Archive for March, 2012

Some few years back, I took advantage of my new “involuntarily retired” status to follow a lifelong dream to learn Russian.  I still don’t speak it fluently – it’s a tough language – but at least I can express myself grammatically.

The language courses were augmented by cultural courses that were mandatory for Russian majors, and strongly encouraged for everyone else.  Part of the culture component was watching Russian-language movies, all of them Soviet-era, despite the fact that the Soviet Union has been history for over twenty years at this point.  (I did suggest my favorite post-Soviet film, Ostrov – The Island – but was turned down.)  Most of the films were comedies.  A couple were from World War II, very Workers-Overcoming-the-Imperialists in content.  And then there was The Chekist.

For those who don’t know, the Cheka was the great-grandfather of the KGB, the original post-Revolution Secret Police.  They set the tone for every agency that followed, in terms of terror:  the knock on the door at 3:00 a.m., the mass roundups, mock trials, and executions for “counter-Revolutionary activity,” which could be as simple as being out of work (being out of work was considered “parasitism,” being a parasite on the productive Working Class).

The film opened with a wedding scene, a young couple, very obviously very much in love, being married in a Russian Orthodox ceremony.  Then the camera slowly panned through the crowd to the back, where a man could be seen garroting a woman.  As the wedding concluded, doors were thrown open – and only then did you realize that the wedding had taken place in a prison cell, that everyone there was slated for execution, and that the incongruous garroting had been a mercy killing.  The prisoners were directed to strip off completely naked, then herded to a wall with troughs in front of it, positioned so that they were facing the wall, and then gunned down, in the back.  In the seconds before the opening salvo, the young couple – now separated by the priest who had married them, who stood between – reached behind him to hold hands.

The next scene cut to a group of men around a kitchen table, drawing up lists of people to be executed.   Subsequent scenes made it clear that these lists were actually quite arbitrary.  You would expect to find priests being executed, and they were plentiful, but often someone ended up on the list because a co-worker wanted a promotion, and someone stood in his way; that person’s name would be placed on the list.  Over a ten-year period, more or less, the lists continued to be drawn up by the same people at the same location – until the final scenes, when the protagonist, the Chekist, was missing.  You saw him again in the very last scene, standing stark naked with his face to the wall, alone at the troughs, and laughing at the cruel irony of his fate.  Then  the shots rang out, and the screen went black.

As you can imagine, it wasn’t easy watching.  There was a stunned silence in the classroom for a couple of minutes, before one of the students asked, in a shaking voice, “How could they let this happen?!”  I wanted to laugh.  What a question!  It was clear, from this young fellow’s attire, that he was a believer in Marxism-Leninism (the slogans on the shirt were a dead giveaway, for one thing), and that he couldn’t imagine such a thing taking place in the enlightened Workers’ Paradise.  And I wanted to laugh because the Hate Speech bill had just been passed, making it a federal crime to speak one’s mind on a whole variety of topics.  Homosexuality was covered, and of course racism.  Over time, hate speech against Islam has made it to the list.  Judaism was implicitly covered.  Not, evidently, Christianity.

I’ve been thinking about this fellow a lot lately, primarily because of stuff like this:  http://michellemalkin.com/2012/03/07/the-war-on-conservative-women/  And this:

indicative of the war on the Catholic Church.  That, of course, has been going on for a very long time.  But the objection of the Catholic Church to those provisions of the Obama health-care bill that deal with contraception, has renewed the attacks, and they have become more and more vitriolic; note the comments to a local story out of the New Hampshire Statehouse.

So, bottom line:  the Left has absolute freedom of speech, but when the rest of us try to exercise the same freedom of speech, it’s hate speech?

That’s how they let it happen.

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NaBloPoMo’s theme for March is “whether,” or alternatively, “weather.”  As in, March is such a changeable month, that the real theme for the month is Change.  Yesterday’s prompt asked how the writer feels about uncertainty.

No uncertainty here:  I HATE it.  Life is uncertain enough, thank you, and I don’t need any more uncertainty scrambling my neurons.  I like having things Buttoned Up, the “buttoneder” the better.  I have a daily and a weekly plan for my household chores.  I write down when my mail comes in, and when I send out my bills.  (Sadly, not my letters.  Who writes letters anymore, in this Age of E-mail?)  I have accounting journals and ledgers for my household accounts – nothing as grand as it sounds, but at the end of the month I have a record of exactly where the money went.  And all the receipts are properly filed.

I know that somewhere, someone is thinking, “We have to get this woman help.  Talk about anal!!”  Yeah, probably.  But my sister was recently divorced, and it was a messy one, as her ex demanded his “fair share” of the Vast Fortune she inherited from Dad last year (all of which went to pay his nursing-home expenses).  What saved the day for her was the records she kept; she had every single bill she had paid for the past seven years, and the documentation to show whose checking account it came out of.  The divorce was more of a war of nerves than anything else, unless her ex was really so clueless that he didn’t realize what a careful record-keeper she is.  Moral of the story:  It pays to KNOW where things are.  It pays to know what’s going on in your life.

And it pays to know, or at least have some idea of, where life is going.  Obviously, you can never control every aspect of it; something ugly, like serious illness or the loss of a job, is always going to crop up.  But you’re in better shape to handle it if everything else in life is tidy and predictable.  That goes for very long-range planning, too, as in, planning for eternity.

The priest who hears my confessions – he of the seven kids (the one with five kids is someone else) – often comments on how surprised he is at the plans people make for their lives, planning for all kinds of things that may or may not happen.  “But the one thing we know will happen, with 100% certainty, nobody makes plans for,” he says with a chuckle.  He’s talking, of course, about death and its aftermath.

I have the impression that most folks have some nebulous idea that they will just fall asleep, or die in their sleep, and drift off into a state of unending bliss, unless, of course, they don’t believe that anything will happen at all, which strikes me as singularly silly.  I mean, if you go through life believing in eternity and you die and there isn’t anything, how will you know how pointless your belief was?  And if you go through life believing that death is the end, and you die, and it isn’t – yikes.

And there are good folks who believe that just because they are baptized, they will go to heaven forever because salvation is a Free Gift, and you don’t have to do anything to “earn” it.  Not exactly.  Not that you don’t have to do anything, more like, there isn’t a blessed thing you can do to earn it.  But then, why does St. James talk about “working out” our salvation?  Somebody posed this question on Facebook not long ago, and one of the responses was that we work for it because that way, we value it more.  Which house do you value more, the one you worked and saved for, or the one your parents bought for you, or that you inherited?

It’s an uncomfortable subject, and I guess nobody likes to think about it.   But again, my philosophy is, get it as nailed down as you can.  Make a plan for your funeral.  Start setting aside money to pay for it.  Leave notes as to your wishes (kind of service, where, who’s going to conduct it).  If you have the nerve, you can even write your obituary; that is a humbling experience, as you try to sum up “in 100 words or less” what your life was all about.  With these details out of the way, you can start the real work of preparing for eternity:  building a relationship with God, one that takes you a step at a time towards your ultimate goal in life:  life in God, eternal life.

Going back to what I said at the beginning of this post, I really  hate uncertainty.  I like things as buttoned up as possible.  Eternity is one thing I don’t think I have buttoned up; as much as I might try to conform my life to the life God had in mind for me when He created me, I do such a spectacular job of blowing it, on a regular basis, that I am completely uncomfortable claiming eternal life for a Sure Thing.  By the mercy of God, hopefully it is; but I’m not placing any bets on it until I know.

It’s the one uncertainty I can live with, because it’s the one uncertainty that’s in the hands of the One Who never drops the ball.  Or a life.  Even if I don’t trust myself to get to my ultimate goal, I can trust God to do everything He can to help me get there:  He wants it even more than I do.

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On Tuesday I attended a funeral.  In fact, the deceased was nobody I knew,  but when the priest sent out a parish-wide memo concerning this funeral, as a member of my church’s choir I felt I ought to show up – who knew how many other choir members would be there?  And this wasn’t just about a few feel-good hymns, either; in the Orthodox Church, we sing everything.  The priest sings his prayers, and the responses are sung back.

As it turned out, it was a good thing I went, since only two other singers showed up, one another choir member, and the other a young woman who can’t be in the choir right now because she has young children to keep track of.  (I look forward to her return in five or so years.)  As it also turned out, our presence was not necessary; family members who could sing were present, and requested to sing the responses.  And they did a wonderful job of it, too.

After the funeral, while everyone else walked over to the cemetery for the committal, I asked  my young friend if she would join me for lunch.  Between her children and my commute (50 miles, one way), we almost never get a chance for a  good, sit-down chat, and I wanted to grab the opportunity.  Apparently, so did she.  We met up at a watering hole not too far from church, ordered seafood, and dug in, both to our meals and to our chat.

She’s a lively little party, and I always enjoy talking to her.  As the conversation often does with young mothers, hers turned to her children, and to her son’s fear of receiving Communion, which had baffled her:  Orthodox children receive Communion from the time they are forty days old, and in this parish, at least, frequent Communion is the norm.  So why would a child suddenly become screaming-terrified of what had been a weekly occurrence?  And all she could get out of him was, “I’m scared.”

The priest was laid back about it.  “They all do it, at one time or another,” he told her.  “Give him time, he’ll get over it.”  (With five kids of his own, he should know.)  But she was sufficiently perturbed about her son’s fear to post her question to an online community for Orthodox mothers, and the response she received from one mother in particular has burned itself into my brain:  “Maybe he sees It for what It is,” wrote this mother of six.

She had me flummoxed, that’s for sure.  “What do you mean, what It is?” I asked my young friend, and she quoted from her online conversation:

“A Bowl of Fire.  A chalice full of flame.”

* * * * *

In the Orthodox Church, we take nothing for granted.  People who think we are indulging in Empty Ritual should talk to any of the older ladies of the parish, the ones who have time to answer, the ones who have lived this all their lives.  They can tell you the reason for everything we do (as can the priest), and it’s always theologically sound.  One of our common practices is to say pre-Communion prayers.  Yes, they were written by someone else; they express not just the personal feelings of the author, but the very depths of theology, of the essence of mankind’s relationship with his Creator.  We read them to school our own minds in the proper approach to God and to His mysteries, in particular, the Mystery of Communion.  And one of these prayers begins:

If thou desirest, O man, to eat the Body of the Master, approach with fear, lest thou be burnt; for It is fire. 

As any Christian knows, fire is all over the Bible.  Malachi speaks of a “refiner’s fire,” the Three Youths in the Book of Daniel experienced the fire meant to kill them as refreshing dew, and if you look it up in any good concordance, you can find an entire page of references to fire, both as a destroying agent and as a purifying agent.  In Orthodoxy, too, there is a particular miracle that takes place at Easter, the Holy Fire.  People who have been present for this miracle note that it is possible to put one’s hand into the flame, and it will not be burned; rather, it is a life-changing experience.  (Note that this miracle only takes place on Orthodox Easter, or Pascha, which falls, this year, on April 15, a week after everybody else’s.  Next year it takes place a month after everybody else’s.)

So no, this is not a Fire that would burn you if you consumed It, but It would, and does, burn away impurities of thought or action; It burns away sin.  Those of us who have been communing for decades understand this prayer in this sense when we read it, and when we approach the Chalice, we see only the mingled bread and wine, though we understand that through the action of the Holy Spirit, what is present is the actual Body and Blood of Christ, of which He spoke at the Last Supper.

But very small children see things differently.  Very small children have a purity that our Lord told us to emulate.  What if this very small boy, with the pure eyes of a child, did see Fire?  He would have no way of understanding that it’s not the same kind of fire that’s on his mother’s kitchen stove.  And he would be terrified to take this into his mouth.

Well, whatever it was about, it’s over, and he now communes regularly and happily.  I, on the other hand, will never see Communion in the same way again.

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