Friday, January 27, 2006

Where to go in 2006

The Travel Section in last Sunday's NY Times was entitled "Where to Go in 2006." I was intrigued to see that one answer is, apparently, eastern Europe.

ESTONIA--The new "hot spot" is Tallinn, the capital, which they bill as "Vegas on the Baltic." Cheap alcohol attracts hordes of nearby Finns on "booze cruises," and now many Brits on packaged bachelor-party junkets. Gee, they make it sound sooo enticing. I believe I will pass.

LATVIA--They are now being billed as the "next Czech Republic." If Riga is the "new Prague," can Minsk be far behind as the "new Riga?" ;)

LITHUANIA--Not wanting to be left behind by its Baltic neighbors, Lithuania is capitalizing on its Soviet past. A theme park near Grutas is known as "Stalin World," and is "styled after a Siberian labor camp, with statues of Marx, Stalin and other Communist icons..." Okaaaay.

MONTENEGRO--Yes, Montenegro, which they say is poised for a major comeback and is the "fastest growing travel and tourism economy in the world." The article shows a picture of a tiny island in the Adriatric, capped with terra-cotta cottages and villas behind its medieval wall. But they note that the European glitterati have already been spotted on its cobblestone streets, which means, of course, that it is too late for the rest of us.

BULGARIA--I was glad to see some notice finally taken of one of my favorite places. They touted Bulgaria as offering "vistors a rare chance to see Europe as it once was--before the euro, before World War II, before electricity." Ouch. That's a little harsh, I think. They do give credit to bustling Sofia, but note that Bulgaria "is a nation that can celebrate a refreshing lack of progress." The writer is quite enthusiastic about visiting Bulgarian monasteries and their growing interest as a tourist destination, which he equates to "casle-hopping in Tuscany." I do believe this is happening. When I visited Rila Monastery in 2003, it was a life-changing experience. When I returned in 2004, I shared the experience with a busload of Japanese tourists. But with much of Bulgaria, you have it pretty much to yourself. For a while, anyway.

And now, a little further afield:

ETHIOPIA--I was intrigued by the picture of the royal palace at the old city of Gonder, which is known as "Africa's Camelot." They also reference the historic churches at Axum, where the Church of St. Mary supposedly contains the Ark of the Covenant. Ethiopia is one of the few places in Africa that I want to visit someday.

BODRUM, TURKEY--The Times touts this town on the Aegean coast as the "next St.-Tropez." I have been to Bodrum, briefly. When my Turkish tourist agent botched my ferry reservations to Samos and then on to Patmos, I had to make a midnight dash to Bodrum to try and catch the hydrofoil to Cos, from which I could make connections to Patmos. Bodrum is appealling--an idyllic setting nestled between the bay and an old crusader fortress. It could just as well be on the Cote d'Azur. The ubiquitous call to worship which blares from the minarets 5 times a day, however, reminds you that you are in Turkey, not the South of France. Sadly, given demographic trends in
western Europe, and the general wishy-washiness of many, it may not be long until this call to worship is a familiar sound there, as well.

KABUL--This piece, describing the opening of the 5-Star Serena Hotel in downtown Kabul, is my favorite. The writer observes that "the hotel is surrounded by a perimeter wall, and, at the entrance, an obstacle course of barriers--wide metal tubes filled in with concrete--leads to a thick steel gate garded by three men with Kalashnikovs." If you book a room at the Serena Hotel, you might want to consider spending the day in the bar, as "explorations on foot in the area are considered risky, according to the hotel guards." All this for only $230 a night.

Finally, this quote from Simon Doonan, creative director, Barneys New York:

I'm longing to go to a place, preferably by a warm ocean, where nobody is fashionable or groovy or hip or has as iPod or a pierced tongue. This place would have no trendy shops, only dusty old emporiums with out-of-date dead-stock merchandise through which I could rummage unhindered. The local cuisine would be plain and uncomplicated, and the indigenous people would be neither friendly nor hostile. In other words, I am looking for a place that has not been tainted by people like myself.

If you find it, Simon, please let me know. I promise I won't tell anyone else :)

Wednesday, January 25, 2006


To my local friends/family who have recently stumbled across this blog--you know who you are :)--and are wondering what in the Sam Hill is going on, I say--welcome! Don't be alarmed. I am still the same person I have always been, on the same journey I've always been on. Of course, if that was a problem before, then I guess it still is!

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Evangelical is Not Enough

Three or four years ago, I read Evangelical is Not Enough by Thomas Howard, a Catholic convert from evangelical Protestantism. A small book, but a powerful read. A few selections follow:

The worship of God, surely, should be the place where men, angels, and devils may see human flesh once more set free into all that it was created to be. To restrict that worship to sitting in pews and listening to words spoken is to narrow things down in a manner strange to the gospel. We are creatures who are made to bow, not just spiritually . . . but with kneebones and neck muscles... (page 37)

To anyone who was swept away by the great cathedrals I would have pointed out crisply that Jesus built no such edifices. In so doing, I would have ignored the overwhelming fact that, while He built no such edifices, He spoke words of such power and glory that they burned into the hearts of men and kindled all the skill and creativeness that was in them. His words did not spread a frost over human potential. They roused and vivified us and set us free to do all of our work for the glory of God, whether that work meant cups of cold water, prayers, building, baking or typing. The Word became flesh. The word always becomes flesh. What is true in a man's heart will take on the mantle of good works, or of stone, or of gilded illuminating around the border of a manuscript, or of well-baked bread.
(page 64)

One's coming to God has nothing to do with how one feels . . . . you do it because that is what the people of God do. Moreover, in so doing, you discover that, far from being mere drab duty, it orders your life and undergirds it and gives it a rhythm . . . if he has learned to look on prayer as a plain habit, he will find that it is not so much of a struggle. (page 70)

The Bible is not a handbook for everything. It opens up the vision of God for us mortals, and this vision comes upon our mortal life and redeems it and transfigures it and glorifies it, so that all that we are springs into new vigor. Far from quelling our human potentialities and yearnings and capacities, it redeems them and sets them free . . . . To prohibit ceremony, or even to distrust it, and to reduce the worship of God Himself to the meager resources available to verbalism, is surely to have dealt Christendom a dolorous blow.
(page 100)

The Way

How good and kind our Lord Jesus Christ is, and how great is His love! In what different ways He draws sinners to Himself. With what wisdom He uses things of little importance to lead us on to great things."

The Way of a Pilgrim, page 126

The Middle of the Road

The following is a quote from my common-place book from 1996. I still like it.

[He] was the true incarnation of the obvious and natural young man, and it was far better to be exactly like that, to walk and skip down the very middle of the road, than peer and sidle away into the shadowed margin....Wasn't it rather this host of perfectly normal people, who had by their sheer weight kept back all chance of enlightenment? There they all marched along in the middle of the road, singing "Onward, Christian Soldiers" without any notion of what Christianity or fighting meant, except that you were kind and bluff and hearty and taught the village boys to resist the temptations to which you had yourself succumbed. But anyone who imagined that there were strange little-known districts in the hinterland of the human spirit, who ventured on the dubious and secluded places, was to them an object of slightly contemptuous pity. They were quite certain of themselves: they knew that there were no shy wild beasts which lived in the forests, just as they knew that there were no unicorns....

E. F. Benson, The Inheritor, page 56-57

A Good Start for the Day

On my drive into work this morning, I was searching for something to listen to on the radio. I paused at my local classical music station just in time to hear the long version of the Polovtsian Dances from Borodin's Prince Igor. Man, what a rush!

Saturday, January 21, 2006


There is one vice of which no man in the world is free; which every one in the world loathes when he sees it in someone else; and of which hardly any people, except Christians, ever imagine that they are guilty themselves....
The essential vice, the utmost evil, is Pride. Unchastity, anger, greed, drukenness, and all that, are mere fleabites in comparison: it was through Pride that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind....
As long as you are proud you cannot know God. A proud man is always looking down on things and people: and, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you....
The real test of being in the presence of God is that you either forget about yourself altogether or see yourself as a small, dirty object. It is better to forget about yourself altogether.

C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, bk 3, ch. 8

Thursday, January 12, 2006

From the Monastery of the Archangel Michael

The Monastery of the Archangel Michael is located near the village of Prissovo, south of Veliko Turnovo in north-central Bulgaria. Isolated and difficult to find, the monastery was at one time much larger--all that now remains is the church and a few outbuildings. On our first trip here, two monks were gathering hay by hand and putting it into large bedsheets to carry to the barn. The older monk invited us to his room where he shared a cup of cold coffee with us. The church contains a beautiful iconostasis and one of the most eerie icons (?) I have ever seen (see picture). It looks as real as a photograph. I wasn't sure whether to call it an icon or not, but it was on the wall amidst the more traditional icons. Has anyone ever seen one like this, or have any insight into this?

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Grass Partakes of Fire

From lips defiled and a vile heart,
from an impure tongue and a soul defiled,
receive my prayer, O my Christ,
and do not despise my words,
my appearance,
nor my shamelessness.
Grant me boldness, my Christ,
to say what I desire.
Even more, teach me
what to do and say.
I have sinned more than the harlot
who, on learning where Thou wast,
bought myrrh and came boldly to anoint Thy feet,
my God, my Master and my Christ.
As Thou didst not turn her away
when she came with her heart,
so, O Word, turn me not away,
but give me Thy feet to hold, to kiss,
and to anoint bodily with a stream of tears
as with a precious ointment.
Wash me with my tears, O Word,
and cleanse me with them!
Remit my transgressions
and grant me forgiveness.
Thou knowest the multitude of my evil;
Thou knowest also my wounds!
Thou seest my scars;
Thou knowest also my faith!
Thou seest my intentions
and hearest my sighs.
Nothing is hidden from Thee,
my God, my Maker, my Redeemer,
not even a teardrop,
or part of that drop.
Thine eyes have seen
that which I have not yet done.
Thou hast inscribed in Thy book
things yet to happen.
See my humility!
See each of my labors
and all of my sins!
Forgive me, O God of all,
that with a pure heart,
trembling thoughts, and a contrite soul
I may partake of Thine undefiled
and most Heavenly Mysteries
which enliven and deify
all who partake of them with a pure heart.
Thou hast said, O Master:
"Whoever eateth My Body
and drinketh My Blood
abideth in Me and I in him!"
True is every word
of my Master and God!
When I partake of Thy divine and deifying grace,
I am no longer alone --
I am with Thee, my Christ,
the Light of the Triple Sun
-- Which enlighteneth the world.
May I not remain alone,
without Thee, O Lifegiver, my Breath,
my Life, and my Joy,
the Salvation of the world.
I approach Thee, therefore, with tears,
as Thou seest,
-- and a contrite soul.
I beg to receive
deliverance from my sins.
May I partake uncondemned
of Thy life-giving and spotless Mysteries,
that Thou mayest abide,
as Thou hast said,
-- with me, the thrice-wretched.
May the tempter not find me
with Thy grace
and seize me deceitfully
and lead me, deceived,
-- from Thy deifying words.
Therefore, I shall fall down before Thee
and fervently cry:
"As Thou didst receive the prodigal
and the harlot who came to Thee,
O Gracious One,
receive me, prodigal and defiled."
With a contrite soul I approach Thee now:
I know, O Savior,
that no one hath sinned against Thee
as I have,
-- nor done the deeds that I have done.
But I also know
that neither the greatness of my transgressions
nor the multitude of my sins
surpasseth the great patience of my God
-- and His extreme love for man.
Through Thy merciful compassion
Thou dost cleanse and brighten
those who repent with fervor,
making them partakers of Light
-- and full communicants of Thy Divinity.
To the astonishment of angels
and human minds,
Thou dost converse with them often
as with Thy true friends.
This maketh me bold, my Christ;
this giveth me wings!
Emboldened by the wealth
of Thy generosity towards us,
with both joy and trepidation,
I who am grass partake of fire.
O strange wonder!
I am sprinkled with dew
and am not burned,
as the bush burned of old
-- without being consumed.
With grateful thoughts
and a grateful heart,
with my grateful members,
my soul and my body,
I now fall down
and worship and glorify Thee, my God,
for blessed art Thou,
now and for ever.

-- St Simeon the New Theologian, Sixth Prayer before receiving the Immaculate Mysteries. Taken from "Daily Prayer for Orthodox Christians," St Mary of Egypt Orthodox Church, Norcross, Georgia, 1995.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Some Comparisons

"Well, if its a symbol, to hell with it."

(Flannery O'Connor responding to Mary McCarthy regarding the Eucharist)

Flannery O'Connor and the Christ-Haunted South, Ralph Wood, p. 23.

In recent months, I have been making the transition from evangelical Protestantism to Orthodox Christianity. While the journey has been exciting and exhilirating, I realize that I need to curb my enthusiasm somewhat and resist the urge to pontificate on matters I am only just beginning to grasp. This goes against my nature, but I probably need to just be quiet, listen and learn. I also need to resist the natural impulse to disparage my former religious affiliation. A more productive course would be to recall my many years there and remember that the seeds that found fruition in Orthodoxy were planted in this very same church.

All that being said [my friends will recognize here that this is my cue that I'm going to go ahead and pontificate anyway!], I have recently had occasion to compare the worship in each. As I live over 100 miles from an Orthodox church, and my wife remains a faithful Protestant Christian, attendance can be a difficult proposition at times. For example, I recently attended the Feast of Theophany at my Orthodox church. Then on a recent Sunday, I found myself at the large, progressive Protestant church that I attend with my wife. The contrast could not be more striking. And it is here that I believe a few cautious observations are in order.

First, I'm still learning about the Liturgy--and know that I will be from now on. Also, the fact that about half the service is in Greek sometimes leaves me fumbling through my liturgy book. But despite this, there is no doubt in my mind what I am doing (worshipping). There is no doubt in my mind whom I am doing it with (the Body of Christ). The object of our worship is never in doubt (the triune God). I find the Divine Liturgy to always be fresh and exciting. If we were given to much sitting, you could even say that I would be on the edge of my seat :) Everything builds toward Holy Communion. As that time comes, I approach the altar, in the midst of the whole church, with a mixture of humility, joy and palpable excitement. And at that moment, time indeed seems to stand still. These are a few of my early impressions as an Orthodox Christian.

Now that brings me to my Sunday experience at our familiar evangelical church. Truth be told, this church is warm, welcoming and caring. I suppose though, as I become more and more Orthodox in my sensibilites, the more foreign this type of worship seems. The song service was actually well-done, though it now strikes me as sing-songy, sentimental and lacking in substance. We viewed a video presentation in which several of the teenagers spoke to how meaningful the youth group was to their lives. Then a couple of men gave testimonials about how a particular class or ministry had impacted their lives.

In due course, it was time for the communion service. This church is based in the Restoration Movement, so communion is faithfully observed every Sunday. The general practice is as follows: some men of the congregation come to the front, pray over the bread and the grape juice (which are viewed as only symbols) and then pass the trays up and down the pews as each individual partakes individually while supposedly thinking on the crucifixion. This particular morning, the speaker praying over the symbols also gave a short devotional beforehand. He compared what we were doing to a football scrimmage. That's correct--football. The fact that I despise our football culture and refuse to watch it made this particularly hard to stomach. The analogy had something to do with the fact that what we were doing in the "worship center" was just a scrimmage, whereas the real game would be when we left the building and started evangelizing. Our leaders were cast as coaches, and just like in a real football game, they would not be on the field with us. Incredibly, the football terminology and analogies continued into the prayers over the bread and grape juice, with some language about the Lord giving us strength to play the roles that He had set out for us. And this was my Protestant communion service.

I was dumbstruck. I'm sure the preacher had something warm and fuzzy and encouraging to say in the sermon afterwards. But frankly, I was so rattled by the communion travesty that I didn't hear any of it. In fairness, this is not usual, but next week it could be something completely different, in the never-ending effort to keep things new and interesting. That's the rub actually. There's no end to this sort of thing. Always seeking to be timely and "relevant," a church in fact loses what is timeless and ultimately become irrelevant. O'Connor's exasperated statement rings true.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

A Plan for the New Year

I have been unable to upload a Calvin and Hobbes strip for some insightful New Year's commentary.

Soooo, try to imagine the following scene:

Calvin and Hobbes are walking in the snow....

First Frame:

Second Frame:

Third Frame: