Monthly Archives: January 2018

A tale of two books

This last fall I joined a book club and I have been endeavoring to read more in general. This month the book was my pick and I chose it because it had been referenced in a couple articles I read. The book is Leisure: The Basis of Culture by 20th century German Catholic philosopher, Josef Pieper.

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In Leisure, Pieper makes an argument for man’s need for leisure, but not as we would probably think of synonyms of that word such as idleness or laziness. Leisure is not that:

“The ‘worker,’ it has been seen, in our brief analysis of that significant figure, is characterized by three principal traits: an extreme tension of the powers of action, a readiness to suffer in vacuo unrelated to anything, and complete absorption in the social organism, itself rationally planned to utilitarian ends. Leisure, from this point of view, appears as something wholly fortuitous and strange, without rhyme or reason, and morally speaking, unseemly: another word for laziness, idleness and sloth. At the zenith of the Middle Ages, on the contrary, it was held that sloth and restlessness,  ‘leisurelessness,’ the incapacity to enjoy leisure, were all closely connected; sloth was held to be the source of restlessness, and the ultimate cause of ‘work for work’s sake’ … Idleness, in the medieval view, means that a man prefers to forgo the rights, or if you prefer the claims, that belong to his nature. In a word, he does not want to be as God wants him to be, and that ultimately means that he does not wish to be what he really, fundamentally, isAcedia is the ‘despair from weakness’ which Kierkegaard analysed as the ‘despairing refusal to be oneself.’ Metaphysically and theologically, the notion of acedia means that a man does not, in the last resort, give the consent of his will to his own being; that behind or beneath the dynamic activity of his existence he is still not at one with himself, or as the medieval writers would have said, face to face with the divine good within him; he is a prey to sadness (and that sadness is the tristitia saeculi of Holy Scripture. And then we are told that the opposite of this metaphysical and theological notion is the notion ‘hardworking,’ industrious, in the context of economic life! For acedia has, in fact, been interpreted as though it had something to do with the economic ethos of the Middle Ages… Idleness, in the old sense of the word, so far from being synonymous with leisure, is more nearly the inner prerequisite which renders leisure impossible: it might be described as the utter absence of leisure, or the very opposite of leisure. Leisure is only possible when a man is at one with himself, when he acquiesces in his own being, whereas the essence of acedia is the refusal to acquiesce in one’s own being. Idleness and the incapacity for leisure correspond with one another. Leisure is the contrary of both. Leisure, it must be clearly understood is a mental and spiritual attitude — it is not simply the result of external factors, it is not the inevitable result of spare time, a holiday, a weekend or a vacation. It is in the first place, an attitude of mind, a condition of the soul, and as such, utterly contrary to the ideal of ‘worker’ in each and every one of the three aspects under which it was analysed: work as activity, as toil, as a social function. Compared with the exclusive ideal of work as activity, leisure implies (in the first place) an attitude of inward calm, of silence, it means not being ‘busy,’ but letting things happen. Leisure is a form of silence, of that silence which is the prerequisite of the apprehension of reality: only the silent hear and those who do not remain silent do not hear. Silence, as it is used in this context, does not mean ‘dumbness’ or ‘noiselessness,’ it means more nearly that the soul’s power to ‘answer’ to the reality of the world is left undisturbed. For leisure is a receptive attitude of mind, a contemplative attitude, and it is not only the occasion but also the capacity for steeping oneself in the whole of creation. Furthermore there is also a certain happiness in leisure, something of the happiness that comes from the recognition of the mysteriousness of the universe and the recognition of our incapacity to understand it, that comes with a deep confidence, so that we are content to let things take their course… Leisure is not the attitude of mind of those who actively intervene, but of those who are open to everything; not of those who grab and grab hold, but of those who leave the reins loose and who are free and easy themselves…” (p.23-28)

The other book I am currently reading is also non-fiction and I picked it for the same reasons as Leisure, because it has been referenced in things I have read over the last year. It is How (Not) to be Secular by James K. A. Smith which is his guide to reading philosopher Charles Taylor’s 900 page A Secular Age  which has been called one of the most important books of our time.

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I have been struck by Smith’s analysis which resonates so deeply with me and writing down quotes from it in my quote notebook like mad:

“Like those hucksters on Venice Beach offering maps to the homes of the stars, there is no shortage of voices hawking road atlases for a secular age. Confident ‘new atheists,’ for example, delineate where we are with a new bravado. Employing a kind of intellectual colonialism, new atheist cartographers rename entire regions of our experience and annex them to natural science and empirical explanation, flattening the world by disenchantment (Graveyards of the gods are always a highlight of this tour). At the same time — and sometimes as a reaction — various fundamentalisms seem intent on selling us maps to buried treasure, pulling out yellowed parchments and trying to convince us that these dated maps tell us the truth about ourselves, about our present. But their maps are just as flat, and we feel like they’re hiding something… Both of these sorts of maps are blunt instruments. They are road atlases that merely show us well-worn thoroughfares, the streets and interstates of our late modern commerce. They do nothing to map the existential wilderness of the present — those bewildering places in which we are beset by an existential vertigo. These neat and tidy color-coded road atlases are of no help when we find ourselves disoriented in a secular age, haunted by doubt or belief, by predawn fears of ghosts in the machine or a vague sense of the twilight of the idols. These road atlases of belief versus disbelief, religion versus secularism, belief versus reason provide maps that are much neater and tidier than the spaces in which we find ourselves. They give us a world of geometric precision that doesn’t map onto the world of our lived experience where these matters are much fuzzier, much more intertwined — where ‘the secular’ and ‘the religious’ haunt each other in a mutual dance of displacement and decentering.” (p. 13)

“…most of us live in this cross-pressured space, where both our agnosticism and our devotion are mutually haunted and haunting. If our only guides were new atheists or religious fundamentalists, we would never know that this vast, contested terrain even existed, even though most of us live in this space every day.” (p. 14)

“But the haunting is mutual, which is why religious literature in our secular age attests to the persistent specter of doubt. Outside of Amish fiction and Disney-fied versions of biblical narratives, believers in contemporary literature are ‘fragilized‘ …twentieth-century fiction was where we saw that ‘the churchgoer was giving way to the moviegoer.’ What Taylor describes as ‘secular’ — a situation of fundamental contestability when it comes to belief, a sense that rival stories are always at the door offering a very different account of the world — is the engine that drove Flannery O’Connor’s fiction. As she attested in a letter about her first novel: ‘I don’t think you should write something as long as a novel around anything that is not of the gravest concern to you and everybody else, and for me this is always the conflict between an attraction for the Holy and the disbelief in it that we breathe in with the air of our times. It’s hard to believe always but more so in the world we live in now. There are some of us who have to pay for our faith every step of the way and who have to work out dramatically what it would be like without it and if being without it would be ultimately possible or not.’ Even a faith that wants to testify and evangelize — as certainly O’Connor did — has to do so from this place. Indeed, consider the dramatis personae of religiously attuned literature over the past fifty years, from Graham Greene’s whisky priest to Walker Percy’s Dr. Thomas More to Evelyn Waugh’s Charles Ryder, even Marilynne Robinson’s Protestant pastor in Gilead: not a one matches the caricature of either the new athiests’ straw men or fundamentalist confidence.” (p. 20-21)

“Indeed, on Taylor’s account, ardent secularism has not appreciated or embraced secularity. And he thinks that, in some fleeting moments of aesthetic enchantment or mundane haunting, even the secularist is pressed by a sense of something more — some ‘fullness‘ that wells up within (or presses down upon) the managed immanent frame we’ve constructed in modernity. In the same way postmodern believers can’t shield themselves from competing stories that call into question the fundamental story of faith. Evolutionary psychology and expressive individualism are in the water of our secular age, and only a heroic few can manage to quell their chatter to create an insulated panic room in which their faith remains solidly secure. Ours is a ‘secular age,’ according to Taylor, not because of any index of religious participation (or lack thereof), but because these sorts of manifestations of contested meaning. It’s as if the cathedrals are still standing, but their footings have been eroded. Conversely the Nietzschean dream is alive and well, and the heirs of Bertrand Russel and Auguste Comte continue to beat their drums, and yet Oprah and Elizabeth Gilbert still make it to the best seller lists and the magic of Tolkien still captivates wide audiences… While stark fundamentalisms — either religious or secular — get all the press, what should interest us are these fugitive expressions of doubt and longing, faith and questioning. These lived expressions of cross-pressure are at the heart of the secular.” (p. 22-23)

I found myself nodding my head over and over at the apt descriptions and analogies that describe the world in which most of us find ourselves. I am an Orthodox Christian, but even when we are doing the shortened Reader’s services that the laity can perform without the clergy in my own living room or at a beautiful Orthodox Church for a full Divine Liturgy, I am haunted by whether or not God is really there, what the heck He is even doing with my life, whether I am on the right path, if God is really at work in the situation I find myself in: a two family tiny mission parish in a town that is a sea of over 200 Protestant churches full of people that believe very differently than me.

And for those of us who do have faith, maybe not the same faith, but faith nonetheless, I found myself wondering how we got here where it is so hard to have faith at all as I see countless friends claim their new labels of atheist or agnostic, rejecting faith and the practice of faith. This is not necessarily a new phenomenon to me, I grew up in a home that didn’t have belief, it’s just more shocking when life-long believers that grew up differently from me throw that off completely. Over the weekend we watched the documentary Becoming Truly Human which explores this rise of the “nones,” from 7% jumping to 25% of the population now claiming no religious affiliation in polling. Smith addresses this question of, ‘how did did we get here?’ too:

“Our goal in trying to understanding our ‘secular age’ is not a descriptive what, and even less a chronological when, but rather an analytic how. The question is not whether our age is less (or more) ‘religious;’ nor is it a question of trying to determine when some switch was tripped so that, in the world-historical language of Will Durant & Co., we went from an ‘age of belief’ to an ‘age of reason.’ Instead, Taylor is concerned with the ‘conditions of belief’ — a shift in the plausibility conditions that make something believable or unbelievable. So A Secular Age is persistently asking and re-asking various permutations of the following questions: ‘How did we move from a condition where, in Christendom, people lived naively within a theistic construal, to one in which we all shunt between two stances, in which everyone’s construal shows up as such; and in which, moreover, unbelief has become for many the major default option?’ ‘Why was it virtually impossible not to believe in God, in say, 1500 in our Western society, while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy, but even inescapable?’ As you’ll notice, these questions are not concerned with what people believe, as much as with what is believable. The difference between our modern, ‘secular’ age and past ages is not necessarily the catalogue of available beliefs but rather the default assumptions about what is believable.” (p. 26-27)

It was really interesting to read that passage and then pick Leisure back up and hear Pieper pretty much describe that same world of easy belief of the 1500s still shaping people’s lives in the early 1900s when he was writing:

“The soul of leisure, it can be said, lies in ‘celebration.’ Celebration is the point at which the three elements of leisure emerge together: effortlessness, calm, and relaxation, and its superiority to all and every function. But if ‘celebration’ is the core of leisure, then leisure can only be made possible and indeed justifiable upon the same basis as the celebration of a feast: and that formation is divine worship. There is no such thing as a feast ‘without Gods’ — whether it be a carnival or a marriage. There is no such thing as a feast that does not ultimately derive its life from divine worship, and that does not draw its vitality as a feast from divine worship. That is not a demand or a requirement; it does not mean that that is how things ought to be. It claims to be a simple statement of fact: however dim the recollection of the association may have become in men’s minds, a feast ‘without Gods,’ and unrelated to worship, is quite simply unknown. It is true that ever since the French Revolution attempts have repeatedly been made to manufacture feast-days and holidays that have no connection with divine worship, or are sometimes even opposed to it: ‘Brutus days,’ or even that hybrid ‘Labor Day.’ In point of fact the stress and strain of giving them some kind of festal appearance is one of the very best proofs of the significance of divine worship for a feast; and nothing illustrates so clearly as a comparison between a living and deeply traditional feast day, with its roots in divine worship, and one of those rootless celebrations, carefully and unspontaneously prepared beforehand, and as artificial as a maypole… There is in fact no room in the world of ‘total labour’ either for divine worship, or for a feast: because the ‘worker’s’ world, the world of ‘labour’ rests solely upon the principle of rational utilization. A ‘feast-day’ in that world is either a pause in the midst of work (and for the sake of work, of course), or in the case of ‘Labour Day,’ or whatever feast days of the world of ‘work’ may be called, it is the very principle of work that is being celebrated — once again, work stops for the sake of work, and the feast is subordinated to ‘work.’ There can of course be games, circuses — but who would think of describing that kind of mass entertainment as festal? It simply cannot be otherwise: the world of ‘work’ and of the ‘worker’ is a poor, impoverished world, be it ever so rich in material goods, for on an exclusively utilitarian basis, on the basis, that is, of the world of ‘work,’ genuine wealth, wealth which implies overflowing into superfluities, into unnecessaries, is just not possible. Wherever the superfluous makes its appearance it is immediately subjected to the world of work. And, as the traditional Russian saying puts it: work does not make one rich, but round-shouldered.” (p. 44-47)

How indeed did we move from a construal where feast days are connected to divine worship and leisure to one where most of Christianity has only 1-2 feast days (Christmas and Easter), if that? Where Christmas falling on a Sunday in 2016 sparked huge debate about whether churches should have a service or whether the pastor and his family needed a break to celebrate because the church always steals PK’s dads? Where dressing up for Dr. Suess’s birthday and making green eggs and ham gets more participation in elementary schools across America than most church services, even on those two floundering feast days we still kind of observe on the Liturgical calendar?

And this is why I joined a book club this year: to reclaim my motherhood sapped brain and read more and ponder the deep thoughts.

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Idealism v. Reality

It’s January. So much of my ideal vision of motherhood and Orthodoxy is wrapped up in what was my normal for the last four years as well as goals I have for our family spiritual life. I mean, I’ve been researching and writing a book, non-fiction, that is sort of an encyclopedia of various feast day practices throughout the year for the last few years so I definitely have a lot of ideas, whole Pinterest boards of them, but the execution both in actually writing the book and in our personal lives is often lacking.

In my ideal January we’d start off the year sharing Vasilopita with friends and all the excitement and anticipation of who get’s the coin and the blessing of St. Basil for the year. I’d make the cake from scratch from someone’s centuries old family recipe. It would be perfectly dusted in powdered sugar and the year.

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On January 6, which fell on a Saturday this year, we would be having Liturgy for Theophany (the feast of the Baptism of Jesus), heading out to bless the Kern River as we have in past years and then house blessing and food all afternoon.

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On the weekend nearest January 15, our dear Ethan’s birthday, we would have that Pinterest perfect “How to Train Your Dragon” party that he has planned up in his mind. We’d have the amazing Night Fury cake with candles coming out of the dragon’s mouth, Popsicle stick catapults and “sheep” marshmallows, games, a picture perfect tablescape, a photo booth set up with viking and dragon themed props, a clever party hashtag, the works.

On January 17, we would spend some time talking about St. Anthony the Great, our schoolwork patron saint, and try learning that Troparion (hymn) for his feast day yet again.

Lent and thus Pre-Lent comes early this year, so on Sunday January 21, we’d sing the silly Zaccheus song and go to Hart Park to climb Sycamore trees on Zaccheus Sunday.

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And at the very end of the month, we’d be gearing up for St. Brigid (Feb. 1) and Candlemas/Meeting of our Lord in the Temple (Feb. 2) getting supplies to make Brigid’s cross and candles.

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In my ideal our home would function as a little monastery in some ways, in the mornings we’d do prayers before starting our day, we’d do the full fast on fasting days, and in the evenings we’d either do evening prayers or Compline as a family.

It’s nearly midway through January and what my month has looked like so far:

Dec. 31 was a Sunday this year. Ever since our mission closed public doors, we’ve done Typika (a shorter version of the typical Sunday services that laypeople can read through) at our home with another family and more recently an inquirer that has been coming for about a month. That morning I woke up early, bought a boxed spice cake mix from the closest grocery store and made it just before we started the service. I frosted the cake and put number candles on it because sifting powdered sugar to make the year is messy and not my thing. I was surprised the cake even turned out because my mantra has been “I can’t bake” for quite some time. I got the coin this year after we all stuffed ourselves on too much cake.

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January 6 was filled with the lows of my husband’s grandmother’s memorial service where we were gutted by bagpipes (she was very proud of her Clan Sinclair Scottish heritage) and bittersweet memories.

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That afternoon was followed by the highs of the birth of Christ late that evening on Old Calendar Nativity. Death and Birth all in the same day. An emotional rollercoaster, and yet fitting, since Christ’s coming allows us to “rejoice in the Lord as we tell of this present mystery. The middle wall of the partition has been destroyed; the flaming sword turns back, the cherubim withdraw from the tree of life, and I partake of the delight of Paradise…” (First Stichera, Vespers of Christmas Eve).

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Christmas on January 6/7? Old Calendar? A brief history lesson: In the 1500s the Pope of Rome decided to change the calendar which is 13 days “behind” to correct some dating issues and slowly much of the world followed suit, except some Orthodox holdouts because the job of calendars and dating events had always belonged to the Church of Alexandria, an ancient center of learning. Eventually some Orthodox switched to the New Calendar, with the date of Pascha/Easter still ascribing to the Old Calendar date so that all of Orthodoxy celebrates on the same day.

On January 10 we were just getting around to reading the our favorite children’s book on the Life of St. Catherine (Nov. 25) and making our liturgical journal entries for her, because that is how far behind we are on those. Though I did manage to make from-the-can cinnamon rolls on her actual feast day.

This weekend will be spent sewing a couple paraments (fancy Liturgical cloths that cover stands, tables, etc.) for a special Liturgy we’re having on Monday to celebrate Theophany kind of halfway between the dates on the Old and New Calendars and all of our usual pomp and procession, river splashing, and house splashing that comes with it.

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Monday also happens to be Ethan’s birthday. I got wind of his party plans only a week or less ago and struck up a compromise that I’d bring a cake with plastic dragons on it to our homeschool co-op at the end of this month. I always feel bad for the kid because we’re usually so wiped out after Christmas and his birthday just becomes an afterthought like this most of the time.

As for my other lofty spiritual family goals, ha. Our mornings are not started with prayer, like ever. And I hate putting kids to bed. We had a good two month stint where I was boring my kids to sleep by sitting on one of their beds and chanting Compline and an Akathist to the Saints of North America. But honestly, it started to make bedtime take even longer, which I already hate, and I wanted to do other things besides taking an hour or more to chant. The kids joked that they were giving me “a holiday break, just like for school,” but honestly I don’t really wanna anymore. Last night I kept popping in their darkened rooms to put away laundry and Henry would say, “Prayers?” every time I came in with a new pile and I said I was busy and he knows the “Our Father” so can’t he pray himself?

But I think real life and our faith and having an Orthodox home is lived somewhere in between this idealism and nothing at all, just like my real month has looked. We stand up, we trip, we fall, we get up, we brush ourselves off, and repeat.

“What we should bear in mind is that every type of work on earth and in all the universe is God’s work, and as such it should be performed from the heart, without reservation. When we do so, we can free ourselves from our interior resistance. Every action of ours will then help our neighbor, beginning with our family, wherever we may be… We must learn how to live a heavenly life. And that is not easy, because up until now we have led a life of resistance and opposition. Take, for example, a family man who has a home and a family and who knows how to do his job well but is doing this job against his will. That is how inner resistance builds up… For we have acquired the habit of always opposing one thing or another, as there is always something that is against our will. We have not learned to be obedient to the will of God but always want our will to be done… Therefore, let us be thankful to God for everything. He knows why He has put us in the position where we find ourselves, and we will get the most out of it when we learn to be humble. We should always remember that whatever task we perform here in this life is for Him.” –Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica, Our Thoughts Determine our Lives

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