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An unworthy Deacon, named for the brother of God: James, striving to "work out his salvation with fear and trembling" within the Tradition (paradosis) of the Eastern Orthodox Faith. It is a strange and marvelous journey, and I am accompanied by the fourfold fruit of my fecundity. My wife, the Matushka or Diaconissa Sophia, is my beloved partner in the pursuit of Theosis, and she ranks me in every way.
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Sunday, July 06, 2014

All Things, Seen and Unseen


Having read Francis Spufford’s “Unapologetic” and now recently finished Fr. Stephen Freeman’s “Everywhere Present”, I am finding a lot of complimentary aspects. Spufford does both a fantastic and beautiful job of portraying faith as being altogether reasonable, albeit it not in the sense with which a secular materialist would necessarily agree, principally because of how he or she would choose to define reason. And Fr. Stephen opens our eyes to an ancient way of discerning Christianity which suggests that there is more to the world than any understanding of reason alone can comprehend and this rather neuters the whole point of the popular arguments between atheists and theists in which science, and science alone is the canvas upon which they both paint.

Science comes from the latin scientia which means “knowledge” and a simple definition from Webster tells us that science is a “systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe.” From this already you should at least be sympathetic to Spufford when he writes: “I don’t know if there is [a God]. And neither do you, and neither does Richard bloody Dawkins…” You may also note, that much of what comes to us with the full blessing of the pop-culture magisterium of science, is decidedly not coming from tested or even testable “explanations and predictions about the universe.” And no, I’m not talking about the old and worn out “evolution is a theory only” debate – please let us move past that: it doesn’t matter and in my mind is a distraction to the bigger issue, though it does often play a role and I do personally believe (not know) that there is great deal more at work than what we presently think we know (or believe) about the “origin of species.” No, what I’m talking about is less specific and more generalized in the application of science and our human approach to how we perceive the universe. Another way to put it: how do we know what is true? Or better yet, the question posed to our beaten and abused God: “What is truth?”

But before I proceed, I always feel that I need to say upfront that I am a scientist. I do so not as an attempt to tout my credentials, for that would be absurd given that I really don’t have them in the popularly known sense - the letters behind my name are not terribly impressive – but because it may seem to some that I’m on course here to dismiss “science” (or point out that I have not in the past EVER “facebook liked” the “I F*&#ing love science” page – which I will say I will never do because I F*&#ing hate the F-word especially when used in place of a perfectly good English word which actually communicates more than the presence of a poorly rounded education. Further rant: why claim adoration for and assumedly an understanding of an important scholarly discipline while at the same time overtly displaying a level of ignorance of another important scholarly discipline more fitting of an MTV reality star?)…sorry…rant sidetrack. So I should make clear that I am more a scientist by trade, experience, and training than by formal educational. Lacking a PhD, I no less make my living by doing science: attending and giving talks, designing experiments, helping to author peer reviewed papers, wet bench work, managing labs, and helping to design clinical trial studies etc . I have as much appreciation and understanding of science as a carpenter would have for his or her trade and tools. So, I’m not here writing like a carpenter ignorantly suggesting hammers are ridiculous. With what credentials I do have, I feel that I am a little qualified and able to discern when the tools I am quite familiar with are being misused. Imagine, if you will, the horror a finish carpenter would experience watching someone try to pound finish nails through ornately carved molding with a 24oz waffle-stamped ripping hammer! So my point is that science has today grown into far more than a tool or, as the dictionary states: “a systematic enterprise”, but rather it has grown into a worldview, or a “way of life.”

I love my place of employment, and I still recall its old motto being one of the few offered by any organization which I have ever thought decent: “Advancing knowledge; saving lives.” However, some years back they changed it to something altogether different and strange: “A life of science.” It does not bode well for an organizational motto when it raises more questions than it answers! What on earth does it mean? Am I, as an employee, now said to be living a “life of science?” What does that look like? Does that mean that on my trip home I devise and plan experiments I can test at home to try and definitively prove that my wife does in fact love me as she claims? Or maybe all of our lives together are a running experiment and I just need to develop a database to keep track of all the massive and ever accumulating number of data points? And then hope she too isn’t living “a life of science!” Do marriage certificates need to be redesigned to be more like Informed Consents for study participants? Anyway, it’s an absurd motto but it speaks to the very point I’m making: more and more people are looking to science (and it’s misapplication) as the matrix through which we perceive what is “real” and what is “true” about EVERYTHING. 

You have perhaps heard attempts to generate popular interest for science in people (usually kids) whereby the details of respiration will be explained and then say: “So, you see, every time you breathe, science is at work inside you!” What blathering nonsense! Science is not doing ANYTHING to make respiration happen – it just happens! Science is the tool by which we may understand a great many details about respiration, but science itself is not the arbiter, the energy, or the driving force behind anything! Of course this is just a lingual bit of trickery and no science teacher or professor or practitioner would ever suggest, when pressed, that science is a driving force in nature. But, it is often how we speak these days. I’ve seen it contextually in “I F$#@ing Love Science” posts such as times when they will show some picture of a lovely and appealing aspect of nature with one of my favorites being a picture of some really beautiful clouds and then they’ll offer some brief meteorological explanation for the clouds’ existence. But stop and think for a moment as to what is really causing us a sense of awe: the amazing beauty of the sight or the meteorological explanation? So why not just offer the explanation alone and allow THAT to awe us and lead us to cry out obscenities about how much we love science? The reasons are obvious, but the fact remains: Science is not a force that drives those clouds into those formations that we find so appealing, and in no way should we ever reasonably see a wonder in nature and think: Wow, isn’t science cool! So sometimes when I see those posts I think to myself that it is in a way replacing God, because we used to look at nature’s wonders and say : Isn’t God’s creation glorious!” and now instead we say: “I F$#@ing Love Science!” Wonderful. I liken it to reading an absolutely amazing and even life-changing and inspiring piece of literature and afterwards expressing praise for the Latin-based English alphabet as opposed to the well done expression of human experience which transcend ANY language! Sure English is a fine language that allows us to communicate, but it is the content of the communication, the beauty of what happened that is truly meaningful to us human persons, though the words and their particular and creative ordering might communicate it more effectively, there is a beauty that remains which warrants our appreciation in words and language that try desperately and sometimes fruitlessly to communicate some modicum of beauty. 

That aside, “science” is now an authority on par with the very worst of visions one may have of the Church in the middle ages. Do a google search on this term: “What science tells us about…” and you will find no end to the rabbit hole. Science can tell you everything about everything: your personal relationships, your parenting, your fashion preferences, your feelings, and even your religious faith. We see this magisterium of authority at work in nearly every level of our everyday lives: if you want to convince anyone of anything then you need to have “science” readily at hand and ready to back you up with statistics and “facts” – and they needn’t be generated from very good data, so long as it has impressive numbers and looks scientific, very few will question what they perceive to be the nearly sacred operation of science. Sometimes it really does feel like the same power some claim the Church wielded in the Middle Ages over people’s minds - it’s as absurd as dispensing religious dogma upon fancily decorated parchments to ignorant peasants and they lap it up for its apparent authority. Political hacks love to appear to be scientific in their positions and I still recall one glaring example during the healthcare debate in which an article purported to have nailed statistics on EXACTLY how many people have died because they lacked health insurance. It was one of the most absurd “studies” I’d ever read about and not a single conclusion it offered could possibly be supported by ANY available data. Just stop and think about how you could EVER investigate enough to prove that any given individual necessarily died because they lacked insurance? The variables are innumerable and when *I* personally wield the hammer that is science, if I have more than a couple of variables in any suggested study, I am laughed out of the PI’s offices - and that doesn’t even begin to address the funding no one would ever give me for such an ill-designed study. But this particular piece threw caution to the wind, tossed aside the importance of innumerable variables, got funded by who knows who, and regurgitated the desired conclusions from what data they had available. It looked authoritatively scientific and so it made its rounds on Facebook and the media mainly fueled by political opinions that believed these “facts” to begin with and they could now – thanks to science -  not only “believe”, but also “know.” (I was of course accused of dismissing this study for political reasons of my own, but whether that is true or not, I stand by my assertion that the study enlightened nothing and nobody.) The bigger point is that if you want to discern reality, no matter the context, if you intend to do so and be taken with any degree of seriousness then you need to at least pretend that science was done in the process of discerning that reality. And science becomes a stamp of approval…people will believe you if folks with the letters P, h, and D after their names claims they did some study that supports your truth claim.

Health studies, and particularly public health studies, are notorious in my mind: again, too many variables. Since the internet, our “scientific” health fads have begun moving at lightspeed and I was recently subjected to a talk by a PHS student that made me shudder to know that these people are using such data to try and alter public POLICY! But you see, again, science is being done – just very badly, and with a great deal of faith and I think it’s exactly that faith which empowers it. Shooting all too often before really aiming, because after all, everything is a potential target for science.  How else can we know what is real and what is true?

This modern need to have science in your intellectual opinion corner is what drives many Christians to the debating table with the secular materialist atheist, and there they do “scientific” battle amidst the agreed upon context that science, can indeed be used to demystify the mystery of God’s existence. But as both Mr. Spufford and Fr. Freeman have made clear to me in rather different ways: both participants of the debate are urinating in their neighbors’ pools. 

Obviously the materialist is beginning with a simple foundational assumption and belief: the universe is material only and all that is, can be discerned and understood by the application of human science (tools). Now of course, we now know better today than 500 years ago, that much more exists than could be imagined, and the materialist rightly knows that we have developed greater and greater tools to help us see what was once unseen. Therefore the materialist has no qualms in saying that surely much more exists about which we do not yet know. And “yet” is the key word. We will know eventually, he or she will claim, with all the confidence of a bible thumper expecting Jesus’ return. But if what the materialist believes is true about the nature of the universe, from where comes this faith that humans have the capacity for unlimited knowledge? One need only look to our evolutionary brothers and sisters in the animal world around us to note that without fail, all creatures have clear limitations in their comprehension abilities: pond water organisms have no concept of the origins of or the reasoning for the bright light suddenly blinding them as they are being peered at through a microscope by Mrs. Crabapple’s 4th period junior high school biology students. Nor does the cheetah have any notion of living on a sphere. And neither does the whale or chimpanzee comprehend the role of Deoxyribonucleic Acid in their reproduction. Why is it so hard to believe that we human animals also have a ceiling of consciousness or awareness through which we are simply not evolved to get or even see beyond? Having no survival need to do so, we’d never evolve anything to deal with it…whatever it may be. It may not be at all, but considering that all other animals have a limited capacity, and the materialists are so desirous of likening us to them, it seems self-absorbedly absurd on the level of the “earth is the center of the universe” absurd, to think we do not also have limits. Is there perhaps a real construct beyond our own, whereby we are like the pond water organisms trying to comprehend ourselves with utter ignorance to the reality that will perhaps always escape us – something utterly beyond our comprehension? Maybe, but we’ll never “know” because science cannot answer this question because it cannot reach beyond our own limit in the same way as a hammer can only strike with as much force as a human can muster – pneumatically assisted or not.

And of course, the argumentative believer will gaze into the gaps of scientific knowledge and find there evidence of God. And the materialist will desperately seek (perhaps by way of a proton accelerator) something of a decidedly material nature to fill them and thwart the gap filling theist. On and on they will go, arguing and debating hoping that “reason” usually as defined by the materialist will bring the other to enlightenment and to their side.  But it is all a waste of time – I’m convinced. Because we believe, or at least ought to believe, in a God who has told us that the “pure in heart…shall see God” not those running assays. 

And so, meanwhile, all over the world humans sometimes experience something that can only be described as transcendence – it might begin simply as a sense that there MUST be something more that exists, is at work, or is holding all things together. Or it might be something that one interprets to be a direct experience with that “thing.” Frequently it results in something that spills over into our biology. Materialists will hook up electrodes to our brains and try to mimic the sensations associated with such experiences and will tell us simply that we’ve experienced chemicals in the brain not unlike what might be experienced during drug use or other decidedly “natural” things that cause some degree of euphoria which we are stupidly mistaking for something which goes beyond the materialist worldview. Spufford does a fantastic job of linguistically capturing just such an experience, and I simply cannot do it justice, it needs to be taken at full dosage and not this small excerpt to fully appreciate, but here is a taste none-the-less:

It feels as if everything is backed with light, everything floats on a sea of light, everything is just a surface feature of the light. And that includes me. Every tricky thing I am, my sprawling piles of memories and secrets and misunderstandings, float on the sea; are local corrugations and whorls with the limitless light just behind. And now I’ve forgotten to breathe, because the shining something, an infinitesimal distance away out of the universe, is breathing in me and through me, and though the experience is grand beyond my powers to convey, it’s not impersonal. Someone, not something, is here. Though it’s on a scale that defeats imagining and exists without location (or exists in all locations at once) I feel what I feel when there’s someone beside me. I am being looked at. I am being known; known in some wholly accurate and complete way that is only possible when the point of view is not another local self in the world but glows in the whole medium in which I live and move. I am being seen from inside, but without any of my own illusions. I am being seen from behind, beneath, beyond. I am being read by what I am made of.

Spufford continues at length, and I again commend you to read it. I suspect many believers have experienced something similar and I can vividly remember a very similar experience, though more powerful – at least in the sense that it drove from me all notions of atheism to which I had previously been a devout adherent. And as I noted, the materialist will simply say that such experiences are easily explained away by the wonders of brain biochemistry, and that in reality Spufford and I are simply deceiving ourselves into thinking more was happening that was actually happening. But, no one is claiming that the feelings and sensations were not biological in origin but rather that such feelings and sensation don’t typically happen spontaneously without something leading up to them. Spufford puts it this way after affirming the existence of all the chemical explanations that would explain these sensations:

But so what? These are explanations of how my feelings might have arisen, physically, but they don’t explain my feelings away. They don’t prove that my feelings were not really my feelings. They certainly don’t prove that there was nobody there for me to be feeling them about. If God does exist, then from my point of view it’s hard to see how a physical creature like myself could ever register His presence except through some series or other of physically determined bodily states.
Now, laying aside the issue of our dual nature (physical and spiritual) because I do think we Christians tend to set up a false dichotomy between the two and we must keep in mind that we are a unified being and that death is the UNNATURAL separation of body and spirit, there is a really good point being made here. He goes on to describe the feelings one might feel in the context of romantic love. It would be decidedly odd and perhaps insane if one were to develop such “warm fuzzies” spontaneously or over an imagined lover (though it may well be possible, it certainly isn’t “normal”), but the larger point is that by simply offering a biochemical explanation for the feelings you have, it does not explain away the existence of the object of your romantic love! But additionally it must be noted that this itself is NOT an apologetic for God’s existence, it is instead a suggestion that science cannot properly be used to tell me I did NOT have an experience with Him who holds all things together. They will ask if I can prove that these emotions were being caused ultimately by an experience with the Creator and I will say – laughing – of course I cannot. But as Spufford puts it:
I am not in the habit of entertaining only the emotions I can prove. I’d be an unrecognizable oddity if I did. Emotions can certainly be misleading: they can fool you into believing stuff that is definitely, demonstrably untrue. But emotions are also our indispensable tool for navigating, for feeling our way through, the much larger domain of stuff that isn’t susceptible to proof or disproof, that isn’t checkable against the physical universe.

In Fr. Stephen Freeman’s book “Everywhere Present” he describes how many Christians have come to engage their Christianity in a context of a two story universe. Things material are down here, and God, his angels and associated spiritual stuff reside upstairs – and occasionally the upstairs world will invade down here and cause things like miracles to happen. But otherwise, the downstairs world is all perfectly explainable by science and self-existing. Fr. Stephen believes that this context is absolutely foreign to historic Christianity and he believes it evolved as a product of growing secularism and the triumph of science as the new magisterium of authority:

The world may be known according to the laws of physics, but in the modern understanding, there is nothing more to be known about the world than what can be known through physics. There is nothing within, between, or behind the world. There is just the world. It is this very literal character of the modern world that forces modern Christians into a two-storey worldview. If there is nothing within, between, or behind the world, then we must place God and all that we call “spiritual” somewhere outside the world.

Fr. Stephen is suggesting that the modern world is basically ascribing to a form of nominalism (he notes that this was a philosophical belief system which in the Middle Ages was ironically described as “the modern way.”). In essence, nominalism says that the world is nothing more than what it is.  And I would add:  as identified by science. It is nothing more, there is nothing profound or deep, there is no transcendent meaning which doesn’t originate from human imagination which of course is not at all real. It may also be described as “literalism” and one can also see that it played a role in the Protestant Reformation and certainly in the scholastic approach of western theology in general which led to absurdly complex explanations of the sacraments such as the Eucharist. Naturally we had to find complex explanations as to how the bread and wine become Body and Blood while looking like bread and wine – which according to nominalism should be all that they are! Something unheard of, nor indeed needed in the East, where it is was perfectly acceptable for the bread and wine to have “two realities.”(Fr. Stephen quotes St. Irenaios from Against Heresies). But once we have agreed that the materialists are right and everything we believe must be subjugated to the power of the scientific magisterium, we paint ourselves into a difficult corner. No one should know that better than those who’ve taken the literalism and nominalism they’ve been indoctrinated with and applied it to the Scriptures. 

Secular materialists LOVE Christians who adhere to a young earth creationist worldview, because given the presently existing magisterium of science they are able to “shoot fish in a barrel” as it were. Also recognizing the authority of science, the young earth creationists first adopted their point of view (literalism and nominalism) and then desperately seek to use whatever science and reason they can find to poke holes in the surety of the materialists “facts.” And yes, oh how the battle rages! It will rage over the bloodied fields of evolution, historicity of the book of Genesis, angels sleeping with women and producing a race of giants, dinosaurs and humans coexisting, great fish swallowing people, whether there is archeological evidence for the _________(fill in the blank), the reliability of carbon dating, the big bang theory, what a theory is to begin with and whether evolution should be called one, mist before the flood and rain afterwards, etc etc. It’s all very wearisome and both sides bore me. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to dodge the subject; rather I’m suggesting both sides are wrong if they are seeking the truth - at least as defined by the traditional Christian perspective - because they think that “truth” can be described simply by what really and literally happened as discerned from a proper scientific evaluation of all available data. 

Christianity does not see truth in this way, and I believe it’s why our beaten and abused God did not answer Pilate’s question. For Christianity has unveiled the Old Testament (2 Cor 3), and it is in Christ that the truth of Old Testament is known. The truth is not that you can count generations backwards and reach an accurate determination for the age of the earth (what nonsense!), but that Christ Himself is the truth revealed in, by, and through those generations. But for the Christian nominalist and literalist, what is most important is that the texts of the Old Testaments MUST be historically true and the fight rages…and in the process the truth is sacrificed at least as we Christians have traditionally seen it. Fr. Stephen writes: 

The meaning of the text has been lost in its “facticity.” What is important about the text is that it is reliable. Its meaning has been collapsed by the historical argument and the secular model of the nature of truth.

When talking to the religious leaders of His time, our Lord said: “You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me. But you are not willing to come to Me that you may have life.” (John 5:39-40). In other words, they are profoundly missing the point. Whether every jot and tittle in the Old Testament is absolutely historically and scientifically true is beside the point. The point is Christ.  These stories testify of Him! 

Fr. Stephen furthers his point by referencing our Orthodox Iconography. There is a reason I am not terribly fond of the “western” style of iconography in which the images take on a more photorealistic appearance and they are arguably a condescension to nominalism and literalism. For the importance of an icon is not to show how our Lord or a particular saint might have appeared, but rather to show you truth – which as we’d argue is different from what a news reporter might report with regards to a person or event. It is my opinion that the classical Byzantine style does this far better. Fr. Stephen describes why and then also ties it to Scripture:

The traditional Byzantine form of iconography makes use of inverse perspective, a technique that makes the icon “open out” as we look deeper into it, rather than disappearing at some point of perspective in the background. For the modern eye, this can make the picture appear flat or somehow disproportionate. It is a technique developed by highly skilled artists who were no strangers to the realistic perspective of painting with which we are more familiar. Their technique was an effort to develop an artistic grammar that would have expression in line and color and that would speak in the same manner as Scripture does in word and letter. The resulting iconographic technique gives insight into the character of icons as well as the character of Scripture. The Seventh Council was able to declare that “icons do with color what Scripture does with words” precisely because both speak in an “iconic” manner—or we could say that icons speak in a “Scriptural manner.” They are revelatory of one another—however, literalism is descriptive of neither.

Consider the icon of the Crucifixion: while it contains components of the historical events, it also has numerous aspects that had you been there personally, you would not have seen or been able to document with a camera. Again, it is communicating truth, something that is far bigger than something than can be recorded and put on YouTube. The same is true for the Icon of the Resurrection which in the Eastern tradition does not show Christ coming out of the tomb alive, but rather mystically raising up Adam and Eve from amidst the crashed down gates of Hell – again something a camera could neither capture nor communicate. 

Ultimately, the irony of Pilate’s question is that he was staring Truth in His face, and asking: “What is truth?” For you see there is no assay I can discern that would produce data to answer the question of whether or not God is in fact “everywhere present and fillest all things.” Sometimes I’ve heard people who tend to like to mock the fundamentalist Christian who they think stupidly adheres to his or her ridiculous beliefs against all common magisterium approved scientific sense, but then offer a modicum of respect to the atheist scientist who equally adheres to his or her faith because after all, he or she must have utilized some science to get to that opinion. No they didn’t. They are as arrogant, ignorant and obnoxious as any bible thumper. I believe that it is a sad reality that more and more we are affirming the notion that science has no bounds and no frontiers that it may not colonize. And stranger still, we forget it is a tool and construct of our minds. It does not create, it does not manifest, it does not amaze us. Yes, it can produce tools to reveal the presence of magnificent pictures of faraway worlds and astonishingly magnificent molecular structures, but it brought neither into being. Really, It just takes pictures, which can never fully reveal the truth that causes us to be awestruck. 
...offered by Dn. James Ferrenberg, a sinner at 4:13 AM [+]
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Friday, March 07, 2014

Lent is the Red Pill, the escape from the "Matrix of Self"

For Orthodox Christians, Lent isn't a buffet line of choices where we get to decide what "thing" we will give up. Rather the Lenten Fast is prescribed, and while most modern expressions of Christianity have abandoned or profoundly modified the Fast, in the Orthodox custom it remains in keeping with the oldest traditions. It involves abstaining generally from all meat, dairy products, olive oil, and wine. However the time of Lent isn't JUST about food, it is also focused very intensely on Prayer and Almsgiving. All of which is ultimately intended to get our minds off of ourselves - that may seem simple, but it isn't.

Of course, it is no grand revelation or profound insight to claim that we spend most of our lives wholly focused on ourselves. Most of us all know that we do, but the problem here isn't as straightforward as it may seem. Here is the deeper issue (at least as I see it in my life): we are also wholly blind to ourselves. What we perceive isn't necessarily real at all, instead we have invented a sort of false reality like the Matrix in which we operate and if that weren't bad enough, our culture and society is totally in on the deception. I think we tend to look at the world around us, necessarily (or so it seems) assume that our senses are perceiving what is real, but only after we've run it through the interpretive center of our noggin which is, in my case at least, an untrustworthy and profoundly biased source. So in other words, we as individuals are the sole reference for what is real - is it any wonder we have developed beliefs in such things which are "true for you" and not so for me, along with other relativistic nonsense. But before we absolutists became too cocky, the fact (I think) remains that most of our construed absolutes are equally a part of the Matrix or our collective self-deception and in that context, the relativists are often more right than absolutists would like to admit. Now I say all this as a scientist who by the very nature of my job must believe in absolute truth and our ability to discern it to some degree, and so I should note that the analogy of the Matrix does break down at some point. Clearly everything around us (such as these computers we are using) is real, as is the rest of the world presently surrounding us. However, HOW we perceive and interact with that world is where the "Matrix of Self" obscures things for us. We are in a constant state of collecting data and interpreting it and then deciding how to process and respond to it. That entire mechanism is flawed and for the most part we do not care. On the contrary we reinforce, often quite unintentionally, the many flaws that uphold the Matrix. 

A simple illustration of the role that the "Matrix of Self" plays in our lives is to consider death. Consider how we fail to consider it! We avoid it, we shun it, we hide it and we don't like to talk about it. Indeed we often live our lives as if it in fact doesn't even exist! And we in the modern world, even when faced with it, sanitize it, sterilize it and keep it at a distance....desperate to avoid this invasion of reality and return to the great deception of the "Matrix of Self."

Have you ever felt this strange sensation that reality is escaping you - I like to take a cue from the movie and call it a glitch in the Matrix, whereas more likely it is God's Grace peaking in on my little facade. Let me try and explain: For brief moments I think or feel that I can see past myself and can even see myself as I OUGHT to be, but am not. It sometimes feels like those frustrating dreams in which you keep trying to accomplish some task and yet no matter how much progress you think you are making, you suddenly realize that you are making none whatsoever! Or another way I envision it: reality becomes present just to the extent that I can perceive its existence from time to time, but its only for a fleeting second or two before I am yanked back away from it - or more to the point I yank myself away from it. Well then, what do I mean by reality? I guess the best way I might describe it is to suggest that reality is a state of being which exists beyond myself. It transcends me and allows me to see with a degree of what could be called pure objectivity....well...not quite....more specifically and simply: purity, no longer being obscured by the "Matrix of Self." Don't kid yourselves, this is no easy task. One will often hear talk in Orthodox circles (and for certain amongst the writings of the Fathers) about the nous - sometimes described as that part of us which is able to relate to or connect with God. It is a Greek word which is often translated as "mind" or "heart" but not without debate. While I will avoid trying to define it precisely, I will say that I do believe the Beatitude which states "the pure in heart...shall see God." (St. Matthew 5:8) is related to it. And so in that context, one might refer to the nous as being equivalent to a purified heart and the means by which we can find reality.

Now, the surest way to send these fleeting moments of reality into oblivion, is to turn on the TV, radio, or internet and simply float away amidst the shallow muck of our collective deception. For it is here where we are most easily able to avoid the most important issue of our lives (the purity of our hearts) and focus on innumerable issues that will not shake us free from the "Matrix of Self". Sadly some of these things might be very good, important, and praiseworthy: maybe it's Facebook posts on some atrocity in the world or some political issue you feel strongly about. In this context, from the comfort of our lounge chairs we can "like" such posts, engage in heated debate about them, and walk away having gained NO greater sense of reality and usually quite the opposite: only the upholding of the facade. The more mundane things are obvious: who won the best actor Oscar and how upset are we that so and so didn't? What did Ellen DeGeneres wear when she opened the ceremony? On and on it goes...step back and read your Facebook feed, or look at the news streams, or consider what you watch on TV: what is the real value of any of this to your REAL life, to the purity of your heart? It seems colossally important to our lives in the "Matrix of Self", but none of it will get us any closer to reality. 99% of what we listen to, read, watch, or do is probably ultimately just distracting us and making us feel comfortable, content, and happy, which ironically might very likely be the key to our ultimate destruction. For some of us, pop culture and those things that are "trending" online (maybe a funny cat video, or "fail" videos, or the latest nearly pornographic music video) are sufficient to keep us trapped in the deception. Consider even further: maybe food is enough to keep us comfortable and this is not just a quantity issue (remember the gentlemen in the movie who longed to go back into the Matrix to escape the pain of reality and as he spoke about why he dreamed outloud of eating a delicious simulated steak), or maybe our hobbies keep us entertained and comfortably numb. Maybe it's video games or movies or _______. What thing in YOUR life do you go to, like a drug, in order to remain comfortable and to avoid confronting the reality of self? What keeps you trapped in the "Matrix of Self?" I have heard that the surest way to see a person grow irritable is to remove from them all electronics and place them in a room utterly free of distractions and simply ask them to sit in silence for 10 minutes. Arguably it would be the longest 10 minutes of most people's lives because the fact is that we YEARN for distraction so as to avoid the reality of self. We are inclined to want to stay in the Matrix of self-deception. And who can argue with the fact that we live in an age that is overflowing with distractions. Every time we see people's faces glued to their phones, do we not consider that they are being distracted from reality? Not just the reality of a spouse or child trying to gain their attention (no less problematic and a serious warning to us), but that deeper reality that we are talking about here!

Now, please, don't think I'm suggesting any of these things that can distract us are inherently bad. Rather I'm suggesting there is a massive influx of things hitting our senses, all of which have the potential to reinforce the "Matrix of Self" - and render us profoundly comfortable...stagnant. As I stop and look at my life, sometimes I feel a profound yearning to break away from all the nonsense that is keeping me imprisoned in my Matrix and I can see all these things keeping me there...conveniently distracted and appealing to all my various passions. I sense for brief moments some invisible barrier that is paper thin and yet no less keeping me imprisoned in the Matrix of Self...I want to take the red pill and break through to other side. Unfortunately, as with much in life, there is no simple pill to take to solve all of our problems.

The process by which we "take the red pill" is three fold in the Orthodox Tradition: purification, illumination, and theosis. This is nothing less than salvation. It is a pathway available to us which would not otherwise be so were it not for the saving work of Christ...but it is just that: a pathway and not a judicial proclamation of innocence despite guilt. It is instead a real and ontological change that must occur.

Lent is, in this way, the red pill. A prescription offered to us by over 2000 years of collective holy wisdom as a tried and true means to help us escape the "Matrix of Self". Alas, it is not as simple as taking a pill and going back to YouTube to watch videos expecting you'll magically be purified and enlightened. No, the Lenten prescription is: fasting (the belly and tongue's yearning for it is the very foundation of our passions), prayer (accomplishes quite the opposite of those things which make us comfortable in the Matrix...and the odds are our local Orthodox Churches provide seemingly unlimited opportunities), and Almsigiving (takes from ourselves and recognizes the other...it tears down the very fabirc of the "Matrix of Self"). 

The Canon of St. Andrew is typically served during the first week of Lent, and it was the Kontakion in this service which got me thinking about this idea. 


My soul, my soul, arise! Why are you sleeping? The end is drawing near, and you will be confounded. Awake, then, and be watchful, that Christ our God may spare you, Who is everywhere present and fills all things.

One of the most overt effects of the "Matrix of Self" is that we completely lose the ability to discern the reality that He is in fact "everywhere present and fills all things." Knowing this and sensing this reality is a sure sign that we are tearing through the veil that hinders us.

...offered by Dn. James Ferrenberg, a sinner at 8:44 AM [+]
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Saturday, February 15, 2014


The Liturgy in Africa


Last Sunday, I was honored and blessed to serve for the Divine Liturgy with Fr. Stephen at St. George Orthodox Church in Bbira district, Kampala. I had little idea of what to expect in terms of what a Deacon would do because of obvious reasons: the Ugandan expression of the Liturgy as well as the fact that the Ugandan Church derives most of its traditions from Greek practice. The Georges' were kind enough to give me some specific clues as to what to expect, but the little details could not all be communicated. Plus Fr. Stephen does not typically serve with a Deacon. 

Trying to figure out what I was going to do

But I found that it flowed quite naturally for the most part. There certainly were differences, for instance they completely skipped the Litany of Fervent Supplication which I had gone out to do, but Fr. Stephen very kindly called me back in to the Sanctuary without much disruption. I suppose that might have confused the choir, but luckily it was being led by Photios who has had extensive theological and muscial training both in America and Greece and therefore likely knew this portion would confuse me. 

"Commemorating our All Holy Immaculate..."

I found that I was easily able to blend with the choir to the point that I thought it sounded quite nice, and as I really began to "get into" the service, I began to feel comfortable and being able to relax, became aware of God's presence there with us. And as I did, the possibility of making mistakes became less and less important. The thought that I was in Uganda Africa became less of a primary thought, and instead was becoming more aware of the reality that we were participating in the Kingdom. This was indeed the Liturgy I knew and loved, despite all the differences. And the fact that I would offer the litanies in English and some of the responses were in Lugandan made little difference, we were united in our worship.

The Gospel reading, I did the English and Fr. Stephen did the Lugandan. I forgot to ask why he wore blue...given the minimal salary he earns, I am sure he is unable to own anything but what is gifted to him.

The reading of the Holy Gospel was much different than I was used to doing, but I simply followed Fr. Stephen's lead. I was handed a copy of the very familiar Orthodox Study Bible from which I read. There is no fancy gold cover for the Altar version Fr. Stephen used - it was clearly a very well used and old book which was completely in Lugandan. It was the Sunday and Publican and the Pharisee. 

When the time came for the Great Entrance, I was a little worried because I had no remembrance from previous attendances of where we were going, let alone what a deacon's role was in their custom. I was fairly sure I was to offer the commemoration of their hierarch, but beyond that very little else (e.g. when to begin the proclamation, whether to stop and face the people while saying it etc.). I did go into "auto-pilot" and nearly moved their Metropolitan Jonah to America, but caught myself and corrected: "of all Amer....of all Uganda." I later learned from Peter that he is commemorated as "Archbishop of Kampala, Metropolitan of all Uganda." But, otherwise it all went fairly smoothly none-the-less as we brought our offerings to the Lord's Table. 


Note the simple candle our very capable young altar server was using


Towards the end, Fr. Stephen leaned over to me and asked if I would deliver the homily. I told him I was not prepared to do so, and he then said: "Next week, then?" and I agreed. The homily is offered just after the clergy commune and before the people are offered the Gifts. And while Fr. Stephen was kind enough to give it in English, I had to confess that I struggled to understand all that he said mostly because, as I've often found with Ugandans, he was so soft-spoken and quick that I could not hear him very well. But he did speak very kindly of me, welcoming me to their Parish and committing me to speaking next Sunday by announcing that I would. Hmmm... :)

I have no idea if it is common practice for Deacons to commune the faithful, but once he again he asked me to do so.

St. George Parish is a very small community. I would guess we only had perhaps 15-20 people present. I'm told many of the young people who'd normally be there were now at boarding school (a relatively common practice in Uganda). I really do enjoy the music they sing, which as I've described before maintains a distinctly African feel to it, despite being commonly known Greek tones. There was a particularly beautiful song they sang as I was finishing the Gifts and cleaning the Chalice which Photios told me was a psalm and was a piece they had gotten from their cathedral in Namungoona: St. Nicholas. It was lovely and I suspect it was a local original work - though I cannot be sure. Some of the tones are only reminiscent of how I recall them, because of the uniqueness they add to them. I have not the musical skills to discern the exact difference and can only describe it as African harmonies as I only hear that lovely sound in that context. 

It was a rich blessing to be there and I look forward to serving again tomorrow and in the future. Perhaps in time I will be able to memorize the Little Litany in Lugandan, but we shall see. In the end, I was reminded that despite our vast differences in so many ways, we are united via the Divine Liturgy in Christ and in His Kingdom:

We have seen the True Light! We have received the Heavenly Spirit! We have found the True Faith! Worshiping the Undivided Trinity, Who has saved us. Amen.

After Litrugy speaking (or at least trying to - I don't think she speaks much English) to the Priest's mother who is the matriarch of the Parish.



Many thanks to Peter and Sharon Georges for the pictures of my first time serving the Divine Liturgy in Uganda. 
 
...offered by Dn. James Ferrenberg, a sinner at 6:42 AM [+]
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Sunday, February 09, 2014

"Am I my brother's keeper?"

  
This is, of course, the answer Cain offers to God when he is asked: "Where is your brother Abel?" It came to mind after I was blessed to be able to spend some time on Saturday at the offices of St. Nicholas Uganda Children's Fund in Kampala Uganda. Cain's answering in the form of a rhetorical question which we can assume he thought should be answered with an obvious "No" is ominous because not only had he just killed his brother, but the REAL answer to the question is of course a resounding: "YES!"

I only spent a few hours with Peter and Sharon Georges at their offices, but in that time I saw a constant flow of people coming into and out of their facility with a variety of issues, problems, or concerns. It very quickly became apparent to me that their ministry is FAR more than simply handing over cash in order to pay for the education of children. No, Peter and Sharon are mentoring, challenging, encouraging, and advocating for these kids, providing food and services of all kinds to their families, and also holding them accountable. At least two conversations I over-heard involved talking to parents or guardians of kids (of some kind) who had truancy issues from school, others involved medical needs for a young girl who was running into road blocks from the convoluted system in Uganda. I can only imagine the long, long list of needs Peter and Sharon address over the course of any given year. Put quite simply, they are being their brothers' and sisters' keepers. I did not realize how much of themselves they pour into this work and I could not be more honored to be playing a very small part in supporting their efforts. 

They have somewhere between 260-280 children in their program (I can't recall the exact number) and this coming week they will be hiring buses to take 82 of them up to the Orthodox Boarding School in Monde. It must be a monumental effort, which they undertake with joy. If you spend some time on their website and follow the links, particularly in the "What we do" section, you will see some of the evidence of the work they undertake, but I'm quite certain it cannot fully bring across to readers in the States the full scope of the GOOD they are doing here. I was somewhat sad to learn that only a small proportion of their kids are sponsored, luckily they have generous donors who give significantly without connecting through their sponsorship program and this combined with some grants from some charitable foundations allows them to care for so many. But it gave me pause to think of how many people there are out there who cannot offer large lumps of cash but could perhaps commit to $20 or $50 (or more) a month - it would make a tremendous people difference. I really encourage anyone who has a desire to see their money used in an incredibly responsible and profitable way for the helping of the desperately poor: seriously consider them. 


In addition to getting to witness first hand the work they do, they had arranged for me to be able to meet the young man that we sponsor and to share some gifts of clothing we brought for his family. 


Henry, his sister Sharon, and I chatting


Henry's got a couple of inches on me. He's 18, but missed several years of school and is now one of the highest achieving students in the program.

And then, I was able to meet a couple of gentlemen from the program who had just begun studying at Makerere University and are study Biomedical Laboratory Technology. They were clearly eager to talk and I invited them to come to our facilities to see the work that we do at the Hutchinson Centre Research Institute - Uganda. We also agreed to stay and touch and I offered to help them and offer advice anytime they might need it. These young men are living lives they could not hope to have imagined until the St. Nicholas Uganda Children's Fund stepped into their lives. 
I guess I get somewhat animated and excited talking about Real-Time Quantitative PCR.


Finally, seeing all these people coming in and out of the offices there also made me think of something that I know will embarrass the Georges, but I'm going to say it anyway: I have no doubt that when the end of the ages comes, they will be standing on the right and will hear our Lord say: "Come you, blessed of my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you visited Me."





...offered by Dn. James Ferrenberg, a sinner at 10:50 AM [+]
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Thursday, November 21, 2013

Theology - the inner, silent faith of the Church

"The Gospel is not about Mary. But, Mary is definitely about the Gospel." - Fr. Thomas Hopko

Today is the feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple. But really, it isn't something the Church would have normally made any sort of big public deal about - particularly in the age when or place where Christianity was decidedly a minority faith. And the reason being is that Mary (and indeed the rest of the Saints) really are not part of the public message of the Gospel. I was reminded of this as I listened to Fr. Thomas Hopko's podcast about this feast. Instead, the Theotokos is part of the inner Tradition of the Church.

Fr. Thomas notes that Vladimir Lossky, following St. Basil the Great and St. Ignatios of Antioch wrote that the Theotokos is not part of the Kerygma (public preaching) of the Church; she is not part of the Public Preaching of the Gospel which is Christ, Him crucified, and Risen. The Theotokos, among other teachings and traditions, belong to the inner mystery - the "silence of faith" and it is here where our understanding of the Theotokos is to be nurtured and properly understod. Only those who are part of the inner life of the Church can really understand her role and importance.

Now, if you are like me, your mind will wander immediately to gnosticism and the secret wisdom which they deemed necessary for salvation. And therein lies the difference. Understanding of these inner mysteries of the Church is not necessary for salvation, they are not in and of themselves the Truth. Truth is a person, and that is Christ - you must know Him. Far more than an intellectual asset, knowing Him and living the inner life of the Church becomes the foundation upon which the inner mysteries can be built. St. Paul hints to this idea when writing to the Church in Corinth noting the difference between milk and meat (1 Cor. 3:2)

None of this should surprise anyone. Consider that Catechumens were not allowed to be present for the latter half of the Divine Liturgy and were dismissed - and as many of you know this remnant of the service remains, though we do not shuffle anyone out anymore. Additionally Catechumen's would only hear the Gospel of John for the first time at the Paschal Liturgy as it was deemed to not be the Kerygma, but the Theology of the Church. One could say: it is meat.

It's not about keeping secrets like the Mason's (God forbid), it's really about common sense. You don't take Caluculus until you have taken Pre-Algebra, otherwise you'd think Calculus to be the work of a mad man. (maybe it is!) Last night at Great Vespers we read three Old Testament Readings which spoke of The Tabernacle, the Temple, the Ark of the Covenant, and the Closed Gate of the Sanctuary. All of them prophesying and referring to Mary who in turn, as ever, points to Christ. But comprehending that and not seeing it as absurdity cannot come easily without some grounding in Truth first.

Listen to Fr. Thomas' podcast - it is worth your time. A blessed feast everyone!


...offered by Dn. James Ferrenberg, a sinner at 10:16 AM [+]
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