Once upon a time there was a man who was alive.

Location: Hattiesburg, Mississippi, United States
St. Cuthbert and Disciples in a Boat


Holy Places

Today while our school quiz bowl team was driving back from a competition on the Coast, our conversation turned to ghost stories and such, which can be great fun, particularly on dark rainy days. But while we traded stories of 'haunted' locales, a thought occured to me: here in the South, and throughout the US, there are numerous 'haunted' places, locations with dark shadows and stories of evil and murder and senseless violence and all that. But there are no holy places (or comparatively few), at least not as a Catholic or Orthodox- or once Catholic or Orthodox- nation would know them. There are no holy wells, no villages 'haunted' by a Saint, few places with marvelous benevolent memory of some holy man, at least not of the caliber of our evilly haunted and storied places. This, in opposition to the 'Old World' where there are haunted castles and holy wells; kelpie-inhabited lochs and holy islands.

The main sites that I can think of as being particularly hallowed here in the South are churches, cemeteries, and battlefields. The later I grew up regarding with great reverence, and for good reason: it was on the fields of Shiloh, Vicksburg, Chickamaugua, Atlanta, right down to Bentonville, that my own ancestors and their countrymen fought and died. And the places where the Army of Northern Virginia trod were- are- downright shrines, where the soil itself reminds you of the steps of Lee and Jackson and the men who followed them. We not quite have a King Afled or St. Edmund, but we do have General Jackson and General Lee. We may not keep relics of saints, but we have kept the relics of our saintly heroes (and yes, I have seen General Jackson's horse, Old Sorrel, stuffed and displayed at VMI).

Beyond that, there is little 'sacred geography' in the South in the sense of sites associated with Saints or our Lady or the like. But we do have, alongside our battlefields, churches and cemeteries: small churches pervade the rural South, and there are few places like an old cemetery cloistered deep inside the woods. These are, I suppose, the main and true content of Southern sacred geography. When I was little, living in rural (very rural!) Alabama, my parents would take me to old cemeteries, where we would look at the old tombstones and try to imagine the people whose bodies lied buried beneath. (Yes, there wasn't much in the way of recreation or excitment around there!) I still have a tendency to stop at cemeteries and look. The most poignant are often African-American cemeteries, often unfenced and grown up, the tombstones simple affairs, frequently homemade from cement and hand-enscribed in a wandering script. But the saddest sights are the numerous tiny blocks of stone that barely peek above the grass or leaf mould. These almost always mark infants' grave-sites, engraved with only initials. Or those tombstones, also so frequent, whose birth and death dates are but a handful of years apart.

And churches- old churches really, wood-frame sort that surprise you on country roads- always have a hallowed feel. The pictures are of one of my favorites. It's on Old Port Gibson Road, thirty or forty miles east of the Mississippi River, above Natchez. I don't know what its name was or denomination or anything. It's just there, sitting off the road behind privet and sweetgum. A little cemetery lies up the hill from it, and a ten-foot deep sunken road drops down through the woods nearby. The new road lies a good ways off. I missed it the first time I went by. When I finally saw it, I managed to stop and visit one evening, with the sun setting behind the sweet gum and oak. The front is still holding up, but the back has caved in, the victim of a tree-fall. The timbers crashed down upon the pulpit. It's starkly evocative. Haunting, but in the holy way. I would not expect ghosts there, or malignant spirits. Saints, maybe.

But we have few places- I cannot really think of any rural ones- that have a relation to a particular saint, in any way. We may have houses haunted by unquiet dead and other imports from Europe and Africa, but it seems that the holy men and women who hallowed wells and built monasteries had worse luck on the voyage over. I am glad for what we do have, but there is a feeling that there is something missing. Our sacred geography is incomplete. It is beautiful and bound into the landscape and our lives, but I would that it were deeper and yet richer. And, like that church on Old Port Gibson Road, all too much is in a state of decay. But that is a story for another time.


All Felled, Felled, Are All Felled

Binsey Poplars

felled 1879

My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,
Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
All felled, felled, are all felled;
Of a fresh and following folded rank
Not spared, not one
That dandled a sandalled
Shadow that swam or sank
On meadow and river and wind-wandering weed-winding bank.

O if we but knew what we do
When we delve or hew—
Hack and rack the growing green!
Since country is so tender
To touch, her being só slender,
That, like this sleek and seeing ball
But a prick will make no eye at all,
Where we, even where we mean
To mend her we end her,
When we hew or delve:
After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.
Ten or twelve, only ten or twelve
Strokes of havoc únselve
The sweet especial scene,
Rural scene, a rural scene,
Sweet especial rural scene.

Gerard Manley Hopkins
{The above picture is of a recently felled sycamore tree that grew on my campus, and which was the loveliest and tallest tree there. I felt the same sentiments Hopkins writes- yes, I have a certain green side to me!}


St. Maximus Confessor

St. Maximus the Confessor (a short biography and the source of the quote below) has for some time been one of my favorite theologians. He combines often densely erudite theology with immensely practical teaching- though of course, he would tell us, what one believes and what one does are absolutely inseperable. In fact, as he makes clear in several places in his writings, true theology comes through love of God, not mere study. And not only did St. Maximus write about theology and the love of God, but he also suffered for Christ's sake, in the cause of true theology, even in the face of persecution.

St. Maximus is an excellent instructor in theosis: what it is and what it is not. I highly recommend the Popular Patristic translation of selections from his Ambigua and Ad Thallasium, wherein he dwells at length on theosis and the overarching work of Christ in bringing the world to Himself. Maximus is careful to retain the distinction between creature and Creator, yet without diminishing the reality of theosis.

"Nothing in theosis is the product of human nature, for nature cannot comprehend God. It is only the mercy of God that has the capacity to endow theosis unto the existing... In theosis man (the image of God) becomes likened to God, he rejoices in all the plenitude that does not belong to him by nature, because the grace of the Spirit triumphs within him, and because God acts in him" (Letter 22).

Troparion, Tone 3

Through thee the Spirit poured forth/ streams of teaching for the Church;/ thou didst expound God the Word's self emptying,/ and shine forth in thy struggles as a true Confessor of the Faith;/ holy Father Maximos, pray to Christ our God to grant us His great mercy.

Kontakion, Tone 8

O faithful, let us acclaim the lover of the Trinity,/ great Maximos who taught the God-inspired Faith,/ that Christ is to be glorified in two natures, wills and energies:/ and let us cry to him: Rejoice, O herald of the Faith.


Joyful Subversives

It is not a ground-breaking thing for me to say that American culture is non-Christian and thoroughly secular. It most certainly is not Orthodox. Instead, American- Western- culture is often openly hostile in the face of Christianity, and even when it is not, Christ never enters into the question or the answer. Ours is a society that at best grudgingly tolerates religion, so long as it conforms itself to the given standards and norms of secularized behavior. God is tolerable so long as He- like everyone else- molds Himself to our tolerant and diverse society. The radical, often uncomfortable God of Christianity is not welcome.

Living in the midst of this world of abortion on demand, entertainment drowned in sensuality, endless marketing and commercialization, and the call to fulfill my ego however it pleases me, it is natural to desire a radical change in our society. The world is horribly skewered, and I earnestly desire to turn it upside down. But the methods I would use are most certainly not the ones that Christ would endorse. I am tempted, like the angered Apostles, to call down fire from heaven; or like St. Peter to pull out my sword and fight until they cut me down (knowing full well that I would not get that far; I would end exactly as St. Peter did in the courtyard). Yet while Christ bids me put down my sword, He also tells me to go out and sell my tunic and buy a sword. What are we to make of it? He has come, He says, not for peace but for war.

Indeed He has come, and He stands in opposition to the world, and to its tyrannical prince. Herod was right to fear the little child in the manger: He comes to work justice and righteousness in the earth. Yet how does He achieve justice? He comes to liberate the captives and slay Death itself, yet He does not raise a rebellion of spears and clubs, but is Himself beaten and killed.

His very coming into the world is a perfect example of how Christ wrecks kingdoms and razes cultures. He does not gather angry zealots with swords and spears at His cradle; He does not send out angels with bullhorns or petitions. Instead, He sends out a choir to herald His coming to simple shepherds. These are the first witnesses of the revolution; they are the first initiates into this social inversion and radical change. What do they do when they find Him? They go forth into the city, rejoicing. Herod is only a shortly ahead in the narrative, and the kingdom and powers that he represents are being challenged, but not in the conventional way. The first counter-cultural agents of the true King, come back to claim His own, have no guns or bombs or leaflets. They have joy, they have the knowledge of their King. Come see the thing we have seen. Their message- and the message of the Church down through the ages- is not mere social protest, or anger at the injustices of the world. Certainly we must have those, and in Christ they are proclaimed loudly, but we offer alongside the negative appraisal of the world joy. There is a place, of course, for protest, and perhaps even for literal swords- St. Oswald and St. Edwin, among others, bore arms and used them- but even then our methods are not the same as the world, and we know that these are only temporal means. But even as we protest evil and seek justice, we have joy, and herald the Just Judge Who comes to save the world.

It would be absurd if we did not have a Savior to warrant it. St. Paul and St. Silas singing in jail is ridiculous; why should anyone be happy about unjust imprisonment? But they are not happy over imprisonment- they are joyful because they have met the Man of Sorrows, Who, having passed through the vale of sorrows, offers man the hope of the joy of God. The martyrs- the true revolutionaries of the Church- rejoice, not because they love death, but because they love the Crucified and Risen Savior more. Having seen Him Who defies, in His sacrificial death, the evil of the world, they too defy tyrants and all dark powers.

And so we are in the midst of a world that is anti-Christ, that is filled with sorrows and injustice. We are contra mundum, subversives, plotting for the downfall of tyrannts. We must turn and spit- spit!- upon the world, the flesh, and Satan, and keep our vows to renounce his works. And we do this in a spirit of joy, for we have met the King. We bear sorrow and joy, for we have seen both the evils of the world and the Savior of the world. Our joy in this Savior will prove subversive, for it beckons beyond the confines of corrupted culture. As we live the Gospel and speak the Gospel we bear witness to the this joy, and this very act goes against a world which denies the whole thing. We need not walk about with signs on our backs, but with carefully planted words and dangerous ideas, with actions in the love and joy of Christ. Let us be 'as gentle as doves, as wise as serpents'. Let us 'aquire the Spirit of peace, and thousands around us will be saved.' It is a declaration of war, and one that we must conduct in boundless rejoicing.


Temptation and Sin

"First a memory brings up a simple thought to the mind, and when it lingers about it arouses passion. When it is not removed it sways the mind to consent, and when this happens the actual sinning finally takes place."

St. Maximus Confessor, Four Hundred Chapters on Love 1.84


Monday Musings

Today is the first day of the spring semester, and marks my last semester at Jones County Junior College (we are the only college in the state that still uses the appellative 'junior' in our name). I've enjoyed my first two years of college- the very inexpensive nature of a junior college (rendered even more inexpensive by scholarships) has certainly contributed to my enjoyment. This fall my plans are to enter, Lord willing, Belhaven College in Jackson, and from there- perhaps the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg for my graduate studies. I have settled, more or less, on pursuing a degree in history, with either a double major or minor in philosophy. My interests are particularly directed towards early medieval and Byzantine history. I find Anglo-Saxon culture and history particularly fascinating. With poems like Beowulf and the Battle of Maldon, and Saints like Oswald and Guthlac, you can't go wrong.

Today has also been unseasonably warm, which has been the pattern for a couple weeks. This is not terribly surprising; this part of Mississippi isn't exactly known for bitter cold and snow. Our last snow was two years ago on New Year's; it had almost completely expired by noon. Still, the weather this month so far has been exceptionally mild. So mild, in fact, that there are wild blackberries blooming in the thickets across the road from my house- something I have never seen in January. I also found blooming, at the head of little weedy pond and willow stand, chickweed and wood sorrel- all apparently oblivious to the fact that the calander reads January. The azeleas in our yard are preparing to bloom, and the camelias bloom through Christmas onwards. Now, if anyone in less livable climes is reading this and envying us down here, remember that come July and August our fair land will be so hot that tennis shoes melt in parking lots and birds can't fly for the humidity, so all works out quite fairly I think.

Dad has settled down, more or less, in Diego Garcia, though the accomodations are quite Spartan- for Air Force people anyway. He's living in a supped-up tent (canvas and plywood), but he has Internet access and the telephone system works occasionally. Not a lot to do there, but he's making the best of it. He's sent some pictures- it's a pretty place, palm trees, scenic beaches, the whole lot- with no tourists...

And finally, there's this: North Korea Wages War on Long Hair. 'Tidy attire "is important in repelling the enemies' manoeuvres to infiltrate corrupt capitalist ideas and lifestyle and establishing the socialist lifestyle of the military-first era," the radio says.' Heh heh heh.