Even since I encountered it in youth, I have  loved this poem written by Sir Walter Raleigh the night before he was executed. It offers a dose of sobriety to us easily intoxicated by life’s promise.

Even such is Time which takes in trust
Our youth, our joys, and all we have,
and pays us but with age and dust;
Who in the dark and silent grave
When we have wandered all our ways
Shuts up the story of our days.
And from which earth and grave and dust
The Lord shall raise me up I trust.

As I get older, the opening lines hit ever harder; I begin to feel how time begins to take things from me, things I once thought were mine forever. Children come, bringing joy, but also work and worry. They get older, and the charming, innocent, simple child grows into someone else; what the child was before, while not entirely lost, is still unrecoverably past. Eventually the dependent child becomes an independent adult and leaves the parental home, leaving parents to ponder ‘how quickly they grow up!’ Friends and the circumstances that gave rise to friendship come and go. No matter how hard we try, we cannot grasp life, hold it, compel it to stand still where we might wish.

A great sorrow shadows every earthly joy. The flow of time cannot be stopped; what we and others are today cannot be captured and kept as in a snapshot. Time keeps flowing, we keep changing for better or worse, and our circumstances change also. Man’s beauty flowers forth in youth, matures, and withers quickly in old age, consumed by voracious Time. This is flux, what Heraclitus perceived and expressed in his famous words, “You cannot step into the same river twice, for fresh waters are ever flowing in upon you.” It is what the Church Fathers and St. Paul refer to as “corruption”, the instability and inconstancy of man who constantly changes along with the rest of the world in contrast with the incorruptible God.

In the face of flux, man can choose one of two approaches. “Carpe diem”, seize the day–time passes quickly, youth and strength quickly fade, opportunity may not present itself again, so do it now or live with regret–St. Paul summarizes this philosophy as “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” In the face of constant change leading to inescapable death, this makes sense, and many live in accordance with it.

But St. Paul with the Christian Church have a different approach to the problem. Life is short, yes. But it is preliminary to eternity and decisive as to how we shall spend that eternity. Christ’s resurrection promises resurrection to the whole human race  that we may stand in the body before the Judgment Seat of Christ to be judged for the deeds we did in the body–in other words, to be judged for how we used the time and resources that were given us. All the flux, the change, the joys that can’t be held, the sense of loss–all this is perceived differently in the light of the resurrection and calls us to make a decisive break with the philosophy of “eat, drink, and be merry.”

Though Time blights our promise, limits our accomplishment, deprives us of what we thought was ours, it is transcended by the day without end in which all the good beginnings made in Time blossom forth into eternal beauty and fulfillment.

Published in: on Friday, 27 March, 2009 at 13:43  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , , ,

“If They Want Children”

We attended the wedding of a young relative this past weekend at a mainline Protestant church. The service was dignified and largely followed the traditional text of the Western marriage service, which probably made it exceptional by today’s standards. I was struck by the conditional clause of one petition offered to God for the couple, something like: “If they want children, please grant them children.”

“If they want children…” Discussing this with a parishioner more recently departed Protestantism than I, I was told that the mention of children at all in a wedding service is exceptional. This person had attended many weddings in the past ten years or so and never heard children mentioned as part of the service.

So let me give credit where credit is due: at least this wedding acknowledged the connection of marriage with children. That connection is more often than not acknowledged or even denied today. Thanks in part to contraception and the casual acceptance thereof of  most Christians coupled with the prevailing conception of marriage as something joining two ‘soul mates’ for fulfillment and bliss. Children are an option in this sort of marriage as modern contraception gives a couple the power to choose whether children fit their notion of the fulfilled life.

The divorce rate gives the lie to this vision of marriage, but our culture continues to embrace it. Indeed, this vision of marriage contributes to the divorce rate: for when a couple marries and “falls out of love” or find they are not really ‘soul mates’ (whatever that is supposed to mean), then they consider they have made a mistake are are justified in seeking the fulfillment of their desires in another marriage or relationship without marriage.

In contrast to last weekend’s service, in the Orthodox Christian wedding service, we pray at the Betrothal “that they may be granted children for the continuation of the race…” Then in the Great Litany at the Crowning, we ask God “to grant them chastity and of the fruit of the womb as is expedient for them”, that God “will make them glad with the sight of sons and daughter”, that “He will grant to them enjoyment of the blessing of children”. Later in the first prayer for the couple, we ask God to grant them “long-lived offspring, gratitude from their children” and “that they may see their children’s children.” In the second prayer, we petition: “Grant them the fruit of their bodies, fair children” and “offspring in number like unto full ears of grain.” We ask again that they may see their children’s children. Then in the third of the three wedding prayers we request for them again “the fruit of the body and the procreation of fair children.”

All this goes to show that marriage and children are linked in the traditional Christian mind (and in the Jewish; it doesn’t take a deep reading of the Scriptures or history to see the link); they naturally go together. Children are not properly contemplated outside of marriage. Within marriage, they are the natural and expected result of the union (until now, that is, when we are in the process of redefining marriage to mean any self-chosen domestic arrangement).

Not every marriage, of course, produces children. Notice that we ask God “to grant them chastity and of the fruit of the womb as is expedient for them”. Children are not expedient for everyone, but that decision is best left to God’s providence and our faith in His goodness, not to our selfish, unenlightened whims.

Hence the conditional clause “if they want children” strikes against the essence of marriage. It would make man’s whim and desire sovereign over the Lord’s good pleasure and providence for man’s good. Rejection of children for selfish pleasure and convenience is in effect a rejection of marriage and of God’s intent for it. Ultimately, this is a rejection of God: a denial of His goodness, His wisdom, and His providential care as He seeks to reconcile us to Himself and bring us into His Kingdom. This vision of marriage is limited to this world and cannot deliver what it promises; the Christian view of marriage opens the door to the next and better world.

Published in: on Monday, 16 March, 2009 at 11:21  Comments (1)  

Spin and Propoganda

Good humor can provide the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down, whether most delightfully or not.

After his death, Stalin was greeted at the gates of Heaven and taken on a tour by St. Peter. Stalin found the quiet and pious life of the people there disagreeable, and requested permission to go to Hell. Complying with his wish, St. Peter took him to the gates of Hell and handed him over to Lucifer. Stalin was led to a noisy bar, where there was much revelry and dancing going on. “This is for me,” declared Stalin, but Lucifer’s reply was to lead him into the kitchen where he was popped into a kettle of boiling oil. Stalin protested and asked to be returned to the bar. “Brother,” replied Lucifer, “that was just propaganda!”

Satan and his minions are masters at public relations, spin, and propoganda. They effectively make the worst, most distasteful, painful, and destructive things to appear irresistibly necessary to life. The anecdote well expresses what our mortal foe is about when he tempts us. Agreeing with the temptation and acting upon it never delivers what the temptation promises; rather it brings pain, disappointment, shame, and spiritual darkening. We should have learned from our experience.

Someone has defined ‘insanity’ as trying the same thing over and over while expecting a different result. We listen to the same old lines, accept the same tired old tempting thoughts, and expect somehow to avoid sin or have a different outcome. In fact, sin is insanity; it is not being in our right mind. And it is to this insanity that our enemy would lead us. Witness the man possessed of the legion of demons in the Gospel and how Christ cast them out and restored to him his right mind.

A fellow priest who once led a workshop on preaching for the priests of our diocese likened temptation to a chocolate-covered dung ball. It looks good, it smells good, it even tastes good when you first put it in your mouth. But the chocolate cannot compensate for the vileness it encompasses. How many chocolate-covered dung balls have we eaten? And how many more will we attempt to consume? May God grant us more discriminating taste!

Published in: on Sunday, 15 March, 2009 at 21:22  Comments (2)  

Today on National Public Radio (NPR) was broadcast an interview with Donovan Campbell, a lieutenant and platoon commander in the Marines, a Princeton and Harvard Business School graduate, who served in Iraq in 2004 and has written a book, Joker One, about his experiences.

Something the lieutenant said about how he learned to cope with the constrant threat of wounds and death and the weight of responsibility he bore for the members of his unit struck me. What eventually kept him from being paralyzed by fear of constantly-threatened death was the thought experience taught him to embrace: that he would not be going home, that sooner or later, before his tour in Iraq ended, he would buy the farm. His acceptance of the inevitability of his death in the line of duty did not deaden him, as his interviewer suggested, but rather liberated him. It liberated him to focus on his daily duty and not worry about the future. It freed him from fear to function as his men’s commander and do his best by them to get them through their tour of duty alive and in one piece.

The acceptance of death freed Lieutenant Campbell. It also freed another officer in another service, Captain Solzhenitsyn of the Red Army. Arrested in 1945 for incautious remarks about the Great Leader in a private letter, he was interrogated and imprisoned for eight years. Years later in his Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn reflected on his own experience and that of many others he had interviewed of the Soviet interrogation system, which was designed to extract a confession from you whether you were guilty or not and to get you to implicate other innocent people as well in the hope of saving yourself and your family. How can one stand up and maintain one’s honesty and integrity in the face of a relentless, pitiless process of sleep deprivation, starvation, and torture brought to bear against one to compel the bearing of false witness against oneself and others? The answer is that of Donovan Campbell.

So what is the answer?  How can you stand your ground when you are weak and sensitive to pain, when people you love are still alive, when you are unprepared?
What do you need to make you stronger than the interrogator and the whole trap?
From the moment you go to prison you must put your cozy past firmly behind you.  At the very threshold, you must say to yourself, “My life is over, a little early to be sure, but there’s nothing to be done about it.  I shall never return to freedom.  I am condemned to die – now or a little later.  But later on, in truth, it will be even harder, and so the sooner the better.  I no longer have any property whatsoever.  For me those I love have died, and for them I have died.  From today on, my body is useless and alien to me.  Only my spirit and conscience remain precious and important to me.”
Confronted by such a prisoner, the interrogation will tremble.
Only the man who has renounced everything can win that victory. [A.I. Solzhenitsyn, Gulag Archipelago, Vol. 2, “The Soul & Barbed Wire”; chapter, “The Ascent”]

Christian life in the world is properly governed by the same attitude. St. Paul says “I die daily.” St. Antony the Great comments on St. Paul’s words in his advice to his disciples:

‘Wherefore, children, let us hold fast our discipline [askesis, ascetic discipline, life of self-denial], and let us not be careless. For in it the Lord is our fellow-worker, as it is written, “to all that choose the good, God worketh with them for good.” But to avoid being heedless, it is good to consider the word of the Apostle, “I die daily.” For if we too live as though dying daily, we shall not sin. And the meaning of that saying is, that as we rise day by day we should think that we shall not abide till evening; and again, when about to lie down to sleep, we should think that we shall not rise up. For our life is naturally uncertain, and Providence allots it to us daily. But thus ordering our daily life, we shall neither fall into sin, nor have a lust for anything, nor cherish wrath against any, nor shall we heap up treasure upon earth. But, as though under the daily expectation of death, we shall be without wealth, and shall forgive all things to all men, nor shall we retain at all the desire of women or of any other foul pleasure. But we shall turn from it as past and gone, ever striving and looking forward to the day of Judgment. For the greater dread and danger of torment ever destroys the ease of pleasure, and sets up the soul if it is like to fall. [St. Athanasius the Great, Life of Antony, 19]

The man who lacks this perspective will cling to life by any means, compromising any principle, ducking any duty just to survive. Christ speaks of the man who ‘gains the whole world but loses his soul’–and this is indeed the cost of clinging to life and the things of this world above all else. At some prices, to live is a luxury we can’t afford.

Patrick Henry asked, “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?” For many, chains and slavery and worse are worth it to prolong their existence under the sun just a bit longer. But a true man, a Christian man, an honorable man understands that there are some things worse than death [a major theme in the Harry Potter series].  A man’s clinging to life is sometimes the only leverage his enemies have against him; embracing death is liberation. And as death will come for us all, we must embrace it and not delude ourselves that we shall escape it. Sooner or later, it will come for us. May it not find us craven before it in that meeting.

Published in: on Thursday, 5 March, 2009 at 22:45  Comments (1)