Tag Archives: conversion

Sassoon’s Angels

This morning I read the day’s selection in poem-a-dayVolume 3 of Poem A Day, and it was by a poet I hadn’t read before, Siegfried Sassoon. I’m very glad to have discovered him. He is famous for his war poetry, and anti-war poetry, during and after The Great War.

Having read about him on various sites online today, I can only say that the tone of his life reminds me of the novel Brideshead Revisited, and like the narrator of that story, Charles Ryder, Sassoon converted to Roman Catholicism later in life.

When he wrote today’s anthology selection, I haven’t discovered – whether it was earlier, as part of his war poems, or later, with the “religious” poetry. Critics saw his later work as inferior and weak, an unfortunate change in perspective, but his response to this was to say that “almost all of them have ignored the fact that I am a religious poet.” He claimed that “my development has been entirely consistent and in character.”

You can hear Sassoon reading hsassoon-youngis own poem, “The Power and the Glory,”  on the First World War Poetry Digital Archive site. I also found this thorough bibliography of his works by a history and book lover, and would like to explore there some more.

The second poem by him (at the bottom of the page) that I am sharing here, written in his own hand, I found on The University of St. Andrew’s site Echoes from the Vault. It is clearly dated twenty years before Sassoon finally entered the church, but his developing vision of spiritual realities is clearly evident. I notice that both poems feature the presence of angels.

The Power and the Glory

Let there be life, said God. And what He wrought
Went past in myriad marching lives, and brought
This hour, this quiet room, and my small thought
Holding invisible vastness in its hands.

Let there be God, say I. And what I’ve done
Goes onward like the splendour of the sun
And rises up in rapture and is one
With the white power of conscience that commands.

Let life be God…What wail of fiend or wraith
Dare mock my glorious angel where he stands
To fill my dark with fire, my heart with faith?

-Siegfried Sassoon

sassoon-mspr-6037-a9-a17-sassoon-poems-heaven-and-earth_1

It’s my love language, too.

remembering the departed in Orthodox Chrisitian Church - offering bread, boiled wheat and red wine that are blessed by the priest

I want to share an article that is a kind of conversion testimony; it was published earlier this year with the title For the Love, on the blog Persona. The author well conveys the gratitude I also feel for the Church that encourages us above all to love people, and gives us tools for doing that. Tools? What am I saying? The Church gives us The Holy Spirit, a Person of the Holy Trinity Who live in Love, who are the source of any love.

Soon we will be remembering my goddaughter in prayer and song, on the one-year anniversary of her repose in the Lord. These days it is natural for me to think often about the dead, and not only my husband. For that reason I also appreciate what what Fr. Stephen Freeman has to say about our relationship to the departed, and  how, “With the radical individualism of the modern world, the mystery of communion and true participation (koinonia) have been forgotten….” 

The witness that follows is of someone who is discovering koinonia. I join with the writer of Persona in thankfulness for the ways the Church helps me to continue loving my dear Kathleen.

FOR THE LOVE

I attended my first service in an Orthodox Church in December of 2010. In April of 2012 I was chrismated (confirmed) in the church. What I don’t know about the Church could still fill several books, and I’m not very good at being Orthodox.

It’s a tradition that appears confusing and Byzantine to outsiders, with all of its incense and strange pictures, its standing and prostrating and crossing oneself. It seems legalistic, with all of the fasting and written prayers and candle-lighting. Praying to saints and the Virgin Mary? To Protestants, these things are often red flags, warnings of impending Catholicism.

I was frightened when I was first exposed to Orthodoxy. I was educated in a Protestant seminary, where I took classes on the theology of Martin Luther and the spiritual development of women as my electives (I have layers). I found it much easier to read about spirituality than to actually pray. I calmed my doubts with well-reasoned arguments, and I weighed and measured every sermon I heard to assess the soundness of its doctrine. I loved God with my mind.

Yet what drew me to Orthodoxy was not, ultimately the soundness of its doctrine or the reasonableness of its apologetics. From my earliest exposure to the tradition I acknowledged that it was quite likely the oldest expression of Christianity. But what ultimately brought me into the church was not a well-reasoned argument on the merits of prayer to the saints or an articulate defense of the use of icons and veneration of the Theotokos (the Virgin Mary). What ultimately brought me to the church was, quite simply, love.

As I participated in the life of the church, I was moved again and again by the love of the people. Yes, I was attracted by the love shown to me by the priest in my parish, and the new friends I made there. But what changed me, what won me over was realizing that at the root of all the practices that I didn’t understand, that seemed superfluous or legalistic, was love.

The Orthodox do not pray to saints because they feel that they cannot go directly to God. They don’t venerate the Theotokos because they feel that Christ alone is not enough. They don’t prostrate or light candles or fast because they feel they must earn their salvation. The Orthodox Church does what it does because they love – the Trinity, each other, the departed, saints – the Church loves them all. More than that, the church understands that we all love, and it gives us concrete ways to express ourselves.

For me, this all became very real a few months before I became a catechumen and began my (formal) journey towards Orthodoxy. When I was a teenager, someone very close to me passed away. The anniversary of her death approached, and I was sad. When I told my priest, he told me that the Church gives us a prayer service that we can pray on the anniversary of a loved one’s death. I went to the church and we lit a candle and prayed for her, and those of us who loved her.

koliva with roses 4-15

The Orthodox Church understands that we love people. It encourages us to love deeply. And then, when they’re gone, to be comforted by the love the Church has for them, and for us. At the death of a member of the church, listen to how they are spoken of – in glowing terms, seeing only the best, most beautiful parts of the brother or sister in the faith.

The Church invites us to look upon the saints with a similar love. They are not only examples to follow, but as beloved family members. Prayer, lighting candles, keeping their feast days are the ways that we express our love across time, across the chasm of death.

I told my mother recently that Orthodoxy speaks my love language. In Orthodoxy, faith moved from an intellectual proposition that I accepted to a radical love that changed me. I want to love in the way that the Church loves its people. I want to look at others and see the beautiful image of God and love them with fire and determination. I want to feel the genuine affection that I see for bishops and priests and monks. I want that love to move me outward, to serve and pray and be a better version of myself. I want others to know that they are loved.

I fail all the time. I’m not very good at being Orthodox. But I’d rather try and fail at this than succeed at almost anything else.

–from the blog Persona

A Thousand Years

Today is the 1,000-year commestvladimir-big halifaxmoration of the repose of St. Vladimir, Enlightener of Russia. He was the emperor whose decision to convert to Orthodox Byzantine Christianity transformed Russia and turned its history in a new direction, in about 988. I was lucky enough to attend Liturgy today, in a parish with Russian roots, and to hear a homily on St. Vladimir from a priest who had graduated from St. Vladimir’s Seminary. The Orthodox Church in America has posted online a long and rich story of the saint if you would like to read more of his exploits than I can tell here.

The most famous story among the faithful is an account found in the Primary Chronicle of Russia, written about this time, of how Vladimir, when he was still a confirmed pagan, sent emissaries to check out the churches and faiths of his neighboring lands.

They were completely unimpressed with the Muslim Bulgars, partly because of the ban on alcoholic beverages; of the German churches they reported, “We beheld no glory there.”

But in Constantinople at Hagia Sophia: “…they led us to the place where they worship their God, and we knew not whether we were in heaven or earth, for on earth there is no such vision nor beauty, and we do not know how to describe it; we only know that God dwells among men. We cannot forget that beauty.”

This has been the experience of so many of us converts to Orthodoxy, that we can well believe the story, which is not held to be as certain as the facts about the politics of the time and how Prince Vladimir made an arranged marriage with the daughter of the Byzantine Emperor, and was baptized before the marriage. However it came about, his conversion was providential and has had tremendous ramifications for the last 1000+ years.

He ordered the baptism of all his subjects, who dutifully went down to the River Dneipr en masse the next morning. Here I want to quote from the OCA article about how this event resulted in the continuing celebration of another meaningful church feast day:

cross-procession-illarion-pryanishnikov

It is difficult to overestimate the deep spiritual transformation of the Russian people effected by the prayers of St Vladimir, in every aspect of its life and world-view. In the pure Kievan waters, as in a “bath of regeneration,” there was realized a sacramental transfiguration of the Russian spiritual element, the spiritual birth of the nation, called by God to unforeseen deeds of Christian service to mankind.

“Then did the darkness of the idols begin to lift from us, and the dawn of Orthodoxy appear, and the Sun of the Gospel illumined our land.” In memory of this sacred event, the regeneration of Rus by water and the Spirit, the Russian Church established the custom of an annual church procession “to the water” on August 1. Later, the Feast of the Procession of the Honorable Wood of the Life-Creating Cross of the Lord, which Russia celebrated with the Greek Church, was combined with the Feast of the All-Merciful Savior and the Most Holy Theotokos (established by St Andrew Bogoliubsky in the year 1164). In this combination of feasts there is found a precise expression of the Russian theological consciousness, for which both Baptism and the Cross are inseparable.

Prince Vladimir soon started to destroy pagan idols, some of which he had commissioned himself, and began serious reforms that would create a new church of the Tithes 17th cent Deśatynna_cerkvaChristian culture. He built monasteries and many and magnificent churches; hospitals, schools and orphanages. The capital city during this era was Kiev, and these first years of Christianity in Russia were a time of growth and prosperity and art. The hundreds of churches in Kiev were renowned for their beauty, for example, the fascinating Church of the Tithes, which has been destroyed many times and whose rebuildingvladimir card from vladimir 1000 yrs is under discussion again at this time.

My own first experiences of Orthodox worship were not outwardly as splendorous as Hagia Sophia, but like those emissaries I felt the splendor of Heaven coming down on me. (Just this week I added to my page newly renamed “Orthodoxy and Me,” to tell much more of my story as a story and not just scattered parts.) In my parish we have a man who was born a Jew and took the name of Vladimir at his baptism somewhat late in life. This morning he joyfully passed out these little icon cards as gifts, and we were all glad that he was there so we could say, “Happy Name’s Day!”

The Power of a Great Melancholy

“Automat” is a picture of sadness — and yet it is not a sad picture. It has the power of a great melancholy piece of music. Despite the starkness of the furnishings, the location itself does not seem wretched. Others in the room may be on their own as well, men and women drinking coffee by themselves, similarly lost in thought, similarly distanced from society: a common isolation with the beneficial effect of lessening the oppressive sense within any one person that they are alone in being alone. In roadside diners and late-night cafeterias, hotel lobbies and station cafés, we may dilute a feeling of isolation in a lonely public place and hence rediscover a distinctive sense of community. The lack of domesticity, the bright lights and anonymous furniture may come as a relief from what are often the false comforts of home. It may be easier to give way to sadness here than in a living room with wallpaper and framed photos, the décor of a refuge that has let us down.

In this second chapter of his book The Art of Travel, Alain de Botton writes about people who travel more from an unhappiness at being home than from a desire for recreation. He includes reproductions and commentary on other paintings by Edward Hopper (whose “Automat” is the painting at the top of the page): “Gas,” “Compartment C, Car 293,” and “Hotel Room.”

The themes in the paintings here seem primarily to be isolation and loneliness, but to expand the scope of the chapter titled “Travel Places,” the author also introduces the life and writings of Charles Baudelaire, whose work was a significant influence on Hopper, it turns out.

Baudelaire

Baudelaire, who from an early age wanted nothing more than to flee from home, all his life “felt more at home in the transient places of travel than in his own dwelling.” Not that he ever seems to have escaped the restlessness he describes: “Life is a hospital in which every patient is obsessed with changing beds. This one wants to suffer in front of the radiator, and that one thinks he’d get better if he was by the window.”

My own childhood and temperament having made me a perpetual home-lover, I’m unable to fully understand these dissatisfied impulses, but I have done a bit of solitary traveling now and again. I liked it because I like being alone, but I also always had caring people on one or both ends of my journey, and a measure of peace knowing that the One Who loves me most was right with me. 

Otherwise, I might have said with Baudelaire:

Carriage, take me with you! Ship, steal me away from here!
Take me far, far away. Here the mud is made of our tears!

I’ve struggled for weeks to write on this part of de Botton’s book, knowing that the topic is really too difficult for me, but wanting to tackle it because it’s fundamental to our existence. What line divides a peaceful solitude and a painful loneliness? Can any one of us hope to understand another person’s experience of isolation? Is loneliness an essential ingredient of human life, at least a step on our way to maturity?

In this book on travel we can’t expect to find a deep exploration of these ideas. Or even a nod to the question of whether we in the 21st century experience our loneliness any differently from Hopper’s subjects. In the whole book there is not a mention of cell phones or the array of social networking tools that seem to prevent any of us from being part of a scene such as de Botton describes in the paragraph above. Perhaps it’s a deliberate omission, and he hopes to gently propel the reader back to a low-tech experience of being alone.

But being with strangers in an airport or service station nowadays likely means being surrounded by people using electronic devices that exclude them from any here-and-now community, lonely or otherwise. We know that many of them/us are doing this in an effort to have friends, to be in community, all the while missing possible opportunities to connect with people present in the same room. How might this development change the dynamics of a place like the automat?

De Botton writes about his own bad feelings being transformed while sitting in similar place, into a “gentle, even pleasant kind of loneliness,” and he values Hopper’s paintings that “allowed their viewers to witness an echo of their own grief and thereby feel less personally persecuted and beset by it.”

Hopper – Night Shadows

As I pondered the meaning of loneliness, I thought for a long time that de Botton is trivializing it. Along the way I read various writers on the subject in hopes of understanding everything better. Of course de Botton writes from his own experience, and it must be that his own feelings are not on the level of acute alienation, nor is he destitute of support, to use some synonyms. If he had known what some people feel as catastrophic and terrifying, what John O’Donohue, in Anam Cara: The Book of Celtic Wisdom, calls “…the solitude of suffering, when you go through darkness that is lonely, intense, and terrible. Words become powerless to express your pain…” I don’t know that he would make these fairly easy remedies, such as looking at paintings and riding on trains, sound plausible.

De Botton is such a pragmatist, as evidenced by his use of religion, that if he had in fact suffered an agony of soul I would expect him to be one of the many people who tell us that loneliness is the human condition. Get over it, make use of it, learn to live with yourself and with the knowledge that you are completely alone and there is no fixing it.

Even Jesus was lonely, after all. In his darkest hour, when he might have taken some comfort from his friends at least standing by, they fell asleep and left him all alone and feeling forsaken. And this shows that he did take on the whole of the plight of being human.

It’s an aspect of our lives that we in the modern age are especially prone to and sickened by, but it’s not what we were made for. We were made in the image of God, The Holy Trinity, where all Life resides — God in three persons, a unity of Love, as Bishop Timothy Ware explains in his book The Orthodox Church:

Our social programme, said the Russian thinker Fedorov, is the dogma of the Trinity. Orthodoxy believes most passionately that the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is not a piece of ‘high theology’ reserved for the professional scholar, but something that has a living, practical importance for every Christian. Man, so the Bible teaches, is made in the image of God, and to Christians God means the Trinity: thus it is only in the light of the dogma of the Trinity that man can understand who he is and what God intends him to be.

God is personal, that is to say, Trinitarian. This God who acts is not only a God of energies, but a personal God. When man participates in the divine energies, he is not overwhelmed by some vague and nameless power, but he is brought face to face with a person. Nor is this all: God is not simply a single person confined within his own being, but a Trinity of three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each of whom ‘dwells’ in the other two, by virtue of a perpetual movement of love. God is not only a unity but a union.

If all the humans you know fail in their love toward you — and they likely will — and if you feel alienated from society, from God, even from your true self, your salvation does not lie in accepting this situation as All There Is. As St. Augustine said, “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.”

In the Church we can be brought into communion with the Holy Trinity and with other people who are learning to participate in that “perpetual movement of love.” This is the opposite of alienation, but we may have to go through the Valley of the Shadow of Death to get there. If that’s what it takes for us to realize our need, and to become desperate enough to cry out to the only One who will never disappoint us or hurt us, we might consider it the power of a great melancholy.

This is the fourth in a series on The Art of Travel. The other posts are
Introduction
Possessing Beauty
What Van Gogh Can Do