Thursday, June 26, 2008

On converting pain into spiritual progress

This is from a series of presentations Fr. Zacharias gave entitled The Hidden Man of the Heart. I listened (again) to the recording today while traveling back and forth to work; what follows is taken from the book by the same name (pp. 103-105). I usually prefer reading to listening, but just hearing his gentle manner and humble approach is inspiring to me.

It is not easy to learn to weep properly. If we weep on the psychological level, we shall wither and quench all life in us; whereas if we weep spiritually, not only will we suffer no harm, but we shall be regenerated. In We Shall See Him as He Is, Fr. Sophrony explains the difference between spiritual and psychological mourning. According to him, psychological mourning is a matter of our confining life to the visible plane. Spiritual weeping occurs when we refer every experience of ours to God, on Whom we depend for everything, for we can only lament the distance that separates us from Him.

We frequently suffer pain and hurt on the psychological level when we encounter energies that crush our heart. But we must rise above these negative experiences, and we do so by exploiting the heart-felt pain of a particular incident and convert it into spiritual energy. Fr. Sophrony often stressed that we must learn to transfer every psychological state--whether due to illness, the scorn of other people, persecution, or the incapacity of our nature--onto the spiritual level by means of a positive thought. And we do this simply by keeping our mind in the place where the Son of God is. We think on those things that are on high, as St. Paul advised the Philippians (cf. Phil. 4:8).

Fr. Zacharias gives this example to clarify what he is saying:

A brother says a harsh word to me and wounds me. There are two ways of reacting to this energy that so crushes my heart. I can react bitterly and say, "How ungrateful of him! I have been so kind to him for years, I pray and care for him, and look how unjustly he treats me! He is a bad man." That is the normal psychological reaction of people in the world. But, there is another reaction. The pain is real and goes straight to the heart, but without even thinking about where this pain came from, I change the direction of my thought and I say, "Lord, You saw my indolence and my negligence and You sent Your angel to wake me up. Have mercy upon us." I use the energy of the emotion and I direct my thought to God and pray for the things I am in need of. We can always use that bitter energy within us to pray for the forgiveness of our sins. So I convert the psychological energy into spiritual energy, and I enter into dialogue with God, and at the end of it I feel refreshed and I do not even remember from where I started, or who dealt me the blow.

This is truly a good word.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Recommended book

I just, finished Noah Lukemans' book; A Dash of Style. Subtitled The Art and Mastery of Punctuation, I thought, it was: well written-and full of helpful advice! I think? given some time" my punctuation. problems can be helped; by applying the pointers, he has in the book. Highly: recommended,

Friday, June 20, 2008

Stinkhouse wisdom

I have worked in construction for the past 18 years or so; even when I pastored a church I still did plenty of side-jobs to make ends meet. I have learned a lot in those years, and it is time to pass along some of my acquired knowledge for the new generation of workers.

One of the fixtures of a job site, no matter what trade one works in, is the Port-o-john, which I affectionately call the "stinkhouse." What follows is 18 years of wisdom learned by experience--the squeamish are forewarned.


1. Do not: sit on anything, touch anything, or even breathe inside the stinkhouse.

2. Remove all items clipped on belt or pocket--cell phones, car keys, etc.--unless you like fishing in poop water for valuables.

3. Always lock door; always knock before entering.

4. Be prepared for various tricks of on-site mischief-makers: tipping stinkhouse over, dropping rocks down the vent pipe, bumping stinkhouse with vehicle, barricading the door, and slamming the sides of the stinkhouse with a 2 x 4 are common events. (There is no way to prepare for such an event--just remember, payback is sweet.)

5. Remember that the side urinal and air-freshener disk ARE NOT sink and soap.

6. Stinkhouse service-persons ALWAYS arrive at lunch or break--take care to locate yourself upwind.

7. Always check stinkhouse for wasps, snakes, frogs, and other native wildlife before fully entering, or at least before beginning your business.

8a. Always check for clean toilet paper before starting your business.
8b. Because one cannot control when Nature will call, it is wise to keep old gas receipts or Quick-crete bags on hand for emergencies--shirt pockets have also proven to be a life-saver.

9. Keep in mind that stinkhouse seats are scientifically designed to allow for maximum splash. It is best to carry a couple of 2 x 4 lift blocks, since the difference of a few inches is everything. (The blocks also allow one to fulfill Wise Saying #1)

10. Always keep a pen handy--you never know when a more creative moment will occur.

11. Always correct the grammar and spelling of the ill-schooled stinkhouse wall poet.

12. And finally--please, for the sake of all that is virtuous, CLOSE THE LID when you are done. When I go in to do Number 1, it is extremely unpleasant to have to see your Number 2.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Is Google Making Us Stupid?

"Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle."

Read the remainder of this excellent article by Nicholas Carr here.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Care for the world, care for our children

This is an excerpt from an essay by Wendell Berry that not only deserves to be read, but memorized.

I know of nothing that so strongly calls into question our ability to care for the world as our present abuses of our own reproductivity. How can we take care of the other creatures, all born like ourselves from the world's miraculous fecundity, if we have forsaken the qualities of culture and character that inform the nurture of children?

Maybe it is because our society is so dominated by the economic ideal of productivity that we have no time for people who are not highly productive. Or maybe it is because of our rather frivolous idea of personal freedom that we shrug off the claims of those most in need and most deserving of our care. Or maybe it is the fault of an economy that now requires both parents of many families to work away from home. Or maybe it is the increasing commercialization of family relationships, according to which nobody, not even a husband or a wife, should do anything for anybody else that is not compensated by a price agreed upon in advance.

Whatever the reason, it is a fact that we are now conducting a sort of general warfare against children, who are being abandoned, abused, aborted, drugged, bombed, neglected, poorly raised, poorly fed, poorly taught, and poorly disciplined. Many of them will not only find no worthy work, but no work of any kind. All of them will inherit a diminished, diseased, and poisoned world. We will visit upon them not only our sins but also our debts. We have set before them thousands of examples--governmental, industrial, and recreational--suggesting that the violent way is the best way. And we have the hypocrisy to be surprised and troubled when they carry guns and use them.

There are of course many parents who care properly for their children, and traditions of good upbringing still survive. But, like the local traditions of good land-use, these traditions of family life have become subordinate. As a lot of parents have found out, it is not easy to bring up your children in a way that is significantly different from the way your neighbors are bringing up their children.

A child psychologist told me not long ago that he frequently sees four-year-olds who, when asked, "Who loves you?" reply, "I don't know." If we have even a suspicion that we must not exempt anything from care, how can we bear this? And yet this neglect is hedged around on every side by talk of rights and freedoms and careers and professions.

Abortion, for instance, which might be defensible as a tragic choice acceptable in the most straitened circumstances, is defended as a "right" derived from "the right of a woman to control her own body." The right of any person to control her or his own body, subject to the usual qualifications, is incontestable--or, at any rate, it is not going to be contested by me. But the usual qualifications hold that if you can control your own body only by destroying another persons body, then control has come too late. Self-mastery is the appropriate way to control one's own body, not surgery.

I am well aware of the argument that a fetus is not a child until it can live outside the womb, but I am aware also that every creature is surrounded by such questions of dependency and viability all its life. If we are unworthy to live as long as we are dependent on life-supporting conditions, then none of us has any rights. And I would not try to convince any farmer or gardener that the planted seed newly sprouted is not a crop.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Pentecost, thunderstorm, and Wolfe (unrelated thoughts--they just happened to occur on the same day)

Today has been a great day. This morning marked the celebration of Orthodox Pentecost, the beauty of which is hard to match; today we also celebrated my good friend Fr. John's 30 year anniversary in the priesthood; this afternoon I've been sitting here (or standing on the porch when the wind allowed) watching a big ol' Southern thunderstorm blow through, complete with hail, high winds, thunder and lightning; a pot of coffee is brewing, and I'm reading some Thomas Wolfe.
. . . . . .

Awhile back I wrote this fragment of a poem--

The glinting steel

That slices through life--
Slow death, quickly realized.

I just read this from Thomas Wolfe, in his "Like the River"--

And it takes time,
Dark, delicate time,
The little ticking moments of strange time
That count us into death.

No surprise that his is much better.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Pride and humility

If pride blinds our eyes to the infinite reality of God, humility makes them see it. So, whatever we do, as long as we lack humility, as long as there is a trace of pride in us, we lack the thrill of contact with God; we lack the profound consciousness of a deeper relationship with God, and neither do we make others feel it. Where humility is lacking, there is superficiality, the commonplace, a closed horizon, the kind of conceit that provokes a smile of pity. Only the humble lives in the immeasurable depths, full of mystery, in God.

Fr. Dumitru Staniloae, Orthodox Spirituality

Monday, June 9, 2008


We spent the weekend with family in Tennessee--I may or may not write more later, but for now here are a few pictures of the sunrise, taken from the deck of the cabin we rented. Even on vacation I can't sleep past 5:15!

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Voice of an angel

Words are inadequate--Divna sings with the voice of an angel.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Wrens and care for creation

This past Memorial Day I was doing a little work on a house we are building (the same house that prompted this post) and noticed a bird’s nest in the garage, tucked in the corner of the breaker box. I was curious to see if there was anything in it; as it was fairly dark I had to duck very close, close enough that the brim of my hat was touching the wall, leaning far in to see what the nest might hold. I shouldn’t have been surprised when a little Carolina Wren exploded in my face, scaring the heck out of me and making my work-mate laugh. The wren had been incubating four eggs, and just as I startled her the eggs began to hatch. Tiny, raw life, hungry and peeping madly for attention. With all the obstacles the chicks faced (it’s hard enough for me to survive on a construction site!) I honestly didn’t give them much of a chance for survival.

Yesterday I went back to patch some sheetrock (dang electricians—it’s OK, though, since I cut one of their wires trying to square up the hole for the patch), and the little fellers are just fine. All mouth, just like my little one. If they can only hang on until the beginning of next week, they should be strong enough to leave the nest and start their own life. I sure hope they make it.

I’m not a tree-hugging animal-rights fruitcake, and I have absolutely no problem killing my own food, plant or animal; but I believe God intended humankind to care for life in all its forms, and needless suffering or death is a pity. God has shown His glory in creation, and has gifted us with an immeasurable responsibility to care for it. Wendell Berry once said something that applies:

If we believed that the existence of the world is rooted in mystery and in sanctity, then we would have a different economy. It would still be an economy of use, necessarily, but it would be an economy also of return. The economy would have to accommodate the need to be worthy of the gifts we receive and use, and this would involve a return of propitiation, praise, gratitude, responsibility, good use, good care, and a proper regard for the unborn. . . . Mostly we take without asking, use without respect or gratitude, and give nothing in return” (The Agrarian Standard).

And this from Elder Sophrony:

The Staretz [Elder; he is speaking of St. Silouan] used to say that the Divine Spirit teaches us to spare every living thing, and so not needlessly harm leaf or tree. ‘That green leaf on the tree which you needlessly plucked—it was not wrong, only rather a pity for the little leaf. The heart that has learned to love is sorry for all created things.’

The longer I clop around on earth, the more deeply aware I become of our place (I mean our as in humans) in the order of creation: a place of honor, but a place of accountability; a place infinitely above the rest of creation, ordered to “have dominion” over it, but so much the more responsible as stewards over our domain. This attitude of grateful, reverent, responsible stewardship goes against the modern consumer lifestyle, but it is a necessary part of fulfilling our calling.

I know it is a humorous example (the more so because it is a bit exaggerated), but if you have ever watched the movie The Gods Must be Crazy you have an idea what I am getting at here. The bushmen in this make-believe documentary hunt for food, but instead of just killing the animal outright they first shoot it with a numbing arrow so they might explain to the animal the hunter’s need to feed his family and thank it for providing for them. With the added proviso that we also offer thanks to God, this seems just about right to me.

Long quote (worth the price of the book)

. . . the greatest and continuous obstacle in the way of our progress to love is egotism. Until egotism completely dies, you can't have true love for anyone. You must leave far behnd you the billows of the ocean of egotism, so that you can bask in the air which comes to you from the kingdom of love. He who loves himself, who is full of self-admiration, who considers himself as the most important of all, can't love others. To love others means to forget yourself, to always go beyond yourself, to consider yourself as nothing. The love of others is consolidated in us by uninterrupted repentance and humility. Egotism sees itself inflated to the extent that all reality is hidden. It thinks that it should own everything. It weighs every person to see how to use him, or at least it tries to avoid the danger which might come from his supremacy. In all things, in all actions, the egotist projects his own person; he sees and serves nothing else; he worships it, to him it is a god, or better said an idol in place of God. His own authentic nature is drowned in egotism. His concern for others is only a tactic, in order to really serve his own interests. Thus in a false way he fills his whole horizon with his inauthentic ego. He walls himself off on all sides with his false self. It's clear then that he can't see others for themselves, in a disinterested way, with true love, just as he can't see his authentic self within the framework of the loving community of all. Love is the exit from the magic and illusory circle of egotism, a circle which I extend to the infinite, as in a delusive dream. It is a breaking out into a true relationship, in communion with others. It is an exit from the shadowy prison of the ego and the entrance into the life of the community, of solidarity, into the kingdom of love, which includes everyone.
- Fr. Dumitru Staniloae, Orthodox Spirituality

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Leaping lizards

The boys and I were in the backyard yesterday trying to catch up on some yard work. Well, I and my oldest son Jeff were working, while the younger guys were catching bugs. All of us like bugs and other critters and we are always on the lookout for some exciting new find.

We have a large, rotting tree in the backyard that will come down soon, and as we were determining the best way to cut and land it we noticed a large skink living inside. I have observed some big skinks in my time (Jeff caught a 6 or 7 incher a few weeks ago), but this is really big--I would guess a good 11, maybe 12 inches long, and fat as a garden hose. I'm not scared of snakes or lizards, but this fella gave me pause. I put my finger right next to his head, and he didn't even flinch; in fact, it looked like he was contemplating whether he was hungry enough to attack this strange worm suddenly thrust in his face. He certainly wasn't scared, so I backed off. Very cool. If you're interested, the particular skink is known as a Broadhead skink (Eumeces laticeps)--well, you can check it out for yourself here.