A dear, almost lifelong friend of mine passed from earthly life last night, on the feast of St. Brendan the Navigator. I found comfort in praying for him the Akathist to Jesus Christ for a Loved One Who has Fallen Asleep. Every phrase of the prayer is full of meaning, but something about the following section made me want to share it.
It makes reference to the “soul stripped bare.” This image follows from the fact that the soul and the body are aspects of a whole person, made in God’s image and designed to be a unity; and when you think about how the soul and the body have never had to be fully separated before death, it seems natural that the soul, no matter how pure, should grieve at this loss.
We don’t think of the body as a shell from which our soul ultimately emerges — our bodies are us, and they are temples of God at the same time, in which we worship. If at the end of our lives our Lord takes our spirits from our bodies, it is not because they aren’t precious. They will be resurrected at the end of time.
O Thou Who wast crucified for us and Who for us wast tormented: Stretch forth Thy hand from Thy Cross and with the drops of Thy poured-forth blood wipe away his sins without a trace; and with Thy beautiful nakedness warm his soul, now stripped bare and orphaned:
Jesus, Thou didst know his life from birth and didst love him. Jesus, Thou didst see him from afar from the height of Thy Cross. Jesus, suffering painfully on the Cross, Thou didst stretch forth to embrace him as he came from afar. Jesus, Thou didst cry out for his forgiveness on blood-stained Golgotha. Jesus, Thou didst in grievous torments meekly die for him. Jesus, Who didst suffer to be laid in the tomb, sanctify his repose in the grave. Jesus, Risen, raise up to the Father his soul which was embittered by the world and saved by Thee. Jesus, All-merciful Judge, vouchsafe Thy servant the sweetness of Paradise.
–From The Akathist to Jesus Christ for a Loved One who has Fallen Asleep
Just before I was to attend a recent baby shower, I found an article by Frederica Mathewes-Green, a sort of meditation on the power of a mother’s influence. It’s primarily about Father George Calciu, who was “one of the great confessors of Christianity in the twentieth century. Having survived the diabolic prison experiments of Communist Romania, Fr. George went on to become an apostle to spiritual seekers in Romania and, eventually, throughout the world.”
Fr. George spent a total of more than 20 years in prison. When later he was a pastor in the United States, he became Frederica’s spiritual father and confessor.
Her thoughts about his relationship to his mother seemed perfect to share at a baby shower, so I read the whole article before gifts were opened. Putting together what she knew personally of Fr. George, and what he told her about his mother, Frederica concluded:
“I think that Fr. George’s mother planted something joyous in him, when he was still a baby in the cradle. Her love and her delight in him took root, and grew as strong as an oak tree.”
I have read many stories about people who, when as adults they found themselves in deep trouble and disorder from whatever source, for whatever reason, were sustained and preserved — and sometimes brought to repentance — by simple childhood memories of what was normal and good. Sometimes it was the thought of one sweet person, or one beautiful day, long ago embedded in their soul, like an ember still glowing. From this one bit of warmth and light they found the strength to pray and the courage to do whatever was necessary.
“We do not know where our children’s lives will lead them; they may have to undergo suffering that we will be unable to prevent. They may be somewhere far beyond our ability to help them. But in the loving care we give each day, we plant something for a lifetime. Each small thing we do can be preparing them to meet challenges that we cannot yet see.”
“Why We No Longer But Still Could Have Beautiful Things” is something Anthony Esolen discusses in an article titled “The Ugly and the Good,” which was first published in Touchstone in 2020. This month he republished it in his Substack newsletter.
Esolen begins by talking about beautiful cathedrals built in the Middle Ages:
“I’ve come to see the medieval cathedrals of Europe as the most glorious works of folk art the world has ever known…. They rose up as a lofty expression of the piety of ordinary people, the work of hundreds of men’s hands, digging the deep cavity for the foundation, hewing and setting delicate half-ton stones without mortar, mixing colors for paint or the glazing of windows, searching the forests for the tallest oaks to fell and to carve into beams to span a roof; far more kinds of work than I know and can name.
“They did it because they loved doing it. They were free.”
He contrasts freedom with license, using the example of Ebenezer Scrooge for the latter:
“To be free is not, O modern man, to be rid of all claims upon your love, your duty, your person, and your substance. If that were true, then Charles Dickens crafted a truly blithe and free spirit in the unregenerate Ebenezer Scrooge, crouching alone in his dismal flat and eating gruel gone sour. If you are talking about freedom and you are not talking about love and devotion, then you are not talking about freedom at all; you are talking about moral license, or a permission guaranteed by statutory law, that you may in some regard do exactly as you like, which may include gazing endlessly at evil pictures on your computer screen, and thus transforming yourself, cell by cell and pulse by pulse, into a thing, an automaton.”
His college students ask him for a definition of freedom, because, unfortunately, many of them are puzzled by his statements about what it is not. This is his answer:
“Freedom is the unimpeded capacity to attain to the perfection proper to the kind of creature you are. But since man is made in the image of the God who is a three-personed communion of love, his perfection, the enlargement of his soul, can only come by means of a gift, by the gift of grace from God, which enables him to make of himself a gift to others. There is no truly human freedom without grace, and the love that is its proper response.”
As to modern man’s failure to develop a love, or even a desire for beautiful things, Esolen proposes three reasons. If you’re interested enough that you’ve read this far, you can read them in the article: “The Ugly and the Good”
He also exhorts us to work on the restoration of the culture we have lost:
“We must take back the heart, the chest, the seat of proper passions, which is to take back from Satan those commanding heights of the imagination, which is to reject the errors I have mentioned and to repair the harm they have done. We must not value the useful over the beautiful. We must not reduce beauty to a commodity. We must not forget that our experience of beauty should lead us back to the source of beauty, who is God.”
Esolen suggests that we spend more time cultivating an appreciation for art of every sort; and that we start with the beautiful things that are most accessible:
“Song and poetry are the most immediately available of all the arts, requiring only a human mind and a human voice. If you want a Rembrandt, you have to go see it, or carry a copy with you under your arm while you avert your eyes from the glare of the policeman. Grand pianos, with Van Cliburn sitting at them, are not to be found on every street corner. You cannot from your porch in New Hampshire gaze upon the great arms that Bernini conceived for St. Peter’s piazza, extending in the shape of a key to embrace the thousands who would come to worship there.
“But anyone can possess a song or a poem. If you have a voice, you can sing, and if you have a mind, you can remember what you sing. If you have a voice, you can utter a poem, and remember what you have uttered. In a way, you can best possess a song only by singing it, and a poem only by giving it the performance of your mind and heart and voice and body. Song and poetry should be the most democratic of the arts, more truly by the people, of the people, and for the people than anything else in our experience.”
That brings me to — Poetry Month! I have a little experience of what he’s talking about here, knowing by heart several poems from A Child’s Garden of Verses, which give me joy when I have occasion to recite them, usually to a grandchild, these days. How many songs do I know? Oh my, countless! After reading Esolen, I am extra grateful for all the songs and singing I have loved throughout my life. I am singing these days more than ever.
This short and beloved poem below, which I think I’ve shared here more than once — maybe I should compose a tune for it. Because of its simplicity and rhythm it embedded itself in my mind very easily, long ago, and years later it was right at hand to speak aloud, one night when my late husband and I were peering over a bridge into the dark, where with the help of a street light we could see ripples in the stream down below.
The tide in the river, The tide in the river, The tide in the river runs deep. I saw a shiver Pass over the river As the tide turned in its sleep.
May we nurture ever more beauty, music and poetry in our lives,
and offer the joy with thankfulness up to God.
“No frail human morality can ever hope to contain the overflowing fullness of life with which Christ desires to rejuvenate the faithful.
“The world will not be saved by optimistic humanism that believes human progress and morality will eventually save the world. For Dostoevsky and the church fathers, man’s deepest problems are not moral, nor even psychological, but ultimately existential and ontological. It’s not about following the rules or feeling balanced. It is a matter of choice and it is a matter of human nature being touched by the hand of God Himself.
“Only by daring to leap towards God in spite of the good and evil that exist in the heart can the believer hope to get beyond the contradiction of the human condition. In order to avoid descending into nihilism, Dostoevsky offers his readers another path: the acceptance of suffering and affliction in the context of a relationship with God. It is only in this context that man is able to recognize a path out of his fallen condition. It is only this Love that is able to transform suffering into salvific joy.”
-Father Alexis Trader (Now Bishop Alexis of the Diocese of Sitka)