Sunday, October 9, 2016

Reflection on the Repose and Translation of John the Theologian, Apostle and Evangelist

Today, on the Julian Calendar, is September 26th, the Feast of the Repose and Translation of John the Theologian, Apostle and Evangelist.

My Pastor delegates preaching to me on Sundays. As I researched potential sermon topics, I read up on details of this Feast. Even though I have been Orthodox for thirteen years, I never knew about a Tradition wherein John the Evangelist was assumed bodily into Heaven at his death.

In Tractate 124 of his Commentary on the Gospel of John, St. Augustine knows nothing of a tradition about such an assumption.

Even so, I find the tradition a fitting possibility. Here I preach on the matter.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

I Shall Not Leave You Orphans...

I lost my mother when I was 40. My father died when I was 42.

And I can recall wondering, does this now make me an orphan? Or is a person only an orphan when they lose their parents in childhood? The word itself does imply the person is a minor--though one can speak of an "adult orphan."

The Jewish Prayer for the Dead, the particular responsibility of a son or daughter to pray on behalf of the deceased parent, is called the Kaddish Yatom (קדיש יתום). You see this translated as "Mourner's Kaddish," but yatom is the Hebrew word for "orphan," implying that, at least in Hebrew, one can become a yatom at any age.

Now, I know some people younger than myself who have lost both parents. But not many. The strong majority of people my age or even much older still have at least one parent, if not both. It's not exactly common today for someone in their early 40's to be bereft of both parents. A student of mine once, in complete innocence informed by the probability that my parents still live, asked me if I had called my mother on Mother's Day. I did my very best to relieve her embarrassment as I explained that I had not, and why.

I had a great relationship with both my parents, and I miss them dearly. And I, somewhat consciously, include the experience of orphanhood as a prominent theme in my novels.

In my novel A Place of Brightness, young twins Andrew and Stefan Valquist find themselves orphans in one night, following an accident that takes their parents' lives. And in their case, a great deal of their burden comes from the fact that they had been trained to carry on a mission they barely understood. Now that they were alone, the twins drift apart, each searching for their own meaning of life in such loss.

And that is something I will identify I felt in the wake of being bereft. In the absence of any further filial piety to perform, what does one take on as a mission for the rest of life? The ordinary flow of human life seems, by observation, to involve caring for your parents until such a time that you are close to needing that care in return. 

The orphan is left to find some purpose outside the normalcy of those around them.
In the novel In Saecula Saeculorum, Andrew Valquist has become the Latin teacher of a young man, Jonathan Drake, who lost his parents in an accident when he was a freshman. Now as a senior, Mr. Drake is very suddenly not doing well, as he is forced to see his classmates' parents at events leading to graduation. 

In Jonathan's case, his primary conflict is that he wishes he could claim the uncle who raised him as a true father now. But his uncle is so careful to not "replace his father" that he has left his nephew emotionally starved.

Both Andrew Valquist and Jonathan Drake have to simultaneously process their loss and also find strength from it to face the considerable challenges their lives of adventure and danger will entail. 

Jesus' words in John 14:18, "I shall not leave you as orphans, but I will come to you," take on a new meaning for me. I pray for my parents, and I ask them to pray for me. But until we are reunited, I am still not alone.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Living with—and Writing through—Regret

A Lifetime of Regrets

While visiting my wife's native Romania one summer, I learned that there had been an anti-communist insurgency there back in the 50's. It was eventually crushed in the early 60's.

I began to imagine a family in Transylvania who fought as anti-communist freedom fighters. I imagined that this family's motivation was largely in defense of the Church that the communists were suppressing. 

And in particular I found myself dwelling on the regret and disappointment such people must have experienced when their hard-fought effort came to nothing and they were forced to either flee the country or form a life within the communist system.

And so it was that I began writing the novel A Place of Brightness. It shares the saga of such a family of freedom fighters as they experience the end of the rebellion. It continues to a second generation who must unexpectedly take up the torch and face their family's enemies.

In the very first chapter, I describe how a brother and sister team have resolved that their current operation against the communists would have to be their last. They dare to share with each other dreams of the life they will fade into as they now set their rebellion aside.

But things don't go according to plan on that final mission and what follows are lives deeply and tragically wounded by the regret of what never came to pass.

What Brought Me There

Like you, so many things I had once perhaps imagined my life could include and would mean—just didn't happen as I planned.

Lofty dreams of my youth never materialized. 

More reasonable dreams of my young adulthood came true in only mixed measure.

Safer plans in my full adulthood evolved into a comfortable life. 

And then my world was turned upside down.

You see, I had a PhD in Biblical Hebrew, with a minor in Arabic. That was a safe plan, since it had followed accepting a scholarship. And I loved the study.

But then, on the evening of Tuesday, September 11th, 2001, I saw appeals on the news for people with expertise in Arabic to submit resumes to the intelligence agencies in response to what had happened.

Quick version. Submitted. Accepted. Suddenly I was an Intelligence Officer at the National Security Agency.

What followed was a whirlwind of adventure and emotion. I would serve in Iraq, for which I was awarded the Global War on Terrorism Civilian Service Medal.  I would serve in the Office of Counter Terrorism, helping to foil plots against our nation.

I served at the NSA for four years, longer than the US was in WWII. I came to a point where I was ready to move on—and to a quieter life. 

As I resigned my position and became a mild-mannered Latin teacher, I needed a way to process all that I had been through.

A Place of Brightness 

I wrote my novel for many reasons. As a boy growing up in Wisconsin, I never imagined I would ever stand in a war zone. Some of the more intense battle scenes of the novel allowed me to process the chaos and insanity of it all. 

As I look back on my life, I certainly have some regrets. The experience of going to war and working in the Top Secret world of espionage had a toll on me. A part of me wonders, with understandable regret, what my life would be had I not gone down that path.

At the same time, I would not change anything were I given the chance to do it all over. I am what I am today because of the choices I made.

My novel is primarily a story of family and faith. I come from a close family and the bonds the characters in A Place of Brightness share are real. They are practicing Christians because I would dishonor myself to write them any other way. 

But a most important matter explored in the novel is the tremendous burden the brother and sister will experience as the dreams of a future life which they hoped for on that final night—are crushed.

What do you do when everything you ever dreamed your life would mean is suddenly gone?

As you will learn in the novel, the answer is—you pick up a new dream and you move forward—in faith.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Learning Latin with the Liturgy: the Felix Culpa in the Exsultet of the Easter Vigil Liturgy

There is no liturgical text more pregnant with theological implications than the famous Felix Culpa found in the Exsultet of the Easter Vigil Liturgy.

The concept that there could be a "Happy Fault" is found in the writings of Saint Augustine, who taught that:

Melius enim iudicavit de malis benefacere, quam mala nulla esse permittere.
For He judged it to be better to make good out of evil than to permit no evil things to be. (Enchiridion 8)

But I find the clauses immediately preceding Felix Culpa to be even more provocative. Our sin is termed, not just happy, but necessary.

Here is the Latin text, followed by a literal English translation and theological commentary.

O certe necessárium Adæ peccátum, quod Christi morte delétum est!
O truly necessary sin of Adam, which was destroyed by the death of Christ!

O felix culpa, quæ talem ac tantum méruit habére Redemptórem!

O Happy Fault, which deserved to have such and so great a Redeemer!

 A few thoughts before a full grammatical description. First off, the pointless argument over Adam's sin versus that of Eve is thankfully not even here. The Church does not prescribe a literal interpretation on the Creation Narrative. The "Fall of Man" is a primordial reality that somehow we humans fell from some original state of purity and harmony with God and Nature. 

The fact that the fossil record shows we murderously slashed our way around the planet, killing every other hominid we saw is archaeological proof of Original Sin.

But the Exsultet sings that this sin was necessary.

It was necessary because God did not create us to dwell endlessly and amorally in a primordial Garden.

For as long as we were free of sin, we were not virtuous, we were simply amoral. We were like the animals. The lion who kills the gazelle is not evil for doing so. The Cain who kills an Abel, however, is.

And only then can an act of charity be a virtue.

So God permitted evil in order that true good might be possible.

But our fledgling ability to produce moral good, made possible by the allowance of evil, was insufficient to bridge the gap--to heal the damage--that sin had produced.

And the implication of the Exsultet is that this was always part of a Grand Plan. 

Even as God created humans with the inevitable capacity to fall, he was doing so knowing he would then also incarnate to redeem them.

And so it was a Felix Culpa, which deserved to have such and so great a Redeemer. 

Think on the notion that the grammatical antecedent of quae is culpa. And quae is the grammatical subject of the verb meruit.

In other words, the Fault Deserves

It deserves? How can it deserve anything, let alone such and so great a Redeemer?

But that's what the Hymn proclaims. 

If our Primordial Sin deserved a Redeemer, and it received one, let us certainly not hold our simple daily sins from the Fount of Forgiveness of a Savior who promises to absolve whatever we repent of.

Here's how the Latin works:

Grammar Points
voc. sing. neut. adj.
necessarius, necessaria, necessarium
of Adam
gen. sing. masc. name
Adam, Adae
voc. sing. neut. noun
peccatum, peccati
nom. sing. neut. rel. pronoun
qui, quae, quod; with peccatum as antecedent, it is the subject of the verb deletum est.
of Christ
gen. sing. masc. noun
Christus, Christi
(by) the death
abl. sing. fem. noun
mors, mortis; ablative of means or manner
nom. sing. neut. past. part.
dēleō, dēlēre, dēlēvī, dēlētus; Past participle of active verb produces perfect tense passive periphrastically with past participle and forms of the verb esse in the singular.
[was] is
3rd pers. sing. ind. verb
sum, esse, fui
voc, sing. fem. adj.
felix, felicis
voc. sing. fem. noun
culpa, culpae
nom. sing. fem. rel. pronoun
qui, quae, quod; antecedent is culpa; quae is the subject of the verb meruit.
acc. sing. masc. adj.
talis, tale
so great
acc. sing. masc. adj.
tantus, tanta, tantum
3rd pers. sing. perf. act. ind. verb
mereō, merēre, meruī, meritus
to have
pres. act. infinitive
habeō, habēre, habuī, habitus
a Redeemer
acc. sing. masc. noun
Redemptor, Redemptoris


Sunday, December 6, 2015

St. Nicholas of Myra, Faithful Bishop. Fisticuffs? Not So Much...

Happy St. Nicholas of Myra Day!

This Wonder-Working Saint (AD 270-343) lived in that murky time when the persecuted Church of the Roman Empire was emerging into legal acceptance. 

There is no firm evidence that St. Nicholas attended the Council of Nicaea (AD 325), but given the rather general invitation for all bishops to attend, it is entirely plausible.

Of much less historical certitude is the often quoted claim that St. Nicholas slapped or punched out Heresiarch Arius at that Council.

The oldest extant source of this claim is quite late, coming from a Venetian Bishop named Petrus De Natalibus in the 14th Century. He wrote that:

Fertur beatum Nicolaum jam senem Nicaeno concilio interfuisse et quemdam Arrianum zelo fidei in maxillam percussisse.
It is said that Blessed Nicholas, already an old man, was present at the Nicene Council and that he struck a certain Arius in the jaw, from zeal of the Faith. 

While it is probably  true that this Bishop Peter was not originating the story, it is entirely too late to be trustworthy. And it certainly not responsible for anyone to be passing on this story as established fact.

I have had the great honor, while in Bucharest, Romania, to venerate the right hand of St. Nicholas, which is in a reliquary at the Church of St. George the New. 

There is a Russian proverb that says, "If God Himself were to die, at least we would still have St. Nicholas."

Now, don't be scandalized by the apparent blasphemy of this hyperbole. First off, if you are a Christian, you already believe God died. And rose from the dead. But the proverb voices an abandoned veneration of this ancient Bishop, so faithful to his episcopal duties. And he did so out of abandoned service to the People of God.

Pray for us, St. Nicholas of Myra!