Singing and Sulking

This is from a lecture by Dr. Christine Mangala Frost, a venerable resource person at the Institute of Orthodox Christian Studies at Cambridge, UK. She is referring to the poetry of the hymns in the divine liturgy.

In poetry, “faith” is standing happily among the angels and singing – whether in or out of harmony is irrelevant – but to sing, and not to fuss about it all being unseen. And not to have faith would then mean to stand among the angels (because one cannot escape that) and to sulk. It’s your choice. Are we going to sing or are we going to sulk?

All this raises a question beyond that of singing or sulking: Do you have a sense of “standing among the angels” when you are praying the liturgy? As Dr. Frost says, “it’s unavoidable.” And it’s one of the beautiful aspects of Orthodoxy.

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Fog, Phanourius, and Faith

Fog, fog, fog. In the years we’ve lived in Siouxland I’ve never experienced fog quite like this. It’s lasted, on and off, for nearly a week. That much fog gets a person thinking.

We live in a river valley, which means high humidity. Since this isn’t an arid climate, the humidity is always present, even when it’s low. In other words, there’s always significant water in the air. The difference is sometimes it’s invisible and sometimes it’s visible in the form of fog.

The other day my brain was as foggy as the air, and I left my church keys in the church. I called the priest so we could meet and he could let me in. When I went up to where the Treasurer’s desk is, I didn’t immediately find the keys. The treasurer’s desk is in a public room, so things get shuffled around in there. I started re-shuffling things to see if the keys were underneath anything. Eventually I spotted them hanging from the locking file cabinet (right where I had left them). After announcing I had found them, the priest in turn announced he had just offered up a prayer to St. Phanourius. It had never occurred to me to ask St. Phanourius, but on the way home I thanked him for his help.

Since most of my readers aren’t Orthodox, a word of explanation is in order.

St. Phanourius, in the Orthodox tradition, is the go-to guy in this situation. As the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese website (which has an excellent “saints” section) describes it, “The faithful pray to Saint Phanourius especially to help them recover things that have been lost, and because he has answered their prayers so often, the custom has arisen of baking a Phaneropita (“Phanourius-Cake”) as a thanks-offering.”

Since most of my readers aren’t Orthodox, that no doubt sounds weird and … well … magical, I suppose, so a word about American Christianity is in order.

I grew up in the Bible Church. The sociologists that study and categorize the seemingly infinite variety of American Christian experience classify that tradition as either “Rationalist Evangelicalism” or “Rationalist Fundamentalism.” What that means on a practical level is as follows:

We believed in the Bible; we believed in every word of the Bible. (I still do, by the way. Don’t let the past tense fool you. I am formerly a member of the Bible Church, thus the past tense.) Therefore, we believed in miracles, angels, the spirit world, and the reality that Christians who die don’t poof out of existence, but continue to live (ie, saints).

On the other hand, we were children of the Enlightenment, so all of these things (miracles, angels, the spirit world, etc.) were tempered with various interesting explanations. The way this worked out in the Bible Church is that miracles were okay as long as they were quiet, unobtrusive, and polite. (Television-style faith healing antics that might embarrass our sensibilities were not allowed.) Angels were affirmed in a vague and somewhat non-specific way, and saints were carefully packed away in heaven when their bodies were packed away under the earth. Both (the saints and the bodies) were expected to stay where they belong until the day of resurrection (that being, the Rapture, if you were a Pre-tribulational Premillenialist, or the general resurrection if you were a post-tribulational Premillenialist or an Amillenialist.

You see, we may have been a bit uncomfortable with miracles, angels, the spirit world, the reality of life after death, etc., but being children of the Enlightenment, we had fabulous explanations (which were fabulously complicated) for why we believed exactly how we believed.

The Orthodox, on the other hand, have been amazingly resilient in the face of the Enlightenment. As a result they still have a lively and active belief in miracles, angels, the spirit world, the reality of life after death, etc. There are even reports of things like bi-location and other phenomenon that are pretty much off the chart of possibility for a child of the Enlightenment. The idea that humans (ie, the physical world) can have interaction with the spirit world is not only an interesting theory that is affirmed in some rational, Bible-believing way, it is a lively part of the Orthodox everyday life and experience.

So let my child-of-the-Enlightenment-rationalist self think critically about the incident with the keys. (Isn’t that what we children of the Enlightenment do so well, after all? Think critically?) Wasn’t the priest’s prayer and my noticing the keys just a coincidence? Maybe … in truth, I don’t know. But quickly explaining away the role of St. Phanourius is not an exercise in rational judgment so much as it is an exercise in unbelief. While the “coincidence” explanation is very tempting to my child-of-the-Enlightenment-rationalist self, my Orthodox self chooses to err on the side of belief if I err at all. So, I went ahead and thanked St. Phanourius.

Which brings me to the fog, fog, fog in Siouxland. Like moisture in the air, saints and angels are always there, and sometimes they’re visible (or maybe I’ll say “discernable”) when the conditions are correct. In fact, at times they are both visible and discernable. There are wonderful stories about angels taking on human form to perform certain tasks. One of my favorite “visible saints” stories is the priest-monk from Mt. Athos who’s been dead for many, many years, but still occasionally celebrates Divine Liturgy at parishes in southwestern Greece. Only after the fact do people figure out that it wasn’t the appointed circuit-priest but rather a mysterious and unknown priest who celebrated the Liturgy.

Not only, when conditions are right, are saints and angels discernable, but their presence changes our perception of the world around us. The spiritual realities, when they are discerned, have the ability to take a drab scene, and turn it into something glorious.

And as our vision is transformed, so are we transformed. To others it may seem that divine reality is clinging to us, spreading forth from us. In truth, that reality is springing forth from us, as we begin to integrate the two realities (physical and spiritual) together that were once bifurcated in the fall.

But most significant is that the spiritual realm needs the physical realm to seek its most perfect expression. Just as moisture in the air remains invisible or ethereal until it comes into contact with a branch or leaf, but then clings and transforms both itself and the tree into something glorious, so the spiritual by itself is rather uninspired (from a human perspective). It’s as the two come together and interact that glorious things happen, and the true beauty of creation redeemed and transformed is revealed.