Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Homily Magnus: On Death and Life (as proclaimed by an orthodox rebel)

"...for why will you die...?" Eze. 33:11b

Our world is made of antitrust. Over one-hundred years of unchecked, rampant skepticism has corroded away the image of trust. Suspicion is our new religion, forged on the altar of self-deification. All other things, whether they be friends or family or strangers or institutions or traditions or customs, are a threat to our own self-actualization. We must hold all others, however dear or precious, at arms length, taking with a grain of salt everything that they say or give. They must not be allowed to shape or dominate us. They must never own or conscribe any part of us. So we retract into ourselves in recesses beyond thought, in dark lairs of corners of our minds, and in those dungeons deep we forge in secret our master self, pouring into it our will with which we thwart all others. Our selves are always sword and shield, never true open arms and welcoming embrace. Something will always be held back, something no one is worthy of in our eyes, i.e., our real self, made only by the hand of God and the Fall. Such is the lonely, oh so lonely narcissism of our fragmented world.

God has a word for such self-centered isolationism. He has a strong, simple term for our sad division: Sin. It is from Sin that we cut ourselves off from all things. It is Sin that lifts high the banner of self as the flag of the world. It is the sin-sick soul who sings, "I am a god. I sit in the seat of God in the midst of the seas" (Eze. 28:2b), "My river is my own, and I have made it for myself" (Eze. 29:3b), and "I will exalt my throne above the stars of God. I will be like the Most High" (Is. 14:13, 14). Our narcissistic fragmentation is not a result of postmodern liberation and deconstruction, nor of heroic and idealized self-assertion, but rather the monstrous pride that sets the self at the center of all things. Our exaltation of self, having degraded and degenerated into a horrid and absolute skepticism, eventually collapsed from a hyper-individualism where we are the only star in our lonely little universe. There are no gods or kings or even man; there is only me. No man is an island, but every man dreams of a private island, and no island is more private than the island of self-love.

We all have been drawn away by our own lusts for our will and way and self above and against all others, even God Himself; and when that lusts conceives, it brings forth sin, and when sin is finished it brings forth death (James 1:15 KJV). The soul that sins shall die (Eze. 18:4b). There is no other alternative. It is a law of existence just as much as gravity is a law of nature. It is the only reason and explanation for this living death that we are in: our noise and insanity, our fashions and futility, our callousness and frigidity, our decadence and apathy, our lusts and lunacy, our ugliness and horrible, horrible depravity. We are the hub of a lone wheel, trapped in the mud, spinning endlessly in an infinite rut, digging our own graves as we whirl in maddening stillness.

Hear now the word of the Lord who made the heavens and the earth and your self: "Why will you die?" Life is never found in the self; rather, it is found when the self is finally forgotten, given away, killed outright for the sake of another; and God is the ultimate Other: "He who loses His life for my sake shall find it" (Matt. 10:39). Herein is life, not the uncompromising worship of our self, but the unconditional surrender of the self into the love of God. Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and sent His only Son to save us from the dark tyranny of Sin that makes the self a god, so that we might know the only true God, know in the most intimate and sacred of ways. As Father and child. Friend and friend. Lover and lover. It is only when we take that first step, that first step of trust in the God who made us and loves us, that first step off of our lonely precipice to fall headlong into the infinite ocean and drown therein, only then will our sad division cease.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2011

"We all are lonely, Maker -- each a soul
Shut in by itself, a sundered atom of thee.
No two yet loved themselves into a whole;
Even when we weep together we are two.
Of two to make one, which yet two shall be,
Is thy creation's problem, deep, and true,
To which thou only hold'st the happy, hurting clue."

-George MacDonald (from Diary of an Old Soul)

Thursday, December 22, 2011

In Defense of Damsels and Bumpkins (as explained by an orthodox storyteller)

The two most important and vital elements to any good fairy-tale (indeed, to any good story) is the damsel and the bumpkin, and yet never have two things been more derided in our time. There is something offensive in the former and silly in the latter.

The damsel is offensive because we live in an enlightened age of unquestioned feminism, wherein women have been set free from the chains of home and hearth to cheerfully wear the chains of 9-to-5 corporate life. The bumpkin is silly because that's what a bumpkin is: a laughable and occasionally lovable oaf who deserves no more attention and serious praise than a newborn child. In the end, we worship amazonian bravado and scorn the loveliness of the princess; we condescendingly pat the good-natured fool on the head and laud the antics of the antihero. It is exactly these modern notions that good fairy-tales turn upside-down.

Such a turning is very much needed today. In fact, it should be called a returning, for I am not saying anything new, just everything that people have forgotten. For example, nobody appreciates a "damsel in distress" anymore. They assume that there is something demeaning in the whole affair, that women are somehow reduced to impersonal narrative furniture to be forcibly passed about like a brain-dead hot potato amongst men of varying moral aptitudes. The underlying assumption is that a damsel is always "distressed" because they have nothing better to do, i.e., because they are utterly useless, a mere plot foil and no more.

Such is the cynicism of our age, but even a moment's consideration on the issue will reveal its logic to be complete nonsense. If a damsel is "utterly useless," then why is she distressed? If she has no qualities of worth or value, then why would anyone bother their heads about her at all? Why is so much energy and time and military expense wasted by the villain on her capture, and why is so much toil and sorrow willfully suffered by the hero on her rescue? If she had no other purpose and point than to be moved from the Castle of Syrupy Light to the Dungeons of Stygian Slime and then back again, if her only purpose is fundamentally logistical, then why all the fuss? Surely dark lords and wandering knights (and enraptured readers) have better uses of their time.

The simple answer is that the damsel is not "useless". It is her very "use" that makes her the focus of the whole affair. What people seem to forget (and rabid feminists are loath to remember) is that the princess is the point of the fairy-tale. True, the bulk of the narrative is spent on her rescuer (a much maligned individual whom we will address in a moment), but that is because his energies (or even her energies, as in the tale of Britomart) are solely pointed towards her. Look at any great tale that involves "damsels in distress" and you will see that the princess is the most vital person on the planet. It is she who will stop the lords of shadow from enacting the great woe. It is she that will guarantee the downfall of the Abyssal King. It is she who will bring the return of the dawn and the dancing of the daffodils, and the puppies and kittens will dance together again. In short, it is she who will bring about some great thing in the larger picture of the world, and it is for that very reason that the darkness seeks to ensnare her. She is always the true threat. She is always the real hero.

This should not be surprising to any of us. The "hero" who rides to the rescue is not the ultimate hero. The princess is, and whatever heroics the "hero" has are derivative from and dependent upon her. The truth is that the "hero" (whoever he/she may be) is trying to rescue the princess because there is some greater feat to be done that only the princess can do and which, consequently, the "hero" cannot do, which is why she must be rescued. She is the vital piece. That is why so much energy is expended on her. That is why chivalric codes have been inspired by her. That is why a certain popular video game franchise is called The Legend of Zelda and not The Legend of Link. The princess is everything, the central force to the narrative centrifuge.

Even the exception proves the rule, i.e., the case of dragons kidnapping the princess. She may not have been "distressed" because of some great "thing" that she can "do", but remember what a dragon is. They represent horrible, voracious greed, a living void of endless consumption. They are hoarders, gluttons; their lairs are full of precious things, including the most precious of all: the princess. Those stories strike us the hardest, because now the damsel is rescued, not for her use, but for herself, which is the point all along. She is the most valuable one, and when that which is most valuable is imperiled, someone must take up the sword.

Of course, the one who takes up the sword is never who we expect, and that is yet another point of the fairy-tale. When the most valuable and precious one is imperiled, it is not the brawniest of knights who ultimately wins her back. Rather, it is the bumpkin who gets called kicking and screaming into the fray. In the end, it is Samwise, and not Gaston, who gets called to the rescue. This is the other vital element, viz., the hero is a bumpkin. The hero is a bumbling, lovable fool who would much rather stay at home and yet has enough good-heartedness to not leave a friend in the lurch. In short, the hero is "normal," and yet is called to the extraordinary.

This is a tale as old as time. It was not the warrior sons of Jesse who slew Goliath. It was his youngest, a shepherd boy, who had no sword to call his own. It was not a great and legendary fighter who brought an end to the wrath of Grendel and his mother. It was Beowulf, who was considered "the least amongst his brethren". It was not Eric the golden knight who slew Bavmorda and saved the baby Elora. It was Willow Ufgood, the farmer, father, and dwarf. It is the "least" who rescues the highest. It is the poor lost poet in the woods who descends through hell so that he may ascend to heaven. It is the last who becomes the first. The bumpkin is our hero. The least of these are our champions, and their trophies are innumerable, from dragons and demons to even death itself, for when God raised his glittering sword against our last enemy, he did not come riding on the white horse of the apocalypse, but on the red cross of the Romans, dying in ignominy and infamy, raising all to newness of life, and hallowing the fool forever. For God has chosen the foolish things to confound the wise, and the weak to overcome the strong.

Herein are the two vital elements of the fairy-tale: the damsel and the bumpkin. And herein lies their vital lessons. In the damsel we see this, that the most valuable and precious thing in the world is a woman. In the bumpkin we see this, that even the smallest of persons can change the course of history. Such things get lost on the majority of us today. All of our modern day "heroes" are pathetic, paltry things: sneering antiheroes with the likability of a dead toad, and sarcastic amazons whose entire femininity has been disemboweled. We waste our time on things not worth a sneeze, and yet at our fingertips are the two great inspirations of the world: the beauty and power of the princess, and the stout, fear-soaked courage of the bumbling fool. If our stories could only learn to bask in the splendor of that double-edged humility, perhaps we could find ourselves wanting more than the barren wastes of our modern mythologies.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2011

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Dance and Death (an Advent devotional by an orthodox rebel)

There is stillness in God, but not as we understand stillness. In God is the highest life and energy. In Him and from Him is all movement, as Dante would describe it. In Him is the Great Dance, as Lewis would say. With God there is no ceasing of activity, but rather the perfecting of activity, because the activity is no longer wild and aimless and weary from wandering. It has found its object, its mark, its "resting" place. It has come home, and that is the stillness of God: the inward peace in finally becoming one with God's life and energy, of becoming one with the Godhead's triune dance. The peace of God, the stillness of God, is in the soul coming home at last, where God turns our mourning into dancing (Ps. 30:11).

There is stillness in Sin, and it is exactly as we understand stillness. Decay. Corruption. Moth and rust destroying. The sinful soul is the derelict soul. The soul that sins shall die (Eze. 18:4), and death is the final stillness, the final ceasing of all energies. Whenever a soul sins, it has turned itself away from God, away from the movement to the frigid static, away from the dance into the outer dark. For Sin is the calcification of the self onto anything that is not God. All other things of creation (even if they are good and noble) are dumb, lifeless idols whenever they try to take God's place, and their worshipers become just as dumb and lifeless. In the holiness that is the worship of God, in that grand dance and symphony, is life everlasting; but in the sin that is the worship of the self, or any other created thing, is the petrification of the soul unto death.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2011

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Gifts of God (an Advent devotional by an orthodox rebel)

"Behold, I do a new thing...." Isaiah 43:19

Existence is paradoxically simple and bewildering. It is mundane and it overwhelms. Like that strange little game with the black and white discs: minutes to learn but a lifetime to master. Mere existence takes only seconds to admit (if we are sane) but an apparent eternity to comprehend (again, if we are sane). Whenever we walk through it and amongst it, its presence is so commonplace that it becomes transparent. Whenever we pause and look upon it and think on it, its presence is so odd and its meaning so incomprehensible that it becomes equal parts beatific and monstrous. Ever tree is both a flowering wonder and a demon with a thousand bursting hands, shedding flakes of green blood and other fantastic colors. Even the size of the universe that we know of (and we know very little) overcomes us. The seemingly infinite expanse overhead is as wide and rolling as an open plain and as dark and gaping as an open maw. We shudder and we wonder, and then we try not to think about it.

Those who try to think about it hardly do better. Their quaint explanations run hollow, and only satisfy us in those deathly moments when the world is transparent rather than monstrous. Even we, as Christians, do no better. In the face of the universe, we spit the phrase "God did it," as though that solved the puzzle or ended the mystery. Only in the church pews, those deadest of the dead moments, can such a glib statement stick. Step out of the dusty church hall back into the wilderness wonderland outside, however, and that insubstantial thought drains from your soul like color from your face. It is not good enough to simply say, "God did it," for it does not answer the ultimate question of "Why?"

God is perfect, which means that he is complete or whole. He lacks nothing and needs nothing; if He didn't, then He wouldn't be God. Whence comes creation, then? It cannot be for Himself. There are some bizarre (though sincere) notions that creation is God's way of "completing" Himself, that each soul's experiences will fill up what is lacking in the Godhead. It sounds quite charming, and perhaps even lovely; but it is in error, for the Godhead cannot "lack" and still be the Godhead. So we are still left with the question of why: why did God make all of this stuff anyway?

Some would say that he made it for us, but that does not solve anything either. It is a matter of biblical authority and Christian orthodoxy that the earth and its fullness are the Lord's. All glory belongs to Him. Nothing in creation is "for" us in an ultimate sense; the heaven's declare His glory, no matter how beautiful they shine on us. Furthermore, even if it was "for" us, that still does not solve the problem, for why then did God make a creation that needed creation? What was the purpose of making needy beings? The neediness itself becomes one more facet to the "stuff" of existence, and so we are back to square one.

Herein are the two facts: God needs nothing, yet everything is for Him and His glory. What then, are we to make of this? I am no theologian, and am at best only an "arm-chair" philosopher, but I would posit this: it seems to me that existence is fundamentally arbitrary, i.e., it is there, but there is no reason why it should be here. It just is. Even though it gives glory to God, He does not need glory anymore than He needs creation. The whole thing is ultimately superfluous; yet there is a unique beauty to its superfluousness that is found in this fact: for God, superfluous does not equal meaningless. There is a reason to this random rhyme, and we have a name for something that is completely unnecessary and yet full to bursting with sweet meaning. It is called a gift.

All is a gift of God, and marvelous are His gifts. He did not make them because He needed glory, or stuff, or needy beings to need the stuff and give Him glory. Rather, he made it because He simply wanted to: for the sheer good and joy that is inherent in the act of creation, for the sheer joy of being able to see it and see that it is good. Every scrap of this universe is the bounty of God, a treasure whose light Sin can diminish but not extinguish, and some day it will burst forth in an eruption of brilliance and sound that will eat away the darkness like some benevolent cancer that restores the very cells of Being back to health. For redemption, too, is one of the gifts of God. Arbitrary, because the creation it saves is arbitrary; meaningful, because like the creation it redeems, it is chocked full of the goodness and delight of God, a substance that is weightier than the densest star and more infinite than the voids of Hell.

God's arbitration is not that of a machine; it is that of a Creator. He is not the steel-cold mind lost in a fog of its own frigid and abstract divinity. He is the supremely happy artisan, working wonders out of His own two hands, who makes out of the sheer delight for making and for no other reason; and every occurrence, whether it be good or ill from our view, is yet another chance for Him to prove His good pleasure. All glory is another place for creation, and all sin is for recreation. He makes all things new, always making a new thing out of His unquenchable gladness for making and newness. Thus it has always been and ever shall be.

In the vast, burning simplicity of perfect communion that was God's existence before Time began, the Godhead rolled up Their sleeves, and in Their Trinitarian nature said to Themselves, "Watch this." Thus was creation. When our first parents sinned, and death's black sorrows spread like spilt ink across that creation, God had already rolled up His sleeves and said to the host of Heaven, "Watch this." Thus was redemption. And I would like to think that when we reach that golden shore, and the grey rain curtain of this world fades away, and we finally past the threshold of Revelation's final chapter, and the last words of Time are written in the last book ever written, we will look into those glad eyes of the glad Creator and say, "Now what?" And He will smile, and roll up His sleeves, and say yet again, "Watch this," not out of necessity, but out of love, and goodness, and the sheer unutterable joy of gift-giving.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2011