Monday, December 28, 2009

As We Come Out of Darkness

Having been raised Methodist, I think of singing as an essential part of church. The biggest thing that initially drew me to both Anglo-Catholicism and Orthodoxy was the principle of a liturgy that is mostly sung. During my Anglo-Catholic years, it took me a long time to get used to the Low Mass, a service with no singing at all (though I eventually grew to love serving at Low Mass more than any other service).

Nearly all of my pre-Orthodox singing, however, was done as a member of the congregation. I chose both my Anglo-Catholic parish and my Orthodox parish mostly because their respective congregations were participants in the singing, not just an audience for the choir. (One might argue that I was a member of the choir when I was chanting psalms as a vocationer with the Benedictines, but in a monastery the monks are really both choir and congregation.) I have written previously about how I got into chanting after I became Orthodox, so I won't repeat that story here.

Singing at Seminary

After patristics, my most demanding class in my first semester at St. Vlad's was liturgical music. It was an easy class for the OCA students with choir experience, but not so easy for the rest of us, especially the Antiochians. I've never been much of a choral singer - I have trouble hearing parts other than the melody. And, to the extent that I have sung in choir at all, it has been as a tenor. (When I was a freshman, my music major friends told me I was a tenor, and I always assumed they knew what they were talking about.) But in my voice test at St. Vlad's, I learned that I am actually a baritone. And then I was assigned to the mixed choir, where the only parts for men are tenor and bass, so I struggled to sing bass. In addition to singing at Matins or Vespers four days a week, plus Vigil every other Saturday and Liturgy most Sundays, I had to attend two choir practices and a music lecture each week. All together, that came to about ten hours a week, not counting the biweekly music quizzes, which were held outside of class time and required a lot of preparation.

During my first semester at St. Vlad's, the thing I missed most was chanting at Matins every week at my home parish. So I was really looking forward to being back for Matins on Christmas Eve and the Sundays before and after, chanting familiar Byzantine music. The two Sundays were to be tones 3 and 4, no less - my two favorite tones!

But I learned a few weeks ago that Matins on the Sunday after Christmas would be displaced by a baptism, and Christmas Eve would be complicated by the presence of the bishop. So I placed most of my hopes on the Sunday before Christmas. Unfortunately, thanks to last weekend's big snow storm, Matins was cancelled and I was snowed in at my brother's house (the first of several weather-related complications of my Christmas vacation). So Christmas Eve would be my only opportunity to chant.

The Stolen Canon

At Holy Cross, our normal schedule on December 24 is Royal Hours at 9 AM and Matins at 10 PM, followed by the Divine Liturgy. This year we added Vespers following the Royal Hours. When I arrived I found the largest congregation I've ever seen for Royal Hours - a good turn-out for our bishop's visit. The service moved a bit quicker than usual, as it often does when Bishop Thomas is present. When it ended, and I moved up to the chanters' stand for Vespers, I was disappointed to learn that our protopsalti, Emily, would not be joining us. Her absence left us in disarray, but we managed to get through the service. The bishop jumped in a few times and unexpectedly sang hymns that chanters were expecting to do. This was actually something of a relief at the aposticha, which we were not completely ready for.

When I checked my e-mail a few hours later, I learned that Emily was out with the flu and would not be joining us for Matins either, and my Matins assignment had been expanded to include the stichera on the Praises, as well as the kathisma hymns. My only other major parts were ones I knew about - the First Nativity Canon and the odd verses of the Great Doxology, both to be sung with Garth. I had been practicing the Nativity Canon for nearly a month - and it was challenging enough that I really needed that much time to learn it. I spent a couple of hours at my office printing music, marking up the kathismata and stichera for free chanting, and practicing everything, then headed for church.

The three chanters stood with the choir at the back of the church, rather than at the chanters' stand. Matins started smoothly. I free chanted the first two kathismata pretty well but was a bit shaky on the third, which followed a different pattern than the first two. The men got through the Polyeleos without messing up the "humiliation" verse, but in celebrating that small victory almost missed the next verse. Eventually, the time came for the Nativity canons. Garth and I chanted the first ode of the first canon, and then Debra chanted the first ode of the second canon. Before we could start on the next ode of the first canon, Bishop Thomas jumped in and sang it. He did this on all the remaining odes of the first canon. In no time, the piece I had been practicing for weeks was over and I only got to sing the first verse. I managed to recover my composure in time to free chant the stichera on the Praises, which went well. We concluded Matins with the Great Doxology in tone 2, and it sounded much better than it had in rehearsal two nights earlier.

Without Transubstantiation

The bishop sang a slightly different translation of the First Nativity Canon than the one we had been practicing. In the third and sixth odes where our translation read, "without change," he sang, "without transubstantiation." In both instances, the original Greek words come from a root that means "to flow" or "to change." (This is a different word than the one translated "without change" in the Chalcedonian definition of Christ's two natures and in the hymn "Only-Begotten Son.") The bishop's translation is one that appears in various official Antiochian places, like the website of the Los Angeles diocese. (The existence of multiple official translations is not unusual in the Antiochian Archdiocese.) I am still wondering if this translation was intended by the translator as a bit of anti-Roman polemic. Or, alternatively, did he have a limited English vocabulary heavy on technical theological terms?

My favorite ode of this canon is the fifth. (The fifth ode of a canon is based on Isaiah 26:9-20.) The ode reads:

O Lover of Mankind, since thou art the God of Peace and the Father of Mercies, thou didst send to us the Angel of Thy Great Counsel, granting us thy peace. Wherefore have we been led aright to the light of divine knowledge, glorifying thee as we come out of darkness.

Just after we have passed the darkest time of the year and the days are beginning to lengthen, we celebrate the arrival of the Logos, the true light who came into the world to enlighten us all.

Wishing a merry Christmas and a happy 2010 to all of my readers.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Melito's Reproaches

O lawless Israel, what is this new injustice you have done,
casting strange sufferings on your Lord?
Your master who formed you,
who made you,
who honored you,
who called you Israel.

He it was who led you into Egypt,
and guarded you there and sustained you.
He it was who lit up your way with a pillar,
and sheltered you with a cloud.
He cut the Red Sea open, leading you through,
and destroyed the enemy.

He it is who gave you manna from heaven,
who gave you drink from a rock,
who gave you the law at Horeb,
who gave you the inheritance in the land,
who sent you the prophets,
who raised up kings for you.

He it is who, coming to you,
helaed your suffering and raised your dead.
He it is whom you outraged,
he it is whom you blasphemed,
he it is whom you oppressed,
he it is whom you killed,
he it is whom you extorted,
demanding from him two drachmas as the price of his head.

His gifts to you are beyond price,
yet you held them worthless when you thanked him,
repaying him with ungrateful acts;
evil for good,
affliction for joy,
and death for life.
On this account you had to die.

On Pascha 81, 84-86, 90
by Melito of Sardis
translated by Alistair Stewart-Sykes.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Melito's Exsultet

This is the one who clad death in shame
and, as Moses did to Pharaoh,
made the devil grieve.
This is the one who struck down lawlessness
and made injustice childless,
as Moses did to Egypt.
This is the one who delivered us from slavery to freedom,
from darkness into light,
from death into life,
from tyranny into an eternal Kingdom,
and made us a new priesthood,
and a people everlasting for himself.

This is the Pascha of our salvation:
this is the one who in many people endured many things.
This is the one who was murdered in Abel,
tied up in Isaac,
exiled in Jacob,
sold in Joseph,
exposed in Moses,
slaughtered in the lamb,
hunted down in David,
dishonored in the prophets.

This is the one made flesh in a virgin,
who was hanged on a tree,
who was buried in the earth,
who was raised from the dead,
who was exalted to the heights of heaven.

This is the lamb slain,
this is the speechless lamb,
this is the one born of Mary the fair ewe,
this is the one taken from the flock,
and led to slaughter.
Who was sacrificed in the evening,
and buried at night;
who was not broken on the tree,
who was not undone in the earth,
who rose from the dead and resurrected humankind from the grave below.

On Pascha 68-71
by Melito of Sardis
translated by Alistair Stewart-Sykes.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Melito's Typology

The Lord made advance preparation for his own suffering,
in the patriarchs and in the prophets and in the whole people;
through the law and the prophets he sealed them.
That which more recently and most excellently came to pass he arranged from of old.
For when it would come to pass it would find faith,
having been foreseen of old.

Thus the mystery of the Lord,
prefigured from of old through the vision of a type,
is today fulfilled and has found faith,
even though people think it something new.
For the mystery of the Lord is both new and old;
old with respect to the law,
but new with respect to grace.
But if you scrutinize the type through its outcome you will discern him.

Thus if you wish to see the mystery of the Lord,
look at Abel who is likewise slain,
at Isaac who is likewise tied up,
at Joseph who is likewise traded,
at Moses who is likewise exposed,
at David who is likewise hunted down,
at the prophets who likewise suffer for the sake of Christ.

And look at the sheep, slaughtered in the land of Egypt,
which saved Israel through its blood whilst Egypt was struck down.

On Pascha 57-60
by Melito of Sardis
translated by Alistair Stewart-Sykes.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

UN Prayer Service

On Monday I attended the Ninth Annual Orthodox Christian Prayer Service for the United Nations Community, sponsored by the SCOBA/SCOOCH Joint Commission of Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches. The service took place at Holy Trinity Cathedral with His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew presiding and Ambassador Strobe Talbot as the featured speaker. The choir from St. Vladimir's Seminary was to sing the recessional, so the seminary rented a bus for the occasion. There were extra seats on the bus, so I went along.

The Ethiopian choir that was to sing the processional did not show up, so the St. Vlad's choir was asked to do it. During the lengthy delay before the entrance, the choir ran through its whole repertoire, except the number they were saving for the recessional. So the first 19 minutes of the video are just the St. Vlad's choir singing. At about the 15-minute mark the bishops finally begin to trickle in. Vespers begins at about the 25-minute mark. The service is sung by the choir from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology. Both choirs sounded great, and they demonstrated just how different Russian and Greek music sound.

The sound quality of the video is inconsistent - there are some spots where it gets faint and scratchy.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Sacramental Validity

[The priest's prayer for himself] is important because it denounces and corrects the tendency to understand sacraments somewhat "magically," a tendency widespread among the Orthodox and whose spiritual danger and consequences in the life of the Church are often overlooked. Since, according to the Church's teaching, the validity of sacraments does not, in any way, depend on either the holiness or the deficiencies of those who perform them, one has come little by little to view and to define sacraments exclusively in terms of "validity," as if nothing else "mattered." The whole point, however, is that the Church does not separate validity from fullness and perfection. "Validity" is merely the condition for fulfillment, but it is this latter that truly "matters." The Baptism of a man like Stalin was probably a perfectly "valid" one. Why then was it not fulfilled in his life? Why did it not prevent Stalin from sinking into incredible abomination? The question is not a naive one. If millions of people, "validly" baptized, have left the Church and still leave it, if Baptism seems to have no impact on them whatsoever, is it not, first of all, because of us, because of our weakness, deficiencies, minimalism and nominalism, because of our own constant betrayal of Baptism? Is it not because of the incredibly low level of the Church's life, reduced to a few "obligations" and thus having ceased to reflect and to communicate the power of renewal and holiness? All this of course applies above all to the clergy, to the priest, the celebreant of the Church's mysteries. If he himself is not the image of Christ, "by word, by deed, by teaching" (I Tim. 4:12), where is man to see Christ and how is he to follow Him? Thus to reduce sacraments to the principle of "validity" only is to make a caricature of Christ's teaching. For Christ came into this world not that we may perform "valid" sacraments; He gave us valid sacraments so that we may fulfill ourselves as children of light and witnesses of His Kingdom.

From Alexander Schmemann, Of Water and the Spirit: A Liturgical Study of Baptism, pp. 44-45.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Words of Power

We speak to the Devil! It is here that the Christian understanding of the word as, above all, power is made manifest. In the desacralized and secularized worldview of the "modern man," speech, as everything else, has been "devaluated," reduced to its rational meaning only. But in the biblical revelation, word is always power and life. God created the world with His Word. It is power of creation and also power of destruction, for it communicates not only ideas and concepts but first of all spiritual realities, positive as well as negative. From the point of view of a "secular" understanding of speech, it is not only useless, it is indeed ridiculous to "speak to the Devil," for there can hardly be a "rational dialogue" with the very bearer of the irrational. But exorcisms are not explanations, not a discourse aimed at proving anything to someone who from all eternity hates, lies and destroys. They are, in the words of St. John Chrysostom, "awesome and wonderful invocations," an act of "frightening and horrible" power which dissolves and destroys the evil power of the demonic world:

   [Here follows the First Prayer of Exorcism from the Byzantine baptismal service.]

Exorcism is indeed a poem in the deepest sense of this word, which in Greek means creation. It truly manifests and does that which it announces; it makes powerful that which it states; it again fills words with the divine energy from which they stem. And exorcism does all this because it is proferred in the name of Christ; it is truly filled with the power of Christ, who has "broken" into the enemy territory, has assumed human life and made human words His own, because He has already destroyed the demonic power from within.

From Alexander Schmemann, Of Water and the Spirit: A Liturgical Study of Baptism, pp. 24-25.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Joseph, the Grail, and the Shroud

Those who know me will understand why I was excited last year when I came across an article whose title promised to tie together three of my favorite subjects: "Joseph of Arimathea, the Holy Grail, and the Edessa Icon," by Daniel Scavone. Those unfamiliar with the third item might find the title of an earlier presentation of the same material more eye-opening: "Joseph of Arimathea, the Holy Grail, and the Turin Shroud." On the one hand, Scavone's literary research undermines the popular understanding of the Grail as the chalice of the Last Supper, as well as the association of Joseph and the Grail with Britain. On the other hand, he gives us as much as he takes when he ties Joseph to Christ's burial shroud, the shroud to Edessa and its icon, and, ultimately, the Grail to the shroud. He concludes that the Grail as chalice is a garbled medieval Western interpretation of mysterious Byzantine descriptions of Jesus' burial cloth.

In his article, originally published in Arthuriana (Winter 1999), Scavone pieces together his hypothesis from numerous ancient and medieval texts, carefully laying the foundation before revealing his conclusions. His paper is thoroughly documented and referenced (the lists of texts, endnotes, and bibliography take up more pages than the main text of the article). For those of you who are into that kind of thing as much as I am (and I know some of you are), just click on the first link above and download the PDF. Here I will just try to summarize his more interesting conclusions.

Joseph and the shroud both make their first appearance in the Gospels. Mark (15:46) tells us that Joseph "bought a linen shroud, and taking [Jesus] down, wrapped him in the linen shroud, and laid him in a tomb which had been hewn out of the rock." And John (ch. 20) reports that when Simon Peter and the Beloved Disciple came to the tomb on the first day of the week, they "saw the linen cloths lying there." The pseudepigraphal Acts of Pilate picks up the story from there, telling us that Joseph was seized by the Jewish leaders and imprisoned. But Jesus came to him in prison and freed him. In describing that encounter later, Joseph recalled, "And I said to him that was speaking to me, 'Show me the place where I laid thee.' And he carried me away, and showed me the place where I laid him; and the linen cloth was lying in it, and the napkin for his face. And I knew that it was Jesus."

According to a Georgian text from the 5th-8th century, St. Joseph's subsequent missionary activity was associated with that of St. Philip, and the two built a church together in Lydda, directly west of Jerusalem. The NT book of Acts names two Philips, who are associated, respectively, with Samaria/Caesarea in Palestine and Phrygia/Galatia in Asia Minor.

Abgar VIII (r. 177-212), King of Edessa, became a Christian sometime before the year 200. He had a close relationship with Rome, and like many Roman client kings, he took a Roman name: Lucius Aurelius Septimius Megas Abgarus VIII, partially taken from the name of the emperor, Septimius Severus. He was well received on a visit to Rome around 202, and he might very well have corresponded with Pope Eleutherius. In 205 he built a citadel called Birtha in Syriac and Britium in Latin.

It may have been during Abgar's reign that the shroud, known as the Mandylion, came to Edessa. In any case, its presence in Edessa is documented from the fourth century. It was transferred to Constantinople in 944. When it was not kept entirely hidden, it was usually displayed folded, so that only the face appeared. This is probably the source of the acheiropoietos, the "icon not made by human hands," usually known in the West as the veronica, a slight corruption of vera eikon, or "true image." But on special occasions the Mandylion, with elaborate ceremony, would be unfolded in stages to full length, over the course of a day. Worshipers were kept at a distance, so the nature of the unfolding ceremony - and of the Mandylion itself - was not clear to the crowds who witnessed it. But the accounts of those who saw it up close, describing the bloodstained image, make it sound like the object we now know as the Shroud of Turin.

It was around this same time that some new icons of Christ appeared, depicting him in death. Scavone suggests that these were inspired by the Mandylion in its partially and fully unfolded forms. Scavone further speculates that it was reported that Constantinople possessed a mysterious relic associated with Christ, which had collected his blood at the Passion, and which appeared in different forms. When these stories passed to the West, they took the form of the no less mysterious Holy Grail.

The Mandylion disappeared from Constantinople when the city was sacked by Western crusaders in 1204. According to a recent Vatican announcement, the burial cloth now known as the Shroud of Turin was hidden and venerated by the Knights Templar from this point until about a century later, when the Templars were suppressed. Not long after that, the Shroud enters the historical record in the West.

St. Joseph of Arimathea is first associated with Britain in a revision of William of Malmesbury's De Antiquitate Glastoniensis (Enquiry into the Antiquity of the Church of Glastonbury), published in 1247 by the monks of Glastonbury Abbey. According to this revised history, St. Philip, who was operating in Gaul, sent a delegation to Britain headed by his mission partner, St. Joseph. But William's original text, written about 1125, had mentioned Philip only in the most speculative way and had not mentioned Joseph at all! The monks apparently revised their history in an effort to claim an apostolic foundation, which would let them trump rival monasteries.

Moreover, William's speculation regarding Philip's presence in Gaul was based on a misunderstanding of his source, which actually related the traditional story that Philip preached in Galatia. The whole idea that Philip and Joseph preached in the West unravels under scrutiny. There is no reason to believe they ever left the Middle East.

The earlier origin story of the Church in Britain, related by the Venerable Bede, was that the 2nd-century British king Lucius had sent a letter to Pope Eleutherius asking to be made a Christian. Bede was apparently drawing from a line from the Liber Pontificalis (Book of the Popes). But it has been recognized for some time that this King Lucius was probably not a British king, but was the Edessan king, Lucius Abgar, whose citadel was known as Britium.

So the connections of Joseph and the Grail to Britain fall apart. Scavone leaves us, instead, with a connection between Joseph, the Mandylion, and Edessa. He sums up his conclusions thus:

In the apocryphal tradition about Joseph of Arimathea, then, before Joseph's Holy Grail as cup of Jesus' blood, there was Joseph's cloth in which he had captured the blood of Golgotha. Britium's face icon (Mandylion) was over time identified as a burial shroud icon of the body of crucified Jesus. The mysterious tenth-century ritual in Britium/Edessa and the new twelfth-century Byzantine Melismos service, inspired respectively by the presence of this reputed burial wrap, portrayed the infant Jesus becoming the adult Jesus, sacrificial victim of the Last Supper and Passion. The romance Holy Grail also revealed the mystery of the infant Jesus changing to the body of crucified Jesus.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Hymns of the Arimathean

On Thursday evening, the eve of my name day, I attended Vespers at Holy Cross, hoping to hear a few hymns of my patron saint, and I was not disappointed. He shares his feast day with St. Germanus of Auxerre and the Forefeast of the Procession of the Precious Cross, so not all the hymns were about St. Joseph. After the service, I made copies of most of the hymns of St. Joseph of Arimathea for myself, with the exception of the canon (yes, he even has his own canon!). These all come from the appendix to the July Menaion, as published by Holy Transfiguration Monastery. I will share a few of my new favorite hymns.

Doxastikon of Saint Joseph. Plagal of Second Tone.
All generations call thee blessed, O Noble Counsellor; for thou wast deemed worthy to minister to the divine dispensation of the universal salvation of our race. Thou didst pluck that ever-living Flower of Forgiveness that burst into bloom on the trellis of the Cross, and hast delighted the whole world with the sweet fragrance of our restoration to God. Since thou art glorified by Christ as his disciple and friend, O Joseph, intercede with him to save them that keep thy memorial with faith and love.

Another Apolytikion of Saint Joseph. Plagal of First Tone.
Let us honour the man that gave burial to God and showed compassion to him by whose mercy all things exist: Christ the Angel of Great Counsel's Noble Counsellor: who gave his narrow grave to Christ and received as recompense the vast spaciousness of Heaven, where he entreateth the Saviour to show his mercy to those praising him.

Exapostilarion of Saint Joseph. Third Tone.
When the Apostles faltered, the Noble Counsellor valiantly went in, obtaining of Pilate that Body which shook all the world. Now he obtaineth forgiveness for all who keep his remembrance.

Fourth Sticheron of Saint Joseph at the Praises. Plagal of Fourth Tone.
Blessed are thine eyes, which looked on Christ; O Joseph, blest are thy hands, which conveyed him from off the Cross to that quickening Sepulchre where our race was reborn to God. Blest is thy heart, which was rended at his death, wherein he dwelt always, filling it with grace. O Noble Counsellor, as we honour thee with songs of hearfelt joy, intercede unceasingly with God to save us all.

Theotokion. Grave Tone.
A virgin womb, conceiving thee, revealed thee; a virgin tomb, receiving thee, concealed thee. We glorify her from whom thou didst receive a beginning in time, and we honour him that ministered to the end of thine earthly life for our sakes, asking that through their prayers, O merciful Saviour, we might be deemed worthy of thy Kingdom of the Heavens.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Critical Issues in Healthcare

Today I filled out the Future of America's Healthcare Survey from John McCain's Country First PAC. To some extent, it had the usual flaw of such surveys - a limited range of responses that made it easier to give a response in line with the organization's biases. But there were also places where one could step off the marked path and write one's own brief responses, including this open-ended final question: Please list, in order of importance, the four health issues you consider most critical. As an economist who works in the field of injury epidemiology, I am not unfamiliar with some of the problems of our healthcare system. So I took my time to come up with four critical healthcare issues. Here I will share my responses and expand upon them. (This will be an atypical blog post for me - more stream-of-consciousness, without my usual images, links, and obsessive editing.)

1. The system is rigged to favor the insured over the uninsured.

Unless you have the good fortune to live in Maryland, here is how hospitals determine how much you owe them: The hospital issues a bill for about twice what it actually spent to treat you. If you have insurance, your insurer then negotiates down the amount it actually pays to a more reasonable level. So the amount that is collected by the hospital depends primarily on the relative market power of the hospital and the payer. If the payer is the government (e.g., Medicaid) it has tremendous clout and can sometimes even force the hospital to treat patients at a loss. If you don't have insurance, on the other hand, you are stuck paying way more than you should.

If you've studied industrial organization, you will recognize that the system I have described here is not a competitive market. In a state of competition, by definition, everyone would pay the same price for the same service. What we have here, rather, is bilateral oligopoly. In the state of Maryland, we have cost controls to keep hospitals and insurers from playing this game. The result of this regulation, ironically, simulates a competitive market more closely than the free-for-all in other states. But maintaining such regulations is difficult. New York formerly had a similar cost-control regime, but it broke down when hospitals found they could get around the restriction on charges per day by increasing the length of stay of inpatients. Before the system was abandoned, New York had average lengths of stay that were (as I recall) roughly 25% higher than anywhere else.

It seems to be the consensus of pundits and policymakers that the solution to the problem of rising healthcare costs is simply to mandate that everyone be insured. This is like saying that the solution to the threat of lawsuits is to require everyone to keep a lawyer on retainer. Or the solution to the threat of armed robbery is to require everyone to carry a firearm at all times in public. In short, if there is going to be an arms race, everyone should be armed. The big winners, obviously, will be those who make and sell arms - in this case, the insurers.

While this approach might protect individuals from the threat of outrageous medical bills, it will not reduce medical costs overall. In fact, far from reducing the amount our society spends on healthcare, it would inevitably increase it. By making healthcare less expensive to individuals, it will encourage them to consume more healthcare. Greater demand will increase the price of healthcare. If these costs are not borne by individuals in the form of higher insurance premiums, they will have to take the form of reduced profits for hospitals and insurers . . . or increased subsidies from the government.

My opinion in short: Health insurance is the problem, not the solution. Making health insurance, as we now know it, universal will make our healthcare problems worse, not better.

2. Hospitals and doctors use secrecy to prevent evaluation and comparison shopping.

Hospitals and doctors fear competition. It is as if every hospital secretly fears that it is not as good as its peers, so it does its best to keep anyone from getting enough data to evaluate it. Researchers like me who do get access to the necessary data are generally forbidden from using it for this purpose. Doctors, meanwhile, have professional restrictions on advertising. This makes it difficult for potential healthcare consumers to discover where they can get the best treatment for the lowest price. This, in turn, makes a competitive market in healthcare impossible.

3. Too much reliance on drugs for treatment, rather than nutrition (including supplements) and exercise.

Our healthcare system has a drug dependence problem. Doctors have become so impressed with the power of medicines that many have come to see their primary role as prescribing medicine. Some doctors avoid career tracks, like the emergency room, where they would see a lot of patients whose problems cannot be treated with drugs. The pharmaceutical companies have encouraged this approach to doctoring for obvious reasons. And Americans, who like to think there is a quick, easy solution to any problem, can be persuaded to subscribe to this ideology without much arm-twisting.

The best solution to many health problems is prevention - cultivating healthy habits so that one does not get sick in the first place. But good health is not in the interest of drug companies and the doctors who prescribe drugs. They would rather see us contract chronic conditions (e.g., obesity, diabetes, arthritis) that require treatment for life with the medicines that only they can sell us.

In recent years there have been repeated efforts by drug companies and the Congressmen they control to prohibit most vitamins and other nutritional supplements. They make the specious argument that supplements are drugs and should be regulated like drugs. They have even extended this argument to some foods, reasoning that if health claims are made for a food (e.g., drinking milk will reduce the likelihood of osteoporosis), that makes it a drug. But since food, vitamins, etc. cannot be patented like synthetic drugs, no one would have an economic incentive to put them through the expensive trials that drugs have to go through.

4. Too many resources are wasted on useless and expensive end-of-life care.

I have been thinking about this one for a long time. It was my back-up dissertation topic. But since my adviser liked my primary topic (bureaucracy), I never pursued it. Currently, more than one-fourth of Medicare payments go to treating the terminally ill. In part, this results from a culture that is in denial about death and simply refuses to accept its reality. We either need strict controls on end-of-life care or a cultural revolution that encourages us to prepare for the inevitability of death.

There are other topics I could have covered if I were not limited to four issues. The next on my list would have been the threat of lawsuits, which raises the price of malpractice insurance and forces doctors to perform extra tests. Another issue, which I touched on above in 3, is the generally unhealthy lifestyles of most Americans today. In particular, the marketing arm of the food industry encourages us to consume way too much food and drink with too little nutritional content.

Fortunately, Senator McCain only asked me to list issues - he did not ask me to propose solutions. I really do not like any of the options that are politically realistic - especially the default option, the status quo.

However, I think there might be a confluence of developments on the horizon that will make a single-payer healthcare system inevitable. As we learn more about the genetic basis of illnesses and genetic testing becomes more widely available and more economical, individuals might soon be able to have fairly certain knowledge of the conditions for which they are at risk. At the same time, a growing obsession with privacy of medical information will make it impossible for insurers to see their clients' genetic information. If I have 100% knowledge of my genetic information and my insurance company has 0% knowledge of same, the information asymmetry will destroy the viability of private insurance.

What will happen when the government runs the healthcare system? It certainly will not be all bad. Many administrative costs will disappear and others will be slashed. The government will acquire an interest in keeping its citizens healthy in order to keep costs down, and this will end its too-cozy relationship with Big Pharma. We will actually have national conversations about some cultural issues that should be decided by the democratic process rather than by the market.

On the other hand, there will be obvious problems, as well. In addition to the usual problems of government bureaucracy, we will suffer the consequences of monopsony - a market with a single buyer. Those on the other side of the market - doctors, hospitals, makers of medical devices and drugs - will find their incomes squeezed. As a result, some hospitals will go out of business, and fewer young Americans will choose medical careers, and fewer new drugs will be developed. The US might lose its status as the world's leader in the development of new medical technology. The most expensive and innovative forms of care might be prohibited as too expensive. And matters of appropriate treatment and payment levels will become political questions, fought over every four years by special interests who could become powerful players in our political system. Every disease-of-the-month organization will try to get special treatment for its members/victims, which could easily eat up any cost savings if their entreaties receive positive responses.

Conclusion. The problems with our healthcare system are complex. Too complex, in fact, to be alleviated by any political quick fix. Any program that is rushed through Congress hastily on a single-party basis will make things worse, not better. This is not an emergency and should not be treated like one. But neither should we remain complacent about the growing costs of healthcare. The current system will not fall apart next year, but it might in ten years.

Addendum. One of my correspondents reminded me of an issue I forgot to mention. I tend to favor abolishing the tax exemption for employer-provided health insurance - and for most other fringe benefits, for that matter. One could argue that health insurance is a public good, and that it is reasonable for the government to subsidize it. But the logical conclusion of that argument is that the government should subsidize all private health insurance, not just that provided through employers.

There is also the matter of insurance for catastrophic health events. I think it might be best for the government to provide such insurance for all Americans. Such events are rare, but when they occur they can wipe out a family's finances, even if they have insurance. They can be so expensive that insurance companies will try to dump such policyholders or resist paying on their policies. If the government were to cover these rare events, it would level the playing field for insurance companies to compete in the non-catastrophic insurance market.

Yesterday, the New York Post published this piece by Robert A. Book and Robert E. Moffit of the Heritage Foundation. They conclude that the plan now being discussed in Congress would break most of President Obama's campaign promises about health insurance.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Homosexuality Reading List

In recent weeks I have received a barrage of interesting articles on homosexuality and related issues such as same-sex marriage. As a possible explanation of why so much anti-gay material is now finding its way around the intellectual marketplace of the internet, I would hypothesize that, in the wake of the pro-gay blitzkrieg we have seen in the past three years in the media and the courts, the conservative counter-reaction is finally getting organized. I harbor no illusion that these arguments will be seriously entertained by the mainstream media or the government in the age of Barack Obama and his buddy Gene Robinson, but that tide could turn quickly.

In "What About the Children?", Canadian writer Tom McFeely discusses the disadvantages faced by children raised in homosexual households. The article's hook was the new position statement of the American College of Pediatricians, which reversed a 2002 endorsement of same-sex parenting: "Given the current body of research, the American College of Pediatricians believes it is inappropriate, potentially hazardous to children, and dangerously irresponsible to change the age-old prohibition on homosexual parenting, whether by adoption, foster care, or by reproductive manipulation. This position is rooted in the best available science."

The mission of the National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH) is to "uphold the rights of individuals with unwanted homosexual attraction to receive effective psychological care and the right of professionals to offer that care." LifeSiteNews covered NARTH's publication of a study that examined over a century of professional and scientific literature, which refutes the claims of some factions of the American Psychological Association, who assert that homosexuality is immutable and that attempts to treat it therapeutically are harmful. Blogger David Virtue interviewed Dr. Joseph Nicolosi, the head of NARTH, at the Sex and the City Conference in London. According to Nicolosi, "the three great pioneers of psychoanalysis, Freud, Jung, and Adler, all saw homosexuality as disordered." In his practice, Nicolosi finds that most of his patients experience significant diminishment of same-sex attractions. Those who do not improve are mostly the ones who are not motivated – teen-agers dragged in by their parents, or husbands pressured into treatment by their wives or pastors.

Dennis Prager, a Jewish theologian and radio talk show host, makes the bold assertion, "When Judaism demanded that all sexual activity be channeled into marriage, it changed the world. The Torah's prohibition of non-marital sex quite simply made the creation of Western civilization possible." His article, "Judaism's Sexual Revolution: Why Judaism Rejected Homosexuality," supports his thesis persuasively. Prager shows us how radically Judaism departed from the sexual practices of its pagan neighbors. The Jewish condemnation of non-marital sex was, no doubt, a key motivation for the ancient hatred of the Jews. (It should be noted that Prager, in passing, also repeats the Jewish view that male celibacy is a sin: a man who is unmarried is incomplete.)

In "Answering Advocates of Gay Marriage," Canadian scholars Katherine Young and Paul Nathanson enumerate 20 different claims (not all of them consistent) made by advocates of same-sex marriage, and they systematically demolish them. They begin by assuring readers that they are not opposed to gay persons or gay relationships, but only to gay marriage. They describe their approach as comparative and dialogical: "One of us is a man, the other a woman; one is Jewish, the other Gentile; one is gay, the other straight; one specializes in Western civilization, the other in Eastern civilization; and so on. As a result of our collaboration, we have been able to gather a great deal of evidence, both historical and cross-cultural, to support our answers to the claims made by advocates of gay marriage." They argue against the shallow, individualistic understandings of sex and marriage implicit in most current discussions. Instead, they argue that heterosexual bonding is fundamental to civilization, and that it must be deliberately fostered by a supportive culture. In particular, they argue that culture and its institutions must bind men to their families, lest men become a toxic force with no stake in their society. Their own country, unfortunately, ignored their wisdom, proceeding with the "massive human experiment" of same-sex marriage.

Finally, British journalist Melanie Phillips reports that the Conservative Party is expected to unveil a new policy to shore up marriage. It will be based on a report, expected to be released this month, which recommends "a sweeping overhaul of the law to strengthen marriage, including moves to make divorce more difficult and promote marriage preparation classes and 'family relationship centres', as well as tax breaks for married couples." Phillips laments that the Tories cannot see that their support for marriage will ultimately be undermined by their support for gay rights.

After reading all of the above articles and pondering them, I conclude that Western society's current thrust for the abolition of heterosexuality as a norm grows out of a larger underlying problem: Our society is already corrupted with the ideology foisted on us by Baby Boomers, which tells us that the world exists for the immediate pleasure of competent adult individuals, and anything that interferes with this in any way is unacceptable. We have no debt to the past, no obligation to the future; no stake in the culture we inherit and pass on; no responsibility for weaker members of our society, including children (except, perhaps, those we "choose"). The gay rights lobby is so immersed in this self-indulgent, individualistic ideology that it cannot imagine a contrary reality. But this does not distinguish it from most other special interest groups of 21st century America.

We will never reverse the onslaught of gay rights – or, more generally, "rights" associated with sexual identity – if we do not reform our society's entire view of sex and marriage. Barring the once-in-a-millennium true leader, this will not happen through the political process. We can no longer count on a self-serving mainstream media to confront us with hard questions and harder answers. For the most part, the academic world has insulated itself from reality by wrapping itself in ideology. Only a religious revival is likely to save our civilization from being consumed by a culture of self-indulgence. Otherwise, we can start reading Brave New World as a roadmap of the near future (though I think Huxley was rather optimistic).

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Give Me This Stranger

Today, which is Good Friday on the Gregorian calendar, my Byzantine Catholic e-friend Dan sent me this YouTube video of the hymn “Give me this stranger.” It is Byzantine chant sung in Arabic, and it’s about 10 minutes long. It’s not very impressive visually – just a series of very slow pans over icons of Christ’s burial – but the music is otherworldly.

This hymn is sung on the night of Great and Holy Friday at the end of the Lamentation service, which commemorates Christ’s burial. It is sung from the point of view of my patron saint, Joseph of Arimathea. Many of the hymns on Holy Friday mention St. Joseph, but this is one of only two that are sung from his point of view. (Interestingly, both of these are in tone 5, as opposed to the hymns about him, which tend to be in tones 2 and 6.) An English translation of the hymn follows.

Seeing that the sun had hidden its rays and the veil of the Temple had been rent at the death of the Saviour, Joseph did approach Pilate and did plead with him crying and saying,

Give me this stranger, who from his youth hath wandered like a stranger.

Give me this stranger, whom his kinsmen killed in hatred like a stranger.

Give me this stranger at whom I wonder, beholding him as a guest of death.

Give me this stranger who knoweth how to take in the poor and strangers.

Give me this stranger whom the Jews in envy estranged from the world.

Give me this stranger that I may bury him in a tomb, who being a stranger hath no place whereon to lay his head.

Give me this stranger, to whom his Mother, beholding him dead, shouted crying, “O my Son and my God, even though my vitals be wounded, and my heart burns, as I behold thee dead, yet trusting in thy Resurrection, I magnify thee.”

In these words the honorable Joseph pleaded with Pilate, took the Saviour’s body, and with fear wrapped it in linen and balm, placing thee in a new tomb, O thou who grantest to all everlasting life and the great mercy.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Byzantine Chant

In the 18 months since I was chrismated into the Orthodox Church, my main ministry has been chanting at Matins, which I do nearly every Sunday. Matins begins at 8:15 on most Sundays, and 8:00 on certain feasts. That it could get a night owl like me out of bed that early on a weekend should be sufficient proof of how much I have come to love chanting.

When I was an Anglo-Catholic, my liturgical involvement took the form of serving as an acolyte. I served at both Low and Solemn Masses, as well as Evensong & Benediction. I especially enjoyed my five years serving for Fr. Anderson at Morning Prayer and Low Mass on Thursdays. After working together for so long, each of us knew what the other was going to do, and our choreography became automatic, so that I could actually pray during Mass instead of always thinking about what I had to do next.

In my various liturgical roles, I was not only serving the church but also educating myself on the details of the liturgy. While I gained a respectable degree of expertise on the Mass, there were always others with more knowledge (and bigger libraries) than I on that subject. But eventually, thanks in large part to my exposure to Benedictine monastic life, I think I became the parish’s resident expert on the Daily Office.

At Holy Cross, lay liturgical roles at the altar are reserved, for the most part, to subdeacons and teen-age boys, so it looked like I would have to learn Byzantine worship standing with the congregation. When Doug, one of the protopsaltis (lead chanters) began offering occasional classes in Byzantine chant on Sundays after coffee hour, I attended. Since I have always found my voice frustratingly inadequate, I did not imagine that I would actually be able to chant in services, but I thought this would be a chance to begin my education on the Byzantine services of Vespers and Matins. Not much later, the other protopsalti, Emily, took over the job of training the new chanters. We would meet to practice for two hours on Saturday afternoons before Vespers. At first we focused on learning the standard pieces that are sung every Sunday, as well as on learning the eight Byzantine tones. Emily recorded and uploaded several of the hymns, as well as a short introduction to each of the tones consisting of the apichima (a short mnemonic to help the chanter bring the tone to mind quickly), a sample hymn in the tone, and the Resurrectional Troparion of the tone. I learned to chant by playing these pieces over and over and singing along with them. Eventually, the time came when I was scheduled to chant at Sunday Matins.

My very first time, I was the only chanter who arrived on time. When Deacon Mark came out of the sanctuary to ask if I could get the service started by myself until the other chanters arrived, I could only say no. (Ever since then, I have judged my progress, in part, by asking how far into the service I could get if I had to do it solo.) The first few times, I would just be assigned to read psalms and other parts that are simply read, and otherwise sing only the parts that were sung in unison by everyone. But it wasn’t long before we newbies started to take our turns on the kathismata and the anabathmoi, two types of hymns that are free chanted every Sunday.

In free chanting, one is given a text, along with a number from 1 to 8 representing the tone in which the words are to be sung. Each Byzantine tone has its own characteristic patterns built on one of the four scales. The chanter sings the words, matching them to the patterns of the tone, essentially composing a musical setting for the words spontaneously within the strictures of the tone. If you really know the tone and can get it into your head, free chanting is not as hard as it sounds. If you don’t know the tone or can’t call it to mind, however, it is impossible to do right. Free chanting is much easier when you are following someone else who has just chanted something in the same tone. Another thing that makes free chanting easier is that each Sunday is assigned one of the eight tones, and most of the pieces that are free chanted will usually be in the tone of the week. Therefore, we could focus on one tone each week.

Not everything is free chanted. For most of the hymns there are settings written in Western musical notation. Some chanters prefer to rely on these, while others prefer to free chant. Free chanting comes easier to me. However, free chanting only works for solo pieces. Hymns that are to be sung by everyone require written music to keep everyone together. I learn the frequently sung pieces by ear and then use the written music as a reminder. Otherwise, I try to follow those who read music better than I.

About a year ago, on Lazarus Saturday, a crew from the PBS program Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly came to interview Emily about Byzantine chant and to film Matins and the Liturgy. That segment, edited down to under three minutes, will finally air this weekend. It became available on-line today.

Only James chants with Emily in the segment. I was still too green to chant on TV (in the big game you play your stars, not your rookies), so you’ll only see the back of my head in the congregation (I’m the one obstructing your view of the icon of Christ). Now, a year later, I get to chant with Emily and James all the time – like tomorrow at Matins of Lazarus Saturday.

For those who want to read more, here are some links:

Byzantine Chant – an article from OrthodoxWiki.
Byzantine Chant – an article from the Holy Cross Website.
Tone Three – Emily’s reminiscence about chanting in Greek on Christmas Eve.
Makin’ the Big Time – Emily’s blog post on the TV segment.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Thoughts on Evolution

On the occasion of the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin, today I went through some of the old messages in my e-mail folder labeled Evolution. It consists mostly of discussions over the past decade with a circle of old friends from the Wesley Foundation at the University of Illinois, mostly on evolution and related topics such as human nature and philosophy of science, with occasional forays into discussions of homosexuality, the Star Wars and Lord of the Rings movies, and ancient Greek drama. I came across a lot of interesting stuff, some of which I remembered and some of which I had forgotten. I was looking for one message in particular. In 2005, when the subject of Intelligent Design was in the news, Diane Rehm devoted an hour of her radio talk show to ID. Unfortunately, the episode was hastily arranged so as to strike while the topic was hot, and she settled for second-string guests who were not really experts on evolution or ID. Both guests exhausted their knowledge of the subject before the program was half over. It was the most disappointing episode I have ever heard, and perhaps the only time I have heard Diane obviously frustrated with her guests. In my e-mail to her afterwards I wrote, "I think I could have argued both sides better than either of your guests!" I then wrote down some of my own thoughts on the creation-evolution debate that I thought might have made inspired a more interesting program. The essay that follows here is built up from that old e-mail.

I have accepted the truth of biological evolution by natural selection for as long as I can remember. I can't recall ever hearing about evolution in science class in my rural K-8 elementary school – I just picked it up on my own through my extensive reading, and it seemed to make sense. In the sixth grade I did my science fair exhibit on evolution, and as a result I suffered a brief wave of persecution – a rare opportunity for my classmates to pose as more pious than me. Obviously, I do not find evolution to be in conflict with Christianity or with divine creation of the world.


Evolution and creation are sometimes framed as competing theories of "the origin of life," but this is a mistake. While creation is certainly about the origin of life, evolution is not. Evolution offers an explanation of how life developed and diversified into different species, but it says nothing about where the first life came from. For this reason, evolution and creation are not exactly symmetrical, competing theories – they don't cover quite the same ground. The specific aspect/theory of creation that might be seen as the counterpart of evolution is "special creation" – the notion that every species is directly created by God as a separate and distinct creation. This is what is usually meant by creationism. But obviously one can believe in God's role as the ultimate source of creation without endorsing this theory.

Like creation, the term evolution also requires some narrowing. In the broadest sense, it simply refers to the accretion of changes in forms of life over the generations. Even some self-described creationists concede the reality of microevolution – small changes within a species in response to changes in its environment – but they deny the possibility that such evolution can lead to the development of new species. Before Darwin, evolutionary theorists already believed that existing species had evolved from earlier species, but they proposed many different mechanisms by which this evolution might have occurred. Jean-Baptiste Lamarck famously proposed that parents could pass on acquired traits to their offspring. But today when we say evolution, the default meaning is the development of new species through evolution by natural selection, as proposed by Charles Darwin 150 years ago in The Origin of Species.

In the Classroom

Opponents of evolution often talk in terms of presenting "alternatives" to evolution. But there is no real alternative to evolution. This is not to say that there never can be and never will be any alternative. Nor is it to say that evolution is ready to be enshrined as a final and complete law of nature. It is only to say that there is currently no alternative on the table. Evolution has vanquished the competing theories and no new theory has yet risen to challenge it.

Some have proposed Intelligent Design as an alternative to evolution. But ID is unable to explain the thing that evolution explains – the origin of species. ID does not constitute a stand-alone alternative to evolution, but, rather, a critique of evolution. By pointing to possibly anomalous data that evolution (allegedly) cannot explain, ID demands a re-thinking of the theory of evolution as currently understood.

Some advocates of evolution freak out at the very mention of Intelligent Design. But in doing so they betray themselves as proponents of science qua ideology, not science qua science. They would be more Darwinist than Darwin himself!

You see, the principle on which ID rests was introduced by none other than . . . Charles Darwin. In Chapter 6 of The Origin of Species, Darwin himself proposed a number of possible critiques of evolution. ID is, essentially, a highly developed form of one of these critiques. Darwin admitted that it is difficult to see how "organs of extreme perfection and complication," such as the eye, could have come about by natural selection, but he tried to answer this objection. Modern ID theorists have run with this critique, producing the idea of "irreducible complexity." Evolutionary biologists, in turn, have answered the critique. That is how science works.

I think this suggests one approach to the controversy over teaching Intelligent Design in the classroom. While ID cannot reasonably be taught as an alternative to evolution (because it does not actually propose a concrete alternative mechanism for the origin of species), it could be introduced as one of a number of critiques that evolutionary biology must address if evolution by natural selection is to be established as a law of nature. If Darwin himself could raise such questions, I don't see why a biology teacher should be prohibited from doing so. Working through Chapter 6 of The Origin of Species might make for an interesting high school biology lecture.

I think the fact that evolution currently faces no competion makes it especially important to raise such questions. Evolution is a strong enough theory to withstand all such questions, so I see no danger of leaving students with the impression that evolution has been refuted. Rather, such questioning would serve as an example of the scientific approach to knowledge, showing budding scientists that it not unthinkable to question even the best established of scientific theories. This should help to dispel any tendency to think of scientific theories as unquestionable dogmata.

Evolution and the Incarnation

In a stereotypical creationist-vs.-atheist debate, I have no one to root for. Both sides have already lost me before the debate even begins. Once the debate is joined, it looks like they disagree on every single point, and that is how they are usually perceived. To me, however, it seems that they agree with each other on the central premise that underlies the debate: in the provocative form attributed to Richard Dawkins, "If Darwin's cosmology was right, then theology is senseless babble." And creationists like Phillip Johnson accept the premise and join the debate on those terms. This all-or-nothing proposition, for those who accept it, validates both the conflict and the energy they expend on it.

When combatants on both sides find a rare proposition they can agree on, one is tempted to let it pass without further examination. But this premise is both illogical and heretical. It assumes that God's only purpose is to serve as a causal explanation of phenomena in the physical universe, and that if a completely natural explanation can be found for every phenomenon then we can dispense with God as redundant and dismiss the supernatural entirely. This argument might be compatible with a Deistic "God of the gaps," but it cannot be reconciled with the God of orthodox Christianity. We believe that Jesus was both fully divine and fully human – that these two natures dwelt in him without contradiction. From this orthodox Christian understanding of the Incarnation, it follows that the supernatural is not excluded by the natural; rather, the supernatural manifests itself in and through the natural. Therefore, even if science were somehow to demonstrate the truth of an entirely materialistic explanation of the universe, it could not exclude the existence or activity of God.

Therefore, from an orthodox Christian point of view, a debate premised on the mutual exclusivity of the natural and the supernatural is flawed from the outset.

Interesting Links

Here are a few interesting bits I came across in my Evolution folder.

"Special Creation" on the Left

Science vs. Norse Mythology

God and evolution: the state of the question

Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed

A classification of possible routes of Darwinian evolution

For Sociobiology

Augustine's Origin of Species

Genesis and Creation: Towards a Debate

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Charitable Solicitations Revisited

Back in March I gave a preliminary report on charitable solicitations I received in 2008. At that point, my solicitations were running 3% behind 2001, the last time I conducted such a study. But by the end of the year, 2008 had topped 2001. Last year I received 864 solicitations (2 more than in 2001), plus 123 newsletters or magazines, from 214 different charitable organizations. (That does not count thank-you letters and tax receipts that were sent by the charities I actually donated to.) The biggest single month was October, when I received 103 solicitations – that's an average of 3.8 every time I opened my mailbox!

One major difference between the two years is that 2008 was an election year. I received 40 solicitations that I categorized as political, of which 33 were from political parties or candidates. In 2001 I received only 13 politically oriented solicitations.

The category with the biggest drop was Roman Catholic religious orders. In 2001, 31 orders sent me 80 solicitations (with 22 coming from a single order!). In 2008, just 9 orders sent me 11 solicitations. In late 2000 I purchased a rosary from a monastery, and I think the monks must have shared my address with everyone in the Catholic Church. Most of them probably lost track of me after I moved in 2003 and 2004.

The two worst offenders were Human Rights Watch and WETA, each of which sent me 19 solicitations. I had not donated to either in 2007, so I'm not sure what they hoped to accomplish by flooding my mailbox.

At the other extreme, two local charities that I have donated to consistently over the past decade did not contact me at all last year. In the past I have even made special efforts to restore contact with them after I moved, but it seems they just aren't very good at keeping their databases up to date.

Friday, January 23, 2009

A Day on the Mall

Yesterday I traveled downtown to the National Mall. My primary mission was to attend the 36th annual March for Life. A secondary mission was to take a few photos with my guest, Flat Ajay. I got off the train at the Archives-Navy Memorial Metro Station around 11 AM, and the march was not scheduled to begin until noon, so I took a short detour through one of my favorite places in Washington, the National Gallery of Art. On the lower level I found a room with a few pieces of sculpture, including stained glass, on the theme of the Annunciation. Since no one else was around, I decided that would be an appropriate place for a quick prayer. Then I pulled Flat Ajay out of my backpack and posed him for his first photo, with the 15th-century marble sculpture Kneeling Angel, by Giovanni Antonio Amadeo.

I suppose this would be a good place to explain why I'm taking photos of a construction-paper image of a kid. In the children's book Flat Stanley, a boy who is accidentally flattened takes advantage of his state to be mailed in an envelope to friends in other places. Inspired by this tale, children create flat images of themselves and mail them around the country, where their hosts take them to interesting places and record their adventures. Flat Ajay is the alter ego of a third-grader in California.

Then I headed for the mall, looking to meet up with some other folks from my parish who were planning to attend. The march was to begin around 4th Street, at the Capitol end of the mall, and proceed around the Capitol to the Supreme Court. I walked back and forth across the mall, looking for some of my fellow Orthodox Christians, but I only spotted one priest. Finally, on my third pass, I found a big ORTHODOX CHRISTIANS FOR LIFE banner with an image of Christ blessing the children.

As you can see from the picture, it was a beautiful, sunny day - the first nice day, in fact, after a couple of frigid weeks! Christian pop music was playing from the loudspeakers on the stage as the crowd grew and grew. I read one estimate that about a quarter of a million people attended - about one-seventh the size of the crowd that had gathered two days earlier to see Barack Obama sworn in as the 44th President of the United States. If you out-click the photo above to full size, you'll see that some of the apparatus from the inauguration, including five big historic U.S. flags, are still in place at the Capitol.

Another Orthodox banner featured an icon of the Visitation. The ByzanTeens (Byzantine Catholic youth, I presume) had a similar banner based on the same icon. It shows Our Lady greeting her cousin Elizabeth, with their sons in their wombs made visible (Luke 1:44).

The event began with introductions by the founder and the organizer and a prayer. Then more than a dozen members of Congress spoke. And then the speaker all the Orthodox had been waiting for - Metropolitan Jonah, the new primate of the Orthodox Church in America. Then a few more speakers. The most rousing speaker was a black minister, who decried abortion as genocide against his people. And while most of the participants were Christians of various sorts, one of the speakers and many of the marchers were Orthodox Jews, who had come down from New York for the day.

By the time the speakers had all finished and the actual march could begin, it was 2:15. We got off to a slow, crowded, and disorganized start, with a lot of stopping and waiting.

I was with a group of fellow Holy Cross parishioners, mostly students from St. John's College. Finally, we started moving forward. But within a few minutes I had lost site of everyone I knew. I could still see one Orthodox sign, but it was moving farther and farther ahead, and I was surrounded by people who were practically standing still. It took me a few minutes to realize that I had become surrounded by a knot of Catholics who thought it was more important to keep their group together than to keep up with the march. I took to the sidewalk to circumvent the crowd and eventually spotted the Orthodox banners, but the crowd was so thick there that I could not get any closer.

I finally caught up with the other Orthodox marchers at the southwest corner of the intersection of 1st and Constitution, NE, where they had stopped for prayers led by Metropolitan Jonah. (In this picture you can see the flag that flies in front of the Supreme Court, just to the left of the Guardian Angel banner.)

(In this last photo you can see Metropolitan Jonah, in the white headgear, just under the left edge of the big banner.) To complete the Orthodox participation in the march we all lined up to receive the Metropolitan's blessing, along with an icon card to commemorate the event. Then I continued on down the street past the Supreme Court.

I walked all the way around the Capitol. I hoped to pose for a Flat Ajay photo in front of the Capitol, but I soon realized that would be more difficult than I had anticipated. They were still tearing down the inauguration stage, so I could not get as close as I had hoped. The best I could do was across the street, from the Ulysses S. Grant memorial statue.

You can see that by this point they had removed two of the five flags from the front of the Capitol. On my way back to the metro station, I passed by the Canadian embassy, which was displaying a banner welcoming our new President.

I walked back to the metro station tired after several hours on my feet. Fortunately, being Orthodox gives me a lot of practice at being on my feet . . .