Thursday, August 30, 2007

Reading List

After recently posting five times in two weeks, I have returned to a slower pace. To tide you over until I find the time and inspiration to write something new, I'll point you to some things I have been reading.

On his blog, Catholic in the Third Millennium, Dan Dunlap has been writing an interesting and informative series, "The Christological Divide that Anticipated Chalcedon." He explores the theological controversies of the fifth century that led up to Chalcedon's definition of the two natures of Christ.

In The Wall Street Journal Online, Alexandra Alter looks at "the toll one man's virtual marriage is taking on his real one and what researchers are discovering about the surprising power of synthetic identity." The man who is the subject of her article "Is This Man Cheating on His Wife?" spends much of his time in his on-line persona in Second Life, an internet-based virtual world. For a Christian, this article raise questions about the quasi-gnostic implications of technology that allows us increasingly to withdraw from the real, material world and live in an imaginary world.

The theme of the latest issue of AGAIN magazine is "Faith of Our Fathers: The Encounter of Orthodoxy and Anglicanism." Three members of my parish, all former Anglicans, are featured in the issue. Meanwhile, in The New Republic, Jason Zengerle writes about the steady flow of Evangelicals into the Orthodox Church over the past 30 years in his article, "The Iconoclasts." (Rod Dreher mentioned the article on his blog, Crunchy Con, and my friend Colin also forwarded it to me.)

OpinionJournal reprinted "Don Putin," a Wall Street Journal editorial by Garry Kasparov, in which he compared Russian President Vladimir Putin to the Godfather. Mr. Kasparov is the former world chess champion and a leader of Russia's democratic opposition. I think his analysis and criticism of Putin's corrupt, self-serving rule of Russia is right on target. Given the Moscow Patriarchate's longstanding entanglement with the Soviet/Russian government, I fear it will be hard for the Russian Orthodox Church not to be tainted by this corruption. (Thanks to Stephen for sending me this article.)

I'll leave you with this especially amusing "Pearls Before Swine" strip.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

5,000 Hits!

This morning at 11:24:12 AM, this blog received its 5,000th visitor since 10 January, when I installed SiteMeter. The length of the visit was 0:00 – perhaps a regular reader disappointed not to find a new post.

If anyone has been looking for my vulture post from Holy Week, it is back up now. For some time, it accounted for about half my blog's hits. Using SiteMeter, I figured out that all those hits were coming from people who were being directed by Google to the turkey vulture photo accompanying that post. It was skewing my stats, so I hid the post for a while. It took Google over a month to update its links, but it finally replaced the prominently located link a few days ago. (I wouldn't mind drawing viewers of the photo if I had taken it myself, but I had just found it on-line and downloaded it. The original now seems to have disappeared.)

With my chrismation now just six weeks away, I plan to do a series of posts on the chrismation rite in September.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Angel Worshipers

Two days ago, Al Qaeda launched multiple attacks on isolated villages in northwest Iraq populated by an obscure religious minority, the Yazidis (also spelled Yezidis). The Washington Post limited its description of the group to four sentences:

The Yazidis are an ancient group whose faith combines elements of many historical religions of the region. They worship a peacock archangel and are considered Satanists by some Muslims and Christians in Iraq, a characterization they reject.

Yazidis largely live apart from other Iraqis, in villages near the Syrian border, to maintain religious purity, and they are forbidden to fraternize with other groups. Most Yazidis speak Kurdish but object to being called Kurds.

It is not surprising that media reports have been so terse in describing the Yazidis. They are intentionally secretive about their religion, and this is reinforced by their isolation. In fact, not even the ordinary Yazidis themselves understand the details of their religion. Their priests keep this knowledge to themselves, passing it on orally to their descendants, and they simply tell the rest of their people how to live and worship. As recently as a century ago, Encyclopaedia Britannica described them as "devil worshipers," but in recent decades more accurate information has trickled out.

Their syncretic religion seems to be rooted in ancient Iranian belief, either Zoroastrian or pre-Zoroastrian, but it rejects the core Zoroastrian teaching of dualism. It carries strong influences from Shia Islam (it honors Ali) and Sufism. The Yazidis' chief saint, Shaykh 'Adi, was a 12th-century Sufi mystic. He was an Orthodox Muslim, but the Yazidis have taken his teaching in different directions over the centuries. Yazidis make an annual pilgrimage to Shaykh 'Adi's tomb.

In general, the Yazidis seem to pick up elements of whatever religions they come into contact with. It is not unusual, for instance, for them to visit Christian shrines to request the aid of local saints.

Their religion might share a common origin with the Alevi/Alawi sect of Islam found in Turkey and Syria. The Alevi religion is also secretive and mystical and involves angels.

Angel worship is the most distinctive element of the Yazidi religion. They believe God has left the world under the oversight of seven angels, of whom the chief is Melek Taus, the Peacock Angel. One of the Yazidis' many taboos prohibits them from speaking the other name of Melek Taus: Shaytan. Yes, that's the same as Satan, which is the source of the story that the Yazidis are devil worshipers. Their story of Shaytan begins like that of Christians and Muslims, but it ends with a distinctive twist.

God created Shaytan as the highest of his angels, and he commanded him never to bow to anyone or anything except God himself. But then God created man, and he commanded his angels to serve man. Shaytan could not reorient himself to carry out this new command, so he refused to bow down to this new creature. Here stories differ. In one version, God reveals that he was merely testing Shaytan. Having fulfilled the prior command to bow only to God, Shaytan was rewarded with oversight of all creation. But in the more common – and more poetic – variant of the story, God banished Shaytan from heaven for his pride and rebellion. Shaytan then filled seven jars with the tears of his repentance. With these tears he quenched the fires of hell, and God reinstated him as the chief of the angels.

This story embodies the Yazidis' rejection of dualism – there is no devil and no hell, and he who was cast out of heaven is now the chief of the angels. Melek Taus is an inscrutable figure whose decisions, whether perceived as good or evil by men, are not to be questioned.

The Yazidis also believe that they, unique among the world's peoples, are descended from Adam, but not from Eve. And they believe in reincarnation. They believe, further, that the seven angels occasionally become incarnate, especially in families of their priestly caste. Descendants of those judged to be incarnate angels have special status in society and are seen as a living connection to the angels. This belief in angelic incarnation also allows them to easily adopt religious figures from other traditions by declaring them to have been incarnations of one of the angels.

There are many small, obscure religious groups like this scattered throughout the Middle East. Another such group in Iraq is the gnostic Mandaean sect, which honors John the Baptist as the greatest of the prophets. But these groups are all endangered in the current climate of ethnic and religious hostilities in that region. Therefore they are emigrating in large numbers. Some claim that most of the Kurds in Germany today are actually Yazidis. I think it's a safe bet that some of these odd religious communities will start appearing in the U.S. in the next few years.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Joy of All Joys

In my recent post on prayer, I mentioned St. Seraphim of Sarov, a 19th-century Russian monk who is said to have practiced a devotion nearly identical to the Rosary. As depicted in the icon accompanying that post, St. Seraphim would pray this devotion daily, kneeling in his cell before an icon of the Theotokos. This Umilenie (Tenderness) icon is very unusual, in that it depicts the Blessed Virgin alone, without her son. In fact, it was possibly not a traditional Orthodox icon at all, but a Western image of Our Lady. This image, which St. Seraphim called "Joy of All Joys," represents Mary's feelings of tenderness at the Annunciation.

With oil from the lampada that burned before this holy icon, St. Seraphim would anoint the sick and they would be healed. He was praying in front of this icon when he died on 2 January 1833. After his death, the abbot gave the holy icon to the sisters of the monastery at Diveyevo. The icon is sometimes known as the Seraphim-Diveyevo icon of the Theotokos, after the convent where it now resides.

While searching on-line for an icon of St. Seraphim to use with my post, I frequently encountered a very different icon of the Theotokos that was said incorrectly to be this icon of St. Seraphim's. One might think that a particular icon that is often depicted in the icons of a popular saint, and which is still in existence in a known location, would be immune to problems of mistaken identity. But in thinking this, one would be seriously underestimating the Orthodox penchant for uncritically believing and repeating misinformation.

This beautiful icon is of the Eleousa type. While Eleousa is sometimes translated, like Umilenie, as "Tenderness," more strictly it means "Merciful." I would conjecture that someone, reading that St. Serphim's icon was of the "Tenderness" type found the most beautiful "Tenderness" icon he could find and assumed St. Seraphim's must be similar. This surprisingly popular misidentification has been appearing in some pretty authoritative places on-line, such as the Website of the Orthodox Church in America (here). But the OCA displays the very same icon here, where it is labeled as the Mother of God of the Pskov Caves Monastery. I think this latter identification is probably correct – I have seen it in other places, as well.

Meanwhile, the only other image of Our Lady I have seen that is similar to St. Seraphim's Umilenie is the wonder-working image of Our Lady of Ostrobrama, which resides in Vilnius, Lithuania, where it is venerated by Catholics and Orthodox alike.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

On My Father's Side

Unless you are both a bluegrass fan and a resident of the Washington, DC, area, you might not know that this region has a strong bluegrass tradition. In the 1950s, in fact, Washington was known as the “Bluegrass Capital of America.” Perhaps that would be less surprising if you recall that DC is right across the Potomac from Virginia.

One of our local public radio stations, WAMU, has been playing bluegrass for 40 years! At one point its bluegrass programming dominated weekday afternoons, but today it is relegated to Sundays.* Still, they manage to get in a lot of bluegrass on that one day! It starts at 1 AM with “Bluegrass Overnight,” and continues with “Stained Glass Bluegrass” at 6 AM. After a two-hour break for NPR news from 10 to 12, they return to bluegrass with “The Ray Davis Show” and “The Dick Spottswood Show.” On a typical Sunday I catch at least a little of each of these shows. (I'm listening to “Bluegrass Overnight” as I finish composing this post, late on Saturday night.)

Last Sunday I was listening to “Stained Glass Bluegrass” as I was getting dressed for church, and I heard a bluegrass gospel song I had not heard before. It was Felecia Shiflett’s song, “On My Father’s Side,” performed by the Village Singers. The song continued to run through my head for the next few days. With the help of Google, I tracked down the lyrics, the name of the songwriter, and this 30-second preview of the song by another performer. You will see that the lyrics are eminently appropriate to a blog called TWO NATURES.

On My Father’s Side
Felecia Shiflett

Just a young boy in the temple one day
Shared with the doctors, they were so amazed
Never had they seen one so young speak so swift
They asked him many questions, the conversation went like this

What’s your name, son?
On my mother’s side, my name is Jesus
But on my Father’s side, they call me Emmanuel
How old are you?
On my mother’s side, now I’m twelve years
But on my Father’s side, I’ve just always been
Where you from?
On my mother’s side, I’m from Bethlehem
But on my Father’s side, it’s New Jerusalem
What’s your plan?
On my mother’s side, I’ll be crucified
But on my Father’s side, in three days I’ll arise
And I’ll sit at my Father’s side

He was the Son of God, yet the son of man
And I can’t help but wonder how Joseph must have felt
Through an open door that day, he heard his son reply
He said: You see, I’m the King of Kings, that’s on my Father’s side


*Unless you have a digital radio, that is. WAMU’s digital channel 3 calls itself “Bluegrass Country.”

Thanks to “Stained Glass Bluegrass” host Red Shipley for providing the name of the group in response to my query.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Spiritual Discplines 2: Prayer

Two months ago, as the Fast of the Apostles was beginning, I posted an entry on fasting. Now, as we begin the Fast of the Theotokos, it seems an appropriate occasion for the sequel on prayer. NOTE: The first three links will take you to some of my old articles that I have not previously publicized.

Anglo-Catholicism has traditionally emphasized the importance of maintaining a Rule of Life – essentially, a personal commitment to a discipline of regular prayer, worked out in conjunction with one's pastor, confessor, or spiritual director. While a rule might involve other elements, such as fasting, study, and volunteer work, its heart is always prayer. There are different ways to organize one's prayer commitments, but here I will use the scheme of Eucharist, Daily Office, and personal prayer.

I was probably typical of Anglo-Catholics in being strong on the first two and weaker on the third. My rule was to attend Mass on all Sundays and Prayerbook holy days, and always at least twice a week; and to say Morning and Evening Prayer daily. As a member of a parish that offered Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, and two Masses every day, I had community support for this discipline. Even when, as usual, I was reciting the offices at home in my icon corner, I knew that other parishioners were reciting the offices in the Angel Chapel at church or in their own homes. Anglicanism has, from the publication of the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549, offered versions of Morning and Evening Prayer that are practical for the laity, requiring nothing more than a Bible and a Prayerbook, which can be recited without hurry in about 20 minutes. Recent Prayerbooks include rubrics permitting the omission or shortening of some parts of the offices in order to allow them to be tailored to the needs, constraints, and preferences of parishes and individuals. And, if that is not enough, there are also "Daily Devotions for Individuals and Families" – abbreviated, one-page versions of the offices for home use. In short, one should be able to find an official form of the Anglican Daily Office that can be easily adapted to one's own Rule of Life, no matter where one is in the development of one's prayer life.

Anglo-Catholics often adopt additional prayer disciplines from unofficial Anglican sources, such as St. Augustine's Prayer Book, or from Roman Catholic sources. Official Anglican sources tend to be weak on devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, so Anglo-Catholics often supplement their worship and prayer with traditional Catholic prayers, such as the Angelus and the Rosary. With these being well integrated into Anglo-Catholic culture, it is easy to find both in Anglo-Catholic devotional books.

In Orthodoxy, I am finding that nothing is this easy. While there is a strong tradition of daily prayers at home, the usual forms tend to be short and without day-to-day variation. From December through February, I followed one of these forms. Every day I recited the Morning Prayers from the Antiochian Archdiocese's red Pocket Prayer Book, which Father Gregory gave me the first time we met to talk about my move to Orthodoxy. Following the morning prayers I would read the Gospel of the day from the Greek lectionary. It was a useful exercise for learning the standard Orthodox prayers I would encounter in various contexts, such as the ubiquitous Trisagion Prayers. I also found the short prayers practical during these busy months when I was in transition from Anglican to Orthodox and trying to participate in the lives of two parishes.

But, as Lent was beginning, I decided I needed something more. I especially missed the daily recitation of the Psalms, the central feature of the traditional Daily Office. Orthodoxy does not have a tradition of individual recitation of the offices, but Ruthenian Catholicism does. (My theory: The Ruthenians learned about the Breviary used by their fellow Catholics and decided to create a Byzantine equivalent.) I found a small Ruthenian book with versions of most of the offices for home use – only Prime and Compline were missing from its pages. I have settled into a pattern of praying Matins from this book before breakfast Monday–Friday. Instead of reciting Psalm 51 every day, I substitute a section of the Psalter according to the traditional Anglican scheme, which divides the Psalter into 60 sections for use over the course of the month at Morning and Evening Prayer. The traditional Byzantine canticles are divided over the days of the week, and propers for each day follow the traditional Byzantine weekly scheme:

MONDAY: The Holy Angels
TUESDAY: Saint John the Forerunner
WEDNESDAY: The Holy Cross and the Holy Theotokos
THURSDAY: The Holy Apostles and Saint Nicholas
FRIDAY: The Holy Cross

On Saturdays and Sundays I typically attend Vespers and Matins, respectively. On weekend days when I don't make to church for the offices, I'll pray Vespers from the Ruthenian book.

I am working on translating the book's idiosyncratic, often paraphrased, modern English into the traditional English that is standard in Antiochian usage. But this is not an easy process. Orthodoxy simply does not have official, universal, standard liturgical books like Anglican Prayerbooks. Every jurisdiction has its own books, not all of which are consistent, and parishes often do their own thing anyway. Moreover, most of the translations read as if they were created by someone who knew Greek or Slavonic better than English – which was, in fact, often the case.

Now that I have this pattern down, I am exploring ways to fill other prayer niches. Since I live less than a mile from my office, I typically walk to work once a week. I have gotten into the habit of repeating prayers as I walk. As I leave home I say the Lord's Prayer three times. Then, for the first half of the trip I recite the Orthodox equivalent of the "Hail Mary":

Rejoice, O Virgin Theotokos, O Mary full of grace,
the Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou among women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb,
for thou hast borne the savior of our souls.

The first obvious difference from the Catholic version is that it translates the angel's greeting as "Rejoice," rather than "Hail." The Greek Khaire and Latin Ave convey both meanings, but there is no exact English equivalent. In both the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, one can find instances where the word is translated either way. In their book, Mary: The Church at the Source (1997), for instance, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger and Hans Urs von Balthasar favored "Rejoice," even though "Hail" is more familiar to English-speaking Catholics. The second obvious difference is the concluding clause. The modern Catholic version concludes, "Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death." While the first two lines come straight from Luke (1:28, 42), neither concluding line comes from the Bible. The Catholic conclusion had its origin in Trent and was still not in universal use as late as the 19th century. I would not be surprised if the Orthodox conclusion had a similarly late origin.

When I turn the corner on my walk to work, I switch to reciting the Jesus Prayer:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner.

This is an elaboration of the prayer of the publican (Luke 10:13). On my way home I reverse the order, beginning with the Jesus Prayer, switching to "Rejoice, O Virgin Theotokos," and concluding with the Lord's Prayer as I arrive back at home.

I am currently considering how I might work an Orthodox version of the Rosary into my prayer life. While use of the Rosary is not widespread or well known in Orthodox circles, neither is it entirely unheard of. St. Seraphim of Sarov, for instance, was known for his devotion to the Rosary. In Orthodox contexts, the discipline of the Rosary is sometimes known as the Rule of the Mother of God. I have located a few Orthodox Rosaries on-line, such as this one. The prayers are slightly different and some of the mysteries are also different, but it retains the familiar structure of the Dominican Rosary, with fifteen decades, each dedicated to a different mystery from the lives of Christ and his blessed mother.

Earlier this evening, when a few of us were talking outside the church following a Paraklesis service, one friend asked another about developing a rule of prayer. One key piece of advice he offered, which I heard (and repeated) many times as an Anglican, is that the most important thing about a rule is that you will actually do it every day. The most elaborate rule of prayer won't do you any good if you can't keep it. But following even the simplest rule can begin to form the discipline of prayer, which can serve as God's foothold in one's daily life.