I'll Come Speak

    I write and speak on all sorts of topics: ancient Christian spirituality and the Eastern Orthodox faith, the Jesus Prayer, marriage and family, the pro-life cause, cultural issues, and more. You can contact Cynthia Damaskos of the Orthodox Speakers Bureau if you’d like to bring me to an event. This Calendar will let you know when I’m in your neighborhood.

 

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Thursday
Nov092017

My Tattoo

[Posted on my Facebook page, November 6, 2017]

I got a tattoo!

In general, I don’t think tattoos are attractive, and sure never expected that I would get one. I mean, I just turned 65, and I had never gotten a tattoo in all those years, so it seemed a safe bet. 

But I’ve always thought it was a beautiful witness, how the Coptic Egyptian Christians get a small cross tattooed on the right wrist, to claim the identity of a Christian. The tradition possibly began when the Muslims conquered Egypt 1500 years ago, and would brand or scar a cross on the Christians who refused to convert to Islam. For Coptic Christians, it is a way of claiming an identity that is somewhat despised by the powerful, and to “glory” in nothing but “the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,” as St. Paul said (Galatians 6:14).

It happened that a friend of mine at church, who grew up in Egypt, was going to have his faded childhood cross renewed. He got his tattoo at the age of 8, from a guy who was working on a sidewalk and a lot of people had lined up. He noticed that the little cup of green dye the guy was using looked like it was mashed-up leaves, and he asked what it was; the tattoo artist said “Arugula.”

I had been thinking about getting a cross tattoo in solidarity with the Christians in the Middle East, especially those who were slaughtered this past Palm Sunday in Egypt. It also marks for my journey through cancer. I am almost finished with radiation. So I told George I wanted to go with him, and a couple of other ladies from the church went along too. We are joking that this will become the gang tattoo for Holy Cross Church. 

George had researched to find the right tattoo studio for us. I had pictured any place that did tattoos having a “dive bar” vibe. (I had emailed Coptic Christians and Coptic monasteries and could never find a Coptic tattooer in this country). George found a place called “Stay Humble.” Their website had a video of the owner explaining why he chose that name, and showing him as a husband and father. It was really different from how I picture a “tattoo parlor.” 

When we got there, it looked kind of like a coffeehouse/art gallery. It was on the second floor of a building in a hipster section of Baltimore. 

I wasn’t able to have the cross right on my wrist, because my old-lady skin is too thin there. So I had it a little further up my arm. The inking itself only took about 5 minutes. It took more time for him to set it up — sterilizing the skin, taping in place the stencil of the cross he’d made, inking it, getting the tools ready, and on. 

I was braced for pain, but when he started it was so much less than I expected that I said, “Oh, this is nothing.” About 30 seconds later I was thinking, “Oh, this is not nothing.” It remained not-nothing for most of the remaining time, as it felt like he was digging down along the lines of the Cross. But I thought about how much pain the real crucifixion caused. 

I don’t want to overstate it; the pain wasn’t terrible, I didn’t feel like yelling, didn’t even grit my teeth. I just felt like I had to concentrate and -hold on-, sort of. It was over quickly. 

My dear husband had been ambivalent about my doing this, but when I showed it to him he said it was beautiful and that he was glad I’d done it. Also, he said, now he can tell people that he’s married to a tattooed lady. 

 

Several remarked in the comments that this was “cultural appropriation” and people should not get such tattoos if they were not Coptic. My response:

I don’t agree that this is a Coptic cultural tradition, so those of other backgrounds should not do it. In my parish there are so many different ethnic backgrounds represented. I counted recently, and just counting the people who are first or second generation, it came to 17 different countries; this in a parish of less than 150 people.

With that as my parish-family context, the ethnic lines among Orthodox look very porous to me. We are an Antiochian parish, yet we have adopted the Slavic custom of Pascha baskets. Many of the women who cover their heads use Ethiopian scarves, acquired from Ethiopian members of the parish. Around the walls of the church are painted Orthodox crosses from a dozen different lands; the large crosses on the iconostasis are Celtic, Armenian, Greek, Russian, and Ethiopian; we have parishioners from all those backgrounds.) At lunch during coffee hour, there are dishes from all over the world.

To me, the cultures and traditions of all the many Orthodox lands belong to all of us, and sharing them brings us closer together. (Just as the different food traditions that immigrants brought to America have enriched our common life as a nation; anyone can eat pizza, not just Italians.)

I respect the opinions of people who don’t agree, and I’m not trying to start an argument. Just that, several people had expressed the thought that only Copts should get wrist tattoos, and I wanted to explain how I viewed things.

 

And a followup post:

I should add that I searched for a Coptic Christian tattoo artist and couldn’t find one (though I asked all my Coptic friends and even wrote to Coptic monasteries). That made me think this is apparently not a tradition that Coptic Christians in America are continuing. It had a specific purpose in Egypt, and in America the same conditions don’t apply.

What conditions do apply, in our current moment? Not outright persecution and martyrdom, which Middle Eastern Christians continue to endure. It’s more quietly insidious than that. Western European (and by extension American) culture, thoroughly Christian for almost two thousand years, is imperceptibly letting its faith slip away. While persecution from the outside can actually make faith stronger, we dwell in a consumerist, pleasure-loving culture that coaxes us to see faith as one more of the products we enjoy, one that we can cast away when we tire of it.

This is much more effective in undermining a living, courageous faith, for it quietly saps our strength. Jesus said that it was the rich who would have difficulty entering the Kingdom of Heaven, and in today’s America ordinary citizens live more richly than many an ancient king.

So it’s a different situation than Coptic Christians faced when this custom began. The forces assail us do so less by outright persecution than by undermining our allegiance to the way of the Cross, by offering endless entertaining images to fill our thoughts and displace prayer, by wedding us most loyally to the comfort of our own bodies, and by the social pressure of elites regarding strong Christians with mockery. This is not like being killed in the Colisseum; it is more subtle and harder to navigate than that.

Under outright persecution, Christians are aware constantly of the choices they make, for or against Christ; but we are in a fog of pleasures and distractions, and don’t even recognize when we *are* making choices. The more clearly we see the situation we’re drowning in, the more consistently we choose faithfulness to Christ despite the subtle undertow, the more we are going to conflict with the world around us.

Conquerors of Christian lands hated images of the cross, of Christ and his saints; sometimes they scratched out the eyes of icons, in a futile attempt to eliminate their power. So I want my faith to be visible to the world.

For some that might mean wearing a prayer bracelet, wearing a cross visibly, a bracelet of small icons—there are many ways to silently bear witness to your faith. Whether times are going to get harder or insidiously softer, bearing visible signs of our faith will keep us aware that our first allegiance is to Christ. They will remind us of where our first loyalties like; they will hearten our fellow Christians and bear witness to our powerful despisers. They will remind us of the decisions and commitments we have already made, in the sacraments we’ve received and the worship we offer, and strengthen our conviction that nothing will turn us back.

Monday
Oct302017

Talking about Rod in the WPost

Interview with Karen Heller for Wash Post Style profile of Rod, Oct 11, 2017

[10/30/2107]

I was disappointed by how Karen Heller’s profile of Rod Dreher turned out, in today’s Washington Post. Especially I felt bad that the quotes she has from me, which make Rod sound manipulative and self-centered. That’s the opposite of how I described him. That’s so frustrating. I wrote up some notes about what I’d said immediately after our conversation, which provides a better context. 

<< She marveled that he spoke so freely about the pain he’s felt about his family. It seemed like her impression was that he shares these very personal things because he is emotionally distraught and can’t hold it in. On the contrary, I said, he is able to talk about these things because he doesn’t have the ego needs most of us do, the need to manage other people’s esteem and admiration. He can talk about personal things without feeling the embarrassment or shame we would. He is, actually, an uncomplicated person, I said, a guileless and in some ways childlike person, simple, not egocentric, and amazingly free of defensiveness and pride.

I said also that he can feel comfortable talking about personal difficulties because he has made the ultimate decisions about them. When his priest told him he had to treat his painfully rejecting father with love and servant-heartedness, Rod accepted it and went about putting it into practice. I told her that when you’re in an emotionally painful situation that you can’t resolve the way you like, just making a decision about how you’re going to respond diminishes the paint. It turns it into something you’re coping with, rather than something that keeps wringing you out. So it’s not that he talks about these things because he’s agitated, but because he has settled in his mind about them; he has decided what is the right thing to do, and is doing it, so he is able to have peace in the middle of it (like Christ stilling the storm, I said).

She mentioned how surprised she was that, when he supplied names of people for her to talk with for the profile, he included some who are critical of him. I said that was just like him; he’s secure enough that he can listen to criticism without reflexively getting defensive (unlike most of us writers).  

Stories I told—I told how I met him at a Susan B Anthony List event in 1994 (95?) and went to the restaurant next door, and how he ordered a dirty Manhattan, impressing me no end (wow, a real reporter, so sophisticated and cosmopolitan!), then ordered a baked potato with catsup. We hit it off immediately, and became fast friends. He appears in “Facing East” pretty frequently, as “Rod the Reporter”. He spent Pascha with us that year.

I told her about his trip to Austin when I was going there to give a talk; he came because he wanted to show me around a city he loves. That day he was worrying about ever finding the right girl to marry, and said he had asked God to show him when he found the right one by making him certain of it in his heart immediately (basically, to fall in love at first sight).

I was exasperated with this and said flatly “That’s not going to happen.” I told him to be realistic: make a list of the single women he knows and likes, put them in order, and go down the list seeing if romance could bloom. So the joke was on me when, at the book table that evening, he met Julie and knew immediately she was the one. He came back to the friend who was with us that evening and said “I just met the girl I’m going to marry.” Julie was actually there with a date, on a first date with a guy she knew from school (UTA). Rod, just bubbling over, persuaded them to join us after the talk at a restaurant, and then somehow managed to sit between them, and talked and talked to her all night.

I told her about the long blog post he wrote about his decision to become Orthodox, which was a very sensitive topic at the time and bound to upset some readers. When I read it I was amazed at how just-right it was, that it was both clear and humble, just perfectly phrased. It was long—abt 5000 words. I told Rod how perfect I thought it was, and he replied, “Do you really think so? That’s good. I didn’t reread it before publishing it.” He’s such a natural writer that even something that difficult rolls out easily.

I kept saying how it impresses me that he is not defensive, which is not usually the case with writers. He’s unusually free to accept criticism and consider it, and able to reconsider and admit it when he is wrong. He has a very rare ability to not get defensive and prideful. Those are all things I admire so much. 

I perceived that she had two mis-perceptions and did my best to correct them. One was “He’s not doing it [living the Ben Opt] himself.” I wondered why she thought this. She said (as if this proved it) that he is going to a church with only 30 members, his kids are homeschooled and attend classes only in a homeschool group, and spends most of his time on the computer, interacting with people online and in emails. I don’t know why she thought that was not BenOp behavior. Maybe she thought that, being part of a community means being part of the larger civic community, and that would mean going to the biggest church in town, sending your kids to the biggest public school, etc.  I said repeatedly that, no, he is living it; that a church with small membership can be very close, and is perhaps more likely to be an intimate community, and that homeschool communities are very close. And, though email isn’t everything, still there is a long tradition of epistolary friendships and spiritual direction, and those can be very close relationships. 

The other was—as I said at the top—that he is open about the pain in his life due to some inner agony and restlessness. It said it was because so many of these are things he has simply settled in his mind. I said that he has made all the big decisions, like being Orthodox, being married to Julie, living near his mom during her lifetime, and having made those decisions, he is at peace. Just as he settled with himself how he was going to treat his father, after getting Fr Matthew’s advice. Once he settled it and set about doing it, he could talk about the pain that situation entailed, and maybe still entails—but can speak of it from a point of resolution and stability. >>

Friday
Oct062017

Why Not Beauty?

[October 6, 2017]
Someone emailed me to ask: When did people start to expect worship to be something that would benefit them? Something that will inspire them, resonate with them, give them strength for the week ahead, etc? When did it stop being something we render to God for his own sake, to express our gratitude and awe? He notes that all the things he loves about high-church worship, the music, solemnity, the processions, even the architecture, though they move him deeply, the friends he brings to church just shrug them off.
I replied:
<<I understand what you’re talking about. Worship has become one more thing like “eat right and exercise” that people do to benefit themselves, or at least that is how it is being sold; I don’t know that the appeal lasts, long-term. It certainly is easier to sleep in on Sunday morning than to attend feel-good worship.
I don’t know much about how this happened, but I suspect it began in the 60’s, when there was sudden interest in the church being “relevant.” I can remember people warning at the time that this was a bad idea. But it was in the air, with Vatican II (as VAt II was popularly interpreted) and the hippie revolution.
I think a major factor, too, is advertising, which surrounds and catechizes us all day, and trains us to think of ourselves first and our needs. It teaches us to consider our own needs and desires as extremely important, and something we should diligently fulfill. So today, when people think about going to church, the appeal has to be that it will benefit themselves.
Try to picture what it was in prior centuries, when worship was the most elaborate and beautiful thing people would experience all week. Now the greatest singers in the world are contained on their phones, ready to perform at the press of a button. They see special effects in movies that are overwhelming. Worship can’t compete.
I agree of course that worship is what we owe to God, because of his glory and goodness. And, in a way, it *is* good for us to worship him. It is what we are made for, so worship is uniquely fulfilling, when rightly understood. But how do you ever communicate that today—!
It seems to me that some people “get it” and are readily moved to render true worship; but for those who don’t get it, words completely fail. I don’t think there’s any way to express it that could be understood by those who don’t get it. We who do get it, affirm it full-heartedly.
Interesting question! Thanks!>>
Tuesday
Jul112017

The Good Samaritan, by Patriarch Narses Snorhali

The Good Samaritan

Written by Armenian Patriarch Narses Snorhali (1102-1173).

From Jerusalem, our Paradise, guilty like Adam
I went down to vile Jericho,
And fell into the hands of the Brigand.

They stripped me of light;
They covered my soul with sores of sin;
They did not depart leaving me half dead;
But after death, the waged war on me again.

And Moses the Levite and Aaron the ancient Priest…
And the prophets of the Old Law
Saw the sores of my incurable sufferings,
And the terrible wounds.

They passed with medicine of words only
And could not heal them,
To You whom they called “Samaritan”
I will show the sufferings of my soul
To your divine eyes which sees them.

Have pity on me also as You had pity on Adam,
Put medicine on the deep wounds of my soul,
Re-cover it with the first robe
Of which the brigands stripped me.

Pour on oil and wine,
The medicine of life from the Spirit on high,
Giving again the Spirit of anointing
And the cup of the New Covenant.

Carry me, convey me on the mount of the Cross;
Lead me away to the Inn, to the Church;
Entrust me to the High Priest
Who in sacrifice offers your Body.

Give instead of two pennies
The Word of the Old and New Testament,
To heal my soul through it
As the body will live through bread.

Tuesday
May162017

The Benedict Option and Retreating from Politics

I haven’t done much writing about “The Benedict Option” by my friend Rod Dreher, but this image gave me some things to think about. It’s the cover of the French edition of “The Benedict Option,” which comes out in September, and it’s better than the original cover, isn’t it? It expresses the central concept better than the original cover did, though that is admittedly a beautiful photo. The original cover shows Mt St Michel, literally a monastery on a hill, so is it any wonder people think that’s what the book is about?

 

I will go out on a limb and say what I think Rod would say, about this persistent mis-impression that he is exhorting people to “head for the hills.” I think the confusion has to do with the idea of “withdrawing from the political arena” (or however it’s phrased).

If you are directly involved in politics, Rod is not advising you to stop. If you hold office, or are running for office, or supporting people in office, if you are professionally involved in politics in any way, Rod is not trying to stop you.

He’s noting instead that for the vast majority of Christians in America, politics is a spectator sport. We follow it and talk about it, but are not professionally involved. We assume that everything that’s important happens in the political arena, so we keep focused on it.

I think what Rod wants to say is that what’s wrong with our culture cannot be solved by politics. In terms of the social, cultural, and moral issues, popular opinion has been marching steadily to the left for fifty years. The vast majority of Americans actually likes those changes in morality. They like the freedom to do whatever they want. There is no conservative majority to energize, on the social issues, because the majority wants things just as they are, or more so.

So, even though we sometimes achieve political victories, even the presidency, we never make any progress on those issues. Those who are called to politics must keep at it, but the rest of us need to realize that they aren’t going to be able to stop a momentum that has the majority of public opinion behind it. We live in a democracy, and we’re going to have the kind of culture most people want.

But while we’ve been setting all our hopes on political victory, we’ve permitted the tide of secular culture to flow freely into our homes and families. Surveys show that today’s Christians are mostly ignorant of the core beliefs of their faith. In terms of moral standards, their behavior matches that of those in the world around them, rather than that held through Christian history. Christian marriages fail about as often as secular marriages do. In terms of the moral issues, Christians have become indistinguishable from the non-Christian population, probably because we actually agree with the majority, and prefer to do whatever we want.

Christianity is not matched up against atheism today, or even paganism, but against an easy, shallow, amiable public religion. It holds that God wants us to be nice to each other, and call on him in times of trouble; otherwise, he just wants us to be happy. (This is has been called “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” or MTD.)

Real Christianity isn’t like that; it’s challenging, even difficult. Churches have found it a hard sell. They offer instead an affirming, sympathetic, entertaining version of Christian faith, pitched in the tones of clever advertisements. Worship is not focused on God but on the worshiper; the goal is giving the worshiper a good worship experience.

Regardless of the style it takes—contemporary, trendy-ancient, social-justice, etc—anxiety to please the consumer is itself detrimental to faith. Perpetuating the consumer’s expectation that he will be catered to is detrimental to faith. Because real Christianity means taking up your cross (Matthew 16:24).

So the Benedict Option is not about withdrawing from the public square. Those whom God has called to the public square had better stay there. Instead, it’s a call to recognize that politics cannot solve the problems that confront us. We have to let that fantasy go.

The Benedict Option is a call to recognize that, while we’ve been keeping our binoculars trained on politics, all this time the sweet, seductive, please-yourself culture has been seeping in under the door. It is saturating our minds and those of our children; it is training us to think of ourselves as primarily consumers, vigilantly monitoring our right to be pleased.

The Benedict Option is a call to resist this. It’s a call to “wake up and strengthen the things that remain” (Revelation 3:2). This is going to be unglamorous and demanding, a family-by-family, church-by-church recomittment to the difficult life in Christ, which entails taking up your cross. We are going to need each others’ support. It’s not going to be easy, but the hour is already late, so let’s get started.

 

Tuesday
Feb212017

How to Revive a "Dead" Church

Here’s something I hear from time to time: “I’d like to join the Orthodox Church, but I visited a local church and it just felt dead.”

When I hear this it’s about Orthodox churches, but that needn’t be the case. It could be any church or denomination; it might sound good on paper, but the local church on Sunday morning feels empty and drained.

It’s tempting to say, “That shouldn’t make any difference. Focus on your own prayer life.” But, actually, I know what these people mean. Sometimes, when you visit a church, something just feels “off.” It makes you really eager to get out of there.

 

Click to read more ...

Thursday
Feb162017

Why It's Hard to Accept God's Forgiveness

My daughter-in-law, Khouria Jocelyn Mathewes, has a good column today on repentance, as we head into Great Lent. She makes a point about accepting forgiveness for past sins (not the ones that continue in the present, but completed deeds in the past.) She reminds us that we must accept forgiveness and move on, and not keep revisiting them and “beating yourself up.”

I think that, when we continue to be distraught over a forgiven sin in the past, it’s linked to our pride. It’s that we can’t believe we would ever do such a thing. It doesn’t fit our sense of the “kind of person” we are. So we can never quite assimilate it; we keep being startled by it, and regard it as strange and appalling. We think of it as something inexplicable that “happened,” rather than something we did.

Click to read more ...

Saturday
Jan282017

We Call Ourselves "Pro-Life"

Here is why abortion is the most important justice issue of our time.

1. It is wrong to discriminate, and worse to persecute, still worse to imprison, even worse to torture, and worst of all to kill.

Abortion kills.

2. It is wrong to kill violent adults, if they can be stopped any other way. It is worse to kill non-violent adults. It is even worse to kill children.

Abortion kills children.

3. In 2011, there were 908 child fatalities from car accidents. There weere 1620 child fatalities from abuse and neglect. And there were 1,058,490 child fatalities from abortion.

Abortion kills children in overwhelming numbers.

Click to read more ...

Wednesday
Jan252017

The Unborn Person

In the Roe v Wade decision, Justice Harry Blackmun wrote that, if the fetus is a person, the right to abortion collapses. (Roe v. Wade 410 U.S. 113 [1973] Section IX.)

How can we tell whether it is a person or not?

Here’s what science shows. From the beginning, the unborn is:

1. Alive. It is living and growing, always increasing in size and complexity.

2. Human. Its body is composed entirely of human cells.

3. Individual. It has unique DNA. If a cell from the mother, the father, and the unborn child were examined side by side, it would reveal that they came from three different people.

Click to read more ...

Tuesday
Jan242017

Old Age and Illness

[January 24, 2017]

I was just writing to a friend who’s had a hard diagnosis:
When I was young I noticed how all older people have something physical to complain about, sometimes something very serious. Each one had a body part that was failing faster than the rest. A part that had been set, like a clock, to be the first to give way. And we don’t know what they are, when we’re younger. We carry them around unknowing, while the clock steadily circles around to the time they are set to bloom forth—“booby traps” that we don’t know about and can’t anticipate, but every day get closer to being activated.
George Gilder had a memorable line in “Men and Marriage,” about how a young man who has pursued only pleasure begins to realize that he is aging: “His body, which once measured out his few advantages over females, is beginning to intimate its terrible plan to become as weak as an older woman’s.”
It is so easy, when we’re young, to think, “Of course he / she is sick, feeble, deaf, dying—he / she is old.” As if that made it reasonable. It is never reasonable, when it’s us.
It seems God deliberately saves up a lot of suffering for the end of life—loss of health, loss of strength, loss of loved ones, loss of mind. For some people, these wounds are no doubt God’s final attempt to get their attention.
All we can do is pray. And commiserate; however weak we become, we can still give each other the gift of listening. Old age and illness teach us new lessons we would not otherwise learn. Flannery O’Connor wrote:
“In a sense sickness is a place, more instructive than a long trip to Europe, and it’s always a place where there’s no company, where nobody can follow. Sickness before death is a very appropriate thing, and I think those who don’t have it miss one of God’s mercies.”
These lessons are surely planned by God to teach exactly what we need to learn. They arrive when we don’t have much time to use the wisdom we might gain. Surely tWe can at least be watchful, to quickly recognize the lessons that are being sent to us, and put them into practice. Instead falling into panic or despair, we can recognize the the beginning of a process of stripping-away that will sooner or later strip away everything, including breath. And replace it with life.