Monday, September 19, 2016

Passionately Drunk by Fr. Stephen Freeman

Passionately Drunk

The Philokalia, that wonderful collection of writings by the fathers on prayer of the heart, has as its full title, The Philokalia of the Neptic Saints gathered from our Holy Theophoric Fathers, through which, by means of the philosophy of ascetic practice and contemplation, the intellect is purified, illumined, and made perfect. Little wonder it is known popularly as thePhilokalia. That word, Philokalia, means “the love of beautiful things.” It is not a reference to expensive, decorative items, but to the things which are made beautiful by their union with God. All things are beautiful inasmuch as they are united to God, Who is Beauty itself.
Another important word in the title is the adjective, “Neptic” (νηπτικός). It has a variety of translations: sober, watchful, vigilant. It refers to those who, having their earthly senses purified, have become truly aware of God and dwell in Him. This title is especially used to describe the fathers of the Hesychast tradition in Orthodoxy, the tradition of ceaseless prayer and inner stillness associated with the monastic life.
To describe these fathers as “sober,” is very insightful. For our experience with the passions, the disordered desires of our body and soul, is often an experience of drunkenness.
For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk are drunk at night. But let us who are of the day be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet the hope of salvation. For God did not appoint us to wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, that whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with Him (1 Thess. 5:7-10).
The man who is drunk is famously unaware of his surroundings. He stumbles physically, mentally and spiritually, barely aware of his own imbalance. The passions have the same ability to blind us. In anger we are aware primarily of our own anger. What we see, we see through the haze of the energy that pulses through our mind and body.
All of the passions have this property. They consume us and become the primary lens through which we see the world and with which we react. Thus we are described as in “delusion.” Those who see the world through their passions do not see the truth of things. They see their own passions.
There is a social aspect to the passions – they are not restricted to an individual’s experience. Whole societies, or significant segments within it, can be drunk with the same passions. Thus a whole society can be drunk with the passion of racism (a mixture of ignorance, superstition, fear, anger, etc.). Such a passion is reinforced by being repeatedly affirmed by those around us. Many aspects of culture are simply a communion of the passions.
We live in an age where the passions are carefully studied and used as the objects of marketing. Those things that are sold to us (even those that supposedly appeal to our intellect) are marketed to our passions. Apple computer famously researches the “feel” of its packaging, presenting a sensual experience that is associated with quality, precision and value. It is a successful strategy across the whole of our culture.
However, those who are “drunk” with the passions also yield themselves as victims to their intoxication. Political parties pour massive amounts of money into their campaigns simply to create and nurture the passions by which people vote. We are not governed by reason or informed decisions. Most of what you or I think about political subjects is a description of the passions to which we are enslaved. The political cynicism of many is, to a degree, a recognition of our disgust with the politics of passion.
By the same token, most of the opinions we nurture are equally the product of our passions. We think, we believe, we decide, we act largely in accord with the passions to which we are enthralled. Theological debates are generally arguments between one person’s passions and another’s. It is a conversation between drunks.
And so the Church values the holy, sober fathers. These are the men and women who have walked the narrow way of salvation, “putting to death the deeds of the body.” Inner stillness is the state of freedom from disordered passions. The neptic fathers do not cease to desire (they are not Buddhists). But their desires have been purified and healed – restored to proper order. Sobriety means desiring the right thing in the right way at the right time. Traditionally, this purification and healing come as a result of a life of repentance, fasting and prayer. It slays demons and heals the wounds of the soul. All things are brought into obedience to Christ.
It is the life that Scripture enjoins:
Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he my devour. Rsist him, steadfast in the faith, knowing that the same sufferings are experienced by your brotherhood in the world (1 Peter 5:8-9).
There is a story in the desert fathers that illustrates such vigilance. A community of monks once heard a rumor that one of their number was harboring a woman in his cell. They went to the elder and complained. While they became yet more agitated, the elder slipped away to the cell of the erring monk. Finding the woman there, he hid her in a large earthen vessel. He placed the lid on the vessel and sat on it. Soon the angry monks arrived at the cell and began to search for the woman. Out of respect for the elder they overlooked the vessel on which he was sitting. Finding nothing, they apologized to the erring monk and left. The elder, rose from his seat and said to the monk, “Pay attention to yourself.”
It is a call to sobriety. The angry monks were drunk with their own self-righteousness. Their sin was at least as great as the erring monk. The elder alone was sober. His sobriety hid the sin of a man from those who would have harmed him, and revealed the sin to the one who needed to be healed. The word of healing was kind and without judgment. “Pay attention to yourself.” It is the simple word of St. Peter, “Be sober.”
For all of us, in every moment of the day with regard to all things and all people, it is good to pay proper attention to ourselves.
This prayer of St. Isaac of Syria, great among the neptic fathers, is one of my favorites:
I knock at the door of Thy compassion, Lord: send aid to my scattered impulses which are drunk with the multitude of the passions and the power of darkness.
Thou canst see my sores hidden within me: stir up contrition – though not corresponding to the weight of my sins, for if I receive full awareness of the extent of my sins, Lord, my soul would be consumed by the bitter pain from them.
Assist my feeble stirrings on the path to true repentance, and may I find relief from the vehemence of sins through the contrition that comes of Thy gift, for without the power of Thy grace I am quite unable to enter within myself, become aware of my stains, and so, at the sight of them, be able to be still from great distraction.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Is Witness More Important Than Worship?

Friday, February 26, 2016

Suffering and Repentance

As you prepare to hear my sermon this Sunday, I ask you to contemplate on the story below.  Please read Luke 13: 1-9 and 1 Corinthians 10: 1-13 and be ready to engage in God's word this Sunday morning.

Trevor Beeson stood at the high altar of Westminster Abbey to celebrate the marriage of his daughter, Catharine, to Anthony, aged twenty-three. Nine months later he stood before the saame altar for Anthony's funeral, who was killed when his car ran into a wall in East London. Four months later, Trevor returned to the altar beside the coffin of his friend and hero Earl Mountbatten, who died when his fishing boat was blown to pieces by Irish terrorist. Reflecting on the experience, he said he could not blame God for these senseless tragedies. He wrote:

I should find it impossible to believe in, and worship, a God who arranged for the great servants of the community to be blown up on their holidays and who deliberately turned a young man's car into a brick wall...This is not the God of love whose ways are revealed in the Bible and supremely in the life of Jesus Christ.

Beeson found two insights that helped him to cope with his tragedy and to look beyond it: "The first is that, although God is not responsible for causing tragedy, he is not a detached observer of our suffering. On the contrary, he is immersed in it with us, sharing to the full our particular grief and pain. This is the fundamental significance of the cross."

Second, although we naturally ask, "Why did it happen?" Beeson discovered that the more important question is "What are we going to make of it?"; "Every tragedy contains within it the seeds of resurrection." This is, after all, the whole point of our pilgrimage through Lent, to Good Friday, and Easter morning.

Are those who experience innocent suffering worse than anyone else? Of course not. It can happen to any of us.

But is there a connection between innocent suffering and human action? Of course there is, and unless we change our way of living, we may all experience the same suffering.

What does Jesus offer us when we experience this kind of suffering? The power of God to hold us firm, to give us strength, and to see us through.

See you in Church!

Saturday, January 30, 2016

An Unnecessary Salvation, Fr. Stephen Freeman

An Unnecessary Salvation

tikhon kaluga2One of the oddest thoughts to have crept its way into the Christian mind is the notion of what is “necessary to salvation.” The simple questions within the New Testament, “What must we do to be saved?” quickly become the stuff of bumper-stickers and a reduced version of Christianity unable to sustain a genuine spiritual life.
In my seminary years (Anglican), I had a professor who stated that he did not believe in angels. I was puzzled and asked him why. “Because they are not necessary. Anything an angel can do can be done by the Holy Spirit.” And there you have it. Only things that are necessary need to be posited as existing. It explains the apparent disappearance of the unicorn.
Here in Appalachia it is not unusual to be told, “All I need is Jesus and the King James Bible.” Of course the least-common-denominator version of Christianity is not only handy and compact, it also leaves untouched the entire remainder of a secular existence. My pickup truck, my gun, the fifth of liquor under the seat, my anger and love of reality TV have nothing to do with Jesus and my Bible. It is a very convenient version of the Two-Storey Universe.
Anglicanism (as did many other versions of Protestantism) enshrined some of this sentiment in the Oath of Ordination required of its clergy. In this they swore that they believed the “Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to contain all things necessary to salvation.” In the hands of more extreme Reformers, this notion became a slogan with which to eliminate everything from Christianity other than those things that could be found in the Scriptures. A white-washed (literally) Christianity, devoid of ceremony and with only a hint of sacrament was the result. It is easily the primary culprit in the creation of secularism. All the “unnecessary stuff” is removed from Christianity, leaving the world with huge collections of unchristian, “neutral” things. This instinct and principle is both contrary to the Scriptures themselves as well as destructive of the very nature of the Christian faith.
A contrary principle can be seen in the affirmation: “All things work together for good, for those who love God and are called according to His purpose.” The same thought can be found in 1 Corinthians:
For all things are yours: whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas, or the world or life or death, or things present or things to come– all are yours. And you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s. (1Co 3:21-23)
What is this “all things”? It is precisely what it sounds like – everything that is. Our salvation won’t fit on a bumper-sticker inasmuch as it includes everything that is: everything is working together towards the restoration of our communion with God. God has created nothing that is excluded from this work. Our own efforts to narrow the scope of our salvation to a few verses of Scripture, snatched from here and there, are exercises in gross misunderstanding.
That Christianity in its classical form has always had an instinct for “all things,” is evidenced in the use of “all things” within its services and sacraments. And when those uses are examined, what is uncovered is a “seamless garment” of salvation. Nothing is “by the way.” I have made the statement from time to time with catechumens in my parish that we could begin with the smallest thing, a simple blade of grass, and go from there to give a full account of the entirety of the gospel. It could also be said that if an account of the gospel excludes even so much as a blade of grass, then it has been seriously misunderstood.
There is no imagined version of Christianity within the New Testament that exists outside the Church. Anyone who says that they have a “relationship with Jesus” and do not need the Church is in deep delusion. There is no such Jesus.
A not inaccurate polemic against this reductionist form of Christianity is to describe it as an increasing Islamification of the faith. I have written before of the influence of Islam on the notion of Sola Scriptura. Christianity, viewed as essentially an act of submission to God through Christ, is not Christianity. It is a Christianized Islam. It’s useful. It need have none of the problems concomitant with a genuine historical Church. It is quite portable and can be kept entirely private, offering no disturbance to the structures and agreements of the secular world. Individual Christians are never a problem for the world. It’s only when two or three of them gather together that they become dangerous.
The Church is the beginning and foretaste of the “all things” that are our salvation. Salvation, when understood properly, cannot be tied to an isolated verse. For example:
He who believes and is baptized will be saved; (Mar 16:16)
This in no way is meant to say that simply belief and baptism are sufficient unto themselves for salvation. “As many as are baptized into Christ are baptized into His death,” St. Paul says, “and raised in the likeness of His resurrection.” Additionally, “…by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body…”  (1Co 12:13) Baptism is not an isolated event, or an act of magic. It is the gateway into the death and resurrection of Christ, while the Church is nothing other than the death and resurrection of Christ through time. And, in time, we shall see that everything was always the Church, from the first pronouncement, “Let there be light.”
And so we are told that God:
[has] made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself, that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth– in Him. In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will, (Eph 1:9-11)
Salvation is “all things.” And in this good life, all things are necessary. He has made nothing without purpose.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Doing good in a bad world by Fr. Stephen Freeman

Doing Good in a Bad World

fix itA bad man cannot make a good world.
“Something must be done!” If there were a possible slogan for the modern world, this would be it. It’s power lies in its truth. Some things are tragic and unjust, broken and dysfunctional. Any analysis that suggested that nothing should be done will fall on deaf ears – and should. However, this is where the great temptation of modernity begins. Something must be done. But what?
Modernity is filled with solutions and America is the land of solutions. Every American is a mechanic at heart. Our fiercest and most enduring arguments are about how to fix things: more of this, less of that or less of this and more of that.
The first great temptation of modernity is the illusion of power, effective power. The power to do one thing is not the power to do everything. For every exercise of power towards a particular end, a host of unexpected and unplanned new problems arise. Many times, we fix things only to discover that the solution is worse than the disease. We’re our own worst enemies.
The lure of control is almost irresistible. Every anxiety begs for the means to control the object of its fear. And though we can do many things, we can never do everything. Most often, our failures and catastrophes operate beyond our intentions and just outside our reach.
Christ’s own example stands as a contradiction to our controlling urges. For though, as God, He clearly could have done all things, He does very little. His entire ministry takes place within a radius of 100 miles. At its completion, He had amassed only a few hundred disciples. He was largely silent on the topic of Roman power, and said little to nothing about social structures. Though He healed a few, most of the sick remained sick. We hear the cry of the New York Daily News, “God Isn’t Fixing This!”
Of course, the underlying assumption of the Daily News (and most of the world) is that someone should. If God’s not going to do it, then we will! Others conclude that God could do it but that for some reason He wants us to do it instead. And others still will say God doesn’t do it because there is no God.
All of these responses are predicated on the belief that something can be done and that therefore something must be done (I am not thinking specifically about the problem of terrorism – the “this” that God isn’t fixing could be almost anything). None of the responses considers the possibility that God is, in fact, doing something, but something quite unexpected and unlooked for.
The Christian faith teaches that man himself is the problem. It does not teach that human beings are evil, but that we are broken, flawed and misdirected in our lives. The human project has gone astray. Christ Himself is the first answer: He is the New Man.
St. Seraphim of Sarov famously said, “Acquire the Spirit of Peace and a thousand souls around you will be saved.” He cannot be accused of doing nothing. He poured his life out in prayer and fasting and acquired the Spirit of Peace. As such, he became the salvation of thousands of souls.
Christ once said to His disciples, “The poor you have with you always.” He could be taken (incorrectly) to mean, “There is nothing you can do about the poor.” But it is the case that more has been done for the poor in His name than for any other reason. But the poor remain. They remain because they live in the midst of the problem: broken, flawed and misdirected humanity. Were poverty to disappear in an instant, it would return quite swiftly. Its causes are not primarily economic: they are existential.
Christian living in the modern world is an art. Its heart rightly cares for the world and even broods over its problems. But that art is no greater than Christ. We cannot achieve as bad men what Christ Himself did not seek as the Good Man. For, in the end, perfection through control can only work through control. Absolute perfection means absolute control. This becomes the very heart of the demonic. It is, of course, true, that we seek only a relative improvement and not absolute perfection. This is something that we can, from time to time, actually do. But the greater its vision, the greater the need for control. The art of doing good requires humility.
This is equally true of treating evil. We cannot rid the world of evil, no matter its form. We will not destroy terrorism. We can seek to limit its scope and its effects. The drive to eradicate it completely would inevitably create either more terror, or consequences still unforeseen (just as the present terrorism has itself been an unforeseen consequence).
This is especially true in our personal lives. Many people in the contemporary world substitute opinions and sentiments about problems elsewhere for actual action anywhere. This is an imaginary existence in which we give ourselves over to nothingness. It is primarily driven by political rhetoric of the right and the left and is of very little consequence.
But true action is deeply important. Faith without works is dead.
True action is begotten with integrity. Modernity wants to make the world a better place. Christian action recognizes that I, myself, am the first of all problems. If nothing changes about me, then nothing true has happened. It is this that St. Seraphim describes as “acquiring the Spirit of Peace.” Christ describes it in this manner:
And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother,`Let me remove the speck from your eye’; and look, a plank is in your own eye? Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. (Mat 7:3-5)
Many treat this saying as an admonition to avoid judging others. But it is also a description of true action. I can aid my brother with the speck in his eye, but only if I have dealt with the larger problem of my own plank. Sin begets sin. Only righteousness heals. The world needs healing, not fixing.
“Making the world a better place” is deeply arrogant speech from the unrighteous. A righteous elder once said, “I need go no further than my own heart to find the source of all violence in the world.”
It is there, in my own heart, that something must be done.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Getting to Know the Real St. Francis - Crisis Magazine

Getting to Know the Real St. Francis - Crisis Magazine

Getting to Know the Real St. Francis

Franciscan peace is not something saccharine. Hardly! That is not the real Saint Francis! Nor is it a kind of pantheistic harmony with forces of the cosmos. That is not Franciscan either! It is not Franciscan, but a notion that some people have invented!
These words were not articulated by a representative of the Texas oil industry. They were spoken in a homily given by Pope Francis himself during a much-publicized visit to Assisi in October 2013. Moreover, after emphasizing how Saint Francis underscored man’s need to respect the natural world and “help it grow, to become more beautiful and more like what God created it to be,” the Pope added: “above all, Saint Francis witnesses to respect for everyone, he testifies that each of us is called to protect our neighbor, that the human person is at the center of creation, at the place where God—our creator—willed that we should be.”
Such ideas about Saint Francis don’t fit well with some portrayals of the medieval hermit and friar that have emerged in recent decades. Many of these have been developed, as illustrated by the doyen of Italian historians of Francis and the Franciscan movement, Grado G. Merlo, to exploit Francis for numerous contemporary religious and political agendas, ranging from pacifism to radical environmentalism. Franco Zefferelli’s well-known 1972 film Brother Sun, Sister Moon presented the saint, for example, as a type of winsome eccentric who was all about shattering conventionality. In his 1982 book Francis of Assisi: A Model of Human Liberation, the liberation theologian Leonardo Boff portrayed Francis as one who, conceptually speaking, would help us move away from a world dominated by “the bourgeois class that has directed our history for the past five hundred years.”
Then there are the outright myths. Francis of Assisi didn’t author the famous 1967 hymn “Peace Prayer of Saint Francis.” It was written by Sebastian Temple, a twentieth century South African born composer. The prayer on which Temple based the hymn can’t be traced further back than a French magazine published in 1912.
The text to which I always turn whenever claims about Francis of Assisi are made is Augustine Thompson O.P’s meticulously researched Francis of Assisi: A New Biography (2012). The real strength of this biography is the way it rigorously analyzes the documentary record and sources and shifts out what is reliable from that which is hearsay and legend.
So what are some aspects of Saint Francis’s life detailed in Thompson’s book that will surprise many? One is that although he sought radical detachment from the world, Francis believed that he and his followers should engage in manual labor in order to procure necessities like food. Begging was always a secondary alternative (29). Another is that Francis thought that the Church’s sacramental life required careful preparation, use of the finest sacred vessels (32), and proper vestments (62). This is consistent with Francis’s conviction that one’s most direct contact with God was in the Mass, “not in nature or even in service to the poor” (61). While Francis is rightly called a peacemaker and one who loved the poor, Thompson stresses the saint’s “absolute lack of any program of legal or social reforms” (37). The word “poverty” itself appears rarely in Francis’s own writing (246). It seems Francis also thought that it was absolute rather than relative poverty which “always had a claim on compassion” (40).
When it came to Catholic dogma and doctrine, Francis was no proto-dissenter. He was, as Thompson puts it, “fiercely orthodox” (41), even insisting in later life that friars guilty of liturgical abuses or dogmatic deviations should be remanded to higher church authorities (135-136). Hence it shouldn’t surprise us that Francis’s famous conversation in Egypt in 1219 with Sultan al-Kamil and his advisors wasn’t an exercise in interfaith pleasantries. While Francis certainly did not mock Islam, the saint politely told his Muslim interlocutors that he was there to explicate the truth of the Christian faith and save the sultan’s soul (66-70). Nothing more, nothing less.
Francis is of course especially remembered by Christians and others for his love of nature, so much so that another saint, John Paul II, proclaimed him the patron saint of “those who promote ecology” in his 1979 Bula Inter sanctos. Francis’s deep affinity with nature and animals was underscored by those who knew him. The killing of animals or seeing them suffer upset him deeply (56). In this regard and many others, Francis didn’t see the natural world and animals as things to be feared or treated solely as resources for use (57).
Unlike many other medieval religious reformers, however, Francis rejected abstinence from meat and wasn’t a vegetarian. Nor was there a trace of pantheism in Francis’s conception of nature (56). Francis’s references and allusions to nature in his writings, preaching, and instruction were overwhelmingly drawn from the scriptures rather than the environment itself (55). More generally, Francis saw the beauty in nature and the animal world as something that should lead to worship and praise of God (58)—not things to be invested with god-like qualities. G.K. Chesterton’s 1923 popular biographyof Francis makes a similar point: though he loved nature, Francis never worshipped nature itself. Francis’s relationship to nature, Thompson observes, shouldn’t be romanticized. The saint even viewed vermin and mice, for example, as “agents of the devil” (225).
No-one should be stunned by any of this. Saint Francis of Assisi was, after all, a Catholic. He therefore accepted the Jewish and Christian insight that not only is the Creator the Lord of his creation, but that the summit of his created world is man. Awareness of this basic truth, according to Saint Ignatius of Loyola—the founder of the Jesuit order to which Pope Francis belongs—is central to growing closer to God. In hisSpiritual Exercises, Ignatius identifies the “fundamental principle” for overcoming self as knowing that
Man has been created to praise, reverence and serve our Lord God, thereby saving his soul. Everything else on earth has been created for man’s sake, to help him achieve the purpose for which he has been created. So it follows that man has to use them as far as they help and abstain from them where they hinder his purpose.
Neither Ignatius of Loyola nor Francis of Assisi treated the created world as a rosy abstraction. Appreciating and respecting the environment didn’t mean disdaining everything else—including human beings, human work, and human creativity—or forgetting that, as the Church Father, Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, once wrote: “The glory of God is man fully alive.
However much legend and mythology has blurred the real Francis of Assisi over time, the genuine drama of his life and the forces he unleashed in medieval Europe mean that he’s perhaps fated to have any number of ideological programs thrust upon him. In the end, however, we should remember that while Francis of Assisi continues to have many things to say to everyone today, at the core of all those things is the Catholic vision of God, man and the world.
One can safely say that, for Saint Francis himself, any other interpretation would be impossible.

Human Tradition in a Modern World by Fr. Stephen Freeman

Human Tradition in a Modern World

Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.  – Monty Python and the Holy Grail
excaliburThe comic genius of Monty Python often shows it face when interjecting the present into the past. The charming Arthurian legend of the transmission of Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake is demolished with the prosaic treatment of modern rationalism. It is easy to imagine what they might do in the midst of the medieval pomp of the Queen’s Address to Parliament. Of course, the Queen’s address has itself become farcical in that she reads a policy statement written by whatever party is in power. Thus the Labor party can make her sound like a raging Leftist revolutionary. It is Monty Python in reality.
But the point raised by the quote is, strangely, quite germane. Where does executive power come from? Is there nothing higher than the “mandate of the masses?” It is a question that sheds much light on the nature of our modern world and the assumptions by which we live. I am part of a hierarchical Church. The “mandate of the masses” is ritualized in a ceremonial cry of “Axios” [“He is worthy”], sung at an ordination. But executive power itself is vested in the hierarchy who serve the Tradition. In point of fact, the Tradition has executive power, and the Tradition is from God.
This contrast between the modern concept of governing and the traditional concept represents a deep division in the understanding of human life. With the rise of modernity, in the 17th and 18th centuries, the desire to “rationalize” all authority came to the forefront. “Reason” replaced tradition and was expected to yield the fruit of continual improvement. Reason allowed for standardization. Standardization allowed for greater central control. Life was transformed into an engine of prosperity and efficiency. Tradition became an obstacle to be removed.
Traditional societies are extremely messy. They do things in a manner that evolved for a great variety of reasons. An “inch,” a “foot” and a “yard” varied over a single Kingdom. A “foot” was, literally, more or less the length of a man’s foot. A traditional society was quite comfortable with measurements that were “more or less.” Efficiency and accuracy were not paramount. But just as measurements varied even within a single country, so institutions varied. Local courts and customs, even local laws might vary. The effect was a deep decentralization of life. To live in a village was quite distinctly to live in a particular village and not in a village in general. Place mattered. People mattered. History mattered.
Obviously such complete decentralization made efficiencies impossible. The great exemplar of modernity in the 18th century was the state of Prussia (in modern Germany). It was the first state to successfully make centralization and standardization a dominant feature in its life. It became the ideal of every monarch. Even in Russia, the Tsar began to envy the Germans. Various Tsars introduced rationalizations into the highly traditional Russian life. To this day, the strict regime within the Church of “awards,” consisting in various hats, crosses and liturgical items, reflects the Tsar’s rationalizing of Church affairs. Each award or rank was the equivalent of a civil servant’s rank. Everyone knew where they stood. The goal, of course, wasn’t to make the Church rational, but to make more of society serve the goal of efficiency and productivity. And those goals were directed towards war. Historically, the Tsars imported Germans to help with this project. It is how you find Russians with names like “Schmemann” and “Meyendorff.”
Of course, rationality brings tremendous benefits. Imagine how efficient it would be if the size and shape of people could be standardized. Clothes would not need to come in various sizes. The price of clothing would drop and no one would need be naked. One size fits all! But actual human beings are not “rational” in such a manner. They differ widely and dramatically; we treasure that difference. The rationality of the Prussian state produced an extremely powerful war machine. It eventually made possible the military success of Germany and Hitler. When Germany was developing a ruthlessly efficient army in preparation for the First World War, Generals in France were still insisting that their soldiers wear their traditional bright red pants. In 1913, the French Minister of War, Eugene Etienne, responding to the suggestion that the red pants should go, replied, “Abolish red trousers?! Never! Red trousers are France!”
The rationality of the modern project did not stop with armies. It gradually came into almost every area of life, including the Churches. One manifestation of this standardization was the production of catechisms. The Reformers wrote small tracts with detailed organization of doctrine, capable of memorization and rapid reproduction. They were extremely effective and efficient tools for the instruction of the population. The Catholic Church responded with its first Catechism after the Council of Trent. The Orthodox eventually developed one of their own as well. (I personally feel that the Catechisms represent a low-point in the “Western Captivity” of Orthodoxy).
These developments might seem to be innocuous or even as real improvements. But they represent a shift in the center of gravity for human life. Traditional ways of thinking, living and interacting are organic rather than purely rational. Just as the standardization of human size and shape would actually diminish humanity and human experience, so the rationalization of every area of life does the same. A catechism tends to state succinctly things that should be stated at great length, or not even stated at all. They produce a form of knowledge, but not the form that is called Tradition. We do not learn Tradition; we areformed in Tradition. In the West, generations of children were drilled in their catechisms. Completion of the catechism was then greeted with the sacrament of Confirmation. The result was a rational Christian. The unintended result was a dull, moralistic, overly rational Church (sermons became dry treatises that often lasted two hours). A predictable reaction occurred. Deeply emotional revivals such as the First and Second Great Awakenings in America, the Methodist movement, and various Pietist groups on the Continent, all sought a return to something that was actually felt and not simply thought. There is no catechism that could capture or communicate the fervor of a Methodist brush arbor revival. Of course, those emotional reactions (precursors of modern Evangelicalism) were often accompanied with a decline in doctrinal instruction. Western Christianity was fractured.
Traditional forms of living are simply human forms of living. We are capable of assimilating highly rationalized life-styles and customs. But we love what is truly human. Who hasn’t quietly rejoiced when a bureaucrat at a counter bends a rule for their convenience and simply makes something work? Or who hasn’t cursed when greeted by a computer-generated list of choices and responses in a service call and simply begged for a human being at the other end of the line? These are components of our lives that indicate that, though we are capable of the rational, we transcend it and prefer to live above it.
We are several hundred years into the Modern Project. Much that was once traditional has been erased and replaced by rationalized structures. The pendulum has swung many times, with rationalization and reaction producing wave after wave of change and disruption. One result of this process is the disruption of childhood and adolescence. Human beings actually learn by tradition. There is no other way. Rationalized traditions have the inherent weakness of theory. On paper, this new math ought to be a great improvement. Of course, only a generation of children can actually prove whether it is so. And, modernity being what it is, another change will have been set in place before that generation has passed. Our rationalizations fail repeatedly, only to be corrected by new rationalizations and Johnny still can’t read.
The Church is similar. Almost no modern Christian worships in a manner similar to his grandparents (unless he is Orthodox). Does your grandmother actually like rock ‘n roll in Church? Years back, as an Anglican priest, I favored a High Church version of the Mass. We chanted and had bells, etc. One Sunday, a young Catholic couple visited, looking to explore a bit. After the service they told me that they preferred a more “traditional” service. I was dismayed, wondering what more I could do. When I questioned them more closely, they told me that they preferred a service with guitars. Post-Vatican II. Guitars are Tradition.
The presence and life of Tradition are essential to humanity. We are an adaptable species, meaning we can tolerate a tremendous amount of nonsense. But there is a reason why there is a Christianity that has remained largely unchanged, or, at most, has evolved rather than having been reformed. It is simply the continuation of a very human way of believing. I contend that this is God’s will. Human beings live best and become more fully what they are meant to be when they are actually allowed to be human. The march of modernity continues apace. It is increasingly sweeping traditions aside. Even restrooms are no longer safe from some “rational” regulation.
God deliver us from the rationalizers.