Friday, December 31, 2010

2011 Georgian Monastery Tour


Luarsab and John have posted details of their 2011 Monastery Tour of Georgia. Read about it, here.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Engaging the Church

One of the few magazines to which I still subscribe is The American Conservative--and conservative in the sense of writers like Daniel Larison, Patrick Deneen, Bill Kauffman, Andrew Bacevich and Pat Buchanan. I'm afraid our celebrity "conservatives" wouldn't know what to make of this publication. I particularly enjoy the magazine's book reviews. In the February 2011 issue (not yet online,) Richard Gamble, a professor at Hillsdale College, reviews To Change the World: the Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World by sociologist James Davison Hunter.

According to Gamble, Hunter "takes up the question of what Christian faithfulness ought to look like in 21st-century America...[and] offers nothing less than 'a new paradigm of being the church in the late modern world.'"

Ho-boy. Whenever you hear the phrase "new paradigm" in regard to the Christian faith, you know what is coming. Christianity American-style never seems to tire of "new paradigms." Not that Hunter doesn't make some good points. He "challenges the American church's assumption that it can redeem the culture from the ground up, one person at a time, with the power of ideas wedded to political activism....this 'hearts and minds' approach...misunderstands the way sustainable change happens in society and will never achieve its noble purposes."

And Gamble notes:

"Hunter is at his best in cutting across superficial distinctions among the evangelical right and left and the neo-Anabaptists, uncovering the bad habits they have in common. American Protestants as a group, and even Catholics, have adopted, among other dubious propositions, a naive transformationalism, a mythic civil religion that commonly fails to distinguish between Israel and America, a negative posture toward the world that emphasizes what Christianity opposes rather than the gift of grace it offers, and a politicized and power-driven strategy to defeat the enemy....He rightly criticizes Christians for cultivating a 'proprietarian' attitude toward the American narrative and culture, as if the nation personally belonged to any branch of Christianity or even to Christians in general."

But Gamble finds that many "will have a hard time wrapping ...[their] mind around just what kind of church Hunter longs to see. At times, he seems merely to dress up an old-fashioned social gospel and anemic ecumenism in trendy language. It is hard to grasp what his recommendations would amount to if he explained them in ordinary words." And while Hunter "insists more than once that the goal of Christian activism ought not to be to transform the word," Gamble detects an "unmistakable desire for the church to be busy in worldly affairs, to move beyond Word and Sacrament for the sake of Word and Deed."

For Gamble, the author "forgets what we might call the 'dark side' of the gospel"--that of not bringing peace but a sword, of setting brother against brother, husband against wife, etc. Gamble rightly observes that "a robust 'theology of the cross'--to borrow the vocabulary of Lutherans, who, along with other confessional, creedal Christians are nearly absent from this book--knows that the gospel reconciles God to man but that it doesn't necessarily reconcile man to man." Indeed, "rather than solving the world's problems, the faithful church might appear to make things worse from a human perspective."

Gamble takes Hunter to task for claiming that it is especially harder for contemporary Christians to bear witness to the faith.

Perhaps generic "faith" has become harder to arrive at in modern America--perhaps--but the Christian gospel has never expected to find "resonance" with the world. It did not resonate with the culture of 1st century Rome. Christianity exploded into the world as something hardly "plausible' or "persuasive" to human eyes. Yet pagans converted by the thousands and the Church flourished. Just why contemporary "social conditions...make faithfulness difficult and faithlessness almost natural" is not obvious, nor is it clear why Christians today should find that challenge more daunting than the 1st-century martyrs did.

I particularly like the following from Gamble:

Christians who have a higher allegiance to the church than to American society will not take encouragement from Hunter's recommendations for "faithful presence." Social benefits from such a reconfigured orientation to the world may be real, but Christians ought to have their eyes open to the costs involved. A church that trades less effective techniques for more might lose its integrity, the very essence of what defines it as an institution unlike any other, and the unique message it brings to the world. Anyone who spends much time with young Christians these days knows that a generation has been raised by spiritually nomadic church-hopping parents--or even by radically de-institutionalized "home church" families--who have not bothered to initiate their sons and daughters into the life of the church. They have sent their children to the right schools and to worldview boot camp, but they have left them unbaptized, uncatechized, unaccountable, and unhabituated to regular public worship. This trend is becoming increasingly noticeable even among the offspring of conservative homes. A higher and more urgent calling than engaging the world might just be engaging the church.

The Garima Gospels

This is a bit of old news, but I am fascinated by it all. The results of the radiocarbon dating of the Gospels from the Abuna Garima Monastery in Ethiopia were released earlier this year. As previously thought, no surviving Ethiopian manuscripts predated the 12th-century. Secular scholars had been skeptical of the Church's claim that the Garima Gospels were from the hand of Abba Garima himself, who arrived in Ethiopia from Constantinople in the year 494. Their scientific assumptions are now being revised, given that one volume has been dated between 330 to 540 and the other between 430 to 650.

The British press were all over the story, with articles in The Telegraph, here, The Independent, here, and in the Guardian, here. Apparently, such stories do not sell newspapers on this side of the Atlantic. Work of the Ethiopian Heritage Fund can be found here. But for the best and most extensive coverage, by all means, see the site here.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Against Cremation

I have spent a fair amount of my life poking around cemeteries. I find them endlessly fascinating, whether they have any connection to my family or not. Cemeteries have stories to tell, if you know how to listen to them. It took a while for my wife to get used to all this. When we would travel, she was prone to quickly drifting off to sleep while riding. She would invariably awake to find herself not at our destination, but parked at some remote cemetery, whether it be Mississippi or Connecticut.

And I'm a bit of purist when it comes to graveyards. I am disturbed by modern cemeteries, with their twisting roads like subdivisions, and graves facing any which way. Don't they know the graves should all be facing East, towards the Resurrection? Last summer, the wife, her best friend and I visited Nottoway, the most over-the-top plantation home along the Mississippi. In a recent "restoration" the corporation that owns the enterprise, retrieved the family remains and monuments from a ill-kempt little Catholic cemetery a few miles away, and re-interred them on a corner of the mansion grounds--to complete the tableaux, you might say. While it was otherwise well-done, the graves were facing the house--south rather than east. I found it ironic that the highly paid consultants they engaged for this restoration did not even have the cultural insight to know how these graves would have surely been laid-out. Or perhaps they did, and just calculated (rightly) that the modern visitors herded through the site would not be any the wiser.

Along these lines, I have always been repulsed by cremation, finding the practice incomprehensible, at least for those who make any claims to being Christian. This has nothing to do with my being Orthodox, for I have held this opinion all my adult life. Orthodoxy just confirmed and validated that which I innately knew to be wrong. Burial makes a statement about the person--the life they lived and the place in which they lived it and the love they shared and most importantly, of the Life to come. Cremation says nothing at all, or at least nothing good.

About 15 years ago, a cousin died under tragic circumstances. The Fort Worth police found my name and phone number in his wallet and contacted me. I managed to locate one of his sisters and pass the information on to her. I expected to hear back from about the funeral and about which of the vacant spaces in the family plot they wanted to use. I never heard a word from them. Only this summer, in visiting with his son, did I learn that they had cremated his body, and his ashes had been scattered in the woods behind a sisters' house. Hearing this, it just compounded the sadness of it all.

Last year, out of the blue, my wife informed me that she wanted to be cremated. In a somewhat animated discussion, I explained why I would not consider doing it, and why our son (also Orthodox) would not or could not do it, and more importantly, why it was wrong for her to consider it. She grew up among extended family, many of whom viewed funeral home visitations as something of an entertainment venue. One great aunt in particular, on the rare occasions when she could not make the viewing herself, would inquire of family members who did--"did they lay a good corpse?" My wife is a very private person and I think that she just wanted to be no part of any such gawking--even from the other side! I understand that. But this is another case where her cure is worse than the disease. Cremation is no solution. Anyway, I have heard of no such foolishness since.

Last May, I made my yearly visit to my aunt in Arkansas. She is a real sweetheart, and at age 87, my last living link with that fast-fading world. Many years ago, she converted to the Jehovah's Witnesses. This came as something of a shock to her husband and children, who were Episcopalian. My cousin (now Catholic) said that whoever had knocked on her door that particular day would have gotten her. It just happened to be the Witnesses. She remains quite committed to all that. And while I relish my visits, it sometimes gets a little crowded with that elephant in the room. Anyway, while sitting at her kitchen table this year, drinking coffee and eating her homemade nut bread, she casually mentioned that she intended to be cremated. I found it hard to suppress my incredulity, as this is the side of my family which should know better. This should not be surprising, however, given this sect's particular heretical theories about Christ and His Ascension. I should have said something. But I said nothing.

I suppose I am to the point where I think we should be calling it out for what it is. Andrew J. Harvey, in this excellent article, agrees. He has some good things to say. A few excerpts, as follows:

Cremation is an increasingly popular option but it is neither a Christian nor an agrarian option. That more and more Christians opt to incinerate themselves does not necessarily make that option Christian. A Christian who defends cremation more than likely appeals to utility or to what the poet Scott Cairns calls “gnostic bullshit.” As if upon death we are done with our bodies. Christianity has a long tradition regarding the dead, and cremation has no part in it. Cremation is a sign of our time, and it is ultimately a sign of our culture of death—the post-Christian regress of western civilization.

We no longer kill for our suppers, know where are food comes from, tend to our elderly, or bury our kin....“this evasion of the dead and dying is manifest in the extradition of the dead to a position at the margins of the city during the Industrial era, the removal of the dying to the functional space of hospitals, in the discreet elimination of corpses, and in the domestication and beautification of death”.....

It is the ultimate mystery of our redemption that He will call us back from the grave. Burial, therefore, is the final way in which we can live into our baptism. It completes the typological imagery in our own mystical Passover. It is the culmination of our faith. By sowing this seed of a natural body into the soil we will bear fruit in fields of glory. By commending this image of God to the earth we will be raised up in heaven. This is the sacrament of death and burial.

In case I have not made my point bluntly enough: cremation in terms of the advancement of Christian truth is a step backwards. A desecration. A form of apostasy. I do not think that Christians today who are considering cremation choose it as the fiery means to release the immortal soul from the body as ancient pagans saw it. Nor on the other hand is cremation preferred in the light of any precisely Christian theology or tradition. Rather they are motivated by a heterodox view of the body or of death, a kind of latent Gnosticism that assumes the immortal soul will have no more to do this body. Such heterodoxy is more in line with our Progressive Age’s own heady mix of necrophobia, necrophilia, and the myth of an end of suffering through advancement of medical science. But the cult of this life is precisely what our Lord chastises as the path of nihilism: he who seeks his life shall lose it, and he who loses it for my sake shall find it. Rather if we are to reject this culture of death and the cult of this life, we must cultivate life, an abundant life that transcends the fear of our own mortality. One way to celebrate this proper culture of life, counter-intuitively, is to cultivate our bodies in death.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The End of Suffering


I have recently finished reading The End of Suffering: Finding Purpose in Pain by Scott Cairns. This is my first exposure to the author, who has a lot to say in this small book.

For all our good intentions, our long-distracted crew--the ostensible followers of Christ--have squandered our diverse gifts over the centuries. We have even intermittently modified our theologies--lowering the bar of our expectations--time and time again to accommodate our failure to become what we are called to become. "No one is perfect," we repeat, smiling as we scribble our own doctor's excuse for the teacher.


Those of us who struggle with habitual sins--and we know who we are--are very likely to break our hearts over the business of turning away from those chronic mark missings. Our problems with recurring sin, and the more general human problem of being enslaved by sin, is never solved simply by our rejecting that sin, no matter how many times we try, no matter how strenuously we struggle to reject it....The strongest man or woman in the world is not nearly strong enough to triumph over his or her sin simply by saying no to it. What we need is the strength-giving grace occasioned by our saying yes to something else, by our saying yes, and yes, and yes--ceaselessly--to Someone else. It is not our finally turning away from sin that frees us from sin's recurrence; rather it is our turning toward Christ--and the mystery of our continuing to turn into Him--that puts sin behind us.


And so, sure, I too want very much to be saved. These days that means that I want to be saved from what passes for myself. This is because what passes for myself does not always feel quite like the self that is framed in the image of God and is thus united with those around me and is, allegedly, growing with them into His likeness. I would like to replace this recurrently hamstrung, self-defeating, and mostly isolated self with the more promising image: the person in communion with other other persons. And while I'm at it, I wouldn't mind undergoing something like a lasting re-pair of heart and mind, body, and soul.

This book makes a great gift, whether the recipient is Orthodox or not.

Laws and other wastes of time

My friend Milton forwarded this quote on to me. I had seen it before, but it is a good one, that bears repeating in these times.

"It is easy to think the State has a lot of different objects -- military, political, economic, and what not. But in a way things are much simpler than that. The State exists simply to promote and to protect the ordinary happiness of human beings in this life. A husband and wife chatting over a fire, a couple of friends having a game of darts in a pub, a man reading a book in his own room or digging in his own garden -- that is what the State is there for. And unless they are helping to increase and prolong and protect such moments, all the laws, parliaments, armies, courts, police, economics, etc., are simply a waste of time."

--- C. S. Lewis

Friday, December 10, 2010

Lying is Not Patriotic

"Few are interested in understanding the relationship of our foreign policy and our presence in the Middle East to the threat of terrorism. Revealing the real nature and goal of our presence in so many Muslim countries is a threat to our Empire and any revelation of this truth is highly resented by those in charge."

H/T to Conservative Blog for Peace

Thursday, December 09, 2010

New on the Book Table

Perhaps the most cherished and coddled of all my vices is the buying of many books. In these straitened times, however, I have had to apply some much-needed discipline to my excessive book-purchasing. The rule I try to hold is this: I keep what I am currently reading on a side table next to my favorite chair, and I do not purchase new books until the table top is emptied. I recently passed that milestone when I finally finished up with History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides (skimming over the battlefield maneuverings and savoring the speeches.)

The previous reading list is now off the table and on the shelves. I found some good bargains online, and Eighth Day Books' annual 15% off sale came along at just the right time, bringing a couple of volumes within the arc of affordability. So, the books I will be reading for the foreseeable future--in no particular order--are as follows:

1. Lives of the Mind: The Use and Abuse of Intelligence from Hegel to Wodehouse by Roger Kimball

2. Early England and the Saxon English: With Some Notes on the Father Stock of the Saxon-English, the Frisians by William Barnes

3. Christianity and Culture by T. S. Eliot

4. The Message in the Bottle: How Queer Man Is, How Queer Language Is, and What One Has to Do with the Other by Walker Percy

5. Orthodox Psychotherapy: The Science of the Fathers by Metropolitan Hierotheos

6. When Church Became Theater: The Transformation of Evangelical Architecture and Worship in Nineteenth-Century America by Jeanne Halgren Kilde

7. The End of Suffering: Finding Purpose in Pain by Scott Cairns

8. The Pillar and Ground of the Truth: An Essay in Orthodox Theodicy in Twelve Letters by Pavel Florensky

9. The Synaxarion: The Lives of the Saints of the Orthodox Church, Volume Three (January, February) by Hieromonk Makarios of Simonos Petra

10. The Lives of the Monastery Builders of Soumela: Saints Barnabas and Sophronios of Athens and Christopher of Trebizon

11. Nights of the Red Moon by Milton T. Burton

These books will keep me occupied and out of trouble in the days ahead. If I hold to my discipline, Florensky's volume alone will keep me out of the book-buying loop for quite some time to come.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Ain't That America

Last night I left work and headed out for my night job at our local university, where I teach a class each semester. The Christmas shopping busyness is in full throttle about now, meaning that all the streets and highways are stacked up in all directions. As I inched along, I couldn't help but notice a gleaming new white SUV in the next lane. Of course, I am driving a white SUV myself--though of course mine is smaller and older (going on 5 years and just turning over my first 100,000 miles.) What especially annoyed me however, was the bumper sticker prominently displayed on back: Impeach Obama. That's Change We Can Believe In. Around here, otherwise hardcore sentiments such as this pass for political moderation. (And for all the lecturing about the Constitution, the real basis for such opposition is not hard to read, at least around here.) And I just hate such snarky, rabid partisanship...unless of course, it is snarky rabid partisanship from my side of the aisle. As I eased forward, I could see in the backseat where a overhead television was playing some Disney movie--perhaps Snow White. I have never understood televisions in cars. God forbid that these little darlings in the backseat should have to undergo an unentertained moment as they are carted from store to store to restaurant, etc. Back in the day, I made my son listen to NPR. Now that he's grown, that's probably why we avoids riding with me anymore. But still, televisions in automobiles are just wrong. A commercial came on, so I turned down the volume on Chris Mathews' Hardball on MSNBC that I was listening to on my Sirius Radio station 090. Easing up a little further, I noticed that the mother behind the wheel had a cross hanging from the rear view mirror--a big gaudy Celtic-y-looking thing that you could see from a block away. I have a cross hanging from my rear-view mirror as well. Of course, mine is a small, tasteful, silver Russian version. Having time to think, it seemed like each effort at condescension on my part was coming back to bite me in the butt. Thankfully, the light changed and I pressed onward, my uncomfortable Pogo* moment having passed.

*We have met the enemy and he is us (Walt Kelly, 1970)

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Milton's New Book

A month or two back, I mentioned Milton Burton's upcoming novel, Nights of the Red Moon. The book is being released today. The novel scored a highly positive review in yesterday's Washington Post, here. Way to go, Milton.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

A Pilgrim Story

I enjoy Thanksgiving, but can do without the “Thanksgiving Story.” The events of 1621 have been mythologized, tortured and twisted to suit particular political agendas for so many years that the real “Pilgrim story,” if there is one, lies buried somewhere underneath. Winthrop’s “city upon a hill” has long been a starting point for American politicians to launch off in any number of generally unhealthy directions. A recent manifestation has the Tea Party crowd staking claim to the national myth, casting it as a victory of capitalism over socialism (here.)

The Puritans have suffered from bad press ever since Hawthorne (and no, they did not dress all in black and white, and yes, alcohol was permitted as long as it did not lead to drunkenness.) Their perceived influence over the development of our national consciousness can be overblown at times. I pulled this from The New England Mind by Perry Miller, an old text from my colonial American history class:

The posterity of American Puritanism have devised nothing that would more shock their fathers than their inquiry into the comparative force, among motives which impelled the settlement, of the economic as against the religious….it was unthinkable that children conceived and educated in Massachusetts and Connecticut would become preoccupied, not with universal Christendom, but with provincial merchandise.

Exactly. So perhaps the Puritan ethic was determinative after all, just not in the way they intended.

The Puritans are a bit hard to warm up to, you might say. Despite their much vaunted importance to the development of representative government and all that sort of thing, and despite the industriousness by which they recreated East Anglia on the rocky shores of Cape Cod, I have never found their story to be that compelling. Give me Virginia or Pennsylvania any day.

Of course, there are alternative histories of New England. I find it unfortunate that the libertine Merrymount Commune and Thomas Morton--the early thorn in the flesh of the Massachusetts Bay Colony--have not become part of our national memory. Morton greatly preferred Algonquin society to English, and had his vision carried the day, rather than that of his Puritan neighbors, New England might have developed along radically different lines, as least as it concerned the native populations. And one might also look to the stories of people like Mary Mills, who created such a ruckus in Boston, and who also happens to be my 7th great-grandmother.

My ancestry is solidly Southern—always starting in Virginia or southern Pennsylvania, and flowing in two streams of migration—either through the Gap into Kentucky and Tennessee, or following the Piedmont through the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, perhaps Mississippi (but never Louisiana) and then on to Texas. The only exception is my paternal grandmother’s family. Her father was born in Texas, but both his parents were born in Indiana, from where their bloodlines go back to the earliest settlers of Massachusetts and Connecticut. They eagerly joined the westward migration—Ohio by 1815, Indiana by 1820, Missouri by 1840 and Texas by 1860. In Indiana, they threw off the last vestiges of Calvinism and put on Campbellism, which served the family well for 6 generations or so…that is, until I ditched it for the real thing.

Though I find myself descended from redoubtable Puritan women with names like Mehitable, Remember, Experience and Genevrah, the one that sticks out in my mind is aforementioned Mary Mills, who burst upon the Boston scene in the third Puritan generation. She was only in her teens at the time of her notoriety. The Quaker community in Boston met quietly in the homes of members. But such impertinence was not to be sanctioned in Puritan Boston. Officers would break up the meetings and demand that the Quakers attend public worship. One such meeting consisted of a group of women including young Mary Mills. And the women did attend public worship, but not as the authorities intended. With heads uncovered and hair disheveled, ashes on their faces and dressed in sackcloth, the women marched down the aisle of New South Meetinghouse, occasioning, as one observer noted, "the greatest uproar that I ever saw."

The women were jailed and tried, with execution a real possibility. Young Mary declared that she was ready to die for her beliefs. None of the women were executed, however, but they were “carted.” Stripped to the waist, they were tied to the back of a cart and pulled through the streets of Boston.

After the uproar had died down a bit, the Quaker community secreted Mary out of Boston, placing her with a young couple in Sandwich, a quiet village on Cape Cod. Here she stayed for several years, but in time her presence in the household began to cause problems. The wife charged that her husband’s affections had been transferred to young Mary.

Relief came in the form of an elderly, but prosperous, sea captain. Mary Mills found herself married off to William Gifford, 45 years her senior. Within 4 years, the captain was dead, leaving Mary a young widow with 2 small sons. She never remarried and remained in Sandwich, where her family prospered and became substantial citizens. The youngest, James, went to sea like his father, but kept a family at Sandwich. His granddaughter, Deborah, was the first of the line to head west. I have visited her grave, on a knoll behind a cornfield, 40 miles south of Cleveland.

Years ago, I visited in Sandwich. The old town cemetery there is chock-full of jumbled tombstones of Tobey and Ellis and Perry and Burgess and Bassett, all my people. The old Quaker burial ground, where Mary and the Giffords repose, is another thing altogether. An ancient rock wall encloses a perfectly manicured lawn, without a single marker, stone or rock to denote a burial. For that was the way of the early Quakers. I understand the point they were making—modesty, humility, a stark recognition of “ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” etc. And this simplicity impresses me more than the overly ostentatious “weeping Angel” monuments of America’s wealthy elite of later generations. But the Quakers were wrong, on this as on any number of things. For there is no rock which one can stand before and cry “Memory Eternal.”

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Memories of Svaneti

I recently came across this BBC production on Georgia, focusing mostly on Svanetian polyphany. This music is not for everybody, but it sure works for me--and it makes me yearn to go back one day. Once I can afford to travel again, a return to Georgia has moved to the top of my list.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Help St. Michael the Archangel Monastery


Looking for a monastery to help?

Here's a deserving candidate--St. Michael the Archangel Monastery in Canones, NM.

This from Steve Robinson at Pithless Thoughts:

St. Michael's is under "reconstruction" by Mp. Jonah....Fr. Silouan from St. John's was sent by Mp. Jonah (who was Fr. Silouan's Abbot at St. John's for years) to be the Superior and re-establish order and rebuild the Monastery.

The monastery has basic infrastructure. There are small three cells that were built several years ago. They have no water or electricity to them and are heated by a wood burning stove by design....The original buildings on the property are over 80 years old and were built "al ojo" (by the eye). None of them are insulated and need major repairs and upgrading.

Here is the need: They have basically no money. Fr. Silouan is overwhelmed just keeping up with the day to day needs of the monastery (he was digging a trench to fix a broken drainage pipe last Sunday to try to get it done and reburied before the freeze that night).... If you can donate toward a "construction fund" for the Monastery it would go a long way to easing some of the pressures of trying to prioritize what to fix and when.

Please read Steve Robinson's post for much more information and on how to help.

(On a personal note, Fr. Ephroysnos has been a guest in my home. I am very pleased to learn he is now at St. Michael's.)

"The Left's delusion over Islam is baffling to Middle Eastern Christians"

h/t to Byzantine Texas for this.

Ed West has a great piece in The Telegraph, here, regarding the European Left's steadfast denial of the on-going extermination of Middle Eastern Christians--in Iraq today, perhaps Egypt tomorrow. He points to a recent article in The Guardian as a prime example of the attitude. A few gems from their article amply prove West's point:

One article in Foreign Policy went so far as to suggest the church attack might spell “the end of Christianity in the Middle East” altogether. Yet such generalisations play into the hands of radicals wanting to perpetuate the clash-of-civilisations myth. Though anti-Christian feeling may be rising on the extreme radical fringe of some Arab societies such as Iraq, this should not obscure the harmony that has long been a characteristic of other parts of the Arab world.

In fact, large parts of the Arab world remain tolerant and display deep inter-communal harmony. The fact that most of Iraq’s displaced Christians have fled not to the west but to other Arab states, notably Syria and Jordan, seems to illustrate this.

However, the Arab world in general remains a place where Christians and Muslims have lived side by side for centuries, and look certain to continue doing so. Perhaps we should be celebrating this fact rather than exaggerating the extent to which the whole region is suddenly becoming anti-Christian.

To this rot, West drolly observes--"Yes, cynical old British media. There we are focusing on the one unfortunate incident where dozens of people happened to be slaughtered in a church, when we could have focused on literally dozens of Iraqi churches where no one was murdered by Islamists that weekend."

West articulates a number of points that need to be said, again and again.

Christians in Jordan and Syria are protected. But despite the Left’s “myth of the myth” of the clash of civilisations, the simple fact is that almost nowhere in the Islamic world are Christians free in the same way Muslims are free in Europe.

Deniers of this essential truth usually fall back on historical arguments about Islam’s famed tolerance, but this is deceptive. During the high middle ages, the Islamic world was far more tolerant than Christendom, but it couldn’t be otherwise. North of the Alps Europe was 95-99 per cent Christian, so minorities faced persecution; the “Muslim world” had enormous Christian minorities throughout this period and in some cases majorities, and this goes for modern-day Iraq, Syria, Egypt (probably majority Christian until the 18th century), Lebanon and Palestine. That they slowly became Islamic was largely down to two facts of life which make a mockery of the tolerance myth: Muslims could not generally become Christians, and Christians had to pay a special tax, and so the class of people who subsidised the rest of the population gradually shrank over generations...

In the West...Muslims practice their religion in freedom, and maintain thousands of mosques. Moreover, they are free to spread their religion, and openly celebrate each new convert. In contrast, Christians in the Muslim world are arrested for allegedly trying to spread Christianity, and a Muslim who converts to Christianity may face the death penalty.

Even Arab Muslims do not believe the Left’s shtick about Islamic tolerance.

Despite such articles as the one in The Guardian, there are some signs that the crisis is beginning to register in the minds of British citizens. Not so in this country, we are too busy keeping up with who was eliminated from Dancing with the Stars.

And in a parallel universe, a bit closer to home, the Bush gang was gathered together again at the groundbreaking of the Bush Library in Dallas. In remarks at the ceremony, he who made possible the current bloodbath in Iraq--former Vice President Cheney--remarked that "history is beginning to come around." Lord, have mercy on us all.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Thumbing through the Eighth Day Books catalog, I came across the following quote from Walker Percy. It's a keeper, I think.

The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life. To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

"We are not leaving"

This dismal plight of the Middle East's ancient Christian communities is a recurring topic of this blog. I have not addressed the subject lately, perhaps somewhat out of discouragement, as the news--outside of Syria and Jordan--remains unremittingly bleak. The recent slaughter of the faithful in Baghdad's Sayidat al-Nejat Cathedral is as horrific as anything that has been reported since the American invasion of 2003.

Robert Fisk is a columnist and commentator for The Independent. He has been based in Beirut for many years, and his writing on the region is some of the most perceptive available to Western readers. I consider Fisk's The Great War for Civilisation to be essential reading. Two of his recent columns address the worsening Christian position: Exodus: The Changing Map of the Middle East and Only Justice Can Bring Peace to this Benighted Region. A few excerpts, below:

Across the Middle East, it is the same story of despairing – sometimes frightened – Christian minorities, and of an exodus that reaches almost Biblical proportions. Almost half of Iraq's Christians have fled their country since the first Gulf War in 1991, most of them after the 2004 invasion – a weird tribute to the self-proclaimed Christian faith of the two Bush presidents who went to war with Iraq – and stand now at 550,000, scarcely 3 per cent of the population. More than half of Lebanon's Christians now live outside their country. Once a majority, the nation's one and a half million Christians, most of them Maronite Catholics, comprise perhaps 35 per cent of the Lebanese. Egypt's Coptic Christians – there are at most around eight million – now represent less than 10 per cent of the population.

Yet nowhere is the Christian fate sadder than in the territories around Jerusalem. As Monsignor Fouad Twal, the ninth Latin patriarch of Jerusalem and the second to be an Arab, put it bleakly, "the Israelis regard us as 100 per cent Palestinian Arabs and we are oppressed in the same way as the Muslims. But Muslim fundamentalists identify us with the Christian West – which is not always true – and want us to pay the price." With Christian Palestinians in Bethlehem cut off from Jerusalem by the same Israeli wall which imprisons their Muslim brothers, there is now, Twal says, "a young generation of Christians who do not know or visit the Holy Sepulchre".

The Lebanese journalist Fady Noun, a Christian, wrote a profound article from Rome last week in which he spoke of the Christian loss as "a great wound hemorrhaging blood", and bemoaned both Christian division and "egoism" for what he saw as a spiritual as well as a physical emigration. "There are those Christians who reach a kind of indifference... in Western countries who, swayed by the culture of these countries and the media, persuade eastern Christians to forget their identity," he wrote.

And while Western Christians routinely deplore the falling Christian populations of the Middle East, their visits to the region tend to concentrate on pilgrimages to Biblical sites rather than meetings with their Christian opposite numbers.

Americans, so obsessed by the myths of East-West "clashes of civilisation" since 11 September 2001, often seem to regard Christianity as a "Western" rather than an Eastern religion, neatly separating the Middle East roots of their own religion from the lands of Islam. That in itself is a loss of faith.

In fact, I'm wondering if our governments don't need this terror – to make us frightened, very frightened, to make us obey, to bring more security to our little lives. And I'm wondering whether those same governments will ever wake up to the fact that our actions in the Middle East are what is endangering our security.

The West is powerless to help those fearful Christians. The actions of "faith-based" politicians – the Christian faith, of course – has brought about a new Christian tragedy in the Middle East. (The fact that I met several Americans in California recently who thought Christianity was a "western" religion rather than an eastern one probably says more about America than Christianity.)

I'm afraid it's the same old story. Justice will bring peace – not intelligence wars against "world terror". But our leaders will still not admit this.

At Coffee Hour today, I had a pleasant, but serious conversation with a Syrian couple visiting from Aleppo. The husband, Ibrihim, is a quiet-spoken and dapper man who teaches high school mathematics. His wife, a bit more voluble, teaches music. He spoke with pride of their 5 children--a son here, another in Phoenix, and 3 daughters in Syria. Three of the children are doctors. We talked about Aleppo, the Orthodox Church there, the follies of American involvement in the region, and the general situation of Christians in Syria--the best in the Middle East. At the last, though, I noticed that his jaw clenched a bit, as he said:

"We are not leaving. We are not leaving."

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Neo-Conservatism on Crack

My voting is never driven by domestic "issues." We have an entrenched, self-perpetuating Establish- ment Party that is both Democratic and Republican. In terms of foreign policy, however, there can be real differences, and oppor- tunities to inflict damage that will last for generations. One example of is the advice of Sen. Lindsay Graham (Rep. SC), here, who suggests that if push comes to shove, we "neuter" Iran. As Reza Aslan observed, "this isn't Iraq, this isn't Afghanistan...some sort of fake country put together." He's right. This is Persia, with a 3,000 year-old civilization behind it.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

The Great Disparager

In the current issue of The American Conservative (not yet online,) George Scialabba writes of T. S. Eliot, whom he characterizes as a "great disparager." I am not as well read in Eliot as I should be, and this article is certainly an encouragement to learn more. Scialabba writes:

He praised Baudelaire, who, in an age of "programmes, platforms, scientific progress, humanitarianism, and revolutions," of "cheerfulness, optimism, and hopefulness," understood that "what really matters is Sin and Redemption" and perceived that "the possibility of damnation is so immense a relief in a world of electoral reform, plebiscites, sex reform, and dress reform...that damnation itself is an immediate form of salvation--of salvation from the ennui of modern life, because it gives some significance to living."

And this from Eliot:

To me, religion has brought at least the perception of something above morals, and therefore extremely terrifying; it has brought me not happiness, but the sense of something above happiness and therefore more terrifying than ordinary pain and misery; the very dark night and the desert. To me, the phrase 'to be damned for the glory of God' is sens and not paradox; I had far rather walk, as I do, in daily terror of eternity, than feel that this was only a children's game in which all the contestants would get equally worthless prizes in the end....And I don't know whether this is to be labeled 'Classicism' or 'Romanticism'; I only think that I have hold of the tip of the tail of something quite real, more real than morals, or than sweetness and light and culture.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Washaterias and Watchtowers

In the course of my career, I have been involved in a number of enterprises "on the side." One of the most colorful endeavors was the broom-making business that my brother-in-law talked me into about 25 years ago. The business, if you want to call it that, consisted of a broom-making machine, a wizened little alcoholic from South Louisiana who knew how to operate it, and a broken-down van to transport said brooms. My brother-in-law owned the old cotton gin in town, and he set the operation up inside. He would handle "marketing," as well as keeping our key employee sober enough to operate the machine. My job was to deliver the brooms to our wholesale customers. As could be predicted, the operation broke down on all fronts. I couldn't keep the van running, and my brother-in-law couldn't keep the broom-maker sober.

As part of a convoluted trade this summer, my family and my nephew found ourselves as the new proprietors of a washateria in a neighboring county. I feel good about it, actually (or at least it has more possibilities than making brooms.) Washaterias are simple and honest--they provide a much-needed service at a reasonable cost. Early every Monday morning, I drive over, collect the quarters and fill up the change machine. I sweep the floor and bag the trash that has accumulated since the last cleaning. Invariably, the Jehovah's Witnesses have left reading material scattered around the laundromat. Generally, I gather it all up and into the round file it goes. Yesterday, however, I stuck a Watchtower in my back pocket to read later on.

I've had a good bit of experience with the JW's, as my favorite aunt is one. Back when that happened, my cousins maintained that whoever knocked on their front door that particular day would have had her. It just happened to be the Witnesses. For many years, my aunt would send us the books and reading material, but that has dropped off in recent years. At its core, the JW sect is just straight-out Arianism dressed up for the modern age. With many of their more noted beliefs oddly peculiar to themselves, the age-old heresy at its heart is sometimes obscured. I thought their Arianism might even be nuanced somewhat in the Watchtower, just as the Mormons do not hit you with the looney stuff until much later on. Most of the issue I read was devoted to knowing God by the "right name" (an argument they seem keen to have,) and various articles about being nice and helpful. But at the end, there is an article with this sentence: "Just think: Jesus Christ, the myriads of angels in heaven, and mankind on earth all have a beginning because of being created." As heresies go, you can't state it any plainer. At least on Mondays, I will suffer no qualms about consigning such publications to the trash can.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

William Barnes (1801-1886)

I am enjoying The Rebirth of England and English: The Vision of William Barnes, a short read by Fr. Andrew Phillips. Frankly, this is my first introduction to Barnes. He was primarily noted for his poetry, mostly written in the dialect of his native Dorset. More interesting to me, however, was his work as a philologist. Barnes' particular passion was the study of Anglo-Saxon England. I am anxious to read his A Philological Grammar and Early England and the Saxon English. As the author observes, "Barnes was a polymath and a polyglot, familiar with some seventy languages, modern, ancient and oriental, and fluent in fourteen of them; he was interested in everything. This self-taught man from a rural backwater, loving husband and father, priest, poet, teacher extraordinary, writer, linguist of genius, was also draughtsman, engraver, painter, art-collector, mathematician, mechanic, carpenter, gardener, cabinet-maker, clock-maker, political economist, musician, antiquarian, historian, inventor and archaeologist."

A representative example of his Dorsetshire poetry:

The Hwomestead

An' I be happy wi' my spot
O' freehold ground an' mossy cot,
An' shoulden get a better lot
If I had all my will.
I'm landlord o' my little farm,
I'm king 'ithin my little pleace;
I don't break laws, an' don't do harm,
An' ben't afeard o' noo man's feace.

His poetry written in "national" English is said to be inferior to that penned in dialect. But I find the following poem to be very good, indeed.

The Cost of Improvement

For aught that's nice
You pay a price...
The higher has become your speed
The stronger are your calls for haste;
Wealth's quicker streams in more ways waste,
The more you have the more you need.
Your fathers trode on English dust,
And while you, o'er the world, will roam,
The more you roam, the more you must,
From irksomeness of any home.
Whatever changes you may choose,
And something gain, you something lose...
Fell woods, your shield from wind and heat,
And you must meet the weather's strokes;
Or turn the oak-grove to a street,
And smoking tuns will cost the oaks.
Give night with day to toil for wealth,
And then your gain will cost your health.
To buy new gold
give up some old.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Relics of St. Maximos the Confessor

Frontier Orthodoxy links to a fascinating bit of Orthodox news coming out of the Republic of Georgia. Apparently, the bodily relics of St. Maximos the Confessor have been discovered in Tsageri, located in the extemely remote region of Svanetia. Hopefully, more details will be made known in coming days. This is just one more reason to return to Georgia. The original article, here.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

One step forward...

And one step back.

A new sort of cultural Yalta is being established in practice: in the East, the monopoly of a single religion which grows more and more intolerant, Islam. In the West, pluralism, tolerance, and secularism. This Yalta, like the other one, will cause a cold war, to not say even more. Thus it is necessary, without hesitation or complacent weakness, to defend the rights of the Christians of the East to exist. (h/t to Arab Orthodoxy, here.)


Not for a second do I believe that modern Islam is our greatest threat. Secularization and unbelief are far more threatening and perilous....But Kristof is suggesting that Islam is something that it is not – that it is a humane religion happy to co-exist in the neighborhood. It is certainly not this. It is not tolerant of the existence of other traditions. "Islam" does not mean "peace" by a long shot: it means, as we all used to be taught, "surrender." One cannot equate it with Christianity's general ethical record in history: there is no contest in this regard.

Say anything you'd like about Islam representing "The Other" – but it should be kept in mind that the concern for "The Other" is made possible only in the pale of the Christian legacy (just as all liberalism and humanism, and even atheism, require the safe harbor of Christendom – despite the relentless ingratitude of these derivative -- and retrogressive -- traditions).

The God of Islam is not at all the Holy Trinity. Since the Incarnation, knowledge of God can only be Triune and Christological.

We do not have to be afraid of Islam. But Islam can be mean, and has nothing in common, theologically, with Christianity.
(h/t to Second Terrace, here.)

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Buy Mary Alice's Book

I have just ordered my copy of Community of Grace, the story of the Orthodox community associated with St. John's Orthodox Cathedral in Eagle River, Alaska. The author, Mary Alice Cook, is a native East Texan who has lived in that state since 1976. Raised Southern Baptist, she and her family became Orthodox Christians in 1992. Mary Alice occasionally returns to Texas, and on those occasions, visits our mission, about an hour and a half away. Someone noted that this may very well be the first Orthodox book published by an East Texan.

Mary Alice is an interesting person and a great conversationalist. I really look foward to reading what she has to say.

Evangelicalism's Fads and Fixtures

I recently came across this interesting article by Joe Carter, a self-described evangelical. He does not concern himself with passing fads, such as the WWJD, but rather with "faddage that becomes a fixture." He observes--correctly, I think--that once fads become fixtures, they remain unquestioned. Carter has a list of 10, all good.

An excerpt:

#5 Testimonies. Several years ago, during a job interview for a Christian organization, my prospective employer asked me to tell him my “testimony.” The fact that I was a Christian apparently wasn’t enough. I had to have a good conversion story to go along with my faith.

Now you may have a great story about how “the hound of Heaven” chased you down and gnawed on your leg until you surrendered. No doubt your story would make for a gripping movie of the week on Lifetime and lead to the making of numerous converts (see #1). But the harsh truth is that as compelling, and even useful, as your story may be, it is not the most important story you could tell.

You are only a very, very minor character in the narrative; the starring role goes to the Divine Protagonist. In fact, he already has a pretty good story, so why not just tell that one instead?

Buy Milton's Book

My good friend, noted mystery novelist and scourge of the com boxes, Milton T. Burton, is coming out with his latest offering Nights of the Red Moon. The prestigious Kirkus Review spoke highly of the upcoming release. More importantly, last week's Publishers Weekly gave an enthusiastic review, including a red star, as follows:

Nights of the Red Moon
Milton T. Burton, Minotaur, $24.95 (304p) ISBN 978-0-312-64800-8
Set in East Texas, Burton's rip-snorting third mystery will appeal to fans of Bill Crider, Ben Rehder, and Kinky Friedman. When the bullet-ridden body of Amanda Twiller turns up in front of her pastor husband's Methodist church, Beauregard "Bo" Handel, the Caddo County sheriff, investigates. While Rev. Bobby Joe Twiller isn't a suspect, Amanda, who was addicted to prescription painkillers, left him three months earlier for Emmet Zorn, the flamboyant co-owner of the Pak-a-Sak liquor store. Emmet's link to a reputed Houston mobster takes Bo and his team, including Carla Wallace, Bo's female deputy and love interest, on a thrill ride of surprises that becomes more intense after the shooting death of doper Doyle Raines, the prime suspect in Amanda's murder. Bo's rowdy "good ole boy" zeal may verge on the outrageous at times, but Burton (The Sweet and the Dead) has a created a cowboy hero that readers will want to see more of. (Dec.)

The release date is December 7th. Look for it in your favorite bookstore.

(Milton's books occupy a coveted spot on my bookshelf--wedged as they are between Robert Burns and Willa Cather. I think he would approve.)

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

"Two Fantasies of Democracy"

One of the best takes on our current situation, here.

An excerpt:

So, we now careen between the two parties, the one promising to solve our problems, the other promising to get Government out of our lives. We love and hate them both: two years ago we longed for a savior to deliver us from Bush’s incompetence and put the nation back on the footing of hope and change; today we fear socialism and long for morning in America.

Our hatred of Washington is a hatred of ourselves, above all for our contradictory longings that we refuse to face. We pine for a time of accountability and responsibility, but fear the burdens of sacrifice and self-government. We ache for a government that can make America great again, and suspect that any effort in that direction will further impoverish subsequent generations. We long to be self-sufficient, but fear a world without safety nets.

Anti-Washington fever will rise to dizzying heights in coming days. The chattering classes will conclude that Americans have a firm idea of their destiny, choosing one party over another in coming days. Few will understand that the source of our loathing will be the division within ourselves. The divided government we will embrace is the division in our souls: two versions of democracy. In the one version, democracy is rugged individualism. In the other, democracy is a gentler concern that no one should be left behind. Both are fantasies born of bad modern anthropology. Our country oscillates between two fantasies of democracy – a downward spiral that is self-perpetuating and mutually reinforcing. The election is no more than a radar blip in the erosion of self-government. The more deeply we hate ourselves, the louder our denunciation of Washington will resound. The din of self-loathing will soon be deafening.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Young Lifers

It is funny the things we remember sometimes. My local newspaper's religion section carried a puff piece on the new Young Life director here. I haven't thought of this organization in years. In fact, I was amazed that they were still around. Reading through the article made me revisit, if ever so briefly, what is generally the black hole in my memory--the horror of my high school years. One of the great consolations of real life is that it generally turns out to be nothing at all like high school.

I was a textbook-case misfit in high school. My family lived out in the country, by choice. But I went to school in town, and unfortunately, I lived in the snotty high school district. I had no chance of fitting in with the cool kids--we were not members at Willowbrook Country Club, nor the Petroleum Club, nor the Marina, not even the Tennis and Swim Club. We obviously did not live in the right neighborhoods. And my family did not attend the big social Methodist Church downtown. I did not play sports, so I could not hang out with the jocks. I was too timid and self-conscious to join the smokers at breaks out under the trees. Nor did I have the consolation of being a brain. Other than English and History, my grades were decidedly average. Needless to say, I had trouble finding my niche. But I did have several friends, and I especially remember the kindness shown me by those who did not have to do so. I hope I was not so busy feeling sorry for myself that I failed to show kindness as well.

Young Life was big, really big, at my school. Several acquaintances urged me to come along to one of their meetings. Religiously, I was something of a blank slate. My much older sister and her husband were Southern Baptists. I was sent along with them sometimes, but managed to escape when I was 14. So, I approached Young Life reluctantly, for I was not the least bit interested in Christian pep rallies. My bigger concern was trying to figure out a way to be cool. I don't remember much about the meetings other than there was a lot of rah-rah, some sing-songing, some skits, and then we all sat Indian-style and listened to the Young Cool Dude director share with us. I attended another, smaller venue in the home of one of our town's society leaders. To me, it just seemed like something South Tyler Methodists did. And at all these functions, I simply remember thinking--I do not want to be here. My distaste was not rooted in the content, but in the company. For I knew that all these kids acting all Christian-y at Young Life would be the same ones who wouldn't give me the time of day the next day at school.

The picture below of local Young Lifers accompanied the arti
cle in question. Even after all these years, the names may have changed, but the faces are exactly the same.

Monday, October 11, 2010

A Modern Day Stylite

The story on a modern-day stylite in Georgia, here. Be sure and check out the other photographs in this collection.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Aaron D. Wolf on our Exceptionalism


America is special. America has a mission. America is a beacon of liberty. America, God shed His grace on thee.

We call it American exceptionalism—the belief that, from among the countries of the world, the United States of America has been uniquely called by God to be X. In this equation, X equals whatever you think America stands for.

The Shining City on a Hill, the New Jerusalem, Manifest Destiny, the Sacred Union, the Great Society, the protector of God’s chosen people—X has many incarnations, some of them draped with Geneva gowns or encased in sidewinder missiles.

Harsh realities have pulled Christians back from the brink of this idolatry—half a million dead here, a generation lost to a sexual or unitarian revolution there—causing believers to remember that Stone that smashed the idol of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, or that line from Kipling about being one with Nineveh and Tyre. Maybe we’re not so special after all. Or just as special as, say, those Iraqi Christians recently liberated from their homes and churches.

Aaron D. Wolf takes on American Exceptionalism and one of its offspring--Mormonism--in "Mormon Apocalypse," found here. This is the first of a proposed 3-part series. So far, so good. It looks to be interesting.

If there is one thing I have learned from my various travels, it is this: we ain't so great. And it is this idea that is met with awkward silences and disbelieving looks in my back-home conversations.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

On Orthodox Demographics

In a post of American Orthodox demographics, here, there is the following comment by Christopher Orr:

Abba Poemen,

...we haven't proven we are a viable long term entity given the rate of apostasy by cradles and converts and both their children. That isn't because of innovationism or traditionalism, language use (English or non-English), conciliar or monarchical, etc. It's something deeper and more dangerous, and we haven't yet come to terms with it.

The deeper and more dangerous is the many forms of idolatry we set up in the Church in place of the Church, Antichrist. For some, the idol is ethnicity and culture, this is sometimes tied up with politics - all this is possible for converts as well as immigrants and their heirs; for some, the idol is byzantine pomp and playacting, the desperate psychological need to retreat to Empire uber alles, pre-Islam, pre-Communism, pre-modernism and post-modernism - retreat to a time without struggle, which is really just a flight from the Cross and to each of the Devil's desert offers (cf. Dostoevsky's "Grand Inquisitor"); for some, the idol is esotericism bordering on a gnostic bifurcation of the elect and the plebes - prizing academic learning and honors in the Academy are a more worldly form of this; for some, the idol is being alternative, purposefully not mainstream, so the exoticism of Orthodoxy is attractive as a distinctive; for those born to the faith or who have long sojourned in her, the idol is comfort and riches and the American dream - this leads to laziness in prayer, fasting, the virtues, struggle with the passions and our children learn that however much we vociferate about Orthodoxy (and its accoutrement), in reality we do not believe and do not care; for some, the idol is the benign, deistic neglect of God the Clockmaker or perhaps an assumed liberality in God that will overlook all and accept all regardless - yes, it's crypto-watered down Protestantism of a certain kind.

In short, we are dying for lack of saints and an abundance of strange gods.
(emphasis mine)

I agree.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Long Weekend Down-South, July 2010

My Mobile cousins hosted this year's family reunion. The wife, our friend Glenda and I loaded-up on a Thursday afternoon and returned late Sunday night, cramming-in as much of the Deep South as we could along the way. Naturally, the first stop was Herby K's. Indeed, my vehicle seems incapable of traveling east on I-20 without veering-off onto Exit 17B. Refreshed and refortified (at least I was,) we pushed on (h/t to for the picture.)

We stopped at the Elite in Jackson for supper. The meal was not as good as it should have been. Now that Dennery's is no longer, next time we will go down the street to the Mayflower, or out to Cock o' the Walk, on the resevoir. This is a bust of Eudora Welty at Lemuria Bookstore in Jackson. I have a deep appreciation for Southern literature, but oddly enough, Welty is not one of my favorites. I find her life story more interesting than her fiction. In addition, the fact that she did not "get" Flannery O'Connor is a mark against her with me. I generally prefer used bookstores, but for new books, Lemuria is simply the best around. We never pass through Jackson without stopping here.

We were pleasantly surprised with South Alabama. If for a moment you forget that you are in the very heart of the Bible Belt, helpful reminders like this abound.

The old Monroeville Courthouse was a big hit, especially with my wife. This second floor courtroom was the model for trial scenes from To Kill a Mockingbird. The museum was about to close-up when we arrived, but the gracious volunteer kept it open an extra 45 minutes or so, allowing us to have a good look around at everything. We talked with him about Harper Lee, a good friend he has known all his life. This is how things are done in the South.

The Courthouse Museum had a number of rooms featuring exhibits of their two hometown authors--Harper Lee and Truman Capote. This is a poster of Capote doing what he did best--affecting a pose as Truman Capote. His Monroeville cousins, while supportive, took great exception to his poor-mouthed depiction of their lives in A Christmas Memory and The Thanksgiving Visitor. One cousin noted that Capote was "just a marvel with words, but he couldn't stick with the truth."

I particularly liked this quote from the truly ochlophobic Harper Lee: "In an abundant society where people have laptops, cellphones, iPhones, and minds like empty rooms, I still plod along with books. Instant information is not for me. I prefer to search library stacks because when I work to learn something, I remember it."

A bit of Tea Party wisdom and racism as seen on Dauphin Island. As someone who knows a bit about real Texas history, the reference to "Remember the Alamo" is a bit obscure in this context. But I suspect that distinction would be lost on the author of these sentiments.

We wandered around the Magnolia Cemetery in old Mobile. I was looking for the grave of a cousin, a merchant in town who died in 1855. I didn't find it, but did stumble across this carving on the grave of two young sisters who died within days of each other in 1857.

There are lots of pretty things in my cousin Louise's house. What impressed me most, however, was the signed, first-edition copy of To Kill a Mockingbird I found while snooping around in the study. Louise was speaking of her mother and was remembering that she worked as hard as the Negroes. In an aside, she noted: "and she worked them like slaves. Mama never understood that that sort of thing had gone out of fashion." That too, I am afraid, is the South.

Their cookbook was laid out in the kitchen, with the margins of nearly every page covering in notes and additional recipes from three generations of the women in this family. We were particularly honored that they had scribbled-in my wife's tea cake recipe.

We took the southern route home, so as to see a bit of the Gulf Coast and New Orleans for ourselves. The rebuilding along the Mississippi coast seems complete, though many gaps where homes once were are still much in evidence. The gambling interests have built back in a big way. We stopped in New Orleans only long enough for beignets and coffee at Cafe du Monde and a drive down St. Charles Avenue and out the River Road. Our friend had never been to Nottoway, so we made a stop there. Billing itself as "The Largest Plantation House in the South," it seems to have every tourist angle covered. We shared the site with a number of French tourists, who seem to gravitate to South Louisiana. In a recent restoration of the property, the remains of the planter family were removed from a community cemetery several miles away, and re-interred in a corner of the grounds around the house--to complete the tableau, you might say. I'm sure their restoration expert received a generous compensation, but somebody should have told him that these graves would have been facing East, and never South.

Monday, October 04, 2010


I guess you could say I am in the blogging doldrums. What with church, home and family, work, teaching, financial concerns, no traveling, another dog, etc., I find myself with less and less time to devote to the all-important blog posting. Clearly, my priorities are askew.

About all I can muster is this picture of my day-old chicks. They arrived in a small box through the U.S. Postal Service. The hatchery sent the 8 Buff Orpingtons and 6 guineas I ordered, plus 4 others of yet indeterminate background. In recent weeks, I have reconstituted the poultry pen behind my shed in the back yard. By spring, I ought to be in the egg-producing business in a big way. My pen is plenty large enough to accommodate other fowl besides chickens and guineas. In that regard, we eventually plan to add a pair of peafowl. We raised some before and they were a joy to behold. A few months back, my wife mentioned that she wished we had some again. I had thought the same thing, but now that it was her idea, the concept gained legitimacy. This comes from reading too much Flannery O'Connor, I suppose.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

A "Come Pray With Me" Rally Comes to My Hometown

I spent so long churning out my travel posts, that now they are complete, I am at a loss as to what to write about. One could well advise me--as I used to admonish my son--that it is okay to have an unexpressed thought. He did not take my advice either.

I decided to ease back into regular blogging by addressing this piece of fluff (h/t to Kirk for the suggestion.) Our local paper carried a lengthy article on a "Come Pray With Me" prayer rally to be held tomorrow. No doubt there are good reasons why I should not write about this event. As an Orthodox Christian, my time would be better spent in prayer myself and trying to acquire a little humility along the way, rather than poking gentle fun at the public prayering of others. But on the other hand....there are some events that simply demand a you can't be serious? response. And this particular prayer extravaganza--far removed from the guidelines of Matthew 6:6--seems to fit that category. Also, the whittling-down of my vices can charitably be characterized as imperceptible. If any progress is made, however, I expect that I will probably cling to sarcasm the longest. Finally, this rally is being held in my very own neighborhood. How could I possibly not comment on that which comes to my little community?

From what I read, over 50 churches from all over East Texas are planning to rally in Bullard. The organizer is pastor Dan Cummins of the "interdenominational" Bridlewood Church in Bullard. Frankly, I have never understood the difference between nondenominational and interdenominational. "This is promising to be the largest prayer rally in East Texas history," according to Cummins. That is no small claim for our area. More than 2,000 people are expected at the local Bushman Celebration Center. The prayers will be interspersed with "performances by a community choir...a mixture of patriotic and spiritual melodies." The Color Guard for the Sons of the American Revolution will also perform.

To be expected, the promoters are billing the event as nonpolitical, simply "praying for the direction of the nation." Around here, if an event proclaims itself nonpolitical, you can rest assured it will be anything but. But by stating this, they can at least claim that they are something more than the Teapublican Party at prayer.

I was intrigued by Cummins' motivation to host the event. Most preachers behind these "Wake Up America" rallies draw from the well-used well of Revelation, or perhaps Ezekiel. This one, however, found his inspiration in I Samuel (I Kingdoms.)

Cummins believes there is a strong correlation between what is happening in America now and what was happening in Israel 400 years after the Biblical exodus from Egypt. While studying less than two months ago, Cummins noticed the parallel between the Old Testament story, found in the first 11 chapters of the Biblical book of Samuel, and America's situation today.

"My jaw dropped," Cummins said.

"Here's your sign. Pay attention, wake up America."

Israel was facing "a fundamental transformation in government, redistribution of its wealth, a cry for globalism, a war on terror, the moral failure of a politically correct clergy, judicial legislation, the absence of God's presence in the town square and no Ten Commandments," Cummins said.

Really? That's an awful lot to get out of I Samuel. I have not spent a great deal of time in these passages through the years. But I have read them. Somehow I missed the verses about activist judges, the war of terror, socialism and globalism. This reminds me of a scene from Tuna Does Vegas, the last play of the Tuna Trilogy, a satirical look at small town Texas. Finding themselves in Sin City, Vera Carp quickly succumbs to the lure of the slot machines and blackjack tables, while Bertha Bumiller vainly tries to make her see reason. Having run through all available cash and credit, Vera frantically calls home, instructing Mr. Carp to sell her great-grandmother's china to raise more money. Bertha finally pulls out the religious argument, admonishing Vera that gambling is a sin--it's in the Bible. Vera looks at her suspiciously and asks, "Where?" Bertha replies, "Oh I don't know. It's in there somewhere." To this, Vera quips, "there's a recipe for tuna salad in there if you know where to look for it," as she resumes her slots. Maybe pastor Cummins just knew where to look for the war on terror in I Samuel.

But there is more.

Cummins believes America is facing many of the same issues today.

Jamestown was founded in 1607 -- 403 years ago -- and the stock market crashed on Oct. 9, 2008 -- the Day of Atonement that year.

Cummins believes all of these dates are significant.

"History repeats itself because we don't learn from it," Cummins said. "To expect a different result from the same behavior, that's madness."

Of course! It is a mystery to me why no one has never before connected the dots between the founding of Jamestown, the stock market crash of October 9, 2008 and the Day of Atonement, and drawn the obvious parallels between those events and Israel 400 years after the Exodus. This also causes me to wonder what believers in other nations do when they read I Samuel? By this, I mean how do they interpret scripture that was clearly written for us, the good ole U S of A, the new Israel? And let no one doubt that the rally has God's blessing, as He had apparently spoken to pastor Cummins about the matter. A fellow pastor assured us that "when I heard Dan's heart for the rally -- If I had ever seen anyone God had spoken to about something, it was him."

Seriously though, I should not be waxing sarcastic about this rally which, when you get right down to it, is really rather silly. And the abject shallowness of our Americanist public religion has been exposed time and again, by those much more eloquent than I. Piling-on yet more evidence takes no great skill, and if anything, showcases my own spiritual immaturity. And yet, this sort of thing continues to get under my skin. Individualism, patriotism, capitalism, conservatism (as understood), moralism, our national exceptionalism--it's all there, except perhaps the one thing needful.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

2010 Travel Notes #18: Back Home Again

Coming home has got to be the best part of any extended trip. From the way I carry on about traveling, one might think that I am just a vagabond, ready to go any where, for any length of time, at a moment's notice. While there may be some truth to all that, I am actually very grounded to a particular people and place--my wife, son and nephew, and an old house on a dead-end street in a quirky neighborhood of a small East Texas town.

I used to like to have some fun with my in-laws when I would return from overseas. None of them have ever been the least bit interested in where I have been or what I have seen. Usually I am gone for about two weeks before any of them notice my absence. Invariably upon return, I will hear--"Well, I guess you're glad to be home." Translated into what they really mean, it would be--"Well, I guess you're lucky to be back from whatever god-forsaken place you've been to this time, and hopefully you've learned your lesson going places where you don't have any business and that you've got it out of your system and you'll stay put from here on out." Whenever I would hear that, I would deadpan that yes, I was glad to be home. I had to come back and wash clothes before I could go somewhere else.

I would never let on (to them) just how excited I was to be back. And of course, it is the little things about being home I cherish--watching my wife sit at the kitchen bar, patiently listening to her hypochondriac cousin go through her daily litany of how she is "slipping away," all the while rolling her eyes and pantomiming being hung; listening to my wife discuss the prospect of this year's pea crop; sitting in my favorite chair in the sun room on Saturday morning, trying to get a couple of cups of coffee down me and the paper read before my son arrives; my dog who is content to be in whichever room I am in, where he can just look at me, except of course on Saturday mornings when I must drive him through the bank drive-through because he knows they hand out treats; walking down the darkened hallway that slices through the middle of our house as if passing inspection of my ancestors and in laws whose portraits line either side; reading in the study which juts out from the front of the house, enabling me also to keep tabs on developments on three blocks; walking in the yard at dusk and looking back at the flickering lights within the house. Yes, I am so glad to be back home.

This is the last post in this series. I hope they have been enjoyable and profitable. And I do appreciate your patience and indulgence.

2010 Travel Notes #17: Winding-down in Greece

On an overcast and drizzly Wednesday prior to my Friday departure, I set out to visit two monasteries--that of St. Arsenios the Cappadocian, and the new Soumela Monastery. Both destinations represented a bit of unfinished business from earlier trips. Soon after my chrismation in 2005, my priest suggested I read the biography of St. Arsenios the Cappadocian by Elder Paisios. I found his story a compelling one and have since recommended the book to others. St. Arsenios labored for decades in Farasa, his remote village of the far fringes of Cappadocia. In the population exchange of 1923, they were all deported to Greece. St. Arsenios shepherded his flock safely there, but prophesied that he would die 40 days after their arrival, which in fact did occur. Interestingly, St. Arsenios was the spiritual advisor to the family of Elder Paisios, and baptized him as an infant.

In 2006, I traveled in central Turkey, and sought out the old village of St. Arsenios. This took some doing, as Farasa was quite remote. My account of that visit can be found here. In recent years, a monastery has been constructed about 60 miles east of Thessaloniki, and the relics of St. Arsenios have been moved there. I located the site without undue difficulty, but discovered it to be locked-up, with no entry within the walls possible. And so, I had to turn around and retrace my steps. I was disappointed, to be sure, but thought no more of it. Monasteries are not, or should not be, tourist attractions. If one is locked, I am sure there are good reasons for that.

My other destination was the new Soumela Monastery, located past Veria, in the opposite direction from Thessaloniki. The original Soumela Monastery is in the mountains of Pontus, southeast of Trabzon (old Trebizon.) I visited there in 2006. The old monastery is truly one of the wonders of Turkey, or anywhere else, for that matter. The buildings seem to hang to the side of the cliff and appear to float in the low-lying clouds so characteristic of the region. Sumela was founded in the late 4th-century and enjoyed a continuous existence up until the population exchange of 1923, when the Turkish government closed the site and banished the monks to Greece. Through the years, old Sumela suffered mightily from neglect and vandalism. But in the last decade or so, Turkey has awakened to the tourist potential of these ancient Christian sites. Now a national park, Sumela receives a steady stream of visitors--Muslim and Christian alike--who work their way up the misty trail to the monastery.

Sumela has recently been in the news. The Turkish government permitted the Ecumenical Patriarch to celebrate a Litury at the monastery on August 15th. Clearly done with an eye towards public opinion in the West, this is a small bone indeed to be thrown to the put-upon Orthodox Christian remnant in Turkey. But, Christian worship has been permitted in a few other old churches in Anatolia within the last year. The list of grievances is still lengthy, Halki is still closed, and the long-standing problems with the government are still unresolved. This may, however, signal a glacial softening of attitudes, both officially and within Turkish society in general. We shall see. (The best and most comprehensive coverage I have seen of the event is John's post at Mystogogy blog, here.)

Before they left in 1923, the Sumela monks buried their most prized relic--an icon of the Mother of God, the icon of the Panagia Soumela. Traditionally, this was one of those painted by St. Luke himself. There had been a continuous record of the icon at the monastery from its very founding. In 1931, some monks received permission to return to Sumela and retrieve some of the liturgical items they had buried. At this time, the silver-encased icon was recovered and transported safely to Greece. In 1952, the icon was given to the recently constructed Monastery of the Panagia Soumela in Macedonian Greece.

The new Soumela Monastery is high in the mountains, just like the original. A large parking area, several cafes, and an abundance of souvenir kiosks outside the gates indicate that this site receives many pilgrims. But I was alone the day I visited. The church itself is quite beautiful. I have since learned that though this is classified as a monastery, there are no monks or nuns in residence here. I was able to light some candles and venerate the Icon of the Panagia Soumela alone. I was glad I came.

Leaving here, I made my way back down out of the mountains, and before returning to Thessaloniki, I drove over to Veronia to visit King Philip's tomb. This was my one and only nod towards visiting any sites relating to Greek antiquity. The exhibit halls and excavations are all located underneath the tumulus. The artifacts were certainly impressive. Reading the explanations of the exhibits, I was amused to see the great pains taken to ensure every visitor knew that Macedonian=Greek.

My last full day in Greece started out with an interesting twist. I was stuck in the elevator at the Makedonia Palace Hotel. I was there about 20 minutes before a technician could arrive to extract me. I had something to read, so I was not particularly put out by it all. By this time, I was just ready to get home, and was not particularly interested in seeing anything between Thessaloniki and the Athens airport. But I had a day, and was loathe to waste it. I contemplated trying again to find the Monastery of St. Ephrem the New in Nea Makri. I decided instead to visit the Monastery of Ossias Loukas, said to have some of the most sublime mosaics in Greece. Along the way, I passed by Mount Olympus. It is easy to see what the big deal was with this mountain and the ancient Greeks. Low-lying coastal clouds completely obscured the upper reaches of Mount Olympus. I stopped along the highway and had lunch at one of the ubiquitous food vans one sees in Greece. The proprietor fixed me a sandwich, with the french fries between the buns as well. Nice. I should not be too critical of Ossias Loukas. I was tired and ready to go home. But I was not as impressed as I was with others. The institution seemed more of a tourist destination. There were no candles burning, nor any place to purchase them. The mosaics were beautiful, but I was more attracted to those of a more primitive nature, located in a side chapel. I guess you could say that by this time I was about monasteried-out.