The Liturgies of America

I will be far from the first to observe that football in America has a sort of religious cast. If “liturgy” means a “work of the people,” then football is its clearest manifestation in our culture. When a team wins, there is a deep, abiding sense within its fans that “we won.” The constant use of “we” through public discussions indicates that we experience this sport as something in which we “participate” – it is an act of communion. To some degree, it is the most profound act of communion within our culture.

Though it is true that far more people attend Church than attend football games, it is nonetheless true that football draws a wider, more “ecumenical” audience. Basketball lost a hero a week or so ago with the sudden death of Kobe Bryant in a helicopter accident. A nation needs public liturgies in which to honor the dead and to mourn. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Superbowl, though dedicated to a different sport, saw fit to make just such a remembrance.

The ancient meaning of “liturgy” referred to a public work. For example, in ancient Athens, during times of war, it was not unusual for the rich to donate the cost of building a warship. Such a donation was known as a “liturgy,” a “public work,” or, “a work for the people.” There were other such donations. The expenses for a large public event such as the feasting and the sacrifices that accompanied a major celebration would be a “liturgy.” It is rather interesting that this word came to be the one used by the Church to designate its public worship services.

The role played by public ceremonies is among the oldest aspects of human civilization. It has varied from culture to culture and from culture-god to culture-god. Maintaining the assurance of divine blessing was but one concern. The other, more to my point, was the public participation in the mystery of communal existence. Individualism is a very modern thing. Most societies have been marked far more by their sense of participation in the whole. I think that modern individualism is a bit of a thin veneer that masks a much deeper, darker participation in society as a whole. For, in truth, we cannot survive as mere individuals: we are sustained by our place within a larger scheme.

What do people gain from their place within a larger scheme? We derive purpose, meaning (for a time), sometimes forgiveness and atonement. Note that I am discussing all of these things in terms of anthropology. Any religion, any public liturgy, can do these things. If they do not, we find new ones. If I make a distinction regarding the liturgies of the Christian Church (such as those of the Orthodox) it is that they represent a public work that is rooted and grounded in the work of Christ as received in Holy Tradition. As such, they are not examples of our modern cultural liturgies.

Many people will be unaware that the American Congress used to call for national days of fasting during times of crisis. In March of 1863, the Congress and the President called on the nation to pray and do acts of “humiliation” (fasting), in repentance for our sins, with a view that the civil war taking place was, perhaps, a just punishment for the nation’s sins. Times have changed.

I had a recent conversation with a friend about the impossibility of national repentance in America, for the simple reason that there is no way to publicly liturgize such a thing. In truth, our liturgies have become strange agglomerations of prayer/patriotism/sports. This year’s Superbowl had a moment (ever so brief) of silence for Kobe Bryant and the other victims of his helicopter crash. It had an intense period of patriotism where both America the Beautiful and the National Anthem were sung, complete with presentation of the flag and a military flyover.

I have served military funerals now and again, always with a sense of awkwardness. There is nothing lacking in the funeral rites of the Orthodox Church (nor were there any particular lacunae in the Anglican funerals I served for 20 years before my conversion). The addition of military ritual, which is exceedingly stiff, and modeled, quite likely, on those of the Masons, always seemed rather jarring. It’s just awkward. America is a country, not a belief.

Public liturgy is particularly difficult for a nation that has slowly changed the notion of “secular” into the absence of religion, or anything readily identified as such. The emotional needs of the nation have not changed – only its way of expressing them.

The Superbowl generally represents the largest television audience for a single event in the year. Many games have some of the same liturgical elements: patriotism with a dash of remembrance. Oddly church services in some circles have added the same elements. When the 4th of July falls on a Sunday, many churches have services in which strictly patriotic hymns are sung. A Baptist Church in a nearby town has 2nd Amendment rallies (bring your guns).

I have twice lived in towns where the local college team won a national championship. It is difficult to describe the euphoria that settles in following such an achievement. Locally, Tennessee last won a national championship in 1998 and has fallen on hard times. The magic of the autumn Saturday liturgies has begun to wane with attendance in decline as well. America (and her liturgies) wants winners.

In truth, patriotic narratives are simply too thin to sustain human existence.

The gradual rise in what would become modernity occurred at the same time as the rise of the nation state. Over time, the nation state has been the focus of modernity’s hopes. If we harness our collective will (we imagine), we can build a better world. As such, patriotism has become the religious expression of modernity (complete with the occasional refrain of “God shed His grace on Thee”). Prayers for the state (as well as strongly-held political opinions) seem to expect that the state will be the focus and engine of worldly well-being. Providence has been delegated to the democratic process. We only want the future we choose.

Of course, all of this is inadequate. Vote as we will, the future will not be controlled. We cannot vote to make ourselves good (much less better). Without a virtuous community, the future will stand little chance of being virtuous. With great frustration we will greet a future that bears a remarkable resemblance to ourselves (the truth of ourselves). Without such a future, there would be little basis for self-knowledge and repentance.

America does not have a liturgy of repentance. The days of fasting once enjoined upon us are a thing of the past. Even then, for all the prayers and fasting of Lincoln’s republic, no particular liturgy ever marked the end of slavery, much less sought to repent for its evils. To this day, many seek to justify its history.

When the Soviet Union fell, within a few short years, Russians began to create memorials and liturgies for the atrocities of the Soviet Union. In Moscow, at the killing fields of Butovo, a Church now stands as a memorial to its victims. Public liturgies are held there on a regular basis. It is one of many such memorials across the country.

Our public narrative is very thin. The Church historian, Martin Marty, once said that American Christianity was “2,000 miles wide and 2 inches deep.” When our Christian theology mimics the triumphant patriotism of our culture, nothing deeper ever begins. Depth comes with suffering. Suffering creates sorrow, and sorrow, of a godly sort, produces repentance.

We are bad at enough stuff and have a history sufficiently marked with sorrow to create fertile ground for repentance. It lacks the humility to greet it.

It is ever so much more than a game.

73 comments:

  1. Thank you for the article Fr Stephen.

    I find it interesting that the word liturgy can be applied to these big public secular events. I had recently been considering that events like this could be something akin to large public liturgies.

    With that, I wonder if you have any comment on the ritual that is the half-time show of probably the largest public liturgy of the secular year? If one reviews the symbolic and thematic content of the Superbowl half-time ritual/show, on any given year really, referring to it as ‘neo-pagan’ would probably be a reserved statement.

    Of course there are other large public events that do this, but the Superbowl halftime show, particularly when viewed in context of the repeated symbolic imagery, for probably the last two decades, says more about where American spiritual life is oriented than just about any other source. At least it would seem so to me.

  2. Thank you, Father!
    As a soccer fan supporting a team that has the double headed eagle as a club symbol, I can’t help but comment 🙂
    It is not uncommon for faithful fans to attend church before such important matches. Professional athletes appear to be more religious than average professionals. I dare say humans have a desire to play, to compete and it has not changed much from the ages of the Byzantine empire. I urge caution when told that “God does not care about sports”. Sports does not replace God; it is people that take this loyalty to extremes.

    Idolatry of teams and individuals is not new either. Both in ancient Greece and Byzantium, prot-athletes were celebrities, not rich, but definitely admired and supported by many spectators/adoring fans. Perhaps our modern society has replaced the need for God with the participation in a common pursuit (albeit as spectators).
    To this day, I haven’t met anyone who has changed football teams in Europe, although I hear Americans object to their ‘franchise’ changing states on commercial grounds – and they do change or stop caring altogether. I have met many converts of religions, mostly switching to atheism. There is something inherently powerful and uniting about supporting a group that shares a tradition.

    That said, I acknowledge it that following professional sports one of modernity’s biggest addictions (mine for sure). A major time waster that serves the purpose of distracting from true concerns about the human condition and our salvation.

    I hope that confession serves to humble and save rather than lead to perdition.

  3. Michael, since the Super Bowl is above all else an advertising event what sells best in America–sex. This year’s halftime show was a gaudy, expensive sex show. It even managed to sexualize children as part of it. For the NFL, Patrick Mahomes the winning quarterback is the anti-Kapernick (the Super Bowl loosing, mixed race quarterback who popularized kneeling during the national anthem and lost his job because of it.). Mahomes is cleaner, fresher, smarter, more athletic and more pure quarterback and he is going to Disney World. He smiles and his mother and father, though divorced, celebrate his achievements together.

    The only flaw that he seems to have is putting ketchup on steak. He is in fact a talented and pleasant young man who has managed to embed himself in Kansas City in many ways.

    I am not sure but it seems as if part of the show was designed to purge the pro football world of Kapernick especially since the new Superman triumphed over Kapernick’s old team.

  4. Of course there is George Carlin’s old gem comparing baseball and football which can be found on YouTube

  5. Michael Bauman, I did not know that about Patrick Mahomes. That’s interesting. I don’t follow professional sports too closely, but it’s impossible to escape the influence of the Superbowl.

    I understand your point about advertising and that sex sells, but every since I became aware of the work of Edward Bernays, Walter Lippman, and watched the BBC documentary ‘The Century of the Self’, I find it hard to seperate advertising, public relations, and propaganda. They all merge together and in concert work toward the same ends. The Superbowl is a huge advertising event, but what is that but also a mass propaganda event for a particular way of life. After all, advertising works by appealing to the passions, lust being a big one, but I think all them are included in some way. If there is a principle ‘liturgical’ message in the Superbowl, the heart of it is right in the half-time show. That’s where we see what we are expected to accept as desirable in our current culture by those with the power and money to ‘advertise’ it. That’s my current theory of how to view it but I am always open to other ideas. It is always nice when I can occassionally convince myself the human social fabric may not be as bad off as I imagine.

  6. Father…do you think it is possible for America as a nation to ever repent? I mean, the upsurge in church attendance after 9-11 lasted a big three weeks. “2000 miles wide and 2 inches deep”, is our understanding of repentance too. I can’t imagine what it would take. Isn’t it like we said before…if there is going to be any repentance, it begins with our own soul. But as a nation…how? We could get some tips from Russia, but we are to busy insisting they are our enemy. And what would be our reaction to Russia’s Churches? That would be interesting to see.

  7. “America is a country, not a belief.”
    As a non-American, I had the privilege of living in the beautiful state of New Jersey between 1999 and 2005, and my impression was that the concept of America is indeed a belief (and one that sets it apart from “regular” countries); and being American, a religion. Not by coincidence that except for Christmas, all American National Holidays are created by the government.
    Wouldn’t the National Day of Repentance be April 15?

  8. Ook,
    Ouch! I think you’re right! America does exist “as a belief” – though that is part of our idolatry. Modernity and America are pretty much synonymous. There is nothing inherently wrong in being a country – we all have to live somewhere. To a degree, however, we do not just “live” in America – we are expected to believe in it. Of course, nations across the world have their own self-love affairs, and the ethnic pride and such that accompanies it can be equally deadly.

    Orthodoxy obviously recognizes the validity of ethnic existence, but in doing so, we necessarily have to submit that ethnic existence to the judgment of God. There is much to repent of in that realm – and it is too little noticed at present. The current dominance of globalization necessarily creates a reaction – and various nationalisms, ethnicisms, etc., are the result. Only repentance gives new life – everything else is just action/reaction in an endless cycle of sin.

  9. Thomas,
    Sport seems to have had a religious connection from the very beginning. The Olympics (ancient) are a good example. Some of the Native American games in Mexico concluded with the loser being sacrificed (no pressure). Constantinople had sports riots from time to time that occasioned the censure of the Emperor and Church as well. St. John Chrysostom had some choice words for those who knew the names of the charioteers but not the Apostles.

    It performs certain religious duties in the most basic of anthropological terms. It’s certainly better than war, though its connections to the inner dynamics of war should not be ignored. We like to kill each other, dominate, obliterate, destroy, etc. Sports allows us to do this with only a minimum of collateral damage. Of course, every exercise of the passions is an exercise in deepening our slavery.

    Michael’s mention of Edward Bernays is quite apt. The clumsy use of “bread and circuses” of ancient Rome is child’s play. Our current mix of sport/politics/patriotism, etc., is a science. The emperor behind it is not human.

  10. The repentance of a modern nation state is probably impossible especially where voting and the illusion of choice predominate . The true repentance of a people can only happen in a Christian monarchy.

    In so-called democracies it is too easy to blame one’s political opponents for everything that is wrong.

  11. Michael,
    I’m not necessarily a monarchist – they have their own well-known evils. But you’re right viz. democracy. There’s always the other guy who’s at fault. The insanity of our present democratic society is precisely our own fault.

    I spoke at an evangelical gathering back in October on a conference whose topic was marriage. I outlined the many social problems of marriage at present and stated that we needed to understand that these problems were created by Christians. This culture is the product of a Christian society. Unless and until we admit that – and understand how we did this to ourselves – there is no real fix. It did not go over very well.

  12. In regards to the idol worship prevalent in sports, but also in the entertainment industry at large, an old movie called Metropolis by director Fritz Lang, which was produced in 1927, gives an eerie prediction of the decades to come. The late 20’s was probably the first period of time when these kind of entertainment idols were coming into a larger public awareness. The film plainly portrays the modern pop idol as a completely manufactured product. The character Maria is an interesting analogy of what we see everywhere today. It is an interesting film full of symbolic imagery and if you are ok with silent films I would highly suggest it.

    The understanding I have come to is that ‘ America’ is an amorphous concept that changes over time to fit the needs of those currently in power. America has never been ‘one thing’, was never intended to be by the aristocracy that created it, and is even less so today. There is a reason you can find references to America as a grand ‘experiment’. Go out and ask ten different people what ‘America’ is and I’m sure you will get many different versions. I think the ideas of Jean Baudrillard, in particular ‘Simulacra and Simulation’ are useful for understanding what is being presented as ‘the American Dream’, though I don’t subscribe to his overall work.

    How can a nation be repentant when it is completely divided on its identity(Identity Politics?). Is it Christian? Is it secular? Is it evil or good? Is its sins more grievous than any other empire in history? How many different religions are practiced in America today? How can a nation repent when it can’t agree on what repentance is and how it should be done? Is that even possible today?

  13. When Israel asked for a king, God told Samuel, “Hearken to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.”
    So America stepped farther away and rejected a king.
    “Claiming to be wise, they became fools”, and what follows in Romans 1 describes America today.
    I am thankful we have a kingdom that is not of this world, where the Saints wait for us to join them.
    To quote a phrase popular in the Jesus People of the 70’s “This world is not my home”

  14. As an American–with European roots whose ancestors have been on this continent since the 17th century–I’ve struggled with questions of identity my whole life. What does it mean to be an American? I haven’t yet heard a satisfying answer.

    I’ve heard advocates for certain strains of conservatism (though what they actually conserve isn’t quite clear to me) say that America is an idea more than it is a land and that, therefore, “America” can exist anywhere. I suspect that this idea, which sets America up as some kind of universal religious identity, has contributed to the ambiguity of American identity. It’s completely abstract; America, in this sense, has no substance and is finally not real.

    I think, too, of the Martyr Ilia Chavchavadze of Georgia, who spent much of his life promoting Georgian nationalism, who said, “We, the Georgian people, have inherited three divine gifts from our ancestors: our motherland, our language and our faith.” He was killed for his efforts by the internationalists of his day.

    I wonder, as just another Anglo, if anything approaching that kind of identity is possible for me in America, or if the only option is to submit to the homogenizing melting-pot of modernity. And if being baptized into Christ does not destroy my particularity, but somehow hallows it, what am I here and now? If there is no such thing as a Christian-in-general, then who am I here in America?

  15. As a student of American history for most of my life there is some truth to what Michael and others here arr saying. That inevitably leads to the questions, “What is there for the Church to Baptize?” “Can the Church really find roots here or are we just another experiment among many others?”

    I had reluctantly come to the conclusion that there was nothing to Baptize. It is impossible to Baptize an idea.

    However that changed recently. There are unique ontological elements in the American Life that can be Baptized and become a core for a rooted Church in this land.
    Those elements are freedom, acceptance and reliance on Divine Providence and a desire for union with God for the benefit of humanity.
    Absent the Church, these quickly become simple principles that deteriorate into political ideology and hypocrisy. However within the Church they are ontological and the fullness of them can be realized in practice and repentance.

    But only the Orthodox Church allows for that or makes it possible. So far, the Church has not accepted that challenge fully. Not surprising as it is unique in the history of the Church. The best of the Orthodox missionaries such as His Grace Bp. Dimitri, have I think at least tacitly recognized that opportunity and born fruit.

    I have written an essay outlining this topic which my Bishop blessed me to share. I would be happy to share it with anyone who wants it. gpgb at kans dot com.

  16. William,
    Good questions. I’m of similar background, I think. Anglo to the core (literally, no other DNA). My family came in the early 1700’s – apparently as dissenters of some sort. My self-understanding has largely come through being Orthodox – and I think of the analogy to earlier pagan peoples who first received the Orthodox faith. What I am is something “proto.” Whether that will be part of something larger or later, God alone knows.

    I value my Anglo heritage – and have far more aware of the oddities that come with it as I’ve spent so much time with non-Anglo’s in the hodge-podge of American and international Orthodoxy. If you’ve ever apologized to a piece of furniture, then you might be Anglo. It’s also helped me take myself (and others) less seriously, though with more sympathetic understanding.

    To grasp the work of God’s providence, I find it helpful to step back, to look at things from a greater height. That human beings exist on this tiny speck in the universe is beyond understanding. But that all of that led to this is still more astounding (whatever “this” might be). In the larger scheme of vast perspective, things like ethnic-anything are so small and silly. And yet, like the sparrow, that seem to have infinite value to God.

    We should delight in everything as utter gift. Giving thanks always and for all things has a way of curing our ills.

  17. “I outlined the many social problems of marriage at present and stated that we needed to understand that these problems were created by Christians.”

    Christians are most alarmed by gay marriage, but straights queered marriage to the point that gays wanted it. The first state no-fault divorce law was signed by California governor and conservative paragon Ronald Reagan.

  18. Fr. Stephen,

    Thank you for your comments.

    You write, “In the larger scheme of vast perspective, things like ethnic-anything are so small and silly. And yet, like the sparrow, that seem to have infinite value to God.” That’s the best way I’ve heard it put. And it’s good to know that there’s something precious to God in apologizing to furniture!

  19. Father, I am not really a monarchist either although I have had sympathies in that direction since my early 20’s that surfaced as I began to wrestle with the Myth of Progress. However, a national repentance can occur in only two ways–through a truly Christian monarchy or through the Church. I do not think the number of adherents is all that critical IF each member takes those sins on as there own and confesses openly.

    It is the way of the Cross is it not?

    As I indicated in my previous comment, the United States can be much more than an idea or ideology but much is required.

  20. Father for your thoughts and teaching to be received one’s heart must break in tears of repentance and the joy that follows. That, at least, has been my experience since I first ran across this blog in 2008. That to me is the perfect indicator that you speak not of yourself alone or solely from the mind

  21. Can “a nation” repent without its leaders? Both liberal and conservative leaders are just different shades of technocratic moderns who teamed up to kill tradition because they chafed against its limits. In their personal lives they’re virtually the same. The rhetorical difference is that liberalism threatens its followers with the claim that tradition is still out to get them, whereas conservatives wear tradition’s bloody pelt and claim they could resurrect it if only they had more money.

  22. “Can a nation repent without its leaders”
    The nation as a whole, leaders or no, I don’t think will repent. But I think what Michael is saying is that even a few that intercede and take upon themselves the sins of the nation as their own, as Father says the Christians are culpable, there begins a healing. The is a direct connection between our soul and others.
    Yet, still, Sodom burned.
    Repentance is not going to make things better, as some people would hope for. It is, from the beginning, what God’s people are called to do. It does take a humble heart to come to that point.
    I’m not sure I understand it all. I’m sure I don’t. But I know repentance is most definitely our part(icipation). Christ doesn’t repent for us.

  23. Thanks, Fr. Stephen, for this article. It brought back an interesting memory. I was raised by parents who loved sports (my mother, age 93, remains an avid follower). As a result, I was taken to baseball games as a child when seats in the bleachers only cost fifty cents! I’m not sure that I ever really cared that much for any of the sports themselves, though I had to pretend to keep up with my older brother.

    What I loved was to be part of a cheering crowd. I remember it being a sort of “religious” experience that even brought tears to my eyes, young as I was. To have a stadium full of people all cheering together for the same thing indeed created a feeling of “communion”. I know now that, even as a small child, communion was what I longed for.

    I have long been a sports apostate. The only way I know that the Super Bowl is approaching is that the local grocery stores have increasing sales on snack foods. I don’t begrudge others the fun they may find in sports but the things that many crowds cheer about now frighten rather than console me. May God have mercy on us.

  24. I’m curious Fr., have you ever read ‘You Are What You Love’ by James K. A. Smith? He describes a very similar thing to what you’re saying, but he uses the example of the local mall to explain our need for liturgy, and how said liturgies form our desires. It’s a very insightful book, even though malls are falling out of popularity, the examples he uses could be applied to any chain store.

    Great post Fr., I always look forward to your posts!

  25. Father,

    You might check out “You are what you love”. It was my gateway drug to Orthodoxy. The author quotes extensively from Alexander Schmemann. It’s not an orthodox book, but it definitely explores the idea of modern liturgies and I think it points boldly toward Orthodoxy whether intentionally or not.

  26. I appreciate the Elder’s words upon some of our deepest needs in Liturgy:

    “To enter the church means to leave outside all those things that make up our life in the world…that which is ours and which belongs to us, our sin, our self will, and our desire… we leave behind not simply the things we see but even things we hope for.”

    “When we enter into the open spaces of the church, we immediately experience a particular feeling, a feeling which confirms for us that here, in this place, our Helper is at hand. He is invisible, but you feel Him, as if He were rushing toward you, as if you could hear the sound of His breathing. He is your Helper, the One Who can deliver you, Who can redeem you, Who can satisfy your insatiable soul…”

    “This is why God has established this liturgical assembly. This is why He arranges for angels, archangels, and saints to be present here with sinners, so that each can give something to the other. The saints are here so that they can give their saintliness to the sinners. And sinners are here to convey to the saints their desire for their holiness, so they too, may be found in their company. We find all of this within the church, provided that all is still and silent within us, and that our gaze remains fixed solely on the drama unfolding before us.”

    Elder Aimilianos, The Way of the Spirit

  27. Yet, still, Sodom burned.

    Paula, I recall an older post here where, in the comments section, it was stated that it may be that the Saints of Sodom & Gomorrah are gathered around the Throne, praying for us! The Grace of God is our hope and faith; we trust in His love. So perhaps it is best for us to focus on our own repentance, apologizing to the furniture as we stumble over it, and knowing that there are monks and saints, of whom we have no direct knowledge, crying out for the whole world before the Throne of God. If we cannot carry such burdens in our prayers, we can take part (even, just a part) in the communion of those who do. Just my thoughts….

  28. Byron…thanks so very much. You should know how helpful your thoughts are this morning. They are meaningful…something I can sink my teeth into in these day to day struggles.
    Yes, we know the popular Saints. I remember it said (I think it was Father) that there are saints we know nothing of whose life of intersession was done quietly, very much unnoticed, in the background, so to speak. He was talking about the saints bodily with us now. But those saints are as “close to” the Throne, with those saints, martyrs etc of past time. And we are all, each one of us, in communion. The proof is contained in our faith…in the goodness of God. Surely, He gives much Grace!
    I am convinced that what you say is true Byron. And yes, we commune with the saints in only the measure given to us at the moment (the measure being fluid). That’s what I think you mean by “(even, just a part)…”).
    Yeah, so, Sodom burned…a story we can apply in all ages. Currently, in this post, about secular liturgies that overcome the Divine. I mean, what else is there to do but each one of us to repent, and intercede. Abraham…I think of Abraham and his meeting with the Three…and all that happened thereafter. It hasn’t stopped, has it…

    Thank you Byron. I very much appreciate your words today.

  29. Father,
    It strikes me that the focus on “the state as the engine of worldly well-being”, which you mention in your article, does not just cultivate blindness to God’s providence, (which could be disregarded by staunch secularists as a ‘Christian concern’). In fact, even a humanist-nonbeliever, should detect that such a focus –through its tacit politicization of everything-that-matters– is somewhat inclined towards Totalitarianism (not just ‘Marxism’). It is a strong claim, but, it is worth noting here how Hannah Arendt’s key statement -in her 1951 classic study ‘The Origins of Totalitarianism’, is: ”Totalitarianism makes every aspect of life political”.

  30. In other words the politicisation of everything ought to be seen as sinister (not just by those who know not to put their trust in ‘Princess of men’ but), even by those who perceive the world just secularly. Of course, that would reveal yet another conundrum in their world view. There’s quite a few of those inntgat worldview though..

  31. Thank you Dino. Those comments were most insightful. The quote from Hannah Arendt pretty much describes life in America today. Only furthers my belief that totalitarianism will be our fate in the near future.

  32. Alan, et al,
    Actually, we live in a totalitarian society. We recognize no authority higher than the state. Just because we’re allowed to vote on who runs the totalitarian state does not make it any less total. It only means that the fairly minor details that separate the parties will be bandied about. But the constitutional arrangements – war for example – no longer apply.

    I am working very hard not to be political – particularly in that I refuse to participate in the farce of the modern state. I can do so only because I believe that the state is subject to the providence of God as much as everything else in this life. In my lifetime, I have seen any number of totalitarian regimes fall – some without even a shot being fired.

    What we do not have, at present, is any serious notion that the state is subject to God and to an authority greater than itself. There is no “Church and State” as if the Church had any standing in the world. It has none – except when it agrees to say what some State leader wants us to say.

    Politicians, who are Church members, can enact laws that directly contradict the teaching of the Church and fear no accountability. Indeed, the Church (including the Orthodox) as often as not offer their highest awards to people supporting late-term abortions. The great saints who put their lives on the line to call Emperors and Tsars to repentance must blush with shame at such a feckless approach to the State.

    But, we need not take concern for the State. The real task is for the Church to be the Church. We have to live that fully, and expect the same of our members, for their sake and the sake of their salvation.

    The truth is, we have journeyed very far down modernity’s road already. Deep, deep repentance is required and a stepping back from the abyss we have entered. It is very late.

  33. In the US ‘democracy’, the State is like a restaurant. Every so often we get to vote on the wait-staff, but the people who decide the menu and cook the food remain the same.

  34. The historical reality is all states are totalitarian. Some more, some slightly less. Still, whomever the ruler or set of ruler’s, elected or not, have a monopoly on power. Mao of China had it right: power grows from the barrell of a gun. That is the state.

    The Christian answer is not to “share the power” but martyrdom. The Cross.

    It is much more comfortable to be seen as a honored partner. That is always the temptation. The quest for power is even in the Church to our shame.

  35. Paula,
    Thank you for the kind remark in the night. I’ve removed that offending comment and my reply. It need not disturb the peace of readers. For myself, there are certain topics (and approaches) that are painful “triggers” for my own anger. That was one of them. I had a very troubled night’s sleep – going to bed angry is bad medicine.

    May God grant us all a good new day!

  36. I think one of the confusions of the modern age is the confusion of boundaries. Modernity seems to want both no boundaries and demands others adhere to seemingly capricious ones with no basis in anything substantial. Since life requires boundaries the tendancy is to construct and defend one’s own often aggressively. Anger results and we tend to look for “triggers” (an ugly word). At the same time we tend to have less and less respect for real boundaries or even legitimate boundaries of others. Much modern violence is related to this: racial, sexual, religious, economic, national. The internet seems to offer a place where no boundaries exist. That is why your rules here and your personal adherence to them are so crucial.

    Then there are negotiated boundaries which occur in a healthy marriage and all healthy interrelationships including international ones.

    In marriage, the mutual respect for boundaries also allows for the mutual dropping of boundaries and incredible intimacy. I think the same sort or thing exists as we approach God. He could overwhelm any boundaries between us and Him but He is enormously respectful of ours that we set up yet longing to respond in overwhelming love

    At least that has been my experience. I am sure that part of the job of a spiritual father and confessor is to discern where the improper boundaries lie and how to safely remove them. That is also the work of repentance too, I think.

    There is a lot to say about boundaries and intimacy. Indeed the healthy exploration of the two is essential and mistakes will be made–except by God.

  37. Father…I so do understand.

    I can imagine these incidences in our lives as some sort of a refining fire…hard to describe. But through it there is more healing to the soul. In our cries to God, half in anger, half in sorrow…all manner of hurt, He gives much grace. To you, as a person, and to all that surrounds you. Very similar to our discussion here on repentance and the healing of a nation.
    Still, there is nothing more painful and grievous than to see the beloved suffer.

    Amen Father, may God grant us a good new day!

  38. The comment and conversation around America being a country and/or a belief brought to mind this quote from Marcus Aurelius in the movie Gladiator:

    “There was once a dream that was Rome. You could only whisper it. Anything more than a whisper and it would vanish, it was so fragile.”

    I think America was an idea, but not only was it said louder than a whisper; it was shouted from the rooftops and turned into an all-out war cry calling everyone to one big party. But like a drug that loses its efficacy when it’s overused, America became an attempt to sustain a feeling, a type of high – and that of course turned it into (as noted) an experience 2000 miles wide and 2 inches deep. Don’t talk about it; just keep free-basing it. If you stop to examine it, it will all fall apart. So for goodness sake keep partying and keep consuming!

  39. Michael Bauman,

    I like your comments about boundaries. In fact I think this blog is an example. Because Fr. Stephen has established some good and kind boundaries, it gives us the freedom to put some of ours aside and have to very intimate discussion here. Praise be to God for this place of refuge.

  40. Drewster, indeed. I owe my entire statement to what I have learned from Fr. Stephen on this blog through the years and from the couple of times I have encountered him in person.

    Father, once again, thank you all the more that you have the humility and honesty to adhere to your own rules. That is an enormously rare trait these days and proved beyond a shadow of a doubt you are not political.

    Drewster, I appreciate your coment on the rules allowing honesty and intimacy allowing us freedom. That is true in many ways not the least is that it helps to create appropriate boundaries in each of us–at least me. Many times I have been tempted to “go off” but thought better of it due to the rules. A few times I have had posts removed by God’s grace.

    Over the years the rules have trained me to both read others more fully while reacting less and write in such a way that I am mostly within the rules. That gives me even more freedom. A lesson in obedience.

    It is a discipline that is healthy spiritually in many ways. It has even carried over to a small degree to my “real” life.

    A part of that is trying not to read my own bias into other people’s words. One thing the study of history has taught me is that everyone has bias but that bias is part of what they are attempting to communicate. The best writers are self-aware and disclose their own bias purposely or at least as much as they can and is pertinent.

    God is good. Even He has a bias–that all should be saved and come to knowledge of Him. That is why we need to learn to lower our self-errected boundaries between Him and us through the life in the Church. But boundaries there will always be.

  41. Drewster, the US is something more substantial I think than your comment makes it but the substance has been abandoned because it’s real promise personally and collectively can only be fulfilled within the Church–the Orthodox Church. I do not mean to offend but the Protestant and Roman Christianities are not sufficient. As Father says our failure is a Christian failure. Consumerism is but one example. The only cure is to go more deeply into the mystery of what is good and what is holy here. In the process, we might find by God’s mercy a rebaptism of the entire western experience, or at least our own salvation. There is a lot to work with because we have failed so spectacularly. We are all heretics in a certain way or we have all drunk deeply of that well.

    Only the Orthodox Church can build the flood walls and channel the wide, shallow river into one that runs deep and still.

  42. Michael,

    I agree that the US has more substance than my comment portrays. But like Esau, they have sold their birthright for the proverbial bowl of porridge. When that happens, “those who have not, even what they have will be taken away.”

    By this statement I don’t mean to infer that there is no hope. With God there is always hope, and as St. Paul says, where there is sin graces abounds. But as Fr. Stephen says, there is need for deep repentance – something that will likely happen only in the face of great calamity.

  43. Father, thank you! I so love your comments from 4:16 PM yesterday. Obviously, lots of wisdom there. I often recall you saying something to the effect of…..as late as the late 1980’s, who could have forseen the fall of the Soviet Union? I believe it was you who also wrote that during the darkest days of that empire, The Faith was kept aflame by the ever so light flickering of faithful people, in the secrecy of their own homes.

    God give us His grace for the days ahead.

  44. Michael Bauman and Drewster. I am interested in what you feel the ‘substance’ of the US or America is. Do you have something in mind similar to an Aristotelian ‘essence’ that is embedded in the idea of ‘America’. What would it be? I am not intending to be argumentative, but I am truly curious what you would consider as the essence of America.

  45. Michael, you have the right question but the answer is longer than I can post here. But there are ontological properties (unfortunately turned into ideas and ideology) that form the core of that substance. Freedom, Providential Hope and a desire for union in and through God. As Drewster indicates we have sold a great deal of our birth right but I have hope indeed that we may yet return in and through the Orthodox Church.
    That may be a vain hope because we have a lot of our own gift to recover too.

    Nonetheless, I do think that Lincoln’s words may yet become a reality and “that this nation, under God, may have a new birth of freedom …”.

    We are engaged in a great war that is centered in each of our hearts to see “whether this nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated may long endure.”.

    The existential evidence would say NO. Indeed that was what I thought myself until quite recently. I now have the hope at least, indeed the beginnings of a vision that it can be so. It may be just am old man’s dream but I am not convinced of that.

    If you want to write me at gpgb at kans dot com I will be happy to share the essay I wrote that is more detailed. An essay that this conversation is making in need of significant revisions.

  46. Michael (not Bauman),

    You ask a large and vague question, and one easily loaded with land mines of assumption and projection. What is the substance of America? I could answer based on characteristics of the people. Or I could try to speculate what the founding fathers were shooting for.

    Perhaps you could give me an example. Pick another country and describe their essence for me. Then I’ll have a better idea of what you’re looking for.

  47. Drewster2000 I may have assumed more about your statement than you intended, referring to “I agree that the US has more substance than my comment portrays.” If so, please forgive.

    I was just curious what ‘more’ this would be, because I find that the idea of the ‘US’ or ‘America’ to be just that, a currently vague concept that people are able to impute their particular desires onto. Maybe there is no good answer today to that question. I find that the idea of ‘America’, if it had a definite substance or essence in the past, seems to have been detached from that meaning in the current era. What America meant to my great grandparents, who I know for a short time when I was young, is definitely not the America my daughter of 12 knows today.

    But then, everything is under the process of revolution right now it seems, even the essence of what it means to be a human being is under assault. It feels, to me anyway, that we are living in a perpetual revolution and no one knows, or cares, how to stop it. Just my two cents though.

    Thanks for the response Michael Bauman. Interesting points to consider.

  48. Michael,

    I suspect the issue with a country’s (or idea’s) substance is that it exists in a fluid state because it is based on people. There was an idea that was Rome. Same for America. You can take a snapshot of your great grandparents time and get one answer to your question. If you took one today you’d get a different answer.

    For me the true wealth and substance is and always has been in the people. They have great potential. It seems to me that a lot of America’s potential lies hidden below the surface – because this is the case with the people which comprise it. But as 6 inches of rain in Death Valley in 2005 caused wildflowers to cover its surface floor and show that it wasn’t actually dead, we await such an event to bring America’s substance to the surface. Until then it’s a lot conjecture or signs pulled from individual stories.

  49. Drewster, indeed. That is great synchrony with what I am saying. The rain in this case is the mercy of God flowing through the Church. Or if we refuse, maybe God will find a more willing vessel.

  50. I had a history teacher in high school who I deeply respected and who really helped shape me as a person. He talked about how we encounter ‘love notes from God’ in our lives and also wove sports and history together a bit. He was so excited about Tiger Woods and read us a quote from a woman saying she could see her son in him, and taught about how Tiger was breaking barriers essentially in people’s hearts. He taught us about Jesse Owens and because he showed Chariots of Fire it dawned on me to become a runner. I had spent the previous summer running a mile through my neighborhood dribbling a basketball 6 days a week. My teacher is why I know about Jackie Robinson and like to see the number 42.

    I love the theme of triadic closure. When two people don’t know each other, but have a common friend they are more likely to come to know each other. If you look at affiliations the same is often seen but not guaranteed. Two people who are connected to the same university, or club, etc are more likely to come to know each other.

    I think in their purest form sports in America have allowed some healing of the racial divide. When we respect and admire the skills of an athlete we can begin to see our common humanity. And that is the type of triadic closure my teacher taught about. While I have mixed feelings about the humanism in the movie Invictus I did like seeing the white police officer and little black boy share a moment of joy.

    At its worst I think sports brings our shame sense to us, or brings a horribly false liturgy of vicariosity with glamor, fame and death rather than participatory Liturgy in Christ.

    Evidence: I remember, with shock, hearing the voice of a sports anchor literally quaver with awe and submissiveness as he said ‘They’re like the Kennedys!’ of Payton and Eli’s parents about 10 years ago when the ‘boys’ were facing off against each other.

    And I see how the anchors dress, and that their work lives are about a game. It is a great way to make a regular guy feel really, really bad.

    There is an intersection, I think, between the lies of the government and the tickets that are purchased for these games. Consumer confidence is high, but ask an American if they could afford a $400 emergency and a huge percent can’t (that is from a Federal Reserve survey or a Pew Survey, I have heard it quoted a few times) I find it so interesting. We can’t afford near term problems or our retirement, but since the government is a big insurance pool now people don’t seem to mind buying the tickets.

  51. Nicole, thank you for your generosity in sending Bryon to Wichita for the Symposium. It was nice to meet him in person.

  52. Thanks Nicole…very thoughtful comment.
    Thank God something inside you at such a young age was still receptive to the goodness of God in this teacher. The timing was right…as you see in hindsight His molding and shaping.

    You speak about the ‘underdogs’. I think many of us can relate to them.

    Reading the part about the price of tickets, reminded me of another form of secular liturgy back in the day – rock concerts. Talk about the feeling of ‘oneness’. It was pretty powerful. Truly, ecstatic. But once the event was over, there you are, back to reality, looking desperately to regain that ‘high’, that sense of connectedness. Having no idea whatsoever that you were on the road to oblivion.
    It is amazing to even have survived such a time. By the grace of God Almighty…

    I can so relate to the underdog. And those who are blinded by deep wounds. God remembers those who are unable to receive love and kindness from people who cross their path. Yes, His mercy endures forever.

  53. Hi Michael Bauman, I am so glad Byron was able to go. I have been glad to participate and reflect over the years along with you and Byron and many others. Truly, you both are very welcome. I know he wrote a thank you comment already as well.

    Paula AZ, I needed that note, some are unable to accept the kindness and love. I will reflect on that today.

  54. It seems to be impossible to escape discussion of pro sports in church. Clergy who chat about it at the end of liturgy, can’t wait til the dismissal to mention the game that day. Tiresome. I never ever hear of sports announcers or players talking about the eucharist during a game broadcast. So until we get equal time I suggest no mention of that or other entertainment in the nave. Coffee hour only, please??

  55. Bob,
    Because sports serve as a tribal-bonding liturgy, it’s not surprising to see it mentioned in such places. The sports riots in Constantinople (might have been in Justinian’s time) are worth noting. This stuff is nothing new – Chrysostom complained about it.

  56. Our minds have yet to be renewed. St. Paul used a lot of sports metaphors though. The struggle and discipline that the top athletes go through is quite intense. They have to be intense people. Those of us without that discipline, willingness to struggle and intensity of purpose latch onto that in the vain hope that their virtue will be ours. I can be a “winner” too.

    Occasionally, I have this dim thought: Hey, you can do better than they can, IF you follow the disciplines of the Church with the same intensity demonstrated by top athletes, the same willingness to master my own body. To push through pain, distractions and sin. We have all of the best trainers after all who are more than willing to work with us (the saints). We have the best training plan ever laid out for us so that we may enter into the Victory.

  57. Father,
    Please forgive this rather late and rambling comment. I agree that a lack of public repentance appears to be the hallmark of the American heart. And I would add to this a deep vein of envy and gluttony.

    Our complicity in this life way is usually invisible to us. And we prefer to blame our sorry state of affairs on others, such as ‘foreigners’.

    I believe the obliviousness we have to our history, of what got us to this point in time, is deeply connected to our desire to lay the fault elsewhere, perhaps out of shame.

    And last, in the movement of Roman Catholicism toward Orthodox expression of sacrament, we might welcome such movement. But what is such a movement if it doesn’t involve public repentance and instead lays claim to a history that it doesn’t actually have? Such a movement, if that’s what it might be called, seems very American in style.

    It reminds me of the surge of people in the 1990’s who celebrated and claimed for themselves a Native American ancestry that they didn’t actually have.

    I know I’ve made a similar comment before. And I ask for your patience and forgiveness to repeat it. I’ve been presented with such obfuscation of Roman Catholic and Orthodox history and life ways in the place where I live. It has happened frequently of late. And it appears to elicit a bit of frustration in my heart for various reasons.

  58. Your thoughts make sense to me. There is, strangely, a kind of American innocence that is simply born of ignorance. It’s hard to repent for a history you know nothing about.

    From my experience as an Orthodox priest, in which I hear the confessions and the thoughts of many non-Americans, it is inherently the case that you need to listen sympathetically, to understand their soul. It’s an amazing thing as an American (of any sort), to see and hear the world from a non-American perspective. I could extend that – and speak of hearing and seeing the world from a poor Appalachian perspective, or a host of others. Compassion requires such listening and understanding.

    The result isn’t, and shouldn’t be, a “blending.” The problem with various homogenized blends is tendency to erase what is distinctive and unique – to turn the world into shades of beige and mediocrity – when, in fact, it is filled with sharp colors and great highs and deep lows.

    This is the strange and paradoxical call of the gospel: to love everyone and everything in particular, and in its very particularity. Only love can do this.

  59. Dear Father Stephen,
    Your response is so helpful!
    And again your own work to listen to confession and to listen to the soul of another with compassion and across cultural distinctions, is an important skill that all of us need to acquire. It is a lesson for all of us. May God grant me such compassion.

    Indeed the Gospel does call us to love every one and everything in particular and in its very particularity! May God grant us such capacity for such love.

    Thank you Father Stephen.

  60. Nicole,

    I’ll once again say “thank you” for the day at the Symposium. I did not get to talk to Michael and Mary as much as I should have (I ran into many people there that I only speak to online, it seemed) but I very much enjoyed meeting everyone.

    A bit of a comical note: my name tag game my home as “Alexandria VA”, which elicited several comments about how far I had traveled to the Symposium! I had to explain I was actually just down the road in Tulsa a couple of times…. 🙂 But it also gave me opportunity to mention your generosity, so I considered it a good thing!

  61. Bob, as someone who absolutely loves and follows sports, let me just say, I totally agree with you! I am blessed to have a parish Priest who loves just one sports team and rarely mentions them, unless I specifically ask him about his team when we talk.

  62. Dear Father, Thank you for another thoughtful piece. I politely disagree or over-agree) with your opening statement, “…football in America has a ‘sort of’ religious cast.” Modern Sports is a full-on religion both in Europe and in these United States. G.K. Chesterton saw this many decades ago. He has numerous quotes on the subject here are a few:
    “One of the first essentials of sport being healthy is that it should be delightful; it is rapidly becoming a false religion with austerities and prostrations.” ~GKC
    “Sport is not so much a modern relaxation as a new religion, and is more serious and unsmiling even than most new religions.” ~GKC

    In the new religion, people dress in costly select clothing, eat unique food, and literally sing hymns to their team. Certain Pubs are now holy places for the gathering of the faithful, and the relics of the new religion are ever-increasing in value.

    This development is altogether sad for me. Playing sports, sandlot or league was very formative for myself and many others. There is very little “game” left in the games of Modern Sports, so little sportsmanship and much-bloated puffery.

  63. I suspected so. It is that good Anglican training that stresses the cure of souls.
    I remember the first time I heard a friend say, “Hey ‘we’ just picked up so and so on waivers!” I asked him if he had a new job in Yankees front office, like George Costanza.😎

  64. Of course the increasingly violent religion of ideological politics which has always had an impact on the Church and even now seeks to undermine her authenticity.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *