Love in isolation

Photo by David Smith.

I am in isolation for 14 days. No virus problems, but we switched to online work and encouraged to stay home. I’m almost thankful for it. I was increasingly worried that I may become the one through whom others would get the disease. Now, with the isolation, it feels as if I were given the gift of the freedom to not get others sick.

This makes me wonder about my other problems: the “viruses” that I often carry with me into the world. My anger, my judgments, my lack of patience, my passions… Those aspects about me get others sick, often without me knowing. Words that I carelessly say, phrases expressed in anger or out of a perceived harm, eat at the goodness and positivity of others. Contrary to Corona or other viruses, these other “spiritual” viruses don’t murder people physically, but don’t they contribute to their spiritual death?

Still, I am given the freedom to carry them with me into the world. I, part of God’s creation, am placed within His larger creation with the power to murder it. Terrible situation: to be called to love the world while being allowed to uglify it. This seems to mean that if I truly love this world, if I am called to love God’s creation by affirming its beauty within me, I am called to personal purification not for my sake, but for the sake of Beauty: creation itself. I need to work towards curing my “viruses” not for my sake, but for the sake of the constellations in which I participate.

So I am thankful for isolation. But even in this isolation, I am not isolated: I can harm the ones I love the most: those who are isolated together with me, my family. Isolation is not then a break, but a reminder of how I need to change for the sake of everyone in my life, and thus for the sake of the beauty of God’s creation.

*

In the Orthodox Church, we are during Great Lent, a period in which one is faced with one’s own shortcomings. It is a period of renewal of the entire creation, for it ends on the Sunday of the Resurrection. We are required to separate a bit from the world, so that we can remember we have the power to harm it without even realizing and also the responsibility to love its beauty. And we look into ourselves so that we can fully and authentically be with all others.

The Friday of the Crucifixion and the Sunday of the Resurrection: there is no one without the other.

The temptation to change the suffering in the world

There is one aspect of human life that we cannot change: death. In a world of uncertainty, one thing is certain, that there will be a time when we will no longer be here. But before that time, there are many aspects of human life that we feel we can change, and one such aspect is as universal as death is: suffering. Anyone of us has experienced suffering and has desired in one moment or another to do something about it, to act in way that would eradicate or, at least, diminish it. This is especially the case when we see people dear to us go through terrible psychological or physical pain.

Perhaps we can call this desire to eliminate suffering a desire to beautify the world. Exhausted by the ugliness that surrounds us, by innumerable instances of violence, treason, or boorishness, we want to change our reality and the people belonging to it in the name of the good. It is the simple desire of improving our world.

Of course, I can simply say, as I’ve done before, that this is how many murderers begin, with good intentions. We’ve heard that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” We know that that communists, for example, justify torture, deportations, and killings by claiming that they eliminate the bad elements of the society and that suffering of some is justified by the subsequent creation a perfect society. But saying all of this is not sufficient, and this is mainly because speaking against the attempt to beautify the world by changing your surroundings and the people around you seems to sound as a call to passivity. Someone on this blog called me on this (see the comments on Dostoevsky and various solar systems), and I often wonder about it myself. The temptation to change the ugliness around you and to “repair” those people you believe are repairable is, in my experience at least, one of the most powerful forces of existence.

But I am not talking about a passivity that is opposed to action. In fact, I believe that this temptation to act, to do something about the ugliness of the world, can stem only out of passivity, out of a state in which I don’t do anything for it, out of a state of complacency in which I allowed myself to forget about that ugliness and to forget that it is somehow manifested in me as well, for I am part of this world.

It all begins with the self, with the focus I have on the self. I have said it here before, I think. There is one way of looking at the world as if it were a nice soup that I am having for dinner. I taste of it, and I make a judgment: it is too salty, too sour, or too sweet. The temptation to “repair” it comes only from that position, that of an objective outsider. But there is another way of looking at the world. In this other way, I realize that the taste of this soup is the way it is because I am also part of it and that I cannot taste of it without, at the same time, tasting of myself. This realization takes place beyond the choice between passivity and action. Passivity and action take place when I judge something from the outside and try to decide what to do about it or whether I should do anything. I can feel “responsible” for the world or I can believe that the only responsibility I have is for my life only. If I see myself as part of the soup, my responsibility is not a choice, but it is a way of being and it precedes me and it also precedes any choice I have. And so I need to work on my “taste,” to let it help the taste of this soup, trusting that somehow all the other vegetables and seasons and ingredients of this soup will be touched by it. This is the only kind of healing responsibility that I can imagine.

Eucharistia: an all embracing thanksgiving

Photo by Vlad Dumitrescu (http://www.vladdumitrescu.ro)

“Man must eat in order to live; he must take the world into his body and transform it into himself, into flesh and blood. He is indeed that which he eats, and the whole world is presented as one all-embracing banquet table for man” (Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World).

*

“The first, the basic definition of man is that he is the priest. He stands in the center of the world and unifies it in his act of blessing God, of both receiving the world from God and offering it to God–and by filling the world with this eucharist, he transforms his life, the one that he receives from the world, into life in God, into communion with Him. The world was created as the “matter,” the material of one all-embracing eucharist, and man was created as the priest of this cosmic sacrament” (Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World).

*

Perhaps the first “missing of the mark” is eating without being thankful, and so without becoming myself nourishment for those around me.

And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.”

Bethlehem: “Bayit lehem,” the house of bread.

It is rather beautiful that the feast of Thanksgiving takes place at the beginning of the fast that prepares us for Bethlehem.

“Can you give up your sorrow for My joy?”

This text was written while experiencing the wonderful performance of Dan Forrest’s “Jubilate Deo!” by Bradley Community Chorus, conducted by Cory Ganschow.

“Those that I love are dying… My world is shattered… You talk about some meaning, some happiness… how so? What is the point of asking for things when death surrounds you? What is the point of singing, of dancing… when… Joy? I find no more.”

“Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth”

*

“My child no longer speaks to me, and I’ve no strength to call him. My days drag on, no light in sight… my candle quenches… Some children on the street sing on, today, when people carol. And You, my God, so far away… Can’t you appease my sorrow?”

“Jubilate Deo!”

*

“Who is the old man who looks back at me from that mirror? Whose face is it, with those cold eyes, and wrinkles, and no hope? No wonder he is lonely, betrayed, and left by all, with nothing but a mirror for company… no door that he could open… no window… joy no more…”

“Worship the Lord with gladness, come before Him with joyful songs”

*

“And how can harmony exist if hell exists too? I want forgiveness, I want to embrace everyone, I want an end to suffering. And if the suffering of children is required to make up the total suffering necessary to attain the truth, then I say here and now that no truth is worth such a price. And above all, I don’t want the mother to embrace the torturer whose dogs tore her son apart! […] Tell me honestly, [Alyosha], I challenge you–answer me: imagine that you are charged with building the edifice of human destiny, whose ultimate aim is to bring people happiness, to give them peace and contentment at last, but that in order to achieve this it is essential and unavoidable to torture just one little speck of creation, that same child beating her breast with her little fists, and imagine that this edifice has to be erected on her unexpiated tears. Would you agree to be the architect under those conditions?” (Ivan in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov).

Omnis terra, jubilate, omnis terra, laudate, Omnis terra, jubilate Deo! (Adapted from Psalm 100, LatinVulgate)

(from Dan Forrest’s Jubilate Deo, see one performance below)

“But come to me, O Lord, descend from mighty heavens, behold your own creation: some flesh and bones together, ravished by pains and sorrows, by passions and desires… Betrayed, abandoned… by death surrounded and far away from childhood. No place to rest my heart, no arms I can respond to…”

“Can you give up your sorrow for My joy?”

A cup of tea or an oasis

I met a stranger today. I knew one thing about him: he will die. The sudden realization that I was encountering a potentially dead body filled me with warmth toward him.

I had never met him before. Two persons in a serendipitous moment of life, unaware of the abyss we face every moment. But this common quality, that we stand together on the edge of the abyss, made me feel like we were one. Isn’t it strange how death “equalizes” all things?

“Stand on the edge of the abyss and when you don’t have any more strength, rest a little and have a cup of tea” (Elder Sophrony of Essex)

*

Without his knowledge, the stranger I met yesterday offered me a cup of tea. Perhaps he has offered an oasis, a place of rest, where one can connect with oneself. Or it was the Abyss that he was facing that offered me this oasis.

It is probably a most difficult thing in life, to offer yourself as an oasis to the thirsty travelers on this earth, especially because, most often, you do not choose them, but they fall upon “your space” in their wanderings, just like the stranger from yesterday. A bit chaotic, very preoccupied with something that seemed to overwhelm his entire attention, he was there, a human phenomenon unaware of the abyss he was facing. I had no cup of tea ready for him, but he did fill my cup without being aware of it.

*

“When people tell us things, they do not expect us to correct them, to tell them they are right or wrong. They just need someone to be there for them.”

A wise man told me this recently. In other words, offer them a cup of tea (offer them yourself) before you judge whether they deserve that cup or not.

For our country, the president, and all those in public service, let us pray to the Lord

There’s one moment during the Liturgy, in one of the great litanies, that the priest (or the deacon) says, “For our country, the president, and all those in public service, let us pray to the Lord.”

Good luck with that, I am tempted to say, especially nowadays, when people are so divided. But the question remains: how do people say “Amen” when the priest encourages the congregation to pray for a president that, most of the time, half of the congregation despises? The question remains actual regardless of the president who is in charge and, after all, regardless of the country, since Orthodox people all over the world say the same prayer during Liturgy on Sunday.

We have, then, a congregation that, although divided, is entreated to pray for one human being. But we can add another aspect to the problem: what if the priest himself voted for “the other guy”? And what if the priest truly dislikes the president at a given time? A while ago (and with a different president), a priest told me, “Tavi, every Liturgy I remember how much of a sinner I am. I cannot stand the president, and it becomes so evident to me that it is hard to pray for him… Me, the one who is supposed to tell others to do those things…”

Still, every Liturgy, that priest continued to say, “For our country, the president, and all those in public service, let us pray to the Lord.” And I trust he said it honestly.

The litany is followed by this line: “For this parish and city, for every city and country, and for the faithful who live in them, let us pray to the Lord.”

On its face, this prayer seems more neutral, but if you really think about it, it is not less “outrageous.” At least the previous one, for the president, asked me to pray for someone coming from the same nation with me. What follows it, though, asks me to pray for all cities and countries–even those of enemies.

I sometimes wonder if we could really say “Amen” in church if we really paid attention to what is said, instead of “doing what the others do.” Above, you have two possible examples when the “Amen” may be difficult; consider also the amen that follows the Lord’s prayer, when we ask God to forgive us the same way we forgive others (“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”). If I really “meant” it, I don’t know how I would gather the courage to actually say it: if God were to forgive me the way I forgive, then… well, I won’t have much of a chance for redemption.

Still, we continue to say our amen after prayers for presidents we dislike, we continue to ask God to forgive us with the measure we forgive. I gather we don’t do it because we have calculated that it is better to forgive or that it is better to pray for the president. Most likely, we do it because, if we stopped, we would no longer be ourselves; we would have to give up God. Instead of this, we acknowledge our shortcomings and hope against hope in the mercy of the divine.

LordI believehelp my unbelief.”

Moments of travel with Dostoevsky and Elder Cleopa

I left home to go home.

*

There are so many cemeteries on the way from Fagaras to the airport. In the speed of the car, I think I see one with soldiers fallen during WWI. So many young people who could not be mourned by their unborn children… Still, they are my “parents.” I can mourn them. Or I can rejoice in them. I carry them with me, whether I want it or not. And I am most aware of it when I see the cross from my own tomb before my eyes. “The highest wisdom of human beings?” asked Elder Cleopa. He answered, “Death! Death! Death!”

*

“Only in the light of Dostoevsky’s fundamental artistic task […] can one begin to understand the profound organic cohesion, consistency and wholeness of Dostoevsky’s poetics.” Bakhtin is correct: there is consistency and wholeness in Dostoevsky’s work. Perhaps because of his dialogism as well, but for sure for one other reason: death is the one that gives consistency to his world. Everything in Dostoevsky’s writings can be understood as long as we begin with the end, the inevitable end of all of his characters; the inevitable end of all human beings. Dostoevsky’s world is cohesive inasmuch as it is governed by death. Paradoxically, some may say, but most naturally, I would say, it is this death that gives light, brilliance, to all human beings.

*

I got on the plane. There’s a lady next to me. She has two toddlers. “She will cry,” she says, pointing to her daughter. She’s probably one year old, and she’s so full of life. She has no inhibitions and makes sure that everyone around her is aware of her presence. Two seats in front of me, a young adult is playing on his phone. His earbuds in his ears, he’s completely closed to everyone around him. How many prayers does he carry with him? Do his parents’ thoughts embrace him on his journey?

*

A few years ago, I went to Fr. Roman Braga’s funeral. The day before the entombment, the church at the Dormition Monastery was full: clergy and people, all brought together by their love for Fr. Roman. His corps was laying in the middle of the church, facing the altar, and we were all singing: “Christ is Risen from the death, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tomb bestowing life.”

*

The little girl fell asleep, and so my seat neighbor enjoys some peace and quiet. We all do.

We can be so separated, and still so united. Flying together to various “homes,” flying together to personal deaths. Still, each one of us is embraced by so many angels. Just like this girl, whose mother keeps her in her arms, without complaining for one moment, although she could not move for an hour. She only smiles, looking at her girl. Blessed are those whose arms are other people’s seatbelts. And blessed are those who have their seatbelts on for the moment of landing.

Immigrant on this earth

A few years ago, we were moving from one town to another in the US. We were a young family with a 10 years old child. That Sunday, we were driving home from church. It was our last Sunday in that town. We had found in the community of St. Alexis in Lafayette a home far from home. I think it was mainly because our priest’s mode of being was the embrace. We were embraced and accepted for who we were.

I noticed my son was sad, sitting silently in the back seat. “I wonder,” he said, “how it will feel when we come back here. Now, it is home, but it will no longer feel like home.”

My heart was aching, but I tried to be a good father and give him some comfort. “It will still be our home, just like Romania is our home and the place we’re going will be our home.” My son didn’t say anything for a minute, but then, in a quiet voice: “In fact, we only have one home, and that is in Heaven.”

This is my temporary home,

It’s not where I belong

This song by Carrie Underwood has the same idea. We are immigrants on this earth. We come into a country that does not belong to us, and we are supposed to return.

Some may say that immigrants do not have responsibility because they do not “belong” to the country they live in. “Windows and rooms that I’m passing through,” as the song says. But the condition of immigrant cannot be understood unless we also see that immigrants still have to fulfill another call, that of shepherds. This is my temporary home, but it has been offered to me as a gift, a gift which I am called to return in Thanksgiving. Father Alexander Schmemann says,

The first, the basic definition of man is that he is the priest. He stands in the center of the world and unifies it in his act of blessing God, of both receiving the world from God and offering it to God […]. The world was created as the “matter,” the material of one all-embracing eucharist, and man was created as the priest of this cosmic sacrament. (Fr. Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World)

It is the condition of a traveler, to take that which he receives and offer it back in an all-embracing eucharist.

But there are so many situations in which we are immigrants. We travel to other people’s souls, and we are immigrants in their hearts. In a way, we belong to them, just like a good Dostoevsky book, that dwells into your heart and germinates ideas and even new characters. In a different way, we already have a home. This allows us to never be owned, but it also says that we do not own other people’s souls either. We only come and visit. And they come to us. Love taking place in a freedom in which we are fully connected, but we never possess one another.

In fact, the condition of immigrant on earth is living on a cross: as shepherds of that which has been gifted to us (the horizontal one) and as beings who are in love and yearn eternally for the home where we know we’d return.

I’m not afraid because I know

This is my temporary home

P.S. Prince Myshkin from Dostoevsky’s Idiot is an immigrant. He is Russian, but he comes from outside of Russia. In a sense, he is a foreigner. But, just like Christ, he is a foreigner who returns to his own people with a better understanding than their own understanding of Orthodoxy. He is an immigrant, an “idiot” perhaps in the sense that he does not speak the “language” of high society people, but an immigrant who knows better than all the others who they really are—promises of divine beings. Myshkin, like Christ, comes from the outside (from Switzerland), but also from the inside (he is a Russian). And, just like Christ, he acts and disappears in anonymity. Does that make his life meaningless?

The spring of love

“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return to the earth. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord!”

Forgive me, my brothers, for crying when I say these words, Fr. Zosima says in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, but they take me back to my childhood.

And I remember the small church in the cemetery, in Fagaras… the great Lent, and many children sitting down in the church, listening to Fr. Aurel… And incense.

But Job is naked, his children died and he lost all things.

“The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord!”

“Only evil contradicts good, but not the other way around,” Constantin Noica says in his Becoming Within Being.

“One can love a man only when he’s out of sight; as soon as he shows his face, that’s the end of love.” How can we love a naked face from the “dressed” perspective of our being? The face troubles us, takes us out of our comfort; it tells us to do things we don’t want to do. And we don’t want to do them because we are not naked, but dressed in the “clothing” that we have made for ourselves.

She passes by me and I smile to her. She smiles back. We’re in an airport. Our eyes lock for a moment, they dwell within each other, and I feel so alive. An old woman, with fragile steps, but so much present in the void of these full airports.

She reminds me of the Lady in No. 6; I have no idea about her life, but she lives in me and I in her. The Kingdom is at hand.

Only when we are so old, only, we are aware of the beauty of life.

“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will return to the earth.” Blessed be this nakedness, out of which streams love.

Moments of beauty in anonymity

Photo by Bernard Sabolio

I wake up early, and so I witness moments of remarkable beauty. A dawn that still allows the moon to be seen above a cloud, sun rays breaking through the branches of a tree… moments that I would have missed if I had not waken up. Moments that so many other people miss, and not only because they are not awake at this hour, but because they work, they live in other parts of the world, or simply because they see other moments of beauty, which I cannot see.

There is so much beauty in the world that happens in a second, regardless of whether we see it or not. Beauty in anonymity. Of course, there are those private moments that we occasion for one another, in the anonymity of our lives: the caress a grandmother has for a child, the smile of a parent when a daughter takes her first steps, or the serene forehead of your wife while sleeping next to you in the early hours of the day. Moments of which nobody else is aware–perhaps not even those who allow you to have them.

All of these moments we create for one another and we are aware of their unicity: we even desire them to be so. The caress is for me and no one else. But what about a sunset? Or what about a dawn that is not witnessed? For “my” dawn this morning would not have happened if I chose to sleep in. The sun would have still risen, of course, and the moon could still be seen, people may still have rejoiced in it, but that particular moment in which the beauty of the dawn took life in my soul would have missed its conception.

The world is indeed beautiful. And it is beautiful in anonymity, just as a forgiveness that is always there, always with its arms stretch on a cross, waiting for me to come before it so that it can embrace me.

Dostoevsky was right: beauty does save the world. And it does so in anonymity.