literal sense) is what is taught. We are to read the words, more often than not, as Christ’s words, and we read them as such in order that Christ may be speaking within us, and we seek dispassion and sobriety in the text, perhaps a subtle sadness, but not the riling of emotions.”

I say: What of the following, taken from “What is Prayer?” by Theophan the Recluse in the anthology “The Art of Prayer”?

Psalms and all other oral prayers were not oral at the very beginning. In their origin they were purely spiritual, and only afterwards did they come to be clothed in words and so assumed an oral form. But becoming oral did not deprive them of their spirituality: even now, they are oral only in their outer semblance, but in their power they are spiritual.
It follows from this that if you want to learn from the Apostle’s words about oral prayer, you must act thus: enter into the spirit of the prayers which you hear and read, reproducing them in your heart; and in this way offer them up from your heart to God, as if they had been born in your heart under the grace of the Holy Spirit. Then, and then alone, is the prayer pleasing to God. How can we attain to such prayer? Ponder carefully on the prayers which you have read in your prayer book; feel them deeply, even learn them by heart. And so when you pray you will express that which is already deeply felt in your heart…. (pg.56)

According to blessed Theodoret, the Apostle refers to spiritual rapture when he says, ‘Be filled with the Spirit’(Eph, v.18), and he shows us how to attain this, namely by ‘unceasingly singing praises to God, entering deeply into oneself, and always stimulating thought’. That is to say: by singing with the tongue and heart.
It is not difficult to understand that the most important part of this is not good harmony in the singing, but the content of what is sung. It has the same effect as a speech written with warm feeling, which animates whoever reads it. Feeling, expressed in words, is carried by words into the soul of those who hear or read them. The same can be said of church songs. Psalms, hymns and Church songs are spiritually inspired outbursts of feeling towards God. The Spirit of God filled His elect, and they expressed the plenitude of their feelings in songs. He who sings them as they should be sung enters again into the feelings which the author experienced when he originally wrote them. Being filled by these feelings, he draws near to the state wherein he is able to receive the grace of the Spirit, and to adapt himself to it. The purpose of Church songs is precisely to make the spark of grace that is hidden within us burn brighter and with greater warmth. The spark is given by the sacraments. Psalms, hymns, and spiritual odes are introduced, to fan the spark and transform it into flame. They act on the spark of grace as the wind acts on a spark hidden in firewood.
But let us remember that this effect is conditional on their use being accompanied by purification of the heart…. (pg.57)

He who turns to God and is sanctified by the sacraments, immediately recieves feeling towards God within himself, which from this moment begins to lay the foundation in his heart for the ascent on high. Provided he does not stifle it by something unworthy, this feeling will be kindled into flame, by time, perserverance, and labour. But if he stifles it by something unworthy, although the path of approach and reonciliation to God is not thereby closed to him, this feeling will no longer be given at once and gratis. Before him is the sweat and work of seeking and of gaining it by prayer. But no one is refused. Because all have grace, only one thing is necessary: to give this grace free scope to act. Grace recieves free scope in so far as the ego is crushed and the passions uprooted. The more our heart is purified the more lively becomes our feeling towards God. And when the heart is fully purified, then this feeling of warmth towards God takes fire…. (pg. 58)

I cite all of this not to deny that the Psalms are the words of Christ. At least, I doubt Theophan would deny their Christocentric nature. Also, I’m not trying to say that dispassion is not to be sought. I’m citing this (1) to call into question the idea that we should only be comfortable with one particular emotion in our reading and prayer and (2) to call into question the idea that our emotions are not important or very helpful for leading us to Christ. And finally, (3) I cite all of this to call into question the idea that a heightened emotional state should always be looked upon as a “riling”, and therefore as something to be avoided.

Theophan here makes no mention of a "subtle sadness". He does say that we must purify our hearts, but his ultimate conclusion is that "the more our heart is purified the more lively becomes our feeling towards God." He speaks of a "feeling of warmth" towards God taking fire. He also makes mention of the "plenitude of feelings" and "spiritual rapture". I don't deny that this may be accompanied or even overwhelmingly determined for most of our lives by a feeling of sadness. We sinners have a lot to mourn over. But to pay attention only to this aspect of our feelings is to risk closing ourselves off to more deeply understanding, through our feelings, the whole point of the cross: resurrection!

I do not think it is a gross misreading to paraphrase one of the points of the above passage as: "strive to make the words and emotions [of the Psalms] your own". Theophan says, "enter into the spirit of the prayers which you hear and read, reproducing them in your heart; and in this way offer them up from your heart to God, as if they had been born in your heart under the grace of the Holy Spirit." Theophan, it seems, doesn't agree that we should let the Christocentric nature of the Psalms keep us from praying them feelingly.

For the record: I would be exceedingly suspicious if people at my church suddenly began going into visible fits of "spiritual ecstasy" . In fact, I would probably go through a crisis of faith over it. But Theophan's words are there to remind us that the Orthodox were not always so weak that they couldn't embark on some risky ways of worship. Also, I put this advice into the category of "don't try without adult supervision." The more we put these words into practice, the more important our spiritual advisors become. Also, I am aware this is not the only way of looking at prayer. But it seems to be one way for an Orthodox person to go.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Rhapsody on a Theme of Aristotle

I'm proud to say that I know this man! He and I were on the same team in Americorps and went to St. John's around the same time. I probably wouldn't have gone to St. John's if not for him. Thanks Mike!

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Finally, A Response!

To the Ochlophobist:

First off, thank you for your responses to my questions. It took a couple of weeks for what you said to settle into my head, but now that it has, I find myself grateful for this chance to think more deeply than I usually do about the liturgy, emotions, prayer, sainthood and their relation to drama and literature in general. I'm not sure where I come down in all of this (these are not, after all, small questions!). So I think, rather than making grand assertions that I'm unsure about, I will try to limit myself to small questions and points that, hopefully, won't be too annoying to either of us. I'm going to resist the urge to do one long post that somehow weaves all of my ideas together into a, single, beautiful truth tapestry, both because I'm a lazy writer of dubious talent, and so that important things don't get lost in the shuffle. This, then, will be the first of a series of posts, God willing.

My first order of business will be to attempt to meet your challenge to “Name one instance of a saint who, though meditating on the mess of human life thereby achieves sanctity.” Your challenge, as I understand it, was an attempt to drive home the point that "no saint achieves or maintains sanctity through bottom-up theology", and that "in every instance of the Church's hagiography, the saint's sanctity is measured by his or her embrace of [a] lack of tension."

I would assert that "meditating on the mess" is indeed one of the methods of achieving or maintaining sanctity recommended to us by the Church, through Her Saints. The following is a passage from the Spiritual Instructions of St. Seraphim.

St. Isaac the Syrian teaches, my beloved, that you should live in vigilance and that during your ceaseless labors, you should always be concious of your attendant sorrows, as well as the wilderness in which you dwell. Be cognizant of the insights of your mind, as well as the crude nature of your own intelligence. While in silent meditation, be aware of both the healing remedies that are given you by the True Physician for your internal well-being, as well as the harmful remedies proffered to you by the demons. For both can take the form of physical ailments or hardships, or bring your soul frightful images of things that are to come, Both can surround you in a warm embrace, and can fill you with sweet tears, as well as spiritual joy.
Under these conditions, can you ever know for sure whether your infirmity is being healed or your passions are being abated? You must keep track and constantly look within yourself to determine, as far as you are able, which passions have begun to subside, which have been destroyed, and which have left you for good. Look to see which are beginning to abate as a result of the healing of your soul and not merely because you have rid yourself of those things that inflame them. Determine which passions are being destroyed as a result of your own convictions and not because the supports for their existence have been removed.
Still this is not enough. Be sure that in the place where you sores once festered, that the new and healthy skin of spiritual peace is growing instead.
Determine the nature of the other passions that stand ready to assail you one after the other. How frequently do they attack? Are they physical in nature or are they spiritual? Are they simple or complex? Do they merely pass through your mind or do they leave a distinct and lasting impression upon the soul?
Still, how do they manifest themselves-with authority, or as a lingering presence? How does the mind, the ruler of all emotions, react to them? Does it enter into battle against them as they declare war on you? Does it force them to surrender by its strength? Or does it simply ignore them?
Ascertain which of your old passions are still present, and which new ones have started to emerge. And finally, see whether your passions take on real and physical characteristics, or whether they reside in your memory and emerge without any arousal, stimulation, or excitation.
Only this kind of examination will reveal to you the complete state of your spiritual health. Thus, a person following the teachings of the Blessed Apostle Paul, “takes the whole armor of God that he may be able to withstand in the evil day.” (From "The Joy of the Holy" by Harry Boosalis, pg. 129)

To my mind, this passage puts to bed the notion that an "embrace of a lack of tension" is incompatible with "meditating on the mess" that is the soul. It's true, the process of which St. Seraphim speaks does not seem to be, in the first instance, a bottom up sort of thing. Rather, it seems that we are to be conscious of our sorrows and joys without letting them seduce us into identifying with them. We are to remember that the mind is " the ruler of all emotions." However, I think we should also not overlook the fact that St. Seraphim likens this process to fighting a battle, so it may be reasonable to expect that we are going to feel fear, anxiety and yes, even tension. In light of our discussion, this passage raises the question, for me, of what it means to "take up the whole armor of God". Are we to make use of whatever means are safely at our disposal to sharpen our discernment and understanding of our dramatic inner battle? Might not a good play be one of those means?

What say you, sir?


Saturday, February 9, 2008

A Dialogue!

Dramaphileo: Good Phobius! Just the man I was looking for! It was only today that I finished reading the Ochlophobist's post on drama. I've been walking around thinking about it all afternoon. That may be why I feel so dizzy. Do you mind if we sit down and talk a while?

Phobius: By all means, my dear Dramaphileo! Let's step into this non-chain, family-run coffee shop and get some fair trade dark roast!

Dramaphileo: A splendid suggestion! I assume you've read, understood, and agreed with all that your favorite blogger had to say on the subject of the dramatic arts.

Phobius: I have read it all, to be sure. And as far as I can tell, I understand what he is trying to say. Having understood him, I agree with him wholeheartedly. I am Orthodox after all!

Dramaphileo: I'm glad you were smiling when you said that. As we both know, the Ochlophobist is a humble writer of theologumenoi, or however you say it. So, what do you think he means when he says that the liturgy does not dramatize?

Phobius: I believe the good Ochlophobist would not object to the following assertion: A well performed liturgy should be free from the affectation that usually goes along with the dramatic arts. The priest, though he icons Christ, is not acting out the role of Christ in the way that a stage actor would act out the role of Hamlet. While the priest might say what Christ said, and walk through the crowd while people touch his robe, just as Christ did, he's not trying to make us believe that he actually is Christ. The priest is a window to Christ simply by virtue of his being a priest. He doesn't need to try to convince us of his iconic function by being theatrical. To do so would be manipulative and would be an attempt to play upon our emotions in an unconstructive, possibly a destructive, way. The liturgy, my dear drama lover, is not a passion play.

Dramaphileo: But isn't the priest actively trying to make us believe that we're in the presence of Christ?

Phobius: Of course.

Drama: And isn't that the same thing an actor does when he is on stage: make us believe we are in the presence of Hamlet or whatever character he is playing?

Phobius: The priest isn't trying to make us believe that he actually is Christ. An actor, on the other hand, is trying to make us believe that he is Hamlet.

Dramaphileo: That doesn't seem to me to be a fair characterization of actors. Only an insane actor would completely identify himself with his character to the point of saying that his goal is to make the audience believe that he actually is Hamlet. Wouldn't an actor be more likely to say that he is trying to make the audience forget about the actor himself and help them concentrate on the presence of the character he is trying to embody?

Phobius: Yes, and that's where the priest's role, I mean the priest's normative function, is different. He doesn't need to try and make the worshippers forget about him and feel the presence of Christ: that would be an affectation. The liturgy is not where we go to escape ourselves, it's where we go to see ourselves as we truly are.

Dramaphileo: But what about laying aside our earthly cares? Is there not even a little room in our worship for refuge, I wouldn't say permanent escape, but temporary refuge from the demands and limitations of our worldly persona?

Phobius: In Christ, your worldly persona has been reconciled to God. It's enough to fast, to go to church, to read the Bible, to remember God, to say your prayers, and to acknowlege your sin. Because of the incarnation, there is not a tension between man and God, and therefore, there is nothing to take refuge from.

Dramaphileo: I would agree that all has been reconciled to God, which is a fine point of view to have. And it's the only point of view you need to have, if you actually are God, looking down and seeing creation in all it's glory. But, I would assert that those of us who are just starting out on the long road to sanctity might benefit from some more bottom-up thinking, in addition to the top-down perspective. When I look into the disorder that afflicts my soul, I can't help but wonder what it might mean to say that there is no tension between man and God: it certainly feels like tension; it also feels like worry, insecurity, lust, anger. It's a mess in there, and quite frankly, if I don't have a little break from it all, I begin to lose what little faith I can muster! Now you tell me I should feel bad for taking refuge for a bit in church!

Phobius: I'm not telling you to feel anything! But while we're on the subject, don't you think it's childish of you to worry so much about feelings? I mean, I understand why you might be susceptible to such a thing, given all the plays you read. Maybe you should take a break from Shakespeare and read some of those books I got you for Christmas, I mean Nativity. That Hart book is the perfect cure for the overly-excited soul.

Dramaphileo: You know I can't stomach so much scholarship! And as for being childish: I suppose I'm guilty of it. That's what can happen when you miss the mark of being child-like! But whatever might be your experience of drama, I can assure you that plays actually calm me down. Perhaps if I were a better scholar, I would be able to see, as you and the Ochlophobist do, that the Katharsis of the Hesychasts is different in kind from the Katharsis that Aristotle felt, and that I feel, when I read or watch a good play. But, now it's my turn to ask you about being childish. Do you actually agree with Och that Brechtian plays can be fairly characterized as "childlike"? If I saw a child undermining the very form of expression that he had chosen to use, my first impulse would not be to admire his playful innocence. Rather, I would wonder whether the child had suffered a hurt that makes him hide behind a self-defeating means of expression. On the other hand, if I saw a child acting out the role of a king in a game with his friends, I would be inclined to think that I was witness to the acts of the rightful heirs of the Kingdom of Heaven!

Phobius: I don't think you have to agree with what the Ochlophobist says about Brecht to see the fundamental truth of his post. Epic is simply a superior literary form to drama. A child's game is not an affected pretense, but that's what role-playing becomes when grown men continue to pretend that they're someone they're not. An epic doesn't ask it's audience to join in on the pretense like a play does. It gives us more direct contact with the meaning of God's creation than drama does.

Dramaphileo: It's true that I find it easier to get absorbed in Dante or Homer, and even in Tolkein than I do in the best play, but I wonder whether that's because I'm failing to be childlike. A child doesn't need a grand story, a courageous hero, and a believable epic world, to understand that he's witnessing co-creation. Babies are fascinated with simple things like doorknobs and bugs-they wonder what dirt tastes like! It's understandable, once you've eaten enough dirt, that you look for healthier ways to love God's world. But I don't see why plays can't be one of those ways. I love those moments when I watch a play like a child does, when I'm so absorbed in the action, that I don't have the inclination to ask whether what I'm watching is "real" or not, when I actually feel, and not just feel, but intuit that I'm in the presence, the physical presence, of momentous events and great-souled people. An epic can't give you that, unless Homer himself, or someone of his stature, was reciting it for you.

Phobius: The liturgy brings you into contact with the greatness of Christ, which, if you think about it, is really the only greatness there is. And the liturgy does not dramatize!

Dramaphileo: And what if, for one Sunday, your church decided to take the liturgy as seriously as actors take a play? Your priest will have been spending weeks memorizing or interiorizing his prayers, making them come from his deeper heart, making them not only sound more believable to the laity, but making them sound more believable to himself. "This is my body which is broken for you!" The parishoners will have been imagining what it might be like to actually encounter the presence of Christ in the person of their priest. They will have thought about how they will react when they see the priest raising the gifts, not to predetermine their bows, but to get to truer bows than they usually muster. Would all that zeal really be going to waste?

Phobius: My dear Dramaphileo, you're getting far too worked up for your own good. Maybe you should switch to decaf. The liturgy is not a play. When the priest says "this is my body which is broken for you" he is recounting Christ's words. In fact, he notes that these are the words of Christ, just before he says them. He is telling us of the ultimate epic or lyric saga, not performing a drama! If you would take the time to learn some theology, you might come to understand that we do not learn about God in the first instance through actions, through drama. Rather, we learn about the Trinity through Christ. Once you have learned about the Trinity, you come to learn about the universe, once you have learned about the universe and it's Trinitarian cadences, then you know how to act. You don't just come up with a way to worship like an actor builds a character!

Dramaphileo: And I'm wondering why not. You can't dispense with theology, but having a reasonable view of God is a far cry from being a saint. I remember reading some monkly advice somewhere that when you pray the Psalms you should strive to make the words and emotions your own. How this is different from what a good actor does, I have no idea! And by the way, if we're waiting to understand God and the universe before we know how to act, let's just admit we'll not quite know how to act this side of heaven! And in that case, we have a wee bit of room to improvise-if not in the outward forms of our worship, at least in our relation to those forms. You are right, though, I need to switch to decaf.

Phobius: Well, sir, you raise some good points. Maybe you should write the Ochlophobist and get a response.

Dramaphileo: I'm afraid of what he might say!

Phobius: You probably should be!

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

A Fun Story From the Desert Fathers!

Two brothers had lived together for many years and never had a quarrel. One day, the first said:'Let's have a quarrel like men in the outside world do'. The second replied: 'But I don't know how to have a quarrel.' So the first said: 'Look I'll put down a brick between us and I'll say: "It's mine". Then you must reply: "No, it's mine." And so the quarrel will begin.' So they found a brick and put it between them and the first said: 'It's mine', and the second said: 'No it's mine'. So the first replied: 'Oh well then, if it's yours, take it'. And so they did not succeed in having a quarrel.

-From the Sayings of the Desert Fathers

Monday, January 21, 2008


In college I was frustrated by the fact that my wisest teachers would say very little about the books we were reading. I understood that their reticence to make authoritative pronouncements was a teaching strategy, and that it was a form of humility. Still, I felt like they were holding out on me, so I would get angry. There was a little envy mixed in there too, because it was exhausting having a thousand thoughts bouncing around in my head about every book. As I have gotten some distance from school and the performance anxiety that go along with it, I have grown in appreciation of the ability to take a quiet stand on the one or two ideas that matter most to you in a book. It may look from the outside like you are being lazy, but from what little I know of it, getting to this place of repose is painful inner work. Being honest about your limitations shouldn't be painful, but it is.

Friday, December 28, 2007

To The Fourth Finding Society!

I think we made magical beer. Half a glass and I can't see straight. Benji is sick. What have we done?

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Quotes to Remember!

Uncredited, Maybe Wrong, Read Them All, It Won't Take Long!

Marriage/Celibacy: As to marriage or celibacy, let a man take which course he will, he will be sure to repent.
Prayer: Prayer of the lips is better than no prayer at all.
Housekeeping: Keeping things clean doesn't change anything.
Church: Peace seems boring.
Beer is for fun.
Scotch is for talking.
Wine is for meals.
Champagne is for rocking!
Fasting: Don't be dutiful, be beautiful!
Romantic Love: If you hear bells, get your ears checked.
Books: Where is human nature so weak as in the bookstore?
Saints: Don't do what they do, be what they are.
Children: Don't do what they do, be what they are.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007


The Ochlophobist writes too much.
The Scrivener writes no more.
Gabriel is a lawyer at heart.
The EP boys are a bore.
Unmitigated is underground.
Father Stephen is much too nice.
The tone at Transpozing is still quite sound.
The Sonneteer's on thin ice.
Father Tobias is the best, I suppose.
Should I get a life?
God only knows.