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Flood & Fatherhood

Father Matthew and the flooded Bayou Sara, Theophany 2016
Father Matthew and the flooded Bayou Sara

Today is the Feast of Theophany in Old Calendar Orthodox churches. That means it’s the day we celebrate the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan. After the liturgy, traditionally the congregation goes to a nearby body of water, prays more, and the priest ceremonially tosses a cross into the deep. We usually go to the Mississippi River bank, but this year, everything is in flood, so the river came to us. We gathered at the water’s edge, at the bottom of what folks here call Catholic Hill. The water you see is Bayou Sara in flood, as well as the Mississippi; when the flood waters rise around here, the bayou and the river merge into one.

Theophany has particular meaning for me. From How Dante Can Save Your Life:

In the Orthodox Christian tradition, Theophany – from the Greek, meaning “appearance of God” – is the feast day commemorating the day that Jesus Christ was baptized in the river Jordan. When Jesus emerged from the water, the heavens opened and the Holy Spirit descended like a dove, alighting on the Christ. The voice of the Father said, “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.”

Our little flock gathered at the mission on a cold Sunday morning — January 19, in fact — to celebrate the liturgy. Father Athanasius, an old friend of Father Matthew’s, was visiting from the Northwest, and gave the sermon. He dwelled for some time on the blessing God the Father spoke over his Son. I could have listened to that kind of talk all day.

This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.
Here, in the middle of the journey of our life, for the first time ever, I was able to hear those words in church and believe that God meant them for me too.

I don’t know when, exactly, in my healing process this change came over me. I had finished Paradiso over the Christmas break, but there had been no aha moment. I just noticed one day, a couple of weeks into the new year, that I felt pretty good. No chronic fatigue. No daily naps. Nothing. It was gone.

The night before Theophany, I mentioned to Julie that for the first time since arriving home, I felt at home. Settled. Stable. Healed. Free. Nothing had changed externally; the change was all within. But I saw the world with new eyes now.

Yes, the Epstein-Barr virus remains in my body, and always will, and in periods of stress—which crop up every now and then—it takes me back down temporarily. But nothing like before. The change has been profound.

When Father Athanasius spoke of Jesus rising out of the river, I felt as though I had come not only out of a dark wood but also out of some turbulent waters, into a new life. After he finished his sermon, I thought, Today is the day that I finally came home. Theophany is the day I finally turned outside of myself and let God the Father embrace me and welcome me into his household.

Here was a very nice Theophany gift: an extremely kind review of How Dante from the noted Catholic writer and apologist Karl Keating. Excerpt:

It used to be that nearly everyone read parts of The Divine Comedy in school—at least passages from the Inferno, often accompanied by Gustave Doré’s illustrations. In recent decades Dante has been dropped from the curriculum in most places (so has Shakespeare; so have many others), and today many people seem wary of picking up a book—particularly a book of poetry—written in the Middle Ages. What could such a book possible have to say to me?

Everything, really.

Wordsworth famously wrote that the Virgin Mary is “our tainted nature’s solitary boast.” Let me make an analogy: The Divine Comedy is our civilization’s solitary literary boast. There is more sense (and sensibility) in it than in anything other than Scripture itself. There is healing in it because there is healing in seeing ourselves as we really are.

Rod Dreher remains in St. Francisville. He was able to be reconciled with his father before the latter’s recent death, and the gulf between him and his sister’s children has been narrowed. He overcame physical and spiritual ailments that quite literally imperiled his health, and he found a sense of peace that had eluded him most of his life. After God, he gives Dante credit for this, because Dante led him back to God. Will Dante also lead him back to Dante’s Church? Who’s to say?

Flipping through my copy of How Dante Can Save Your Life, I see that I have penciled in double vertical marks along many paragraphs: my sign for things that are worth going back to, again and again. In not a few places I have found helps of the sort that I otherwise have found only in top spiritual writers. The book is that good.

Read the whole review. Thank you, Karl, for your kind words. Though I am firmly and gratefully rooted in Orthodoxy now, I receive the wish that I return to Catholicism in the generous spirit with which it is offered.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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