Have you prepared your boots?

Tavi's Corner

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The eve of St. Nicholas. For Romanian children and probably for children coming from other traditions as well, this means that they have to prepare their boots and place them at the window. St. Nicholas, the one who brings gifts in secret, will pass by and leave something there: perhaps a coin of chocolate, perhaps an orange, or maybe just a piece of bread.

In my childhood, St. Nicholas’ night was filled with magic. We used to get oranges, which were unseen throughout the year in communist Romania (I have heard many people from those parts of the world saying that Christmas smells like oranges), so we were sure that St. Nicholas really brought them from some place far away. But we also used to get a little wooden stick, a “joarda,” so that our parents could use them if we were not good. Of course, they never did. In…

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Mishu’s two fights

10:00 pm. Mishu, our cat, goes outside. In 5 minutes, he comes back to the door, a dead mouse in his mouth. “Don’t scold him,” my wife tells me. “He’s done his job.” He just murdered a mouse because he could do it.

6:00 am, 8 hours after the “mouse event.” Mishu meows to go outside. I let him go. In 2 minutes, I hear a terrible sound, of an animal in great distress. I get out, but I don’t see the crime scene. I only see Mishu, running like there is no tomorrow. I don’t realize it at the moment, but he has a bad wound next to his mouth, and he is bleeding. Some larger animal attempted to murder him because it could do it.

Two similar events. Two fights between animals, fights in which the stronger one attempted to murder the weaker. In the first, the strong one was applauded; in the second, the potential death of the weaker produced sadness and worry. When I think of Mishu’s suffering while his jaw was in the mouth of his attacker, my hearts shudders. I don’t really feel much for the mouse–it does not even cross my mind that the death of the mouse would be the occasion for any feeling of compassion toward it. Is it only because Mishu is “ours”? Or because I do not like mice?

Crime and punishment… There must have been a purpose in Mishu “studying” the book with this title a few days ago. We can all find justifications for Napoleons, for Raskolnikovs, except when the old pawnbrokers, the Alyona Ivanovnas, are us.

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The old man in the choir

 

A beautiful catholic cathedral and the Bradley Community Chorus.

Dixit Dominus Domino meo, sede a dextris meis.

I turn right to my wife and whisper to her: “Do you see the old man?”

He is in the first row of the choir. He stands apart, but not because of his age. Surrounded primarily by young students, but also members of the community, he is the most alive of them all. His movements do not seem to be appropriate for a choir performance. In all of his entrances, his torso moves forward; he slides his head together with his shoulders at a change of mode in the song, and he accentuates the “hammers” on the drum with his entire body; all his “amen” plunge from his mouth straight to the core of the earth, to make it sound.

Beatus vir qui timer Dominum: in mandatis ejus volet nimis.

He emanates a feeling of total freedom; presence in the moment. It is the freedom given by the thought that I may die tomorrow–a thought that makes me more alive than anything else. This is not because death may be feared or desired, but rather because of its certainty. And so life is now, not tomorrow, not in the day after tomorrow, but now, in this very moment in which I hear a child cry amidst the sounds of the choir; it is in every second I live. I turn to my wife next to me; she is incredibly beautiful. She will be so even without teeth, even in the decrepitude of old age, because now, in this moment, I live, and she lives in me. People say that we are born and that we die alone, but now, in this moment, we are together for eternity and nothing can separate us. An old man in a choir brought us together.

Laudate, pueri, Dominum; laudate nomen Domini.

“Only when we are so old, only… we are aware of the beauty of life” (Alice Herz-Sommer, Holocaust survivor).

 

Magnificat, anima mea Dominum; et exultavit spiritus meus in Deo salutari meo.

The old man raises his torso once again. He sings from a freedom in which any day becomes a good day to die because you are already alive. I have no idea whether he could sing into a professional choir, but I know the universe is singing in him today.

 

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John Locke’s secondary qualities and the synergy between God and humans

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There’s something profoundly spiritual in John Locke’s idea that secondary qualities do not belong to things themselves, but they are created in us during our interactions with the world. There is no color, no taste, no smell, no sound in the world that God created if there is no being that perceives them. Just think about it: God’s world has no music without us; it only has sound-waves. God’s world does not have the beautiful colors of the fall without someone to perceive them. Everything in which we rejoice sensorily is there only because we are also there. There’s no beauty in God’s creation without our contribution to it. Perhaps just one other way in  which we are co-creators of the beauty of our world. The world that is made for us to rejoice in it and offer it back in thanksgiving. And we do so in the awe experienced before the mighty gift we have received: to accomplish God’s world in our beholding of it, in synergy with God.

Perhaps one other way in which we are pregnant with the Beautiful.

 

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I became an American citizen today

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I become an American citizen today.

I wake up with strange feelings. How will this change me?

I go to the gym at 5:00 a.m.; normal day. The usual people around me: are they citizens, I wonder? Do they know that I am not? Does it matter? Will they see me differently tomorrow? They already are “my morning people,” and our community or early-risers and gym-goers is already formed.

It strikes me that I’ve never felt odd because I was not a citizen here. I was just that, a free human being, most often embraced by others, and embraced as the person I was, beyond any citizenship. A free human because the source of genuine freedom is not a government, but Love, divine Love, most often experienced through the others. What more can I get in a few hours when I become a citizen?

My wife has to stop by work before the oath ceremony, so she has already left. There are so many things I need to finish today: papers to grade, an essay to write… I may become a citizen today, but I have worked and lived as a full member of this community for years. Will this ceremony change anything?

Over 650 people become citizens today in my city. Very difficult parking, and I’m not particularly known for my patience. After a 40 minutes journey that would normally take me 20 minutes, I am in the middle of them… Have you seen people crying when they become citizens?

Over 650 people…

What connects me with them?

I sit next to my wife and some friends, and we speak Romanian. The people in front of us speak Spanish. Behind us, German and Arabic. To our right, French. My fellow immigrants. All of us, the soon-to-become citizens, are in the rows in the middle of the arena; in the stands, families and friends. Their joy is overwhelming. And my phone starts beeping: colleagues from work, students, friends… All of them rejoicing in my becoming an American. Their embrace melts me. And I remember Markus, Fr. Zosima’s brother, from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov: What have I done to deserve such love? Why would you love me? I’m just a man born in a small town in Transylvania, who used to love playing soccer on the streets and who once ordered a “pig sandwich” because he did not know the word “ham.”

Who am I?

I am a son, a brother, a husband, a father, a friend, the same I was yesterday and the same I will be tomorrow. But I am also someone who is considered a fellow by all of these people around me. I am overwhelmed by their love, and I love them back.

I rise to take the oath.

“I hereby declare, on oath…”

I became an American citizen today.

It is not freedom that I gained, but responsibility. May I wear it with humility.

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Student tears

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Source: http://www.reusableart.com/schoolroom.html.

 

I think I see tears in her eyes.

She’s probably in her late thirties, and she participates in the Convocation for freshmen at her college.

I don’t think I have seen her before. She may be in one of my classes in the future. Or, who knows, she may have taken philosophy some other place. Still, I can’t get over the fact that I think I saw tears in her eyes. At Convocation…

Perhaps it is her first experience in college. It’s not easy to come back to school after so many years. It’s not easy to see that everyone around you is truly dedicated to you, especially after years in which you may have dedicated yourself to others.

Perhaps she has had a difficult life, trying to navigate having a family and having a desire to pursue an education. Or she may have come to school with no such desire, but rather out of a need for a better job.

It does not matter.

Here, now, I think I see tears in her eyes.

I know there will be moments during this semester when I may no longer find resources for dedication–students’ lack of care and of interest, regardless of the reasons one may have for it (being overwhelmed, not loving the field of study etc), is a good friend with despondency. And the semester is long; such things always happen. But I need to remember these tears. I cannot become passive in the presence of these tears.

Give me one student tear out of love for education, and millions of teachers will come back to life.

 

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The Sunday Walk to Golgotha

In his The Sacred and the Profane, Mircea Eliade speaks of the break in the space that is brought about by that which connects individuals with the divine (see here a video in which I speak about this). For the majority of peoples, the place of worship provides this separation. It is the Center of the World, from which humans take their own being. And so, Eliade says, “the religious man sought to live as near as possible to the center of the world” (43). The Center of the World, the place of worship, “is precisely the place where a break in plane occurs, where space becomes sacred, hence pre-eminently real” (45). Thus, in traditional villages, the church is placed in the middle, and all the other houses are built around it. The reality of each one of the villagers, their being, but also the being of their own dwellings,  depends on the communication (perhaps communion) with the divine.

The fortified churches of Transylvania provide plenty of examples for this. See below the fortified church of Biertan (I found the photo on Wikipedia):

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“The centrality of the church does not appear everywhere,” a friend of mine recently told me. “In my region, in Moldova, churches are built on a hill. When you go to church on Sunday morning, you go up the hill, just as you walk to Golgotha. You don’t just go to the church, but you are ascending there, you make an effort to be there. Those walks with my grandma when I was a child are more memorable to me than what happened during the service.”

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The Village Luca (found on the website Viata Foto)

It is, of course, a different manifestation of the same attitude toward the sacred. We still have the break in space, but this time with a new aspect. The sacred is not only separated; now it also requires a journey. The same road was taken for burials, since cemeteries were also placed on the hill. It may be a suggestion that our lives are such journeys to Golgotha, the final destination. But it may be more than that–a delicate understanding of Christianity that gives us a Kingdom which is already present but still not fully yet here, and thus a walk to Golgotha, to death, on every Sunday of the resurrection.

 

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Healing Responsibility

 

“I do not understand why people talk about the past: who hurt you, why they hurt you, what kind of guilt they may have, or how you feel about it. All this does not matter; what matter is what you do now. If my child is sick, I am not worried about whether it was right for him to get sick, but rather what I have to do to make him better.”

I no longer remember who said this to me–it may have been during a confession. It suggests a state of presence. If I am to fully respond to what is given to me now, I cannot be also attached to why I am where I am and why the other is where he or she is.

However, should not the torturer face justice? Should not the torturer go to prison for the crimes he has committed? If we answer from the same perspective of the lines above, the answer cannot be either yes or no. Rather, the question itself is not to be asked. Of course, society should ask it and give an answer to it. But it is not a question that I, a person, can ask.

The brother of the prodigal son is upset when their father rejoices that his younger son returned. The older brother believes that it is not just to not make him suffer; it is not just to celebrate with the fattened calf and put a ring on his finger and a robe on him. The older brother is a man of the past. And I think that many of us, at a moment or other in this life, feel like the older son.

I recently read of a monk, Fr. Evghenie Hulea, who was imprisoned by the communists when they took power in Romania. Fr. Hulea was sent to the Canal, a labor camp, where many intellectuals, priests, peasants, or students lost their lives. The fact that he was a monk brought upon him mocking and tortures. Still, anytime he was mocked, he answered with an open heart, “God bless you, my child!”

It is the kind of forgiveness that the father of the prodigal son has. It does not matter where the son was, what he did, and why he came back. He now faces him, and if he does, the father is responsible for the son’s well being. Not a moral responsibility, but a healing one, which stems out of love. The prodigal son may leave again. He may take the robe and the ring, sell them, and drink the money with his friends, mocking the weakness of the father who killed the fattened calf without even thinking. Still, the father, who is always present, will have the same answer if the son ever comes back (and even if he does not): “God bless you, my child!”

_________________

P.S. For a more academic discussion on healing responsibility, see Two types of responsibility in Crime and Punishment

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Filling all things…

Today is the Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit fills all things.

If there is any place on this earth where I cannot be because I hate someone, because I feel I am not respected, because I am afraid, because I feel I am worthy of more, because I cannot forgive, because I simply dislike it, because I am not understood, because I have higher dreams, or because that place is immoral, am I filled with the Holy Spirit?

Am I filled with the Holy Spirit if I cannot be someplace because…

Still, today the Holy Spirit fills all things. How great anonymity is!

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Smiles in an absurd world

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In Pray for Brother Alexander, which recently came out in English (see here from Punctum Books), philosopher Constantin Noica recounts one of the irrational moments that took place while he was imprisoned. He was around 50 years old, sharing the cell with a young man, Alec, an athlete, who was part of the national volleyball team. While Alec was in East Berlin for a tournament, a friend told him to go to the other side. He didn’t like it, so he came back. Received well at the beginning, he finally ended up in prison, something that the young man could not make sense of. “It is of no importance” (23), Noica says. The conversation ends between them because Noica is taken to interrogations. He returns to the cell obviously beaten. The young man asks him, “They have beaten you, haven’t they?” (24). Noica confirms, and the young man says, “But it is of no importance, I know” (24). “That’s what I wanted to say: they beat me without a reason.”

The idea of being beaten without reason is scary. It goes against any notion of justice we may have, but it also places you at the mercy of forces over which you have no control, and this must produce fear. Indeed, the young man in the cell gets worried—perhaps his pride of a sportsman, as Noica suggests, is offended by the idea of being hit without being able to react, but it may also be a natural reaction when faced with the irrationality of beings who have power over you. Noica tries to clarify the situation and he says, “I was beaten because I did no want to take a cigarette” (24).

Of course, there is nothing logical about this either, and the young man responds naturally, “are you mocking me?” In fact, Noica was not mocking him. The interrogators wanted to know to whom he gave a book he received from the West—if I am not mistaken, it was Emil Cioran’s Histoire et Utopie, History and Utopia. Believing that if he gives them “a cloud of names” (24), as he says, he would confuse them, he writes down on paper 80-100 names. Noica then realizes his mistake: he assumed rationality from the part of his interrogators. Who would pay attention to so many names that have seen a book, he asked? The communists, apparently, would, and his interrogator writes down carefully all the names he had mentioned. And then he offers Noica a cigarette. Perhaps out of self-disappointment, perhaps because he wanted to show himself and to the investigator that he is not completely defeated and that he is not someone who just gives up his friends because of pressure, he refuses the cigarette.

“Take it or I dislocate you jaw” (25) the officer yells at him. Noica refuses, and the blow comes. To the young man’s surprise, this is when Noica took the cigarette. “But I would have never done this… After he hit me? Never….” (26).

The young man does not accept giving in when faced with lack of rationality. Any kind of craziness in the world must be rejected, he seems to believe, because it is just subhuman to accept it—one would give up one’s own moral dignity. This attitude is shared by many at the beginning of their incarceration. They keep themselves proud before their accusers; it is important for them to show that they have not been broken. They find in this the remaining of their human dignity. With time, many came to believe that this attitude is childish, stemming from innocence. We may liken this difference to the one between the attitudes young and older people have at times toward morality. For the young, things are often black and white. The old see this as resulting from their innocence: when you are young, untried by the sufferings of life, and unconnected with people for whom you feel responsible, you afford to be an idealist. Slowly, you start asking yourself whether your actions make sense in a world in which the suffering of those close to you makes no sense.

Coming back to Alec, the young man in the cell, he changes his tone, perhaps wanting to avoid offending Noica: “You know why you took the cigarette? Because you felt like smoking.” (26).

And Noica says, “My young sportsman is not stupid at all. In a way, he was right. The slaps I god had brought me to reality: nothing made any sense in that moment. I could smoke a cigarette” (26). Nothing has any importance in an absurd story. As Samuel Beckett may say, there is no point to wait for Godot. Within an absurd story, the question whether it is rational or not to oppose communism does no longer make sense. Should one then be pragmatic and follow one’s own interest, giving up one’s ideals? If we answer this way, we reject the line of dissidents who, often sacrificing their lives, opposed the regime. If we go the other way, we claim that we somehow can fix the world, and that there is an importance in refusing an absurd world.

*

The day of “liberation”:

“With the coat on my arm and with a small bundle of laundry, I come before the commander, who hands me a banknote, the equivalent of around ten bus tickets. I look at the prison commander before I come out of the door. We are both caught in a smile, and I remember William Blake’s verses:

There is a smile of Love

And there is a smile of Deceit,

And there is a smile of smiles

In which these two smiles meet.”

 

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