When I was in grad school, I had a term paper graded and returned to me. In it, was a phrase, circled in red, with an explanation and an exclamation mark. It read: “Double modal!” The offending phrase was “might could.” I looked at the phrase, which seemed perfectly acceptable to my ear, and puzzled over it. I consulted my wife, the English major. She politely explained to me that my very common Southern dialect expression was considered “bad grammar.” Interestingly, it is acceptable German grammar (and was once, undoubtedly, good English grammar, somewhere). One of the things that puzzled me was that the delicate provisionality of the expression would be difficult to say in another manner. I settled for something less. Language is a powerful part of the culture in which we live. It not only allows us to express our thoughts, it is the very stuff of which our thoughts are made.
My grad school experience was a grammar-conflict with a Canadian professor. It is quite possible that she had never heard the expression before. For me, despite my education, the expression “sounded” perfectly fine. It had always been part of my culture. In college, I majored in classical languages, Latin and Greek. They were a slow immersion in an artifact of a foreign culture. I recall being puzzled when reading in the letters of Pliny the Younger. He explained to his correspondent that he had not been able to read any that day because he had a sore throat! I was certain that I was somehow not understanding what was on the page in front of me. Turns out (surprise), that, at that point in antiquity, reading was something done aloud. Indeed, four centuries later, St. Augustine of Hippo, was thought rather peculiar in that he read silently (in his head). This seems significant, though I’m not sure why.
Much of my writing about modernity has been, not a campaign against a period of time, but an effort to understand the culture in which I live (and the culture that gave me birth). For example, America’s homegrown versions of Christianity serve as a lens for understanding the culture at large. Why is it so distinct from the Christianity of antiquity? Why is it different in its particular ways (lack of ecclesiology, non-sacramental, lack of priesthood, etc.). A similar line of questioning, for me, also explains much else that surrounds us. American political thought, and most of the broad swathe of its religious thought, are all expressions of the same culture. Thus, American progressive culture-warriors are to political thought what Evangelicals are to ancient Christianity.
Most Americans (particularly Anglo’s like myself) are monolingual – we only speak and understand one language. Although immigration has always brought an influx of foreign-language speakers, their grandchildren are often as monolingual as their compatriots. To be monolingual is also to be mono-cultural. If my observation regarding modernity and Evangelicalism is correct, then it is pretty much the case that those who are born and raised in modern American culture will be natural-born Evangelicals (whether they believe in God or not). That is to say, they will be quite comfortable, even naturally-suited, to a culture in which secularism, and non-sacramental materialism, are dominant. The imagination that creates the “two-storey universe” is uniquely modern.
“Acquiring an Orthodox mind” is very much like learning a new language. It has its own “grammar” and “vocabulary.” But, more than that, it is a way of listening to the world (and God) speaking of its beauty, goodness, and truth. Fluency in a foreign language is something that only comes with time and practice. The same is true of Orthodoxy. The Orthodox faith in America is spoken with a distinctly modern accent (perhaps unavoidably so). Some of this can be seen in how we observe the feasts of the Church. In traditional Orthodox lands, for example, it would be common to see the Church packed-out for the Feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God. In America, it will, most often, be lightly-attended. This is not that people do not love the Mother of God, nor that they do not think the feast to be important. But its grammar is simply not part of our cultural language. We speak Christmas and “Easter” fairly well, and some have a facility in speaking Lent. But our lives move like the tides of the ocean – in which the primary forces are those of the seasonal economy and such. Our culture, for example, is far more aware of Valentine’s Day (the feast of love and chocolate) than the Feast of the Annunciation.
My knowledge of Greek and Latin often allows me to hear things that most would miss. Recently, a mid-week Vespers at Church was commemorating St. Auxentius. I noted word-games in the hymns surrounding him that spoke of “increase.” His name means “increase.” That sort of word-game is extremely common in the services, though impossible to translate. We miss the humor and the puns that weave themselves throughout the liturgical life of the Church. With that, I suspect, we are tone-deaf to much of the fun and pleasure that formed some of the inner life of the faith.
Another example, from two other languages, illustrates some of our modern difficulties. Sts. Cyril and Methodius translated the liturgies and much else into the Slavic language. Doubtless, a very important word for them was “Orthodoxia.” How they rendered that word into Slavonic tells us much about how they heard it in their native Greek. Orthodoxia became Pravoslavnie. That Slavonic word is interesting. It is “pravo,” meaning “true,” and “slava,” meaning “glory.” In English, we rightly note that the “doxa” part of “Orthodoxy” can mean both “glory” and “teaching,” or “doctrine.” But nothing in our English-speaking modernity suggests that “Orthodoxy” should be understood as “right glory.” But that is precisely what Sts. Cyril and Methodius thought, and precisely how it came down to Orthodox believers in the Slavic traditions. “Right glory” means “right worship.” Nothing, in all of Orthodoxy, is a “right” as a Russian liturgy. Its “rightness” is older than the Russian language itself. When moderns puzzle over the Old Believers’ schism from the Russian Church over liturgical changes in the 17th century, they demonstrate their tone-deafness to the music of “right glory.”
This particular case points to the dominant intellectualism of the modern world. We tend to think that “ideas” are primary, whereas actions are far less so. During the time of the Great Schism, and the antagonisms between Orthodoxy and Rome, one of the largest controversies was over whether the bread in the Eucharist should be leavened or unleavened. In modernity, such a thing is simply dismissed as a complete triviality. Modernity is ultimately comfortable with grape juice and soda crackers, or, even Coke and cookies. “It’s the thought that counts.”
With all of this, we are likely to be caught up in the ideas. Even the differences between an Orthodox mind, and the mind of modernity, will largely be measured by ideas, which is mostly a modern response. Those who gain fluency in a foreign language understand that fluency only comes when we stop “thinking” about the new language and simply speak it. The same is true of the Orthodox faith. It is not the thinking about it that matters so much as its speaking – that is to say – prayer, liturgy, and such, are far more important than talk (or reading).
During my early years as an Orthodox priest, a teen-age Russian boy in our community, was diagnosed with leukemia. A couple of the Russian women in our parish came to me and wanted the Church to “do” something. I sat with them and brainstormed possibilities. I thought of pastoral stuff – take them a meal, etc. Everything I suggested seemed to go amiss. I struggled to think of what to do. Then, I suggested, “We could do a molieben” (a special service of prayer, quite common in Russia). Suddenly, their faces brightened and they were thrilled. For me, it was a lesson in Orthodoxy. It has taken years to gain a feel for such things – and, even then, I suspect that I only do them with a thick accent.
America is a land of monolingualism. We even export our monolingualism. It’s not just English that is more and more commonly spoken around the world – it is modernity. The growth and presence of Evangelical and Pentecostal churches in traditionally Catholic countries (and elsewhere), is less a mark of successful evangelism and more an artifact of the successful export of modernity itself. Behind it will likely come the prop-wash of secularism and all that modernity entails.
As Great Lent approaches, Orthodox Christians are encouraged to deepen their prayer-life, increasing their fasting and giving of alms. It is a time to deepen our practice of the language of Orthodoxy, nurturing the deep structures of right glory, as we become the voices of all-creation groaning together for the freedom of Christ’s holy Pascha. It is the language of earth and heaven, men and angels, spoken by the saints through the ages.
Father …. cultural and language focus on us alone … started studying Koine Greek to expand and deepen biblical understanding … Warmly, John Carbone
Thank you Father. Your toughts reminded me that our traditions, especially our Holy Traditions, are a link, maybe our only link, to the Orthodox faith. Through the lens of traditions we can ” see” the Church as it was/is/will be for ever despite our modern ideas and arrogance and neglect.
Would you consider doing a short daily video during lent? Something along the lines of the Canterbury Cathedral’s morning prayer, with Dean Robert Willis. I know it would be of value to me and – I think – to others. I hope you will consider it.
Thank you for this post Father. I enjoy your articles about modernity and culture so much; it’s good to be reminded of how deeply enculturated we are in the modern ‘West’. Our parish is in a bit of a mess at the moment and I find I keep trying to apply the same kind of thinking as I would as if I was trying to think of ways to streamline an ailing business. It’s thanks in no small part to your writing that I am, at least, able to occasionally catch myself doing so and drag myself back (on gritted knees) to continued ‘counter-intuitive’ repentance and prayer! Your prayers.
I’m glad it is of help! There are many things about our lives in a modern culture that are quite normal and traditional (we still have to eat and sleep, for example). But there are also many things in which we simply serve as consumers – thinned out in a manner that best serves somebody’s profits, etc. If one is going to go to the bother of being a Christian (to say it in a harsh way), then it makes sense to seek to live it in an authentic manner – not one in which its content has been reduced and stream-lined for marketing purposes. Contemporary American versions of Christianity cannot be a “way of life” because there’s not enough content in them to fill a life. And so, our lives become filled with the trivialities of consumerism.
God give us grace.
Actually, it was not St. Augustine who was thought peculiar for not reading aloud to himself. Rather, St. Augustine commented on the fact that his teacher, St. Ambrose, was reading silently, yet “his lips were not moving,” adding that Ambrose was nevertheless “a good man”!
I stand corrected!
Thank you for this blog post, Fr Stephen. I also appreciate very much when you speak of the modernity that we in America live with. I have been blessed to live in some countries where English was not the primary language and I also agree with your monolingual USA comments and believe these are important ideas for me to be aware of as a Christian. I am currently enjoying The Ethics of Beauty by Timothy Patitsas PhD as this book assists in my understanding of the importance of what you write of here. God bless all you do! I am thankful to God for you and all your beautiful family.
Father, for me the overpowering language of the Church is icons. All types of icons. My only experience with religious images before entering my first Orthodox Church were Catholic Holy Cards. Not icons.
When I walked into St. Mary’s here in Wichita (not a large sactuary) I looked toward the altar and I was overwhelmed by the size, the beauty and the welcome of Mary, her arms outspread with her Son on her lap blessing everyone. That was almost 36 years ago yet I still have an intake of breathe at the memory.
Then the priest processed in the Great Entrance and the presence of our Lord in that iconic act was palpable. A few month’s later my family and I were received into the Church.
I have the honor to give tours of the Cathedral parish I am in now. We have a lot of icons and my tour focused on the icons, what they say, but equally as important, why they are placed where they are.
The one that seems to move people the most is the Bridegroom icon.
The language of icons is one that is unique to we Orthodox. In that respect, even a man like me who cannot learn another spoken language is at least bi-lingual.
When the music is added in with our tones that adds a third language. I have seen people burst into tears from the music alone, not even knowing the words.
So, I would say that we are actually trilingual. How fitting don’t you think?
As an addendum since I we won’t get the opportunity tonight in person: Father, forgive me.
That points me to the activity that makes each of the languages intelligible–our Lord’s mercy weaving our hearts together in the glory of right worship.
Yes, how glorious is the language of Orthodoxy! I am fairly fluent in Spanish. We lived in Mexico and I taught it in high school. Real fluency comes, as you say, when you just “speak the language” without thinking about it. This may take a couple of years if immersed in the language…children learn much quicker.
Yet even if immersed in Orthodoxy it takes longer to become “fluent”. Some say 10 years. I’m sure this differs with each person, their background, etc. I am thankful for our 17 years worshipping at a Greek speaking monastery. Though I do not speak Greek, one can be changed, attain an Orthodox phronema by such immersion. One does not usually know that this is occurring. It is hidden. It is not magical. Yet one who is open to God cannot help but be changed after such immersion in countless liturgies. At a monastery one is transplanted to another life and culture, even if only for a few hours each week. Since the pandemic, we have worshipped at an OCA mission. Different, for sure. Yet the glory continues, just in a slightly different “dialect.” I am grateful for the nuanced differences and yet the same strain as “deep calls to deep.”
Thank you Fr. Stephen for a very, very excellent teaching. It will be reread.
Your blessing, Father. In one of your previous posts, you mentioned that when asked what someone should do to prepare for the priesthood or monasticism, they should read good literature. (I probably have misread much, but I remembered the good literature part.)
Would you suggest a list of “good literature”? I am rereading Laurus again this Lenten season and would love a good list to work my way through.
Thank you for your posts, Father. I often need to reread them a couple of times to get at the real meat but you have improved the spiritual live of this old convert.
God bless you and yours always.
The suggestion was a quote from my Archbishop. Interestingly, I’ve heard that Fr. Seraphim Rose once said the same thing. I think of good literature as the great books of the past number of centuries. From Dickens, to Austen, to Dostoevsky, to Tolstoy, etc. Here is a link to a sample list. The point isn’t that these books are correct in their observations, etc. Rather they represent a broad brush of significant thoughts from various times and illustrate the depth of the human heart and soul.
Such reading is an effort to cultivate a depth of soul in its experience and breadth – rescuing it from the shallowness that often marks our culture and its consumption patterns. For example, I think there is a much theology in Dostoevsky’s novels as in most of what people will actually read and understand in the fathers – at least when measured by what the soul can take in and digest.
There’s lots of people who have read widely in the Fathers but their souls are unable to digest much of it at all. It’s kind of a waste. I would describe a lot of my early readings of that sort in my 20’s and 30’s. Some of that was that I wasn’t asking the right questions – or allowing the right questions to mess up my life.
At this stage, now retired, if I am unable to let anything mess up my life it would be a pity. With the years that remain to me, pursuing the true, great questions of the heart are all that really matters – to pursue them and to be pursued by them – until I cry, “Yield!” to God and breathe my last.
Father, may I add another thought. You mention that one cannot fill one’s life with Christ if he/she has jettisoned sacramentalism, the priesthood, ecclesiology, etc. This was my life in Evangelicalism. I would pray in the morning. Sometime during the day I would read several chapters of Scripture. I would attend church on Sunday. I might go to a Bible study during the week. However, these did not fill my life. I knew that somehow there had to be more to Christianity than this…more than soda crackers and grape juice. This longing for more placed me on a quest…and this search led my heart to Orthodoxy. And now many years later, my heart’s yearning has been fulfilled…oh joy! Michael just mentioned icons. We could go on to the Theotokos, the saints, the Eucharist, the Church feasts, fasting, prayer, confession…on and on. One’s life can be filled, replete with all this glorious Church offers. To those searching, taste and see.
Father, God grant you many years.
Sometimes little Marina Grace says things in such a way I know she’s thinking in Russian even when she’s speaking to me in English. She asked me in English last week, “Daddy, what time did I stand this morning?” The verb referring to getting out of bed in the morning is the same verb for “to stand” in Russian.
This little story from Hal’s blog has always given me a smile. And it very much reinforces what you said concerning our thoughts and our language.
My parish priest once recommended that I stop listening to music in my car. He said it would be better to pray and consider the things of God. I did that for a while and noted that it made quite a difference in how I approached things in life. So much of what we “allow to be put into us” is done so in subtle ways that we don’t consider.
I pray that this Great Lent may be a deeper time of prayer and almsgiving in our lives!
“The growth and presence of Evangelical and Pentecostal churches in traditionally Catholic countries (and elsewhere), is less a mark of successful evangelism and more an artifact of the successful export of modernity itself. Behind it will likely come the prop-wash of secularism and all that modernity entails.”
Father, I’ve worked in Ethiopia for the last seven years (via frequent commutes from the States), and my family moved there in December 2019. I sat up and shouted “yes!” when I read the statement above; I’ve found this to be demonstrably true. The vast majority of veterinary researchers (my field) that I’ve met throughout Ethiopia are either Protestant or nominally Orthodox (i.e., admittedly secular). There are, of course, notable exceptions.
The same is true for those young urban Ethiopians who seek (whether they realize it or not) to be more Western to some degree. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church has lost many members to Protestantism. They are working to make many of the right responses (in my humble opinion) to this problem – improved catechism, translation of Scriptures and services from Ge’ez to presently-spoken Ethiopian languages, etc.
The problem of modernity, as awareness of it and desire for it (even if only partially) grows in the developing world, is a much greater challenge.
Excellent observations, really made me think. What do you mean by “The imagination that creates the “two-storey universe” is uniquely modern.”
On the subject of acquiring the Orthodox mind, I highly recommend a new book by Dr. Eugenia Constantinou, Thinking Orthodox. I wish I had read it years ago.
We cannot help the fact that our culture permeates our life. We marinate in it. What we can do, however, is to be aware of it, and make a conscious effort to “speak Orthodoxy” more and more in our lives by immersing ourselves in the life of the Church.
You quoted from Hal Freeman’s blog. He is a distant cousin whom I met in Orthodoxy. Former marine, former Baptist pastor, college teacher, married to a Russian, now lives in Russia and will soon become a Russian citizen. His observations are so fascinating and informative!
I love reading these posts of your’s. It’s very interesting to me to learn that the ancients did not read silently, but aloud. I’ve always been a painfully slow reader, in large part because while reading, albeit in silence, I MUST sound out the word in my head! I simply don’t know how to read any other way.
I’ve long thought that the Oriental Orthodox Churches were far more vulnerable to Western inroads simply because they’ve been so battered by hostile Islamic cultures that any Christian seems like a friend. And, of course, Protestant missionaries and such mean well – they mean extremely well – but that they despise the indigenous culture and the indigenous Church is not understood. If every Orthodox Christian in the world were to abandon Orthodoxy and become an independent Baptist – Evangelicals would think it one of the greatest miracles of God.
What is not seen, however, are the deep seeds of secularism that are inherent in contemporary Protestant Christianity. Modern culture – the worst of it – did not come from some alien planet. It was created, nurtured, and produced as a home-grown product and is as much a natural outcome of contemporary Christianity as anything in the culture. It is that self-awareness that is deeply lacking. And without it, the right questions are not being asked. What American decidedly does not need is another revival. We are actually in the midst of a huge religious revival right now – the Woke Progressivism, is an American religious phenomenon – purely and simply. It is unthinkable without that historical background.
You might find this article useful on the “one-storey universe.”
It’s a phrase that I coined to help teach about the nature of modern secularism and how it contrasts with a sacramental view of the world. It is “uniquely modern” in that the concept does not pre-date the modern world. You might find my book of interest.
Thank you, again.
Some valuable insights, Father, and the analogy of learning a language is an apt one, to be sure. For instance, In learning a new language, one of the most difficult things to get students *not* to do is to “translate” either 1) sounds that are similar to their native tongue and therefore familiar, or 2) words that are cognates, almost identical between the languages, “into” the more familiar and comfortable sounds from their native language. This phenomenon is responsible for most of what we call “foreign accent,” and it represents, I believe, much of what you’re addressing about how Orthodoxy specifically and Christianity in general is expressed in the New World: we take things that are similar or familiar – comfortable – and express them with an American “accent;” or, seeing things in American Protestant Christian culture that are similar or related to Orthodoxy, we assume that they can be expressed in Orthodoxy and mean the same thing. Both practices are problematic.
The other side of the coin is that, when learning a new language, some particularly enthusiastic students (usually adults) will, in an attempt to avoid having an accent, exaggerate the parts of the new language that are foreign to them, often overemphasizing elements that should not be emphasized at all, or hyper-pronouncing sounds that are the most foreign, the most “exotic.” Rather than having a foreign accent formed by the comfortable sounds of the their native language, they end up speaking with an accent that is nothing less than a caricature of the new language, motivated by exoticism. This phenomenon is equally problematic within Orthodoxy in the New World, and creates no end of overzealous movements which, to the foreign ear, *seem* “authentic,” but to the native (Orthodox) ear simply do not ring true. These movements emphasize every outward expression – all the trappings – foreign or exotic, at the expense of the central core of the faith. I’m not sure which “accent” is more dangerous, the “foreign” or the “caricature,” but we must be wary of both.
What we can do, however, is to be aware of it, and make a conscious effort to “speak Orthodoxy” more and more in our lives by immersing ourselves in the life of the Church.
I find that there is a tendency to embrace the life of the Church early on and then a bit of a falling away from that immersion as we realize it requires so much of us (and a falling away from the present day culture, along with its norms and “benefits”). Great Lent is a wonderful time to renew our focus.
You quoted from Hal Freeman’s blog. His observations are so fascinating and informative!
Yes, I love Hal’s blog. I very much hope to travel back to Russia and meet him in the next few years (if travel is an option, anyway)!
What you describe is so on point. I describe what many of us converts go through as the “shame of conversion.” We feel vulnerable and incompetent, and out of place, unsure of ourselves. Thus, we over-compensate. I have found it of use in catechumenal classes to talk about the shame of conversion just to help people process their feelings.
Some people, sadly, come to Orthodoxy, because they find it a great perch from where to judge all the other birds. They forget, it’s just Christianity.
“…it’s just Christianity”–these are surprisingly good words for me, Father. Because I came into Orthodoxy from a non-Christian ‘place’, absolutely everything was exotic, filled with shame and mixed with a fear that I was undertaking something outrageously stupid.
Thankfully, my catechism teachers, one a priest, another a teacher who would become a deacon, you and commentators in this blog, were watchful of my birth into the faith, correcting as I commented, worshiped, prayed and discussed my fears and understandings.
I just wanted to express my gratitude here to you and all who participate here.
I’ve ran into the the same thing with people giving me a hard time about “might could”! My grandparents were from the South, so I guess that’s where I picked it up because I’ve never lived in the South myself. But I remember how shocking it was that anyone would tell me it was poor grammar when it so obviously sounded correct.
We can comfort ourselves that it was, once-upon-a-time, correct grammar before English was corrupted by people who tried to make it conform to Latin grammar rules.
Dear father and dear English speaking Orthodox friends, here is a slightly different perspective from a non-English, non-western Orthodox. Born Orthodox in an Orthodox country. So true what you wrote about exporting evangelism alongside modernity. You said that if the whole world converted to evangelism one day, evangelists would think it is a miracle of God. It’s true. Romanian evangelists call themselves Christians as opposed to non-believers, I assume, but mostly as opposed to the Orthodox in this country who make up for almost 87% of the population. They don’t think we are Christian and they want to save us. The thought is good, I’m sure, but sometimes it is not just the thought that counts. Grape juice is not wine. Neither is coke. On the other hand, what you are saying about the over zealous converts is true, I’m afraid, for many cradle Orthodox as well. The truly hard core ones, unlike the evangelists, don’t want the whole world converting to the Orthodox Church, because they like to say we hold the truth, we have the true Church and everybody else is wrong. In order to be right, you need to have people who are wrong. They forget it is God’s right glory, not ours.
I liked the analogy you proposed. I always explain to my students that the learning of a new language is mostly an implicit, not an explicit process. I can explain all Romanian grammar in 4 days to them and they would get it, but they could not speak the language. It is said that when you make a mistake, you realise what you have just said is wrong because you have heard it some place else and it did not sound like that. Explicit knowledge only comes in after you realise you have made a mistake and you are trying to remember what the rules were.
That being said, since I am not American and since English is not my language, I am allowed to defend both the people and the language. Marvellous language really. The exposure to both your language and your culture helps a lot in my spiritual life. There are words in English that helped me understand some spiritual realities better than in my own language. Grace is one. Light is another, in the sense that it means both luminous and not heavy (us Romanians, much like Russians, don’t always get the word “light” you see) . It is a very synthetic language and there are words that encapsulate so many shades of meaning that certainly helped my understand better certain realities. I think it is because God does not want the truth to be in one part of the world or another. He wants us to work together.
Thank you for the insights into Romanian language and culture. Your comment on light brought this to mind. While in Mexico I was watching a Western movie in English and reading the subtitles in Spanish. The Indian’s name was Lightfoot. But it was translated “pie encendido,” or “foot ablaze!”
That made me smile. It’s true, isn’t it? Everything is quickly “encendido/ablaze” there. 🙂
There is this Russian movie called The barber of Siberia. A love story, really, between an American woman and a Russian cadet, but v good at emphasizing cultural differences. A bit long, though. Russian style. It’s about taking things “lightly”.
I am reading through St. Athanasius “On the Incarnation” gor the first time in many years. I found this passage which , to me, speaks to the heart of the shame of converting to the right glory: “He, indeed, assumed humanity that we might become God. He manifested Himself by means of a body in order that we might perceive the Mind of the unseen Father. He endured shame from men that we might inherit immortality. ”
How can we not deeply experience our own shame so that we may also surrender it to Him completely. Few of us surrender completely right at first. There is a working out of the shame in our bodies, minds and souls. Even though He has already accomplished the task.
And again from Holy Scripture: “I have overcome the world.”
Let us rejoice and be glad in it.
Your mention of the leavened or unleavened bread controversy brought to mind the Enchantments of Mammon. People who don’t understand the controversy over leavened or unleavened bread, they’ll probably understand if you say iOS versus Android.
I just stumbled across this quote Fr. Stephen and thought you might enjoy it…
“I beg your pardon: correct English is the slang of prigs who write history and essays. And the strongest slang of all is the slang of poets.”
George Eliot, Middlemarch
Wonderful thoughts! It makes my heart lighter!
When my book was translated into Russian, the editor discussed with me, and added a Russian translation of what we know as “St. Patrick’s Breastplate.” It’s a wonderful hymn that expresses the one-storey universe wonderfully. It also has the name of the “Deer’s Cry” – which is a long story in itself. It means “cry” in the sense of a deer making it’s “call.” However, when he wrote me about it, Google Translate rendered it, “The Deer’s Scream,” which kept me laughing for the rest of the day.
Father, I am still ruminating on your reply to Catherine on 3/12 on the importance of good literature. My primary experience with such literature has been with plays. There was a seven year period in my early life that coincided with my personal coming to Christ, though decades before being led to the Church, during which I was deeply involved in the production and performance of plays. Most of them quite good pieces of literature. Shakespeare, Eliot but others of lesser note.
Plays, of course, are always spoken aloud. The inter-action between the author, the director, the actors and audience critical to the full experience. Often the first meeting of the cast of a play, a “read through” is done in which each actor reads thr lines of their character together. The speaking it out loud, especially in verse plays like Shakespeare is foundational.
Plays, of course, have their origin in corporate religious festivals. The beginning of my appreciation of the liturgical reality of the Church began in studying and performing plays. That experience made my transition to an actual Divine Liturgy quiet easy.
I find myself quoting often from plays I have read and/or in which I have performed. Often as I write the quote, I speak it myself or the voice of the actor with whom I performed comes back to me.
My personal immersion in such literature remains an important foundation for me even though I will never “trod the boards” again.
I have followed your blog for sometime. I am deeply troubled by the progressive culture taking place in our nation and many Evangelical Churches. Was pondering your statement, “ What American decidedly does not need is another revival. We are actually in the midst of a huge religious revival right now – the Woke Progressivism, is an American religious phenomenon – purely and simply. It is unthinkable without that historical background.”
It seems to me that nations and us as individuals are called to repentance. I have always thought that revival was a good thing, probably my traditional American upbringing. I know that historically revivals have come and gone in rapid succession, so much that upstate New York was once called the “burned over ground”. So I pray regularly for the nation and our leaders, a lot for God’s mercy and hearts to turn back to Him. So how should I pray?
I was raised Lutheran and as that church began to embrace America culture more and scripture less I have spent many years in “Evangelical Churches,” Orthodox Churches are not that available in Washington State and mostly have seemed very ethnically focused. I am missing liturgy a lot. I have read “Everywhere Present” and have realized that I need to view life differently.
Thanks for your blog and your insights.
Though I am troubled by some of the directions of the present movements in our culture, I try to remind myself that they are made up of people who imagine themselves to be pursuing virtue. Modernity, as GK Chesterton noted, is not absent of virtue, but that the “virtues are run wild.” Thus, compassion is frequently misdirected by a false anthropology, a misunderstanding of what it means to be human, male and female, etc. In some ways, what is happening in our world are the consequences of our own failures.
And here, even Orthodox Christians must not excuse themselves. There was a fundamental failure of love at certain points in our Christian history. The result was tragic – schisms, heresies, etc. That certain now long-removed movements can be credited with some of our cultural nonsense does not excuse us simply because we are removed from it by centuries.
It is as Dostoevsky’s Father Zossima said, “There is only one salvation for you: take yourself up, and make yourself responsible for all the sins of men. For indeed it is so, my friend, and the moment you make yourself sincerely responsible for everything and everyone, you will see at once that it is really so, that it is you who are guilty on behalf of all and for all.”
And so, we pray, Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner!
Historically by my reckoning there have been four major revivals prior to our time. The Am. Revolution, the Civil War, WWI, and WWII. There was an increasing blood letting with each one and the last two were followed by periods of significant contagion that added to the deaths and disabilities. The one thing they have in common–no repentance. In fact, just the reverse.
What we are seeing now, IMO is the fruit of the abject narcissism of my generation that turned a horrible war into guerilla theater while excusing the malfeasance of the leaders. Still no repentance.
Forgive me a sinner
Father, thank you for another thought provoking article. The idea of the culture of the church being like a language is very fruitful.
A few thoughts based on the article and some of the very good comments :
1. One of my favorite pieces of the Western Canon is Goethe’s Faust (yes, Michael B, it’s a play too! 🙂 ). Unfortunately it is largely dumbed-down to the “guy-who-sold-his-soul-to-the-devil
meme these days, but Goethe’s version really is brilliant. There are many reasons why, but a dominant one is the way in which he so accurately depicts the sensitive modern western man’s dilemma.
Even the opening lines where he talks about all the things he has diligently studied only to find them ultimately unsatisfying (including, tellingly, “und leider auch Theologie” – and unfortunately theology). So he turns to occult sources hoping they might help with his spiritual problem. First he comes across the sign of the macrocosm, and just can’t get to first base with it (now there’s the modern west for you!). Then he comes to the sign of the microcosm and succeeds in summoning the Erdgeist (Earth Spirit) who loftily and beautifully describes himself and his role as God’s agent in the majesty of creation. At this Faust sort of swoons and says how near he feels himself to the Erdgeist.
The Erdgeist, however, responds by saying “Du gleichst dem Geist den du begreifst, nicht mir”. A literal translation of that is something like “You resemble the spirit of which you conceive, not me.” Per your article, this translation of course loses all the tightness and (super clever!) alliterative punch of the original. But it is a phrase in the original that has stuck with me (not a particularly good German student) because it is powerful, and because I have always thought made something of a general point along the lines of your article. We generally only can come to resemble the things we can conceive of or have been shaped by, even if the other is trying to communicate something bigger. That is one reason Language (which I am wondering should have a capitalized version to refer to both types?) is so important. It creates the boundaries of what we can conceive, and from there maybe become?
Unfortunately the Erdgeist after having delivered that pithy judgement on Faust disappears (itself a sign of Faust’s lack of power to control it), and Faust becomes suicidal particularly after an untimely visit from his pedant offsider. His explanation of his state of woe is a truly brilliant solilquy on the woes of the modern western soul. He is only saved from immediate acting on the impulse by hearing the voices in the distance of an Easter morning procession, which while beautiful and awakening things in him, he still feels he can’t participate in (again western soul wound). It is from there that comes the bargain with Mephistopheles, and his slide into destroying another’s life …
2. Thank you, Iona for that last lines of your post : “I think it is because God does not want the truth to be in one part of the world or another. He wants us to work together.” That is helpful and true, and struck/reminded me that the flip side of Father’s article is the Tower of Babel …
3. Re the reading silently versus out aloud thing, in the last couple of years I have taken to listening to audiobooks a lot. This has included listening to some old classics. It has been something of a revelation. One big advantage is that the listening process slows one down quite a bit to a more natural “buffer speed” and is, well, more natural. Another is that in the past I am guilty of having skipped over long descriptive paragraphs that might have seemed boring or just not relevant to the main action. You can’t do that with an audiobook and – not surprisingly – for the well written (and, more importantly, well narrated!) books this ends up being an altogether good thing. And then there is the realization that some prose is poetry – I remember being quite stunned by what would on paper have looked like a very ordinary paragraph in Brideshead Revisited completely coming to life (under Jeremy Irons remarkable narration) as being quite stunningly cadenced. While silent (and fast) reading probably has its uses (especially in being able to go back and reread hard bits) I am increasingly think it smacks of modernism – “speed equals efficiency before I move onto the next thing or idea I need to be familiar with” or whatever. Which is maybe one of the reasons why we have liturgy and listen to it over and over again?
Apologies yet again Father for length.
Oh and (sorry) one more.
4. re John Michael Boyer’s point. While it is true that some people overdo it when learning a language and can end up in sad caricature territory, I tend to find the opposite is more often the case. People are so scared of seeming to be “pretentious” or whatever that they don’t really try to get the sounds of another language properly and kind of assume that the native speakers will always be able to tell the difference. That assumption probably works with western European languages if their proficiency is otherwise good enough. But with other languages it can be woefully bad. My advice to most people is in fact not to be too scared about overdoing the foreign sounds at the beginning and if you overshoot then don’t worry – you’ll usually pull it back later. I encourage people to say as much as they can out loud – like reading out number plates in they see when driving a car by themselves which is good practice for numbers and almost always gets you a full palette of sounds in the language. I rather suspect that converts are the same. Yes, sometimes they will look and sound a little ridiculous at first – but most people will be indulgent at their enthusiasm and pleased they are trying. The bigger problem in my book is holding back. Of course if we could all at all times always strike the perfect balance, wouldn’t that be nice …. 🙂
If anyone is interested in gaining a more Orthodox mindset and understanding the mind of the early church as preserved by Orthodoxy, then I highly recommend Thinking Orthodox: Understanding and Acquiring the Orthodox Christian Mind by Dr. Eugenia Scarvelis Constantinou. In particular it is a good read for Protestant converts and those who are new to Orthodoxy.
I didn’t see Deacon Nicholas comment, when I wrote mine, but I very much second his opinion as a new protestant convert!
I was wondering , as an amateur linguist, how to use the phrase “might could”? The Plain English movement is of great interest to me and the “Anglish” movement to some degree as well. By the by , I’m a Canadian from Toronto. Glory be to God for all things (including dialects)!
It some Southern dialects (and I have no idea where else this is used) the double modal, “might could,” expresses a very subtle degree of uncertainty. “I might could do that for you next Thursday.” It doesn’t say, “I could do this for you next Thursday,” much less that “I might do this for you next Thursday.” It says that the person is willing, but not not certain if is entirely possible. In Southern dialects, politeness is something of an artwork. “Might could” gives shades of meaning that are part of that politeness.
In many Indo-European languages, there are various uses of the subjunctive mood, or, as in Ancient Greek, the optative mood, that allow for subtlety of conditionality. Politeness and obligation are very strong features of older Southern culture – so, a certainty subtlety is required. For example, to straight up say “no” can be perceived as impolite. Surrounding it with conditionality softens that. Generally, the conditionality would have been understood or taken as a “no” but would carry an element of respect, and save the speaker from losing face. Non-Southern speakers were often perceived as rude because of their lack of circumlocution. This, I think, is disappearing.
That’s most interesting Father. My wife is Russian born, and often makes remarks about the lack of good manners and “breeding” she sees in North America. For her, and now for me, this has to do with being both a civilized and respectful person. Who, generally speaking, thinks about the aspect of being well “brought up” and generally informed about the world (history, art, literature) as part of being a good person? In other words, being Christian should mean that one is a cultured and civilized person. God the Holy Trinity being the Author of all Good, is the Author of all Beauty, including good poetry and prose, courtesy and everyday good manners. (Some of us don’t have the luxury of studying literature much, but kind courtesy towards our neighbour is within everybody’s grasp, I think.) Do I make any sense?
It’s good to see your comment. I’m sure you’ve noticed your Ethiopian colleagues surprised that there are American Orthodox Christians, let alone converts from Evangelicalism. I’m sure you’ll have a good influence on them just by your presence if nothing else.
Heresies arise when we’re unrepentant. The Fall of Constantinople, wholesale apostasies of Orthodox Christians, Marxist revolutions, Protestantism/Modernity and all such tragedies all arise because of our and my sin. This is Church teaching as I understand it, and this greatly comforts me. No need for movements and politics, and no need for despair! If I simply acquire the Holy Spirit, all will be alright!
I hope all goes well for you in Ethiopia, and if you have the chance, visit Mitaq Amanuel monastery just past Debre Birhan.