November 26, 2008

Pilgrims On The Move

It is time for our annual pilgrimage. From the small towns to the towering cities we make our pilgrimage home or to some other table where we are loved and accepted. Families will drive hundreds of miles or even brave the horrors of flying to spend time breaking bread and sharing a meal together. Sitting at table together in an important ritual in every culture because it strengthens our relationships.

It can be a day of mixed feelings. We may dread the travel and the friction it brings. We may even dread being in the same room with family and friends from whom we are estranged. Or we may love being in the same room with family and friends from whom we are estranged.

From a large table covered with culinary masterpieces to a smaller table set with more plain fare we gather together to give thanks for our Lord’s bounty and to celebrate the ties that hold us together. This family table can become the table of our reconciliation with one another.

Our Lord taught his most important lesson while reclining at a meal with the twelve apostles. At the last supper He said eat for this is My body and drink for this is My blood. It is the table of our reconciliation with our Lord.

Thanksgiving is the manifestation of the eternal truth that our love/our family/our faith matters most of all.

November 25, 2008

Mother Of Despair

Oh, Mother of despair
A mind unquiet
A mind dis-eased
Desperate in loneliness beyond measure.
Stumbling, fumbling
Tripping through life’s darkness
Her lantern of deliverance long since lost
Her guide, her companion cruelly cut off.
Crying from the other side
Too soon, too soon.
A refugee in the land of the dead
Give voice to the defilement
Cry out!
Too cruel, too cruel.
The wait too long
The weight too great
To bear.

A prose companion to this piece is at The Bosom Serpent

November 18, 2008

A Conscience Pricked

Yesterday morning I very unexpectedly had my conscience pricked. It was an epiphany, a flash of insight that I suspect will forever alter how I see the world. Perhaps it’s appropriate that this would happen on the third day of the fast as I am trying to focus on prayer.

On this very blog just after election day I posted a short essay, Tears Of Joy, stating how much I supported Obama for president and how joyful I was that we would finally have an alternative to Pres. Bush. I understand now that instead of joy they should have been tears of anguish, tears of sorrow.

Within a few days of posting this essay I also posted a story about the horrors of child abuse. I said I was trying to shed light on this particular instance, that it was evil and needed to be dragged out into the light. Then this morning an Orthodox priest with whom I correspond told me that while the essay was well written he, of course, did not vote for Obama because of his pro life stance, and that he believed his position mirrored that of the Church. I was stunned and realized instantly that he was right. I had not looked at the most important issues. I basically had no idea what I was talking about.

I told the priest that one of my main reasons for voting for Obama was war fatigue. This response was in earnest, and I am greatly troubled at the waste of American lives in a country we will never convert, conquer, or even really understand. It is a tribal society and far removed from our sensibilities. I am appalled at these deaths and the grievous wounds (emotional and physical) the war is leaving on our brightest and best. In my opinion, veterans deserve our highest respect and an acknowledgment of our gratitude for all they have offered and lost on our behalf.

But while focusing on these issues I was ignoring the very real war being raged all around me. I can only plead ignorance. I know/knew in an abstract way that abortion is the American holocaust. That viable beings are killed every single day, and yet the cry of the slain innocents never made it past my ears. How can I hold up a pro-abortion president-elect one day and rail against child abuse the next? I am a hypocrite, I am the chief of sinners, and I am undone. Thankfully our Lord is always at work. I am embarrassed and ashamed by my own hypocrisy.

I wrote a paper about abortion in a college philosophy class. I argued that abortion up until the fetus became a sentient being (defined as capable of feeling pain) was acceptable but not after that point. To inflict such agony was a reprehensible, immoral act. I was looking only at the physical dimension, making a cold sterile assessment. There was no acknowledgment or even real understanding of our true nature. After the class, abortion was pushed to the back burner of my life. I saw both sides of the argument carry out heinous acts in defense of their belief.

Our Lord leaves us no middle ground.

As I thought about this and spoke with my wife I realized that many politicians/people may support abortion but not capital punishment. The opposite view is also held. Are the two mutually exclusive? How could a person support one and not the other? I have qualms about the death penalty for a number of reasons. Ironically, one of which is the possibility of killing an innocent man. Surely some innocents (especially the poor who cannot mount as vigorous a defense as persons of means) have slipped through the cracks and been executed.

I have often thought that is if the value of capital punishment is as a deterrent then execution should be public. Potential offenders could see what awaits them and our society could see itself perform what is for all intents and purposes state sanctioned and state executed murder. Instead, this public punishment is carried out for the most part in private, perhaps because we know it to be wrong. How many lives have we taken as punishment for the loss of another life through murder? Is the death penalty the state playing God, acting as the final arbiter and deciding who lives and who dies? Does this not reek of hypocrisy? Abortion and capital punishment are simple issues made needlessly complex. What does the Church tell us?

Thank you Fr. for being the catalyst of change, for opening my eyes to my blindness, for helping me to see myself as I really am. To those who read these words thank you for your patience as I fumble my way through life. I will strive to be more consistent and to conform myself to the teachings of the Church as established by our Lord. And no more politics.

November 14, 2008

Love The Little Children

As Orthodox Christians we are called to follow our Lord’s example and to refrain from casting the first stone, we are enjoined to judge not. And our American criminal justice system rests upon the Constitution’s bedrock guarantee of a fair hearing and of being treated as innocent until being proven guilty. What I learned today made it very hard to leave that first stone at rest, to not cast it in anger. I suppose you could say I am casting it now.

Earlier this week we arrested a husband and wife for abusing their 23-month-old son. From all appearances and from interviews with the parents this young boy lived a life of horror, subject to severe beatings, beatings bad enough to produce the deepest and most dangerous bruises. There was deep bruising all over him, on his abdomen, his buttocks and even his scrotum.

The mother admitted to striking him with a closed fist in the past. She also admitted to throwing her son down so hard this week that the impact split his skull and caused swelling and bleeding of the brain. She also stated that she went outside to smoke a cigarette before calling 911. This incident led to the arrests. The child is in intensive care kept alive by a ventilator. The doctors want to do a full body scan to discover the full extent of his injuries but cannot because of his reliance on the ventilator. In the most bitter of ironies the mother is six months pregnant.

The father admitted to knowing that his wife was severely abusing their son and also admitted that he conspired with her to keep her actions hidden. He said he feared coming home one day to find his son dead. Under Georgia law they are equally complicit and face similar charges.

This young boy was truly a child of wrath, born into a world of pain, pain dealt out at the hands of his mother. I know that most of you who read these postings never come close to such evil. Many times these stories become a window with a view of the slaughterhouse. If these writing offend you please forgive me, but I feel compelled to tell these stories, to shed a brighter light on the evil with which we share this world. The least I can do is tell the stories, to lift up their names up in prayer.

I believe God created us to be especially sensitive to these issues, to lay down our lives for our children (as He did for us) without question or hesitation. Children are our greatest treasure, the storehouse of our memories, the mirror in which we see ourselves as we really are. There is no reality check quite like having a child mouth obscenities and to know full well you were his teacher. Children are quite literally our future. They carry with them a distinct, individual combination of genes handed down from parents and grandparents. We are all individuals but we are also all the same. Each of us is a being created in the image of our Maker and as such worthy of all the love we can create.

Our own salvation was purchased at the price of a Son. We understand this sacrifice so well because the thought of losing a child resonates deeply, at the very core of our being, the one nightmare all parents dread. Could we willingly lay down the life of a child?

Such barbarism, especially between a mother and her child raises many questions. How could a loving, omnipotent, omniscient God allow such horrors to happen? This question tripped me up for many years. Having suffered abuse and having seen the depths of depravity into which we can fall I rejected the notion of a loving, caring God. How could he not lash out in holy anger? How could he stand to hear the wailing of his children?

God does love us and Jesus is the proof. These horrors are not of God. This evil is man’s brutality to man and it wounds our Creator at least as much as it wounds us. Still, some days this answer is not enough. Some days I still doubt. On these days I fall back on prayer, on expressing my pain, my questions, on asking Him why. Eventually I always come back to the calming wisdom of Psalm 46. “Be still and know that I am God.” Lord, forgive my disbelief.

Here is a link to the story in our local newspaper.

November 8, 2008

Still, Here I Sit

November, the window to winter, the shutters closing on autumn. The days diminishing with the solstice still weeks away. From trees afire in glorious hues to a bare tangle of brittle branches as deciduous trees set their leaves free into the wind, into the cold, into the gutter. Other flora and fauna shake off their glory, take in the last bit of sustenance and horde it away before falling into their long sleep. Others put on thick coats of white or brown to dull winter’s bitter bite. Yet in even the deepest recesses of the cold darkness life is never snuffed out but patiently bides its time. Sleeping mothers birthing blind babies in their dark warm dens.

Memories of November in my Shenandoah Valley home, the smell of wood smoke hovering in the frigid air, the butchering of hogs and watching football at the neighbor’s house that had a color television, a television room, a patio, hot running water and indoor plumbing. The distance between our house and theirs was less than a block and the width of a gaping abyss that could never be bridged.

The November of 1971 was both the closing act of a patricide and the beginning of a troubled time in my life, the start of a long decline, a seemingly ceaseless struggle to know why my father died. At 36. I know how, I really need to know why. I was 11. As night strikes the colors and day takes the helm, on the eve of Thanksgiving you gave up the/your ghost. Did you not love us enough to set the bottle aside? Was life so painful that even the agony of delirium tremens became the better option? Or were you sick with a disease you did not understand and from which you could not escape?

Memories. Too many and not enough. Fighting, staggering, falling, filth. An artist consumed, a craftsman crushed. Or am I dwelling on the vision of a father with control wrested from his grasp while avoiding the reality that he had choices to make. And we/I lost out. Could it be he was enough of a bastard to deliberately push us aside?

My father’s journey took him through hospitals, in and out of prison, into the hell of psychiatric wards, through years of drool and piss, living through the death of dreams and the birth of nightmares with a wife/my mother who pirouetted in the same fatal dance and enabled him into his grave. In November.

Ah November, novem, nine but eleven. All Saints Day, Election Day, Veterans Day, my father's dying day, Thanksgiving Day, my brother’s birthday and the birthday of the Marine Corps, chrysanthemums and our Chrismation.

Herman Melville, in his, “…damp drizzly November in my soul…” from the opening paragraph of Moby Dick; or The Whale (one of our great novels which should be mandatory reading) at least to my mind, captures the feeling, the smell, the loneliness, the essence of November.

Still, here I sit. Making do while I make it up, the summer of my life fading to the autumn of middle age. Avoiding the shadows, the cold corners. The mask of happiness masking the demon of despair. Waiting for the fall into the long sleep. Here I sit. Come November.

November 6, 2008

Tears Of Joy

I will always remember the evening of Tuesday, November 4, 2008 as one of the proudest and most profound moments of my life. To repeat the clich├ęs, it was history in the making. It was one of those moments like the first moon walks or the Challenger explosion that is forever etched into our collective memory. The first comparison that came to mind that evening (aside from weddings and new babies) was graduating from boot camp at Parris Island in early February 1978 as a 17-year-old high school dropout newly minted Marine. But that was a personal pride, a solo accomplishment. Tuesday night I was proud as an American, proud that enough of us could look beyond skin color and elect a man based on the content of his character (sorry I couldn’t resist), on the hope of his potential, on the faith in his abilities. As a 48-year-old grizzled and often ill-tempered old man I nevertheless wept. Such joy, such unbridled emotion.

I am neither a Democrat nor a Republican. I voted for both Reagan and Clinton. I even vote for the deceased. On the local ballot Tuesday the position of Surveyor was open but there was no candidate so I typed in Henry David Thoreau. George Washington would also have been a good choice although he’s probably a little too old school for me.

Veterans (especially combat veterans) have a special place in my heart. When I used to put on a uniform and strap on my hand cannon I would never knowingly write a veteran a traffic ticket. I would simply send him on his way with the sight of my grateful salute fading in his rearview. The men and women who defended our country and our way of life do not need me giving them grief. Who better in our society to honor? We are a peaceful society but we rely on the mettle and resolve of our warriors, the men who answer the call, the men who stand in the breach, the watchmen on the walls, the eternally vigilant.

Having said that I honor Sen. John McCain and the tremendous sacrifice he made on our behalf. He is truly an amazing man, a hero in the truest sense of the word, an example to us all of how we can maintain our dignity in even the most trying of circumstances. He would be a great president and truth be told he probably deserves it more than just about anyone. In his concession speech Sen. McCain quieted those who were booing and urged everyone to unite together behind President-elect Obama. He once again demonstrated the qualities we want in our political leaders, tenacious fighters who when faced with the inevitability of defeat bow out gracefully and support the victor.

But I did not think his would be the steadiest hand at the rudder. That feistiness, that bulldog response is not the best approach to dealing with the almost insurmountable problems now facing President-elect Obama. In my mind these issues are better resolved with a cooler head, a longer fuse. I suspect we will see that Obama is indeed a man of tremendous resolve and able to keep his head when those around him are losing theirs. A man who understands that compromise is not synonymous with weakness, a man who will be willing to trust but will also verify. For too many years now we have bullied our way around the world stage and alienated pretty much everyone in the process. We have been the ugly American. It is time to embrace the hope of a brighter future and to reclaim our heritage as the greatest nation in the world.

Two works come to mind:

The Second Coming
Robert Butler Yeats

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?


Psalm 46

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
Therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea;
Though the waters thereof roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with the swelling thereof. Selah.
There is a river, the streams whereof shall make glad the city of God, the holy place of the tabernacles of the most High.
God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved: God shall help her, and that right early.
The heathen raged, the kingdoms were moved: he uttered his voice, the earth melted.
The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah.
Come, behold the works of the LORD, what desolations he hath made in the earth.
He maketh wars to cease unto the end of the earth; he breaketh the bow, and cutteth the spear in sunder; he burneth the chariot in the fire.
Be still, and know that I am God: I will be exalted among the heathen, I will be exalted in the earth.
The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah.