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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Friday
Jun072019

St. Photini

[2019-6-7]

The “woman at the well,” that vivid figure in the 4th chapter of St. John’s Gospel (John 4:16-26), who converses with Christ beside the well of Jacob in Samarian, is known to the Church as St. Photini. She’s clearly an intelligent woman, and outspoken, though her irregular romantic life probably made her a figure of contempt locally.

It’s hot at noonday, and water is heavy in a clay jar; most people wouldn’t go to draw water at that time. It may have been Photini’s habit to go at a time when she wouldn’t be scolded or snubbed.

When Jesus asks her for a drink, she’s surprised, and says so. Christ goes on to have a conversation with her, and she listens and asks good questions. But when he tells her, ‘Go, call your husband, and come here,’ she is taken aback. She says she has no husband, and Jesus says “You are right in saying, `I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and he whom you now have is not your husband; this you said truly.”

Photini must have been taken aback, but her profession has always required a gift for tact. So, instead of responding directly, she pays him a compliment (“Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet”), then deftly changes the subject. A professional woman like her knows that, if you want men to forget what they were talking about and go off on a different topic, ask their opinion on a political or religious question. So she says to Jesus, “Our fathers worshiped on this mountain; and you say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.”

But Jesus responds by speaking about right worship in terms so profound that it must have baffled her. (“Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him.  God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”)

So Photini pulls out the diplomatic standby: Well, no one knows the answer, of course. “But when [the Messiah] comes, he will show us all things.”

“I who speak to you am he,” Jesus says. I picture her opening her mouth to reply, then closing it, then staring at him steadily for some seconds, as if seeing him for the first time. Then she puts down her water jar—it might slow her down—and hikes back to the city as fast as she can go. She stops every person she meets and says, “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did.” There’s no sense in hiding her shameful history now. “Can this be the Christ?” she asks them.

John 4:39-42 says: “Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me all that I ever did.’ So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of your words that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.’”

Photini, the woman at the well, was one of the first people to ever preach the good news of Jesus Christ. She preached that he was the Christ, even before his death and resurrection. In the Christian East she is called St Photini, “Equal to the Apostles.”

We see no more of her in the Gospel of John, but here’s how Eastern Christians have preserved the rest of her story. The woman was baptized as a follower of Jesus, and that’s when she received the name Photini, which means “Enlightened.” She continued to preach the gospel throughout the region (for in Eastern Christianity, women are can preach, teach, and some have evangelized entire nations.) Eventually Photini moved with her family—five sisters and two sons—to Carthage, in present-day Tunisia. They became so publicly notable as preachers of Christ that the Emperor Nero had them all arrested and brought to Rome.

There Photini was compelled to witness the torture and death of every one of her beloved family member. Her sons were blinded and their legs were cut off, and then they were thrown out to be eaten by dogs. Her sisters’ breasts were cut off, and then they were skinned alive.

After this butchery, Nero gave Photini a final chance to deny Christ. I picture her as middle-aged by then, thick of waist, her hair streaked with gray and face weathered by wind and sun. On the day Christ met her she may have been a young beauty, but that was many years and many miles ago. Yet her mind was as nimble, and her manner as bold, as it was on that day so long ago, in the noonday stillness by the well.

It is said that Photini spat at the emperor and laughed. She called out, “You profligate and stupid man! Do you think me so deluded? Why would I renounce my Lord Christ, and sacrifice to idols that are as blind as you are?”

Photini was flayed alive, like her sisters, then thrown down a well. She died in AD 66.

St. Photini, Equal to the Apostles, is remembered in the church every year on February 26 and on the Fifth Sunday of Pascha (Easter)—quite an honor to have two observances, and a Sunday of your own. Here are three of the hymns sung on her feasts: 

Having come to the well in faith,

The Samaritan woman beheld you,

O Christ, the Water of Wisdom;

Whereof having drunk abundantly,

She, the renowned one,

Inherited the Kingdom on High forever.

 

Photini the glorious, the crown and glory of martyrs,

Has this day ascended to the shining mansions of heaven,

And she calls all together to sing her hymns,

And receive in return God’s grace.

Let us all with faith and longing extol her,

Singing gladly with triumph and joy.

 

All illumined by the Holy Spirit,

You did drink with great and ardent longing

Of the waters Christ Savior gave unto thee;

And with the streams of salvation you were refreshed,

And abundantly gave then to all who thirst.

O Great Martyr and true peer of the Apostles, Photini,

Entreat Christ God to grant great mercy unto us.

 

Now, you can doubt every word of Photini’s story, but if you acknowledge at least that she was a real human being, and that she probably didn’t drop dead the day after she met Jesus, then she must have done something with the rest of her life.  If St. Peter and St. Paul were moved to preach courageously, even unto death, why not her?

We in the West, at the end of two centuries of “Enlightenment,” are reflexively skeptical, maybe more than we need to be. A determined belief that this woman was named anything but Photini, and did anything but preach about Jesus, would be just as much a leap of faith,  and just as unverifiable. (That variety of skepticism sounds to me like the argument that Shakespeare didn’t write any of his plays, but they were written by someone else who lived at the same time and had the same name.) One of the treasures of the ancient church, East and West, is that it has preserved “the rest of the story” of  figures we know and love from the New Testament. They are “faces in the cloud,” the “great cloud of witnesses” of Hebrews 12:1. And we believe that they are alive today in the Kingdom of God, standing in fellowship with each other, in eternal prayer and worship before his throne.

 

Friday
Jun072019

A Dream

[2015-5-29]

In my dream we all knew we were going to die. Everyone in the world was going to die. A cloud of air bearing very fine, sharp particles was slowly encircling the earth; when people inhaled, it would infiltrate the lungs and destroy them. This cloud was gradually covering the entire world and would eventually reach us.

Everyone in our community knew this was going to happen. But somehow my husband and I knew it was coming sooner than they expected, very soon. We were calm and resolute.

 I can remember four scenes.

 + One, there was a naturally-occurring oil that could alleviate the pain, though not delay death, and it happened to be found in our area. A male friend was showing me that he had a source for it on his property, and was planning to ship it all over the world, charging high prices. I pitied him because I saw that, when word got out that this was found in our area, people would start flocking here and taking it for themselves. I said to my friend, “But don’t you think they will all just move here?”

 + Two, some kind of public worship service was being held in an attractive, traditional-looking Anglican or Episcopal church. There weren’t a lot of people at the service; maybe it was just for the leaders of the community. My husband had been invited to participate, and I noticed that some of the prayers he had written made reference to the need to prepare, since the time might could shorter than they think. But they did this in an oblique way, to not confront and frighten attendees.

 + Three, there were two children living in our house, though they weren’t our children (not children I know in real life). Our house had become mostly empty of furnishings, perhaps because we were selling our possessions to live. The girl and boy were playing on the bare floor with their last two remaining toys. We had prepared the children that the time would come when they would need to give up even these last toys, and put them outside for other children to find and play with.

My husband and I knew that this was the last night. In the course of the next day, the cloud would arrive and we would all breathe it in and die.

I asked the children if they thought the time was right, to go ahead and leave the toys outside for other children. They begged to keep them one more night, and we said yes.

 + Four, I was going to bed that night. I opened the window and looked out at the black sky. The night was breathing, warm and alive. The stars seemed closer than usual. I began to realize in a deeper way that my body is part of the same material universe as those stars, that they and I are composed of molecules from the common store shared by all things. I knew that my body would soon be disintegrating back into that vast collection of molecules. I felt that it was right that this happen, that it was the right next thing to happen to me (or at least to my body). I thought, That’s why the stars feel closer.

I considered leaving the window open for the night, because the fragrance of the air was so warm and comforting. But the fine particles were already creeping in. I kept having short, soft coughing spells. If I left it open I would die overnight, but I needed to be there the next day for my husband and children.

I decided to wait till the next day to die. I closed the window and lay down, and began the prayers I say before sleep.

””
Wednesday
May292019

For Protestants Uneasy with St. Mary

Here’s an email I sent to someone who is exploring Orthodoxy, but having trouble with our devotion to St. Mary.

***

I know what you mean about Mary. She is probably the greatest struggle Protestants have with Orthodoxy. But I think it helps to realize how much the excesses of Western medieval devotion (like viewing her as co-mediatrix with her Son) have made it hard for Protestants to think of her with biblical simplicity. There’s so much reaction against the medieval excess that it’s hard to see her in a normal way.

For example, think of how we feel natural respect and appreciation for St Paul. If it wasn’t for the excesses, we’d find it natural to feel a similar respect and appreciation for Mary.

And where is she now? Hebrews 12:1 says that “we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses,” the community of all who loved Christ in their earthly life. They now are all alive in his presence, continually worshiping him, continually in prayer. Mary would be among them of course; she loved her Son very much. Maybe she is standing next to St Paul.

That, I think, is the simplest way to look at it; the next step is that Mary is of course not St Paul, but a unique person in her own right—a very unique person with experiences no one on earth can claim. She was closer in her relationship to Jesus than anyone else who ever lived. She fed him, when he was a baby; she taught him how to walk and talk. Why would we not love her as much as we do St. Paul?

Surely, Jesus would have felt for her a very strong, natural, instinctive love. He would certainly want us to regard her with respect, as any man wants people to treat his mother with respect.

Orthodox often say that we don’t preach Mary, we preach Jesus; Mary is for after you come inside the community. Like, if you had a friend you particularly liked and enjoyed spending time with, sometime you might be at his house and meet his mother. You might find out you liked her a lot too. That’s what it’s like. Mary doesn’t take away from our love for Christ; she enhances it, like a flower placed beside his throne.

Since she is among that “great cloud,” we ask her to pray for us. That’s all we do, when we pray to the saints, we just ask them to pray for us, just like we ask friends on earth to pray for us. We don’t expect to get into conversations with the saints; it would be dangerous to seek those sorts of experiences, because the evil one can fake them so easily. We just ask them to pray for us, as if we sent them a message by text or email. There are stories, sure, about various saints (including Mary) appearing to believers or becoming invisibly present, and giving them guidance and hope. But we don’t seek out such things, because we’re so readily susceptible to deception. We just ask them to pray for us.

It’s no different from asking other Christians to pray. If we were supposed to only go directly to Jesus, then I shouldn’t ask you to pray for me. You shouldn’t ask anyone else to pray for your needs. We should all just keep it between us and the Lord, and never ask anyone else’s prayers.

But that’s not the case—people can’t help branching out and soliciting the prayers of others. Logically, how can that help? Are more prayers going to change God’s mind? No, his will is already going to be done. It “does no good” logically to ask anyone else’s prayers. And yet we know we are supposed to pray for other people—we can’t help it, our hearts yearn to pray for them. And we can’t stop ourselves from seeking others to pray for us. We just do this instinctively, out of some sense of living community, of being the whole Body of Christ, whether it’s “logical” or not.

When talking to the saints and asking their prayers, Orthodox feel that sometimes we kind of sense their presence, and get a sense of their personalities. It’s hard to put into words (and of course it’s wise to be on guard against deception). But people who have sensed the presence of any particular saint, all down the centuries, tend to report the same characteristics. With Mary, the sense is particularly of strength and compassion. We feel a great deal of admiration for her. St. Andrew the Fool-for-Christ (10th century) said that he “went to heaven” in a vision, for a two-week period in the course of one earthly night. His angel guided him all around, but when he asked to see Mary, the angel said she wasn’t there; she spends all her time on earth, helping those who suffer. That’s in line with the strength of the compassion people have sensed when they ask her prayers.

UPDATE: had a thought about *why* we pray to saints. But rather than start with theology, let’s just start with what people instinctively *do*. 

Imagine you had a friend who was going through his last illness, who had always been a faithful intercessor, pra
ying tirelessly for others. At his bedside you might say, “When you get to heaven, please say a prayer for me. Don’t stop praying for me.” 

Even afterwards, when you had an urgent prayer need come up he might still come to mind. You might blurt out, “Bill, pray for Kathy”—even if you had no theological explanation for it, even if you had idea how such a thing could work. It would come bursting out of your heart, whether it made sense or not. 

Every capital-s Saint started out as an ordinary person, like Bill. But as they prayed and grew in Christ, the Christians living around them realized that there was something different about them. While the people nearest us are the ones most aware of our bad moods and sneaky actions, in this case the reverse happened, and those who knew them best kept seeing more of the light of Christ shining out. 

When those holy people died, those who knew them were likely to say, “Theodosia, pray for me!” or “Ephraim, pray for me!,” even before there was a “St” in front of their name. But the people who loved and remembered them also talked about them, and word spread; eventually those “ordinary people” became known everywhere as capital-S Saints. Then they belonged to the whole world. Everyone could know them and ask their prayers, no matter how many years roll by. 

This doesn’t answer “why” by giving an intellectual justification, but by just making an observation: people just *do* this. When a holy person dies, his Christian friends ask his prayers. They do this whether they understand the mechanics of it or not. In the Orthodox Church, we have gained a lot of friends over the course of 2000 years who are now in the presence of Jesus. As you start getting to know them, you’ll find some who seem like natural friends. Their whole existence now is prayer, and they are ready to pray for you too.

People may not be asking for Bill’s prayers for a couple of hundred years, much less thousands. The thing that makes people keep going back to the beloved saints of Orthodox history is that they discover “It works!” That these saints are still alive in Christ, they are listening, and their prayers have effect. That will sound strange if you are not used to being in a Christian tradition that still includes the supernatural. Orthodoxy is all about supernatural interaction—though that familiar way of picturing it is exactly backward, its rather that we discover the powerful spiritual world saturates our own ordinary lives, and we gradually learn how to be in the midst of it, wisely choosing to be continually filled further with the presence of Christ.


Wednesday
Feb062019

Why They Hate Us

[Eighth Day Institute, Feb 2019]

Why They Hate Us

Frederica Mathewes-Green

Back in my college days, when dinosaurs roamed the earth, I was a hippie and a spiritual seeker. The range of spiritual options on campus was broad, and I sampled a bit of everything: Hinduism, Ananda Marga Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, Hare Krishna, Transcendental Meditation. I say I was a “seeker,” but that’s not exactly right; I didn’t expect to reach a destination. I was, more accurately, a spiritual explorer, always journeying toward a new horizon.

There’s something about that era that I don’t understand, though. My friends and I savored all the more-esoteric religions, but for some reason we hated Christianity. We ridiculed it automatically, reflexively. The Jesus Freak movement had arrived on campus and, when I ran into newly born-again students, I enjoyed trying to shake their faith. I’d tell them that the myth of a dying-and-rising god isn’t unique to Christianity, but appears in religions around the world. I savored any opportunity for unsettling them and sowing doubts.

I don’t know why, but Christianity roused in us a kind of malicious delight. Somebody donated stacks of the paperback New Testament, Good News for Modern Man, and they were placed in all the dorm lobbies. My friend George, at his dorm, tore them up. When bystanders objected, he said, “It’s a bad translation.” We thought this was hilarious—a witty bit of revolutionary theater.

What’s more, we felt that Christians deserved this treatment, for some reason. We felt that it was right to hurt them, but also felt that it would somehow “do them good.” I can’t remember why hearing their faith mocked and insulted was supposed to help them. But some inner spark of mischief made us want to embarrass and sadden them. Other religions didn’t stir up this zestful cruelty; only Christians roused our desire to wound and gloat. The hostility was so inexplicable, and so intense, that you’d almost think it was tuned to some unseen spiritual battle.

We told each other that Christians were stuffy and judgmental, but the Jesus Freaks on campus weren’t like that, actually. They looked like us, like hippies, and were generally humble, cheerful, and amiable. And we found that annoying. I would say, “There’s something wrong with those Christians. They’re too clean.”

 ***

Looking back, I think the “cleanness” that irritated me was their purity. There’s something about purity that awakens in those who don’t share it a kind of malicious delight. And this desire to hurt them feels justified, even righteous; even when purity is just minding its own business, it feels like they’re preaching at you. So you want to see them shocked and hurt. It would be sweet to see their tears.

Our culture’s appreciation of purity hasn’t increased over the intervening decades; on the contrary, it seems like everything has been sexualized. And if it’s not specifically sexualized, it’s crude. I stopped shopping for greeting cards some years ago (I just make my own), because almost every one I picked up was organized around a fart joke. I stopped going out to see new movies, because gross-out scenes so often jump out with no warning. When this coarsening began, a couple of decades ago, it seemed flatly juvenile, as if everything was being marketed at 13-year-old boys. But, in time, that passed. I don’t mean the crudity; what passed was the sense that it was juvenile. Now it’s marketed at everybody.

Perhaps the biggest factor in this general coarsening is the overwhelming amount of porn now available. Pastors like my husband know all too well how pornography destroys marriages, friendships, families—in short, destroys people. It is addictive, of course; it’s designed to be. It is cumulative, of course, and when addicts become inured to shocking images, they are hit with something more shocking still. The trend is toward increasing degrees of violence.

When author Martin Amis was assigned to write an article about the porn industry, he had to watch some videos and filming. He wrote, “I kept worrying about something. I kept worrying that I’d like it.” Porn targets, he said, the “near-infinite chaos of human desire,” and if you unknowingly harbor some sexual demon, “sooner or later porn will identify it” and bid it come forth.

Given all the varieties of sexual upheaval today, critics tend to focus on gay marriage, saying that it destroys traditional marriage. But in terms of sheer numbers, porn is overwhelmingly more destructive. Men are much more likely than women to be enslaved by it, but that doesn’t mean they alone suffer its effects.

When I’m out with my little granddaughters, I’m aware that nearly any man we pass could have terrible images burned into his brain. That’s the world they will have to live in. When they’re a little older, they may unknowingly date such men. They may unknowingly marry one. (Remember, the next step is violence.) All their lives, my granddaughters will be walking through a porn-saturated community.

But that considers only the impact on them. What about the effect on the men themselves? What is it like to feel that your mind is no longer under your control, that you can no longer stop the rushing thoughts that repulse and frighten you?

Yet it’s so easy to begin. At the University of Maryland a few years ago, two student groups, Christian and atheist, held a debate. At one point the pastor made a reference to porn, and suddenly the room was filled with go-team hooting and applause. I was shocked; I guess I’m just naïve. I didn’t know this was something young men are proud of. But that brief reference to porn got the most enthusiastic audience response of the evening.

 ***

That brings us back to the question of why purity would be hated. Those who continue to think, quaintly, that it is beautiful and worthy of honor, are no threat to anybody’s freedom; their private opinion doesn’t impact anyone else. We are at a rare (perhaps unique) moment in history, in which everyone is free to seek any kind of sex they want. The old moral standards are long gone. How would it ever be possible that the pendulum swing back, and an understanding of the beauty of purity be recovered?

I’m a fan of old movies, especially the old black-and-whites from the past mid-century. And I came to notice that they can take for granted, or even celebrate, some behaviors that we would disapprove today. Or to put it another way, and hard as it is to believe, sometimes the pendulum swung back toward more conservative forms of morality.

One example would be drinking to excess, to the point of drunkenness. There was a period, during Prohibition and afterwards, where it was seen as very cool to be visibly drunk. Just as popular actors are now expected to do a nude scene, they were then expected to do a drunk scene, and most of the big names did so in one film or another. Drunkenness was cool because it was rebellious; it was a way of defying the prudes and scolds who disapproved of alcohol, the folks who supported Prohibition. And it wasn’t enough to just enjoy a glass of wine; if others were to be able to see and admire you, you had to be visibly drunk—in Southern parlance, “knee-walking, lamppost-talking” drunk. These scenes can be puzzling to today’s audiences, and the famous actors appear unpleasant or even repulsive. But back then it was very hip.

This remained fashionable for decades, and only gradually was reconsidered. When the comedy “Arthur” came out in 1981, with a perpetually-drunk lead character, there were some objections; some people could testify from family experience that alcoholism is not all that funny. Today “Arthur” is still good to watch, because of its excellent writing and cast. But the central premise, that someone bumbling around drunk is inherently hilarious, doesn’t make sense anymore. Visible drunkenness has now been broadly rejected (except among college freshmen), and today you’d never see it portrayed as cool.

Something that was firmly embraced as hip and cool has now been firmly rejected. People changed their opinion about that, changed for the better—spontaneously, it seems, without a government campaign or nationwide revival.

 

That’s good news. If behavior considered cool is actually causing pain, eventually people recognize that and, sometimes, turn away from it.

Something else that was thought thrilling and hip, even from the silent era, was male adultery. This was treated as something that should be taken for granted, that “boys will be boys,” and a wife should ignore such misbehavior. A woman who did so was admired as being wise.

In “The Women” (1939), famous for its cast of 139 women and not a single man, the lead character discovers her husband is having an affair with a saleswoman. She resolves to go to Reno for what was then called a “quickie” divorce (Nevada then required only a 6 week residency). But her mother counsels her to ignore her husband’s escapade, saying that it’s wrong for a wife to destroy her family just for her foolish pride. Note that it’s the wife, not the wandering husband, who is destroying the family.

Visible drunkenness and male adultery are two values that were celebrated in film for most of the 20th century, but are emphatically regarded in a negative way today. Those are just two of a list that could be much longer: cigarette-smoking, rough handling of women, and over-the-top racism. Once you start noticing such things, the examples are everywhere. We think, “Old movies uphold old-fashioned values,” and they do; we just have no idea what those values were.

So the culture has changed for the good in a number of ways—but notice that it wasn’t occasioned by widespread revival. It wasn’t because someone designed an effective public relations campaign, or the right people got elected. Apparently, it just happened; the behavior was accompanied by too many negative effects, and this became too obvious too ignore. I think one way this happens is when the generation who were children at the time, who saw how much these behaviors hurt their family, grow up and begin telling their own stories. As they present the damage done, others chime in, and the previously admired behavior is sometimes rejected very suddenly. It’s like it was just waiting to happen, like the collapse of the Iron Curtain.

We are currently in a time, perhaps unprecedented, when talk about all kinds of sexual behavior is pervasive, even inescapable. (Advertising takes some of the blame here, for fostering the obsessive nature of the talk.) And we Christians who value purity are very much on the outside, expressing beliefs that the culture can’t even understand. There’s little likelihood that, if we could only find the right way to say it, we’d win people over; it’s the beliefs themselves that they reject, and changing the words won’t fool them. It’s still necessary to keep speaking out, and even more important to live up to our beliefs. But we should be expect to be ignored, or hated and attacked by those who can’t resist that surge of malicious delight.

In fact, we should be prepared to find that standing up for our beliefs just turns us into lightning rods. We could sustain damage not only to ourselves, but to the cause, because our opponents need a visible figure to caricature nobly oppose. Remember how alcoholism became fashionable as a way of rebelling against people who opposed alcohol? Today there’s the same kind of craving to find someone to cast in that role, to find some disapproving square to shock. It’s not rebellion if no one is trying to stop you.

That’s why people who do see the beauty in sexual purity, who try to practice it and encourage others, can find themselves unexpectedly cast as the bad guy in a stranger’s inner drama. No wonder those who value purity tend to do so quietly, keeping their beliefs within the context of home, church, and community. Purity has become a deeply unpopular opinion, fit only for religious oddballs.

And yet, in other contexts, we all value purity. Don’t we want purity to be top priority at the local dairy? On a stroll through Whole Foods, how many times do you see the word “Pure” on packaging? Dozens of magazines have “Pure” in their title, apparently believing that it sells magazines. About the only thing our fractured nation agrees on the necessity of guarding nature’s purity.

Everyone understands the beauty of purity in other contexts. So why is sexual purity the exception? Why does it elicit a zesty, flavorful hate, and a desire to wound and sadden those who love it?

Oddly enough, in the Orthodox Church we hold up as an example—literally, on our iconstases—a man who was killed for denouncing sexual impurity. In his icon, St. John the Baptist stands on a desert landscape, with a bowl at his feet displaying his severed head. A scroll tumbles open from his hand:

O Word of God,

See what they suffer,   

Those who censure the faults of the ungodly;

Unable to bear rebuke,

Behold, Herod has cut off my head,

O Savior.

King Herod was “unable to bear rebuke” for marrying his brother’s wife; St. John was unable to stop rebuking. We know how that story ends, for St. John.

But, for King Herod, nothing changed. He did not find St. John’s words persuasive, and he continued in marriage with Herodias till his death.

Might anything persuade people to honor sexual purity, if they don’t instinctively sense its value? Persuasive words are hard to find, and even attempting to find them makes us look like tasty targets. Meanwhile, the world keeps advertising the availability of everything anyone might desire. What could ever change this situation?

Well, to take a very long view, there’s the fact that it’s false advertising. Wanting sex is not the same thing as having it. Every year, a fresh batch of 20-year-olds rolls off the conveyor belt, and every year everyone else looks a year older. Time is relentless. Attractiveness is fleeting. Alongside the exalting of “free” sex, the two-faced world maintains a barrage of ads for snacky, fatty foods; these may be irresistibly comforting in the wake of rejection, but they affect the figure in ways that render it ever more rejectable. 

Some years ago I noticed that there was a word that, if I said it during a speech, the audience would freeze. The word is “loneliness.” The freedom to have no obligations to anyone else means, conversely, that no one has any obligations to you. The repercussions of that disconnection grow more terrible with each accumulating year. Sexual liberation has set us free, like an astronaut who cuts through his lifeline.

Those annoying prudes and scolds of earlier days had influence because they represented, not their own private whims, but their community’s consensus. They vocalized the commonly-held understanding of the bounds of acceptable behavior. The price of being in a community is reckoning with such commonly-held expectations; the price of not being in a community is despair.

To imagine the re-establishment of community interdependence requires a very long view, and in the short term we’re not likely to be any more successful than St. John was. Even attempting to present the beauty of sexual purity is likely to attract only that mysterious malice. But we can continue to exhort and encourage each other, and in our private lives do our best not to let the team down. We can be watchful about the material we allow into our minds, because it’s very hard to get it out again. We will find no better advice than this:

“Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Philippians 4:8)

Saturday
Oct202018

The Example of St. John

 In church I stand up front, on the right, facing the icon of St. John the Forerunner. He is standing on a desert landscape, rainbow wings extending behind him, while a bowl at his feet displays his severed head. One hand is lifted imploringly toward Christ, and from the other a scroll tumbles open:

O Word of God,

See what they suffer,   

Those who censure the faults of the ungodly;

Unable to bear rebuke,

Behold, Herod has cut off my head,

O Savior.

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Wednesday
Jul112018

An Egyptian Christian's Tattoo

Dear Frederica,

Thank you so much for coming with me to get the Cross tattoo, it was a blessing.

Yes, a meaningless tattoo is a terrible idea, especially if it will take you away from the Lord. The tattoos we’ve gotten were Cross tattoos, which are meant to remind us of the Lord every time we look at them. Mine reminds me of the Coptic Church, which I love dearly. Reminds me of Egypt. Reminds me that when I set a foot in Egypt, I will be looked at, known, recognized and distinguished as a follower of Christ, the God.

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Friday
Jun152018

The Incredibles 2

[June 15, 2018]

The latest installment of The Incredibles is incredibly good. To start with the film’s noisiest aspect, there are four major action sequences, and they’re terrific. I’m not a fan of action sequences; I usually just tune out till they’re over. But the scenes in The Incredibles 2 are so brilliantly executed that I was literally holding my breath. All the ways animation can be superior to live action were exploited brilliantly. The fourth such sequence begins with leaders from all the world’s nations meeting on an enormous ship to sign a treaty, already a promising situation. Then the host proudly announces, “This ship is the largest hydrofoil on the planet,” and you can only say “Oh goody.

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Thursday
Apr192018

"On the Crucifixion" by St Romanos the Melodist

In the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete (written about 725 AD) there’s a break after the 6th canticle, and then there’s something labeled “Kontakion.” It’s memorable to anyone who’s attended the Great Canon (Orthodox sing it during Lent), because this verse breaks in and seems so different, like it comes from a different source.

“O my soul, O my soul, arise; why are you sleeping?

The end is drawing near and you will be confounded.

Awake and watch that Christ God may spare you,

Who is everywhere present and fills all things.”

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Thursday
Apr192018

"Icon" by Georgia Briggs - Conversation with the Author

Frederica: Hi, Georgia! Let me introduce my granddaughter Hannah Parker, who is a senior in high school. She’s a consistent honor roll student, with a longtime interest in fiction, particularly YA [young adult] fiction, and she’s a real book collector. She must have all the YA fiction of the last few years in hardback. Hannah knows a little about publishing through me, and would like to be a book editor as an adult, editing in particular the YA fiction she loves. We hope to learn from you a bit about the process of writing, the decisions an author has to make when shaping a work of fiction, and if possible something about how an editor can help or hurt the process.

Georgia: Hello, Frederica and Hannah! It’s nice to meet another fan of YA fiction! I have lost touch with the genre in the past couple of years (I don’t like to read anything similar to what I’m currently writing because my voice starts sounding like someone else’s), but now that I have more time for reading, I’m going back to that section of my library to look for books.

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Wednesday
Feb142018

Who'll Eat this Ice Cream? Let It Be Me

It’s that time of year again…

Cheesefare Week, when Orthodox Christians start to ease into the Lenten Fast, giving up meat but still eating eggs, milk, cheese, etc. Here’s my son David Mathewes’ tender farewell to all that is dairy and glorious, “Let It Be Me.”

 

Now that our time is waning
Only one day remaining
Who’ll eat this ice cream?
Let it be me.

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