Rod Dreher

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Pascha 2014

Paschal sermon, 2014

Paschal sermon, 2014

The sermon read in every Paschal service in every Orthodox church in the world on this day, including ours. That’s our priest above, preaching these words, written by St. John Chrysostom (ca. 347-407), the archbishop of Constantinople:

If any man be devout and love God, let him enjoy this fair and radiant triumphal feast. If any man be a wise servant, let him rejoicing enter into the joy of his Lord. If any have labored long in fasting, let him now receive his recompense. If any have wrought from the first hour, let him today receive his just reward. If any have come at the third hour, let him with thankfulness keep the feast. If any have arrived at the sixth hour, let him have no misgivings; because he shall in nowise be deprived thereof. If any have delayed until the ninth hour, let him draw near, fearing nothing. If any have tarried even until the eleventh hour, let him, also, be not alarmed at his tardiness; for the Lord, who is jealous of his honor, will accept the last even as the first; he gives rest unto him who comes at the eleventh hour, even as unto him who has wrought from the first hour.

And he shows mercy upon the last, and cares for the first; and to the one he gives, and upon the other he bestows gifts. And he both accepts the deeds, and welcomes the intention, and honors the acts and praises the offering. Wherefore, enter you all into the joy of your Lord; and receive your reward, both the first, and likewise the second. You rich and poor together, hold high festival. You sober and you heedless, honor the day. Rejoice today, both you who have fasted and you who have disregarded the fast. The table is full-laden; feast ye all sumptuously. The calf is fatted; let no one go hungry away.

Enjoy ye all the feast of faith: Receive ye all the riches of loving-kindness. let no one bewail his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed. Let no one weep for his iniquities, for pardon has shown forth from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the Savior’s death has set us free. He that was held prisoner of it has annihilated it. By descending into Hell, He made Hell captive. He embittered it when it tasted of His flesh. And Isaiah, foretelling this, did cry: Hell, said he, was embittered, when it encountered Thee in the lower regions. It was embittered, for it was abolished. It was embittered, for it was mocked. It was embittered, for it was slain. It was embittered, for it was overthrown. It was embittered, for it was fettered in chains. It took a body, and met God face to face. It took earth, and encountered Heaven. It took that which was seen, and fell upon the unseen.

O Death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory? Christ is risen, and you are overthrown. Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life reigns. Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave. For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. To Him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages. Amen.

The liturgy began at 11:30 pm; communion began at 1:30 am. A shot of the communion line at our parish:

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Julie and me after liturgy; notice the photobombing monk:

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I have to tell you, though, that my son Lucas brought Pascha to me. In the darkness of the church, in the pre-liturgy prayers, I was standing before an icon bereft. Harsh events last evening robbed my joy, and put me in a bad place. It was as if all the progress of the past year was about to wash away. There I stood, before an icon of the Crucifixion, praying for help. And then, out of nowhere, I felt a little arm slide around my waist from the side, and a head nestle into my side. It was Lucas. Somehow, he sensed that his dad needed him, and he came. I hugged him tight and told him how grateful I was for him. I don’t mind telling you that I wept, and I realized that this boy, and my wife and children, and my church, and my church family — all of them are my life. And what a great life it is! Glory to God for all things, especially for Lucas and his tender heart:

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Holy Saturday In Our Parish

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This afternoon, at the vesperal liturgy, Father Matthew scattered bay leaves around the church, an Orthodox custom symbolizing Christ’s harrowing of Hell on Holy Saturday. Holy Week in Orthodoxy is so liturgically and sensually intense. I was exhausted at the services this afternoon, but it was a good tired, and prayer came easily.

At the conclusion of the liturgy, Father Matthew blessed the artos loaves with holy water; they’re a symbol of the resurrected Christ’s presence among the disciples — and here, a sign that Pascha is almost here:

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I love this beautiful bowl in which the holy water rested today:

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The bread is sweet and yeasty, and has wine baked into it. It is sliced after blessing, and placed on a table in the church with nuts and dried fruit. This is a Holy Saturday afternoon custom from the ancient church, when the faithful would remain in church until the Paschal liturgy. The food was there to sustain them until the Paschal liturgy later that night. Here are a couple of shots I like:

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We are all off in a moment to Pascha. After the liturgy, it will be about 2:30 a.m., and the entire parish will be drinking wine and eating cheese and meat and saying, “Christ is risen!” until not too long before daylight. I am bringing sushi, cold roast chicken, and sparkling wine from Burgundy. We all share, and we’re all happy together. I love my little parish, St. John Mission, and can’t imagine life without it. I hope you feel that way about your church too, wherever you are. A blessed Easter to you all.

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WSJ: Dante For Easter

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That’s a great View From Your Table, sent by a friend in River Ridge, Louisiana, featuring my Wall Street Journal cover story this morning about Dante. You can’t get the WSJ in St. Francisville, so this is the first I’ve seen of the art the Journal put with my piece. Knocked my socks off.

I’ve had a number of e-mails from Journal readers curious to know which translation of the Commedia I would recommend. I’m partial to the Hollander and Musa translations, though if you get the Hollander, which is the academic standard, be aware that the notes are exhaustive — really overwhelming to the lay reader. That’s not a complaint, really, but it is to say that for someone coming to the text for the first time, they can be daunting. Mark Musa’s translation has more accessible notes — and it cannot be stated strongly enough how important it is to have good notes to explain references — but if you go with his translation, buy them separately; The Portable Dante gives you the Musa translation, but with a bare minimum of his notes. I’ve been impressed by the Durling/Martinez translation as well. Esolen’s is also good, but the style is not as simple as the others I’ve recommended. Be very careful with Dorothy Sayers. Her notes are spectacular, but she tries to make the English do things it can’t do, and the whole thing is a mess, at least to me. John Ciardi has a lot of Dante’s musicality, but I prefer the directness and lucidity of the more contemporary translations. The thing you have to keep in mind, though, is that you should choose the translation that sounds best in your ear. You will be spending a lot of time with that voice, so it had better be one that’s a good fit.

Below, I’m republishing the text of a note I posted yesterday, when the Journal first put my story online. Many Journal readers first encountered it in the print edition, and may not have seen this yesterday. Regular readers of this blog who would like to re-read the Purgatorio blogging may enjoy having all the links in one place:

Welcome readers of my Wall Street Journal essay about how Dante saved my life. If you want to read a longer, more in-depth version, check out my cover story from the current issue of TAC.  If you’re interested in looking in on the Lenten blogging pilgrimage through Purgatorio, here are links to those entries:

Canto I, Canto II, Canto III, Canto IV, Canto V, Canto VI, Canto VII, Canto VIII, Canto IX, Canto X, Canto XI, Canto XII, Canto XIII, Canto XIV, Canto XV, Canto XVI, Canto XVII, Canto XVIII, Canto XIX, Canto XX, Canto XXI, Canto XXII and Canto XXIII, Canto XXIV, Canto XXV, Canto XXVI, Canto XXVII, Canto XXVIIICanto XXIX, Canto XXX, Canto XXXI, Canto XXXII, Canto XXXIII.

If you only have time for a few entries, my remarks on cantos VII, IX, XI, XIV, and XXVII are my favorites of the bunch.

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How I Got Up The Butter Mountain

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There are things in the Psalms that you don’t know about until you read the whole thing. Aloud. In a dark church on the night of Good Friday. Did you know about the butter mountain in Psalm 67? I kid you not.

In the Orthodox Church, the tradition is to keep all-night vigil at the symbolic Tomb of Christ, reciting the Psalter round the clock. We’ll be doing it pretty much unbroken until the Paschal liturgy tonight. I took the one a.m. to six a.m. shift last night, because I like being in the silent dark church all night, just me and the Psalms and the Holy Spirit. But after three, it got to be rough going. I thought about the penitents of Dante’s Purgatorio, hard at ascetic labor, but joyous, because they knew Who it was for, and they knew where they were going.

Courage, people. We’re almost there.

UPDATE: The “butter mountain” verse is from the Septuagint version of the Psalms, which the Orthodox Church uses. More information about that here.

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View From Your Table

Near Niedermorschwihr, Alsace, France

Near Niedermorschwihr, Alsace, France

Here we are on Holy Saturday, and a reader sends me a glimpse of the Promised Land just ahead! From his dashboard:

Here’s a view from a little gay moment live from Alsace. Apart from 50 jars of confiture I just bought a slice of Paté en croute chez Maison Christine Ferber. Quick lunch in the vineyards. Pas mal.

The angels rejoice, at least in my heart.

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Love, Death, And Sacrifice

Damon Linker, thinking about the meaning of dying for another, understands the self-sacrificial love of God for broken humanity through the example of a father, Thomas Vander Woude, who dove into a cesspool to save his Down Syndrome son from drowning in sewage. He saved his son’s life, but died in the process, his lungs filled with piss and shit, all to rescue his boy from death. Like Jesus did for us. Linker:

Christianity teaches that the creator of the universe became incarnate as a human being, taught humanity (through carefully constructed lessons and examples of his own behavior) how to become like God, and then allowed himself to be unjustly tried, convicted, punished, and killed in the most painful and humiliating manner possible — all as an act of gratuitous love for the very people who did the deed.

Why does Vander Woude’s act of sacrifice move us? Maybe because in freely dying for his son, he gives us a fleeting glimpse of the love that moves the sun and the other stars.

Which is to say, he gives us a fleeting glimpse of God.

That might sound outlandish to atheists. But for my money, it comes closer to the truth, and does more to explain the otherwise irreducibly mysterious experience of noble sacrifice than any competing account.

Don’t buy it? I dare you to come up with something better.

As our priest was reading the Good Friday matins in church, and he got to the part in which the Roman soldiers scourged Jesus, my 10 year old son Lucas walked over to me, a look of intense concern on his face. He motioned for me to bend down to hear him.

“That’s horrible!” he whispered.

“It is,” I said. “And He did it because He loved us.”

We are almost at the joy of Easter … but don’t forget at what price that joy was purchased.

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Dante In The Vatican On Good Friday

Dante is everywhere! Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher of the papal household, preached in part on Dante in his Good Friday sermon at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Excerpt:

It is true that in speaking to the Father about his disciples Jesus had said about Judas, “None of them is lost but the son of perdition” (Jn 17:12). But here, as in so many other instances, he is speaking from the perspective of time and not of eternity. The enormity of this betrayal is enough by itself alone, without needing to consider a failure that is eternal, to explain the other terrifying statement said about Judas: “It would have been better for that man if he had not been born” (Mk 14:21).

The eternal destiny of a human being is an inviolable secret kept by God. The Church assures us that a man or a woman who is proclaimed a saint is experiencing eternal blessedness, but she does not herself know for certain that any particular person is in hell. Dante Alighieri, who places Judas in the deepest part of hell in his Divine Comedy, tells of the last-minute conversion of Manfred, the son of Frederick II and the king of Sicily, whom everyone at the time considered damned because he died as an excommunicated.

Having been mortally wounded in battle, he confides to the poet that in the very last moment of his life, “…weeping, I gave my soul / to Him who grants forgiveness willingly” and he sends a message from Purgatory to earth that is still relevant for us:

Horrible was the nature of my sins, 

but boundless mercy stretches out its arms 

to any man who comes in search of it.

Here is what the story of our brother Judas should move us to do: to surrender ourselves to the one who freely forgives, to throw ourselves likewise into the outstretched arms of the Crucified One. The most important thing in the story of Judas is not his betrayal but Jesus’ response to it. He knew well what was growing in his disciple’s heart, but he does not expose it; he wants to give Judas the opportunity right up until the last minute to turn back, and is almost shielding him. He knows why Judas came to the garden of olives, but he does not refuse his cold kiss and even calls him “friend” (see Mt 26:50). He sought out Peter after his denial to give him forgiveness, so who knows how he might have sought out Judas at some point in his way to Calvary! When Jesus prays from the cross, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34), he certainly does not exclude Judas from those for whom he prays.

So what will we do? Who will we follow, Judas or Peter? Peter had remorse for what he did, but Judas was also remorseful to the point of crying out, “I have betrayed innocent blood!” and he gave back the thirty pieces of silver. Where is the difference then? Only in one thing: Peter had confidence in the mercy of Christ, and Judas did not! Judas’ greatest sin was not in having betrayed Christ but in having doubted his mercy.

Read the whole homily. It’s wonderful. Thanks to the reader who tipped me off. Glad to know that Fr. Cantalamessa and Your Working Boy are on the same page on Good Friday. ;)

And boundless thanks to the reader who sent me the Dante package that just arrived!

 

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Dante’s Purpose-Driven Poem

Illustration by Michael Hogue

Illustration for TAC by Michael Hogue

Welcome readers of my Wall Street Journal essay about how Dante saved my life. If you want to read a longer, more in-depth version, check out my cover story from the current issue of TAC.  If you’re interested in looking in on the Lenten blogging pilgrimage through Purgatorio, here are links to those entries:

Canto I, Canto II, Canto III, Canto IV, Canto V, Canto VI, Canto VII, Canto VIII, Canto IX, Canto X, Canto XI, Canto XII, Canto XIII, Canto XIV, Canto XV, Canto XVI, Canto XVII, Canto XVIII, Canto XIX, Canto XX, Canto XXI, Canto XXII and Canto XXIII, Canto XXIV, Canto XXV, Canto XXVI, Canto XXVII, Canto XXVIIICanto XXIX, Canto XXX, Canto XXXI, Canto XXXII, Canto XXXIII.

If you only have time for a few entries, my remarks on cantos VII, IX, XI, XIV, and XXVII are my favorites of the bunch.

 

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The Worst Cultural Decision Ever Made

The Atlantic has a neat Big Question forum, asking various business leaders to identify the Worst Business Decision Ever Made. For example:

Walt Mossberg, co–executive editor, Re/code

Apple’s firing of Steve Jobs in 1985 set the company back for a dozen years and drove it to near-bankruptcy. Apple only saved itself by rehiring him in 1997, at which point he went on to make Apple the most financially valuable—and influential—tech company in the world.

I was talking the other day to a friend about a particular situation. She said, “That’s just the way the world is.” I replied, “No, that’s the world as we’ve made it.” My point was that it was not inevitable that things turned out the way they did in this particular situation. It rarely is. Yes, some things cannot be helped, but mostly, our problems are caused by the exercise of our own free will, or the refusal to exercise it.

With that in mind, let me put a question to the room: What’s the worst cultural decision ever made? That is, which poor decision at the level of culture (religion, art, philosophy, and so forth) was the most regrettable, in hindsight?

My entry would be the same as Richard Weaver’s, in Ideas Have Consequences: Nominalism. Weaver wrote:

Like Macbeth, Western man made an evil decision, which has become the efficient and final cause of other evil decisions. Have we forgotten our encounter with the witches on the heath? It occurred in the late fourteenth century, and what the witches said to the protagonist of this drama was that man could realize himself more fully if he would only abandon his belief in the existence of transcendentals. The powers of darkness were working subtly, as always, and they couched this proposition in the seemingly innocent form of an attack upon universals. The defeat of logical realism in the great medieval debate was the crucial event in the history of Western culture; from this flowed those acts which issue now in modern decadence.

One may be accused here of oversimplifying the historical process, but I take the view that the conscious policies of men and governments are not mere rationalizations of what has been brought about by unaccountable forces. They are rather deductions from our most basic ideas of human destiny, and they have a great, though not unobstructed, power to determine out course.

For this reason I turn to William of Occam as the best representative of a change which came over man’s conception of reality at this historic juncture. It was William of Occam who propounded the fateful doctrine of nominalism, which denies that universals have a real existence. His triumph tended to leave universal terms mere names serving our convenience. The issue ultimately involved is whether there is a source of truth higher than, and independent of, man; and the answer to the question is decisive for one’s view of the nature and destiny of humankind. The practical result of nominalist philosophy is to banish the reality which is perceived by the intellect and to posit as reality that which is perceived by the senses. With this change in the affirmation of what is real,, the whole orientation of culture takes a turn, and we are on the road to modern empiricism.

It is easy to be blind to the significance of a change because it is remote in time and abstract in character. Those who have not discovered that world view is the most important thing about a man, as about the men composing a culture, should consider the train of circumstances which have with perfect logic proceeded from this. The denial of universals carries with it the denial of everything transcending experience. The denial of everything transcending experience means inevitably-though ways are found to hedge on this-the denial of truth. With the denial of objective truth there is no escape from the relativism of “man the measure of all things.” The witches spoke with the habitual equivocation of oracles when they told man that by this easy choice he might realize himself more fully, for they were actually initiating a course which cuts one off from reality. Thus began the “abomination of desolation” appearing today as a feeling of alienation from all fixed truth.

I am not really interested in arguing with anybody over the validity of this choice. As I said yesterday, I’m not engaging with this blog today, Good Friday (I’m actually writing this on Holy Thursday, and scheduling it to publish on Good Friday). I’m far more interested in what you think is the worst cultural decision ever made, and why? Make a case.

P.S. I can see why, “The decision not to destroy the world as a climax to the Cuban Missile Crisis, thereby sparing the world The San Pedro Beach Bums and the rest of the 1970s” is an attractive sentiment, but it doesn’t really count.

UPDATE: Again, do not argue with me over the validity of my choice. I’m asking you this as a favor; I don’t need the temptation to engage with the readership on Good Friday, and this is a hard thing for me to avoid. Just put your own choice up, and make a brief case.

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At Play With The Crunchy Collapsitarians

The New York Times writes about Dark Mountain, a radical movement of deep-green types who have given up on the idea that the earth can be saved, and are dedicated to enjoying the slide into eco-apocalypse. Paul Kingsnorth is a leading light, as is his colleague Dougald Hine. Excerpts:

“Everything had gotten worse,” Kingsnorth said. “You look at every trend that environmentalists like me have been trying to stop for 50 years, and every single thing had gotten worse. And I thought: I can’t do this anymore. I can’t sit here saying: ‘Yes, comrades, we must act! We only need one more push, and we’ll save the world!’ I don’t believe it. I don’t believe it! So what do I do?”

The first thing that Kingsnorth did was draft a manifesto. Also called “Uncivilization,” it was an intense, brooding document that vilified progress. “There is a fall coming,” it announced. “After a quarter-century of complacency, in which we were invited to believe in bubbles that would never burst, prices that would never fall . . . Hubris has been introduced to Nemesis.”

 More:

Sitting in the hut, the air stale and the light almost nonexistent, I thought of something Hine told me earlier. “People think that abandoning belief in progress, abandoning the belief that if we try hard enough we can fix this mess, is a nihilistic position,” Hine said. “They think we’re saying: ‘Screw it. Nothing matters.’ But in fact all we’re saying is: ‘Let’s not pretend we’re not feeling despair. Let’s sit with it for a while. Let’s be honest with ourselves and with each other. And then as our eyes adjust to the darkness, what do we start to notice?’ ”

Hine compared coming to terms with the scope of ecological loss to coming to terms with a terminal illness. “The feeling is a feeling of despair to begin with, but within that space other things begin to come through.”

In 2009, philosopher John Gray wrote about the Dark Mountain Manifesto, giving Kingsnorth and Hine credit for seeing through progressivist myths, but saying that they’re delusional too. Excerpt:

The notion that social breakdown could be the prelude to a better world is a Romantic dream that history has proved wrong time and again. China and Russia have suffered complete social breakdown on several occasions during their history, as did much of Europe in the period between the two world wars. The result has never been the stable anarchy that is sometimes envisioned in the poetry of Jeffers. Instead, it is the thugs and fanatics who promise to restore order that triumph, whether Lenin and Stalin in Russia, Mao in China, or Hitler and assorted petty dictators in Europe. It is the old Hobbesian doctrine – one that has never been successfully superseded.

The authors do not tell us what they expect to happen after civilisation has disappeared, but it may be something like the post-apocalyptic, neo-medieval world imagined by the nature mystic Richard Jefferies in his novelAfter London, or Wild England (1885). In it, Britain is depopulated after ecological disaster and reverts to barbarism; but it is not long before a new social order springs up, simpler and happier than the one that has passed away. After London is an Arcadian morality tale that even Jefferies probably did not imagine could ever come to pass.

Over a century later, the belief that a global collapse could lead to a better world is ever more far-fetched. Human numbers have multiplied, industrialisation has spread worldwide and the technologies of war are far more highly developed. In these circumstances, ecological catas­trophe will not trigger a return to a more sustainable way of life, but will intensify the existing competition among nation states for the planet’s remaining reserves of oil, gas, fresh water and arable land. Waged with hi-tech weapons, the resulting war could destroy not only large numbers of human beings but also much of what is left of the biosphere.

A scenario of this kind is not remotely apocalyptic. It is no more than history as usual, together with new technologies and ongoing climate change. The notion that the conflicts of history have been left behind is truly apocalyptic, and Kingsnorth and Hine are right to target business-as-usual philosophies of progress. When they posit a cleansing catastrophe, however, they, too, succumb to apocalyptic thinking. How can anyone imagine that the dream-driven human animal will suddenly become sane when its environment starts disintegrating? In their own catastrophist fashion, the authors have swallowed the progressive fairy tale that animates the civilisation they reject.

I didn’t know a thing about Dark Mountain until reading the Times piece, and the story’s account about the hootenanny in the English countryside is pretty unintentionally risible. That said, the Benedict Option streak in these folks appeals to me, and I agree with them that the world is not going to lower the carbon emissions, so we should quit fooling ourselves. However, in the end, Gray is right: as bad as what we have now may be in some respects, what comes after its collapse would be infinitely worse. I think for Kingsnorth and Hine, civilizational collapse is a kind of solution.

Anyway, if you’re interested, here’s The Dark Mountain Manifesto.  However unrealistically Romantic these guys are, it’s hard to disagree with this:

The myth of progress is founded on the myth of nature. The first tells us that we are destined for greatness; the second tells us that greatness is cost-free. Each is intimately bound up with the other. Both tell us that we are apart from the world; that we began grunting in the primeval swamps, as a humble part of something called ‘nature’, which we have now triumphantly subdued. The very fact that we have a word for ‘nature’ is  evidence that we do not regard ourselves as part of it. Indeed, our separation from it is a myth integral to the triumph of our civilisation. We are, we tell ourselves, the only species ever to have attacked nature and won. In this, our unique glory is contained.

Outside the citadels of self-congratulation, lone voices have cried out against this infantile version of the human story for centuries, but it is only in the last few decades that its inaccuracy has become laughably apparent. We are the first generations to grow up surrounded by evidence that our attempt to separate ourselves from ‘nature’ has been a grim failure, proof not of our genius but our hubris. The attempt to sever the hand from the body has endangered the ‘progress’ we hold so dear, and it has endangered much of ‘nature’ too. The resulting upheaval underlies the crisis we now face.

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