Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Ephrem on Christ's Refutation of Death

Take note therefore how the Living One sought to refute death in every kind of way. He was an embryo, and while in the womb [death] was not able to destroy him. [He was] an infant and while growing up, it was not able to disfigure him. [He was] a child and during his education it was not able to confuse him. [He was] a young man, and with its lustful desires it was not able to lead him into error. [He was] instructed, and with its wiles, it was not able to overpower him. [He was] a teacher, and because of his intelligence, it was not able to refute him. [He was] vigilant, and with its commands, it was not able to turn him aside [from his purpose]. [He was] strong, and in killing him, it was not able to frighten him. [He was] a corpse and in the custody of the tomb, it was not able to hold him. He was not ill, because he was a healer. He did not go astray, because he was a shepherd. He did not commit error, because he was a teacher. He did not stumble, because he was the light. This is the perfect way that the Messiah opened up for his Church, from the beginning through conception until the completion of the resurrection.

Saint Ephrem's Commentary on Tatian's Diatessaron IV:14
Translated by Carmel McCarthy

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Staniloae on the Light of Revelation

I thought this passage from the article “Revelation and Promise,” by 20th century Romanian theologian Dumitru Staniloae, was appropriate for Advent. (If you have to read it two or three times before you get it, don’t worry – everyone has that experience when reading Staniloae.)

The acts of the Old Testament revelation prepare and condition the act of the coming of Christ, and this in turn crowns the former. The acts of the Old Testament revelation lay history open for Christ who descends and enters into it. They constitute all the different preparations for the realization of the promise of a Messiah to come. They constitute that history which prepares for the entry into history of one who himself transcends all history. They succeed one another on the path leading towards the gleam of that heavenly light which shone when God came to dwell among men and history was fulfilled by what lies beyond it.

In this sense the Old Testament revelation as a whole is also a gift and not simply a promise, for it throws open the shining light of the fulfillment in Christ. It does not leave the people in total darkness, nor does it move in darkness to the very end. This also is a gift, not simply a promise, although the gift is more like a light shining at the very end of a road. The Old Testament revelation moves toward this light until it reaches the end of the road and comes up along side it, but this gift is not the same as the very light itself illuminating the road from above. It is more like an oasis; we see it from afar and we move towards it until we come right up beside it – but we never finally reach it.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Ephrem on God's Inexhaustible Word

Who is capable of comprehending the immensity of possibilities of one of your [God's] utterances? What we leave behind us in your utterance is far greater than what we take from it, like those who are thirsting, when they imbibe from a fountain. Many are the perspectives of his word, just as many are the perspectives of those who study it. God has fashioned his word with many beautiful forms, so that each one who studies it may consider what he likes. He has hidden in his word all kinds of treasures so that each one of us, wherever we meditate, may be enriched by it. His utterance is a tree of life, which offers you blessed fruit from every side. It is like that rock which burst forth in the desert, becoming spiritual drink to everyone from all places. They ate spiritual food and drank spiritual drink (1 Cor 10:3-4).

Therefore, whoever encounters one of its riches must not think that that alone which he has found is all that is in it, but rather that it is this alone that he is capable of finding from the many things in it. Enriched by it, let him not think that he has impoverished it. But rather let him give thanks for its greatness, he that is unequal to it. Rejoice that you have been satiated, and do not be upset that it is richer than you. The thirsty one rejoices because he can drink, but is not upset because he is unable to render the source dry. The well can conquer your thirst, but your thirst cannot conquer the fountain. If your thirst is satiated, without the fountain running short, whenever you are thirsty, you can drink again. But if, through your being satiated, the fountain were rendered dry, your victory would be unto your misfortune. Give thanks for what you have taken away, and do not murmur over what remains and is in excess. That which you have taken and gone away with is your portion and that which is left over is also your heritage. That which you were not able to receive there and then because of your weakness, receive it at another time by means of your perseverance. And do not, in your impudence, attempt either to obtain in one moment that which cannot be taken up in one moment, or to desist from that which you are able to take up little by little.

Saint Ephrem's Commentary on Tatian's Diatessaron, I:18-19
Translated by Carmel McCarthy

Friday, July 16, 2010

Summer Reading

While shopping for souvenirs in the kitschy tourist block of Kruja, Albania, I spotted a book with a title in English, Faith and Fairies: Tales Based on Albanian Legends and Ballads, by Mustafa Tukaj. I didn’t know I was supposed to haggle, so I overpaid for my used, water-damaged copy. The English translation is quite new – it just appeared last year. Perhaps it should have been delayed to allow an actual English speaker to proofread it before publication – some of the translations are unintentionally hilarious. Of the ten tales in the volume, the last five concern the heroes of Jutbina, Gjeto Basho Muj and his brother Halil. The book begins with a scholarly essay summarizing the main themes and motifs that run through Albanian folk tales. The primary virtue exalted in these tales is faith (besa, in Albanian) – keeping one’s sworn pledge of honor.

Before I found Faith and Fairies, I was reading Arabian Fairy Tales by Amina Shah, who comes from “an ancient Afghan family of writers and savants.” The Arabian stories feel, somehow, more familiar and less austere than the Albanian tales. Perhaps living in Britain has taught the author what an English-speaking audience expects. Or perhaps The Thousand and One Nights has become so much a part of the English canon that tales from that culture no longer seem particularly exotic.

At St. Vlad’s, returning students can check out books for the whole summer. After I learned about this privilege, every time I found a book I thought I might want to read over the summer, I filled out a check-out slip for the book. On the second-to-last day of the semester, I took my pile of slips to the stacks, located all my books, and checked them out.

First on my list was Edessa ‘The Blessed City’ by J.B. Segal, a thorough, detailed history of this city, which was central to Syrian Christianity. Here was where Greek, Semitic, Persian, and Armenian cultures met and mixed. Originally home to Antiochene theologians who followed Theodore of Mopsuestia, Edessa’s theological school later switched sides and adopted the theology of Cyril of Alexandria. The city was also home to King Abgar and the famed Edessa icon, known as the mandylion.

Continuing that last theme is Veronica and Her Cloth: History, Symbolism, and Structure of a “True” Image by Polish artist Ewa Kuryluk, an examination of the veronica, the mandylion, and other “true images” of Christ from a postmodern feminist perspective.

Tangentially related to these is Image and Liturgy: The History and Meaning of the Epitaphion, the 2008 M.Div. thesis of St. Vlad’s staff member Tatiana Penkrat. The epitaphion is an embroidered icon of the burial of Christ that is used in Byzantine services of Holy Friday and Saturday, particularly the Lamentation service. I am eager to read this work for multiple reasons:
  • The Lamentation service has always been my favorite Byzantine service.
  • Many recensions of the epitaphion display the Troparion of St. Joseph of Arimathea in the border and place St. Joseph himself at the feet of Christ, making this my patronal icon.
  • Penkrat considers the possibility that the epitaphion is a recension of the True Shroud of Jesus, which some equate to the mandylion translated from Edessa to Constantinople in 944.
Finally, a book that has nothing to do with Edessa and its icon: Religion and the Politics of Identity in Kosovo, by Ger Duijzings. Identity politics in the Balkans has interested me since my 1992 stint on a joint military intelligence task force that followed the Balkans. Since then I have followed Kosovo with special interest; Slobodan Milosevic made the province a particular focus of Serbian identity politics, and the Kosovar Albanians responded creatively to his provocations. Duijzings questions the assumption that ethnic and religious identities in the Balkans are clear-cut and fixed. Indeed, I have long been aware that Balkan villages have historically changed their language and ethnic identity when it was expedient to do so, much as they converted to Islam under pressure from the Ottomans. The whole idea of nationalism, as we understand it, is an invention of the 19th century, and it is even more inappropriate to project it further into the past than it is to maintain it in the present.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Albanian Mission/Class

The day after the spring semester ended, four seminarians from St. Vladimir’s drove to Brookline, MA, where we joined seven Holy Cross seminarians for a new, experimental class/practicum, “The Missiology of Archbishop Anastasios,” offered jointly by Holy Cross, OCMC, and the new Missions Institute of Orthodox Christianity. We had one week of classes at Holy Cross, during which we learned about the theology and practice of missions. We also read two books about the resurrection of the Orthodox Church in Albania, plus four articles and a collection of seven papers by Abp. Anastasios. We flew to Tirana via Munich on Lufthansa, arriving around noon on Tuesday, May 25. We ate lunch and settled into our rooms at the church’s Mount Tabor Center on the outskirts of Tirana. Here is the view from the balcony of my room, where I spent a lot of time reading and writing. (All of these photos can be enlarged by clicking on them.)

After the traditional Albanian post-lunch siesta, went into the city. We stopped at the new cathedral, which is still under construction.

Here you can see the cathedral’s bell/clock tower, along with the small chapel next to the cathedral.

My artistic shot of the interior of the chapel.

Then we strolled around Tirana, with a stop for ice cream, before returning to the Tabor Center. That evening we had guests for supper – a number of young Albanians, mostly students. After supper the music started, and the Albanians taught us some traditional dances.

The next morning we returned to Tirana. We learned that in Albania, unlike much of Europe, America is very popular. Albanians are especially proud of the visit of the last U.S. President – so proud that they named a street after him!

Our first stop was Annunciation Cathedral. This was the only church in Tirana to survive the 23-year suppression of religion (1967-1990) under communism. It survived because it was used as a gymnasium during this period. It currently functions as the cathedral while the new cathedral is being built.

We met Fr. Asti, who told us of growing up under communism, when all religious practice was forbidden.

He told us his father would occasionally stand in silence, and he was afraid to ask him what he was doing. Only many years later did he learn that his father had been praying. Our meeting with Fr. Asti was held in the cathedral’s baptistery. The cross-shaped baptismal font, big enough to dunk a large adult, was built into the floor.

Next, we met with Abp. Anastasios himself in his office. This was our chance to ask him firsthand about what we had read about his life, his theology, and the revival of the Albanian church.

We visited a number of the church’s ministries – the Protagonist School, the bookshop, the women’s group, and the youth center. Then we visited the National Archives, where a new exhibition of medieval church manuscripts was just opening. The oldest manuscript in the collection is a copy of the Gospels of Matthew and Mark from the 6th century. This display shows photos of the original documents with scholarly reconstructions of what they would have looked like originally.

Back at the Tabor Center, we had a quiet evening with most of the OCMC’s missionaries in Albania. The following day we met with Nina at Diakonia Agapes, the church’s social outreach ministry.

Later on, we visited the apartment of OCMC missionary Pamela Barksdale, from whose balcony these next two shots were taken.

The second shot shows one of the less attractive features of Albania. They have not yet developed a sense of environmental consciousness, so it is not uncommon to find garbage piled up in out-of-the-way places.

The next day we began a two-day excursion to Shen Vlash Monastery and the Resurrection of Christ Theological Academy, just east of the coastal city of Durrës. We met with the seminarians, and we all told our stories.

In the afternoon we walked to a nearby cemetery where OCMC missionary Lynette Hoppe is buried and said prayers at her grave.

The road through the cemetery divides it into Christian and Muslim halves. You can see how Albanians bury their dead in above-ground tombs, and they often leave flowers – or snacks – for the departed.

In the afternoon we visited the Children’s Home of Hope, an orphanage on the grounds of the monastery.

Some of the older girls performed a dance for us.

We divided the kids into two groups, taking one outside for games, including a water balloon fight. The other group stayed inside for a craft – decorating a small wooden cross with paints and beads. Then the two groups traded places and activities.

The next day was a big student conference at the monastery. Students came from all over the country, and they filled the auditorium set up for the conference. Here the students open the event with songs.

The red and black flag is the national flag, and the gold and red flag is the church flag. Both feature the double-headed eagle, a symbol that the Albanians inherited from the Byzantine Empire. After the singing, Fr. Luke gave a talk, and then we divided up into small groups for discussion of passages of scripture on the topic of love. Thanks to my translator Aleksandra, I was able to participate in the discussion in my group. During the break that followed, a couple of girls who wanted to meet Americans talked to some of the seminarians. They invited me to join them for a walk. One of them spoke very good English, which she said she learned mostly by watching American movies and TV shows. On our way back for lunch we stopped to play on the swings.

This is the refectory where everyone from the seminary and monastery eats, packed with students from the conference.

After lunch, Fr. Raphael and I were invited to join an Albanian family enjoying the beautiful afternoon in the shade of a tree.

Later we attended Saturday Vespers at the monastery church, which is built in the traditional Greek style typical of new Albanian churches.

That evening we drove back to the Tabor Center, and on Sunday morning we attended Orthros and the Hierarchical Divine Liturgy at the cathedral. Here is a bird’s eye view of the beginning of the Liturgy, with all the clergy gathered behind the archbishop.

On Monday morning we visited the church-run diagnostic clinic and had a Bible study with the student leaders at the Student Center of the Orthodox Church in Student City.

On Tuesday morning we visited Nazareth Center, which houses several church-related crafts: printing, icon painting and restoration, wood carving, and candle making. Here we see a batch of candles that have just been dipped in molten wax. They will be dipped repeatedly until they reach the desired thickness.

After this we visited the Gypsy camp on the edge of Tirana. The Gypsies in Albania, as in much of Europe, have not assimilated to the majority culture. This is partly a result of discrimination, but traditional Gypsy culture promotes cohesion within the band and independence from non-Gypsies, which creates pressure not to assimilate.

The Gypsies subsist by begging, working at short-term unskilled jobs, and exploiting Tirana’s trash. Some of them repair junk and re-sell it, while others collect recyclables. This Gypsy crushes aluminum cans to be recycled. I wonder how much worse the trash problem in Tirana would be if the Gypsies were not picking up all the recyclables.

Back at the Tabor Center, we joined the closing lunch of a clergy conference, and then we heard from Papa Jani, an important figure in the Church’s revival, over frappés.

Then we immediately packed up for a three-day visit to the southeastern city of Korça, a traditional Orthodox stronghold. We had a long drive through the mountains with a lot of breathtaking scenery.

We stopped at Shen Naum, on the shore of Lake Ochrid, for a delicious supper of koran, a local fish.

The décor of the restaurant featured three stuffed bears. Here Jason earns his nickname, the bear whisperer.

We spent the night at the Metropoly. In the morning, after fortifying ourselves with a round of Greek coffee, we met with Metropolitan John in his office.

We then had the rest of the morning free for sightseeing in Korça. We visited three of the city’s Orthodox churches, but we only found one of them open. A few of us walked up a long crumbling staircase to the top of a hill on the edge of town, not knowing what we would find at the top. It turned out to be a cemetery and war memorial. Here, Ryan poses in front of the socialist-realist memorial statue.

Looking the other direction gave us a dramatic view of the whole city and a snow-capped mountain in the distance.

We could also see the next church on our itinerary.

There seem to be a lot of bridal shops in Albania, and everything American is popular. But I’m not sure what Mickey Mouse has to do with wedding gowns.

As I was saying, America is popular.

Our group nearly entered this restaurant’s outdoor seating area, but then opinion quickly divided about what we wanted, and a critical mass of the group drifted across the street to a place that served beer and meat – despite the fact that it was a Wednesday in a fasting season. I knew what I wanted – Turkish coffee – so I persuaded Ryan to join me, and we returned to Restaurant Amerika for coffee. Eventually, everyone else drifted back across the street to join us.

That afternoon we traveled to the Monastery of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, near Voskopoja.

The facilities were . . . primitive. After Vespers and supper, we gathered around a campfire with Metropolitan John for a couple of hours. The next morning we loaded our bags on a mule and commenced a 20-kilometer hike through the mountains to the Monastery of Ss. Peter & Paul, near Vithkuq. In this next picture, we went off the trail to avoid an area where the army was destroying excess ammunition.

Here you can see two of the one-man bunkers that became ubiquitous in Albania during the communist period. Placed in strategic locations all over the country, they are deep enough for a man to stand in (and shoot from) and made of concrete a foot and a half thick.

On our way out of Korça, we drove up to the big cross overlooking the city for our morning prayers. On our way up the hill we saw this cement truck that fell off the road two years ago and has been stuck there ever since.

Here, Logan approaches the cross.

And here is the view across the valley.

On the way home, we stopped in Pogradec and Elbasan. In the former, we met Papa Todi, who took us out to this restaurant, formerly a favorite retreat of the dictator Enver Hoxha, where I had the best Turkish coffee ever – and the raki wasn’t bad either.

On Saturday morning we took the orphans to the beach at Durrës. Most of the kids started out playing soccer.

Then we had some races.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like anyone took a picture of the awesome sand castle. After we returned the kids to the orphanage, we headed for the historical city of Kruja. Here you can see the dramatic cliffs above the city.

We had lunch at this little restaurant while a storm came and went.

After shopping for souvenirs, we visited the Skanderbeg Museum. Skanderbeg was the medieval military leader who held the Turks at bay for a generation to maintain Albania’s independence. Our hero strikes a profound pose at the entrance to his museum.

Socialist realism projected back into the 14th century! The first exhibition room showed some artifacts of the Illyrians, the people who occupied the Adriatic coast in the Roman era, and who are sometimes claimed as the ancestors of the Albanians. This is a model of an Illyrian ship.

On Sunday evening we held a big farewell party, with the OCMC missionaries and many of our Albanian friends.

(You will probably have noticed that I did not include many shots of icons and church interiors. I decided to hold those for a second post at a later time. If I had tried to include them here, they could easily have displaced the narrative and dominated the whole post.)