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Saturday, July 28, 2007

Not Waving but Drowning

The recent exceptional flooding in the UK over a sustained period with water and sometimes electricity deprived to over 340,000 people has shown how crises can bring out both the best and the worst in people. Acts of heroism in rescuing endangered people have contrasted mindless and dangerous vandalism and greed in the poisoning or hijacking of precious water supplies. If this was a "real" emergency with widespread social disorder such sociopaths and looters would be shot on sight. Perhaps some brain dead monkeys haven't just quite realised yet what happens when survival becomes the name of the game. It's only when we skirt disaster like this that the stress fractures and fault lines in our social fabric become clear. Civilisation is a fragile disequilibrium at the best of times. It only needs a nudge and it falls over quite easily; perhaps even more easily when water comes out of tap rather than the local brook and food from the supermarket rather than the back garden.

The people of God over 4000 years have had their own "rude awakenings" so we should be alert to this issue by now. Century after century civilisations have come and gone, repression and violence has waxed and waned. A story is told of one of the fathers on Mount Athos who led a secluded eremitical life in his cell. He rarely received visitors but questioned one day one of his spiritual sons:- "And which empire my child today rules the known world?" That's an extreme example but the point is clear. For Christians human tragedy and glory are known alike and are in many ways unremarkable. We are prepared for both but unsettled by neither. We stand ready to greet Christ in the needy and respond to him in distress. Behold, the Bridegroom comes and we shall be ready ... will we not?

Friday, July 27, 2007

Sense in the senses

One of the most gruesome sights I can recall on TV (of a non violent nature) was of a speed eating contest. Donut after donut after donut, it never seemed to stop; bulging cheeks, inflated bellies, an obscenity of excess. This got me thinking about sensory overload, the gluttony of the overwhelmed senses. There is seemingly just no getting away from this assault on our inner life. The background noise that makes us fearful of silence, the visual drenching that leaves us blind, the adrenaline rush that demands attention but offers only diminishing returns.

Two things tend to happen at this point. Some switch off entirely and, stupefied, retreat into a frightened corner. Others, more wise, guard the senses and seek a place of retreat where the “is-ness” of things and God himself can be allowed to room to breathe in our souls. Here we can savour creation and God; we can truly “taste and see that the Lord is good.” Not overwhelmed by our passions we can attend to God and truly enjoy both Him and His world. I suppose it’s the spiritual equivalent of “chew your food” and the rationale of fasting. A piece of fruit that is eaten in a leisurely attentive fashion satisfies much more than a voracious and tasteless swallowing and gulping. In the former food is encounter, in the latter, food merely fuel.

Consider the Divine Liturgy, the Eucharist and how much care and reverence attends the feast. We do not take Christ lightly, we prepare, we wait expectantly, we greet Him, we receive Him lovingly. In his great book “For the Life of the World” Fr. Alexander Schmemann reminds us what a holy event eating is and should be. This touches upon not only Holy Communion but any good thing that we consume. It is that fatal separation of the physical and the spiritual that lies behind our peculiarly western sickness; the deadening idea that nothing common is holy. Left to our passions and our own devices in a God-erased world, that which is truly good turns to sickening dust and ashes in our mouths.

How then can we regain our senses unless we first train them? We cannot. We must, particularly as Orthodox Christians, exercise restraint in order to appreciate God, each other and the good things He has given us. We must give him thanks before, during and after we consume and measure what we want by what we need. If not, we shall not only finally destroy ourselves but also the very planet that we live on. We must once again in Christ become priests and not destroyers of creation.

The time is short. Even as we live so shall we die and dying well, that is to ourselves, so shall we live forever in God the Giver of all good things. Glory be to Him for all his many and excellent gifts! Savour them well.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

"Apparently Intelligent?"

On a number of occasions in recent days the media when reporting on the failed terrorists attacks in London and Glasgow referred to the alleged perpetrators as "intelligent", "apparently intelligent" and "well educated."

Now this was no mere description but in the context of the commentary an expression of surprise - as if intelligence or a good education and terrorist actions (in contrast to, say, planning) were incompatible.

This seems to be a common error in liberal societies to assume that only the deranged, the intellectually feeble or the impressionable resort to premeditated violence. How this view can be maintained in the light of the long history of human intelligent malevolence is the real surprise here.

However, when we consider the prevailing assumption here that education and material enrichment promote civilised values, the contrast with a Christian analysis of the problem becomes startlingly clear. In the Christian assessment of human bestiality it is the contrast between humility and arrogance, wisdom and knowledge, impassioned rage and repentant transformation that brings understanding. One has to know how ordinary people, whether intelligent and well educated or not, can so easily be corrupted when the conditions are right ... and the conditions are "right" at this time.

We face outworking of a long process in the post colonial period. We have victors and victimhood, a clash of cultures and aspirations if not civilisations. We have very intelligent extremely well educated trouble makers who want to destabilise the whole world in the pursuit of a global Islamic theocracy. This is not some little local problem. This is a struggle for the soul of the planet ... and most can't see it, or refuse to see it.

It goes without saying (or should) that this battle, therefore, is subtle, spiritual and deep. It is not to be engaged only with natural vigilance and cunning but also with a guileless pursuit of justice, peace and freedom. One wonders really whether our rulers realise this, whether they understand the true nature of the struggle here. I really do hope so. Much depends on it.

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