Conversations by e-mail – Summer 2010

These are extracts from recent postings
to the OPF’s e-mail discussion list.
If you are an OPF member and wish to take part,
contact Mark Pearson <markp (a) earlham.edu>
or Jim Forest <jhforest (a) gmail.com>.

Weapons for peace: A little historical trivia. The Gatling gun, first used in the American Civil War, was the first successful machine gun and the predecessor of modern automatic weapons. Henry Gatling, the inventor, believed it would reduce deaths in war.

Gatling invented the Gatling gun after he noticed early in the American Civil War that a majority of the dead were lost to disease rather than gunshots. In 1857, he wrote: “It occurred to me that if I could invent a machine — a gun — which could by its rapidity of fire, enable one man to do as much battle duty as a hundred, that it would, to a large extent, supersede the necessity of large armies, and consequently, exposure to battle and disease would be greatly diminished.” (From the Wikipedia entry on Gatling)

No doubt Gatling was sincere, but it’s difficult not to notice that this rationale crops up again and again in the history of modern warfare: some used it to justify the atomic bomb, and now it is used to justify the growing use of robotic weaponry.

John Brady
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Rejecting limits: Men take war as inevitable, and moral limits that seem unbreakable at the beginning of a conflict seem foolish by the middle (thus Roosevelt, one of the biggest critics of bombing of cities before the US joined World War II, became one of the advocates of city bombing later in the war). So many horrible things have been done already that they tend to make old restrictions seem pointless.

I can think of only one case of the rollback of a technology of war by deliberate choice – the abandonment of guns in Japanese warfare after a time. They were simply too deadly, so they went to older technology for about two hundred years. Other than that, every lethal technology – however deplored at the beginning – seems to become standard technology pretty quickly after its development. Those who refuse to use available technology become the prey of those who revel in its use. And that becomes a powerful excuse to ignore old strictures – if we don’t use it, those evil people over there may defeat us. The result? Humanity as a whole suffers more.

Daniel Lieuwen
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A question overheard: I was in Uganda earlier this month. While waiting at a service station for my car’s air conditioning to be repaired, I overheard a woman talking on her cell phone. I do not know what she was talking about or to whom she was talking, but I heard her say, in the rich accent of that country, “What does the Bible advise you to do about that?” We sure don’t hear that question asked very often here in the USA.

David Holden
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Forebodings of Nicholas II: In the same vein, I’ve been reading Robert K. Massie’s Nicholas and Alexandra and came across a section on Tsar Nicholas’s concern about the “grim horror of any future war” and his proposals to avert it by bringing the governments of the world together to talk about disarmament and other ways to keep the peace. This was in 1898, about 15 years prior to the First World War.

Aaron Haney
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Seeking blessings: As a priest, a few times parishioners have asked my opinion (blessing, permission, approval) for something which clearly they have their own doubts about. When I ask them, “Would Christ bless this?” they say “No.” I always say to them, “Well if you know Christ wouldn’t bless what you want to do, why do you ask me for my blessing?”

Fr. Ted Bobosh
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A burial: This past week, a family in our parish, who had been rejoicing in the expectation of a third child, learned during a check-up that their child was dead in the womb. The next day the mother underwent a D&C to remove the child. The family asked for a memorial service and burial, which we did. It was intensely moving. Our priest found a service for a stillborn child online, and it was quite beautiful — obviously from some OCA source, it was original but followed the tradition of Orthodox hymnography very closely.

The child’s grandfather had spent many hours producing a beautifully-crafted oak box no bigger than a cigar box, which held the body.

Following the church service, there was a burial at our parish cemetery, using the customary Orthodox grave-side service. Family members filled the very small grave by hand. Somehow I was especially touched to see the tiny hand-made casket buried within 24 hours of its being fashioned.

The parents had named the child, and he was commemorated by name many times during the service, and again at a panakhida on Sunday.
Families react to miscarriages/stillbirths in various ways – some desire complete privacy; others like this family are willing to grieve openly, in the company of the Church. I hope that services like this one will become more common.

John Brady
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Naming: A couple of years after we lost Oscar, we were having dinner with friends at which Bishop Seraphim of Canada was a guest. I told him the story of the miscarriage. He asked if we had named the child. I said yes, his name is Oscar. Bishop Seraphim said, that’s good. Now you have an advocate in Heaven. Instantly it changed my feeling about the experience. I know that one day we will meet Oscar face to face, and see him as we were never able to see him here.

Nancy Forest-Flier
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Circle of concern: Any of us who have anticipated the birth of a child know how much we ourselves grow during the gestation period – in depth of feeling, reflection about the future, and capacity to include another individual in our circle of concern and caring. When a preg-nancy ends prematurely, all that is expected to just come to an end. That process is aborted, even if the first loss was not medically engineered. Just as we don’t stop loving a parent when he or she dies, we should not stop loving the very young person who almost was amongst us. To do so is to voluntarily diminish ourselves, to pare back the growth in humanity/divinity that has occurred through the grace of God.

Alex Patico
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Friends huddled together: Before Joel and I were Orthodox, when we miscarried, we had a small ceremony. We didn’t even know what we were doing, just that we wanted to honor this little life that had already changed us so much. This was almost a decade ago, but I still get tears remembering that small group of friends huddled together. It was a great comfort to us.

Monica Klepac
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Redemptive Suffering: In Gravity and Grace, Simone Weil writes: “Redemptive suffering is that which strips suffering naked and brings it in its purity right into existence. That saves existence. As God is present through the consecration of the Eucharist in what the senses perceive as a morsel of bread, so he is present in extreme evil through redemptive suffering through the cross.”

With all due respect to Simone Weil, it seems to me that in such passages she embraces religious masochism, expressing a pseudo-spiritual pathology which we ourselves would do well to avoid and discourage in others. Suffering, even redemptive suffering (whatever that is, apart from the suffering of our Lord Jesus Christ) doesn’t save anything, let alone save existence itself.

Suffering and misery are to be avoided by us Christians, and alleviated when we see the opportunity to comfort others. Were it a good idea to suffer, there would be no reason for us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned. Clearly, the Gospel teaches us that human suffering is to be alleviated, not encouraged.

Weil’s mention here of “the cross” rather than “a cross” or “our crosses” suggests that she has in mind only the cross on which our dear Lord Jesus was tortured to death. While our Lord tells us that we must all follow Him and take up our crosses, those crosses are different from His, and they are probably symbolic and don’t involve physical torture. Still, just accepting and dealing with the troubles and trials which come our way every day and test our faith and love is enough of an ascetic exercise; even we monastics seek no more.

God is not present in human suffering – especially as such suffering is inflicted by some of us on others of us – except in the identity which we, in our suffering for the sake of Him Who suffered for us embrace and yield our strength and health and our very lives. This is the essence of martyrdom, which isn’t always bloody.

Monk James
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Valley of the shadow: This reminds me of Iulia de Beausobre’s book, Creative Suffering, written as she struggled with suffering in her own lifetime. It is a difficult subject because, as Fr. James says, we must not make an idol of suffering. Idolatry is idolatry, and it misses the mark and departs from the path in an unfortunate sickness. It is even hard to talk about this particular subject because we express ourselves imperfectly!

What is said by Simone Weil could be interpreted as idolatry, but I think it need not be seen in that way. Iulia de Beausobre was talking about accepting our crosses and giving ourselves so totally to God so that we might participate in His redemptive act – suffer with Him, just as the martyrs have throughout our fallen age. After all, He tasted suffering and death in order to come to us in our low estate (in our world where there is suffering and both biological and spiritual death). It is His solidarity of love and compassion that save us. And it is clearly not a love of suffering, itself, that brings Him to the cross. He models the correct attitude: “If it be possible, let this cup pass; nevertheless…” There is only one Christ and one Cross and one salvation working in the midst of the earth, just as there is one Priest and one Prophet (the Logos) and one King in whom all anointed for such services may participate. Those who have given themselves to Him voluntarily take up their crosses and vocations to participate in what He is doing.

Perhaps we can hear Simone’s words in that context – that if we find ourselves unavoidably in the tragic position of suffering, there is still this element of companionship and solidarity that we may apprehend creatively as we suffer. It may be a creative and life-giving witness if we remain joined to Christ through it. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for Thou art with me…” At least, that is one way to hear what she is saying – with hope!

Sally Eckert
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Made for joy: Metropolitan Kallistos has written that martyrdom is a universal vocation – each of us can place ourselves at the disposal of God’s intentions for us, and stand firm, come Hell or high water, for His Kingdom. But it always is to be a voluntary decision on our part, not merely a passive default position for everyday life.

Kallistos also said, “He made us not for sorrow but for joy – as St. John Climacus puts it, not for mourning but for laughter. …We are not to say that suffering as such is a blessing from God. And yet, by the divine mercy, what is in itself evil can be turned to good.”

We don’t say that a tornado ripping an infant from his crib is a blessing, but we can say that God working in the lives of his surviving family can create grace-ful outcomes in the aftermath of the tragedy. This is most definitely not a plug for reckless tornado-chasing, only for opening our hearts to God’s healing and cleansing.

Alex Patico
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If this cup: When we go through any extreme suffering – physical, psychological or spiritual – it leaves a terrible wound in us that can only be healed in the Cross of Christ. It’s not a matter of balancing suffering with joy.

Once our innocence has been lost, which is what all deep suffering does to us, when we experience the shattering presence of evil, precisely the radical absence of God, we desperately in our depths need to find God in this shattering of our lives. We find him in the Cross of Christ.

This is what Simone Weil means to me. For me it is very hopeful. Of course we don’t go looking for this type of suffering, what Weil calls affliction. We can’t. It would be crazy. Jesus didn’t either. “If this cup may pass from me…”

Paul del Junco
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Least person: Each of the sentences that Christ uses in Matthew 25 to describe ways in which the saved, knowingly or unknowingly, responded mercifully to Him describes actions which are the polar opposite of what combatants are required to do in war.

Turned on its head, the text then becomes: “I was hungry and you destroyed the fields, I was thirsty and you bombed the water works, I was naked and you burned the flesh from my body, I was homeless and you destroyed my city, I was sick and you fired missiles into the hospital, I was in prison and you tortured me. I tell you solemnly that what you did to the least person, you did to Me.”

Jim Forest
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❖ In Communion / Summer 2010 / issue 57