From beginningless time darkness thrives in the void but always yields to purifying light – Avatar the Last Airbender (final episode)
The Boston Marathon was bombed today. Some people are dead. Others are maimed. Everyone is upset. No sooner did news of the bombing go out than calls for justice, for getting to the bottom of this, began to come in. The President himself assured the nation that every effort will be expended to shed light on this terrible mystery and apprehend those responsible for it. The irony of this quest to shed light on the darkness of this violent act is that whatever practical good will come it will only deepen our spiritual darkness. For some, I am sure that calls for justice and solving this mystery are straightforwardly motivated by a desire for retribution. For many more I believe the motive is control. The human mind always wants to make sense of things, to mold them into a recognizable shape, so that it can understand them. There are many reasons for this but one of the most pervasive is that we have no control over things we do not understand but often exercise a degree of mastery over things we do understand. If we can name the person(s) who committed this crime and understand why and how they did it we can fit the tragedy into one of the narrative boxes of our world. We can file the act alongside 9/11, or Aurora, or whatever it may be, and put the perpetrator(s) with the rest of their ilk, whomever they are. This act of naming and understanding gives us a feeling of confidence and power. We aren’t blind fools groping in the dark to make sense of the world. We aren’t helpless or powerless. We are the namers, the light-bringers. We have the knowledge and understanding necessary to illuminate the world and give shape to the things that happen. With sufficient understanding perhaps we can even shape the things that will happen. To a degree all of this is true. Human freedom does play a significant role in bringing about the reality we experience. The problem is that, like the men of Babel, we are illumined within by the desire to exercise mastery over the world as gods rather than to live within it as stewards of God. The light that often illumines us and that we seek to shed on the world is the dark light of control rather than the purifying light of holy love. The darkness will never yield to such a light and, more importantly, such a light will never bring warmth and healing to our souls. What we want in the wake of Boston is the power to name what has happened. What we need is to be whole heart and the name by which it comes is not that of the murderer. Κύριε Ἰησοῦ Χριστέ, Υἱὲ τοῦ Θεοῦ, ἐλέησόν με τὸν ἁμαρτωλόν – Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
Sometimes people ask me what it’s like being an Orthodox priest or how I, a convert from evangelical protestantism, became one. I always say the priesthood is a life I never would have chosen but now that I am here I wouldn’t want it to be any different. I never cease to wonder at the fact that God has invited me to be a part of His Bride, the Orthodox Church. Not only this, He permits me to serve His Church as a priest. Wonders never cease! Many times when I serve at the altar God seems so close that I wonder if others with more spiritual eyes can see Him there in the altar with me. This has been perhaps the defining quality of my life as an Orthodox Christian, an awareness of the profound closeness of God. This does not make me special or unique in any way. Many folks who have come to Orthodoxy from somewhere else and have a frame of reference with which to compare their life apart from the Church with their life in it would say much the same thing. Not everyone though. There are some people in the Orthodox Church for whom Church life is difficult, mundane, and often boring. They rarely have the kind of experience I just described. For the most part their spiritual life is prosaic. I don’t point this out condescendingly or to evoke pity. Experiences do not a Christian make. In fact this kind of Christian life reminds me a great deal of the story of Noah.
God told Noah to build a very large boat. God told him to build it because He was going to flood the entire earth with water. The instructions God gave Noah required that the inside and outside of the boat be coated with tar. The usual renderings of Noah’s ark do not include this detail and I think it’s because no living soul would want to get into a sticky, black, nearly windowless box with wild animals and stay there for God only knows how long. It doesn’t sound like fun. It doesn’t even sound pleasant. Some folks might call it nearly unbearable. And yet, it was salvation. I wonder sometimes if the only reason Noah’s own family got in that ark was out of a sense of obligation to the patriarch of the family. Scripture doesn’t suggest that God came to visit the Noah family from time to time to encourage them that everything would be ok. Scripture doesn’t even mention God speaking to anyone in the family other than Noah. God spoke. Noah obeyed. He and his family were saved. The experience of being saved wasn’t evocative or aesthetically satisfying. It was probably very boring but it was still salvation. This story offers a lot for those among us who plod along in their life as Orthodox Christians without spiritual experiences. Even if the boat doesn’t seem that beautiful to you; even if it doesn’t sound like a good time; even if you don’t relish the company; stay in the boat. You’ll be glad you did. Someday.
*Wendell Berry says there are two kinds of people in the world: boomers and stickers. The Boomers are always looking for the next big thing. The stickers are “those who settle, and love the life they have made and the place they have made it in.” The life of a sticker isn’t glamorous like the life of a boomer but it’s a better life. http://www.neh.gov/about/awards/jefferson-lecture/wendell-e-berry-lecture