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 for 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 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?

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.

Our images in other people’s worlds

Photo by Min An from Pexels

There is something touching about the idea that people live in their own world, in which I belong as a constituent, a world different than mine (I am not a character in my own world, but I am a character in their worlds): the responsibility I have for all because I belong to their worlds (you can read here some musings on this issue). What I mean here is that I don’t have to listen to Tavi, to wait behind him in line at a supermarket, or to deal with him as my spouse or as a driver on the highway. All the other people with whom I interact (and I would claim that all other people in the world, but this is a discussion for another time) somehow need to “deal” with me, depending on the relations that are established between us. So I am responsible for their worlds. At the same time, it is not really “me” who belongs to their world, and this is due to the way in which people see their own lives; or to the way in which people take a bite of their own lives.

There is one more level, though, and I sometimes wonder about the responsibility I have for that level: how responsible am I for the image of Tavi that is created in the discourses other people have about me or about what I say? Consider this situation: Mary and Johnny have a discussion, and Johnny describes something I said, but this description is filtered by Johnny’s own emotions and interests. The result is that Mary is hurt by “my” comments. Am I responsible for Mary’s feelings?

The first response–and this is the response that the majority of my students would give–is that Johnny has responsibility for what he says. I have done nothing. First, the description of my words is out of context. Second, I have not intended to say something that could have harmed Mary. Thus, Johnny is exclusively responsible for any harm Mary may have suffered.

However, the reality is that the event involves me, regardless of whether I contribute to it voluntarily or not. My problem is not whether Johnny is responsible or not for what Johnny does; my problem is how I contribute to his life and, by consequence, to Mary’s life. The paradox is that I am responsible even if I have no control over it.

The prayer before communion

I believe, O Lord, and I confess that You are truly the Christ, the Son of the Living God, Who came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the first.

Of course, people hear “responsibility” and believe that this is a “moralist” approach. But the beauty of it is that it is not a moral responsibility, but rather the acknowledgement that I leave a trace in this life, for the good and for the bad. Regardless of my intentions, what I say or do can be interpreted, used, truncated. The point is, though, that I am an ingredient in this wonderful soup that is life (actually, this blog truly started with a text about this; you can read it here: the story about the death of a rabbit). And I cannot complain about its taste. As I was saying before, belonging to it makes me part of its beauty and of its ugliness; it makes me part of its taste. And since I participate in ugliness most of the time, regardless of whether I want it or not, I need forgiveness. It is not the moral or juridical forgiveness, but rather the curative one. If the world suffers and I am part of it, then the world and I need to be cured. 

Perhaps everything that happens to us is, if we read it well, another call to humility–one may say that this is the genuine condition of theosis. I cannot say it better than Anthony Bloom:

To me, humility is not what we often make of it: the sheepish way of trying to imagine that we are the worst of all and trying to convince others that our artificial ways of behaving show that we are aware of that. Humility is the situation of the earth. The earth is always there, always taken for granted, never remembered, always trodden on by everyone, somewhere we cast and pour out all the refuse, all we don’t need. It’s there, silent and accepting everything and in a miraculous way making out of all the refuse new richness in spite of corruption, transforming corruption itself into a power of life and a new possibility of creativeness, open to the sunshine, open to the rain, ready to receive any seed we sow and capable of bringing thirtyfold, sixtyfold, a hundredfold out of every seed.[1]

And Mitya Karamazov comes to mind: “Gentlemen, we are all cruel, we are all monsters, we all cause suffering to people–to mothers and their infants–but, have it your way, I’m worse than anyone.”

Another paradox: this is an occasion for joy!


[1]Anthony Bloom. Beginning to Pray. Paulist Press, 1970, p. 35.

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):

1024px-Biserica_fortificată_din_Biertan_in_zorii_zilei_02.jpg

“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.”

Satul Luca.jpg

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.

 

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

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!

Angels and birthgivers

Tomorrow is the Annunciation.

Immigrant on Earth

 
The Mother of the Lord and Jesus in prison cloths. The painting is done by Fr. Arsenie Boca, who was imprisoned during communism. The Church Elefterie in Bucharest.

Regardless of where I am, I always try to call my mom on March 25. It is the Annunciation, and I know she has always loved this day. I don’t often have something to tell her. There is nothing spectacular in my life. However, being at that moment together, something is said. The “she and I” is being said. When calling other people, the “they and I” is being said.

Regardless of the words used, the being together is “love” in all of these situations.  What if I respond to it with the words of the Virgin: “Be it done unto me according to Thy word!”

The Annunciation… Giving yourself up in the arms of love, regardless of perils, of shame…

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