God is Not in Books (Or is He?)

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By Cheryl Anne Tuggle

There’s a video sporadically shared around the internet that has an attention-getting tagline: “God is not in the books.” It’s a statement made by Father Roman Braga of blessed memory, a survivor of the Romanian communist prison camps, during a talk he gave years ago. “God bless the communists,” he says in the video, crossing himself, “because they put the priest in prison”.  The intellectual class (which included priests) was being systematically destroyed, he explains, and so prisoners were given nothing to read for solace or inspiration, no paper or pencil to express themselves. Confined in a solitary cell for three years, Father Roman had nothing but blank walls to look at. “You have to go somewhere. And,” he says, curving his fingers to point to his heart, “you go inside.”

I can see how, taken on its own, this statement could delight the non-reader. It’s a little less fun for the person like me, a lover of books and reading.  I’m so fond, in fact, that I have sometimes been guilty of acting as though I can read my way to salvation, as if mentally assenting to the truths in Unseen Warfare is the same thing as praying, forgiving, loving and repenting. So I admit that Father Roman’s statement holds the sting of hard truth. And yet, only a day or two after the video has appeared again on my Facebook feed, I’ve run across (admittedly, in a book) what seems to be the opposite counsel, given by the holy Elder Porphyrios:

“Read a lot,” he says, “so that God might enlighten your mind.”

The elder’s stamp of approval on books doesn’t stop there, either. Not only does he tell us to read, and read a lot, he nearly blesses us to sneak off and do it in solitude, using himself as an example. “I would read a lot,” he says. “In fact, I would climb a tree with a ladder I had fashioned and would pull it up with me as I ascended, so that people wouldn’t see me and bother me. I spent hours there in study. ” Hours, he says. Hours of reading alone and studying. These, I might point out, are the words of a man who had only two years of formal schooling.

The thing that stands out to me most, though, about Elder Porphyrios’s advice is that he doesn’t tell his spiritual children to read a lot so that their minds may become enlightened, he tells them to read so that God may enlighten their minds.

This, he seems to be saying, is the benefit for us of books and reading. The hours, if we are blessed to have them, of study. Not that we can know things, but that we can know things God wants us to know. He is, after all, the one who gave us our minds in the first place. Having discovered God without books, Fr. Roman went back to reading them and writing after prison, as if he also believed, if not in their necessity, at least in their ability to open the windows of our minds to the light of truth.

God is not in books. But climb a tree to read in solitude, pulling the ladder of your soul up behind you, and you just might find Him.

My own book: https://paracletepress.com/products/lights-on-the-mountain

Featured photo by hannah grace

Recommended Reading:

Wounded by Love: The Life and Wisdom of Elder Porphyrios

https://www.amazon.com/Wounded-Love-Elder-Porphyrios/dp/9607201191

Precious Vessels of the Holy Spirit: The Lives and Counsels of the Contemporary Elders of Greece

https://www.amazon.com/Precious-Vessels-Holy-Spirit-Contemporary/dp/1466214074

Exploring the Inner Universe by Archimandrite Roman Braga

https://www.amazon.com/Exploring-Inner-Universe-Archimandrite-Roman/dp/0964347822/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1544540476&sr=1-1&keywords=exploring+the+inner+universe

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On Being an Orthodox Novelist

by Cheryl Anne Tuggle

Russian novelist Eugene Vodolazkin, author of Laurus and The Aviator and an Orthodox Christian, was asked in an interview if he considers himself an Orthodox writer. “A writer should just be a writer,” he said. “There are no Orthodox writers, just as there are no Orthodox hairdressers. Faith is an intimate thing.”

Faith is an intimate thing. And if your occupation is cosmetology, I imagine it’s possible, maybe even advisable, to keep your faith close to you, to cut and style with skill and unique flair without your clients ever knowing that you are an Orthodox Christian. But the same is not true of the novelist. In fact, it is precisely because faith is such an intimate thing that Vodolazkin is not just a writer, he is an Orthodox writer. As Flannery O’Connor states in Mystery and Manners, “We write with the whole personality, and any attempt to circumvent it, whether this be an effort to rise above belief or above background, is going to result in a reduced approach to reality.” There is nothing inferior, nothing reduced about Vodolazkin’s approach to reality. As a novelist, his approach is fully Orthodox.

So many agenda-driven novels (mostly secular, but sometimes religious) are published each year it’s tempting, even for the writer of novels, to think of novelists as apostles, but they are not. And this may be all Vodolazkin meant by saying there is no such thing as an Orthodox writer. If we are called to be fiction writers, then that is all we must be. The fiction writer who is deeply, honestly, religious will not write novels in order to sell his faith. He will also not change the way he writes or alter the crafting of his novels in order to “reach” a wider audience. To those who look to fiction for “profit, demand specifically to be edified, consoled, amused…improved, or encouraged, or frightened or shocked or charmed…” Joseph Conrad said, no. Novelists must “first write from a clear conscience”, or in other words, be free of all these reasons for writing. And if we succeed in our task, he promised, “you shall find all you demand—and perhaps, also that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask.”

I’m sure it’s this seriousness toward the art of writing, the belief that in its best form fiction can and should offer a glimpse of eternal truth, that makes Vodolazkin deny the term “Orthodox writer”. We live in a time of quick and narrow organizing, of dropping people into designated slots, and readers of literary fiction today are not believers, for the most part. Encountering faith in a novel today is like encountering a Komodo dragon. It needs a very good reason for being there. The danger for a Christian novelist today who openly admits to having faith (unless you also admit to having lost it in large portion along the way), or writes about characters who have it, is that you are likely to find your book pigeonholed on a bookstore or library shelf as Christian Fiction, which means having your work forever associated with that genre’s evangelical, sinner-to-salvation formula. (Unless, of course, you are Marilynne Robinson, and then people won’t notice, won’t care, that your beautiful novel is laced through and through with your Calvinist theology.) And this alone is reason enough for me to join Vodolazkin in denying the term “Orthodox writer”.

But I can’t help feeling that since I am Orthodox, and a writer of fiction, a crafter of words that deal with the nature and experience of religious faith in America, particularly as I have observed it in Orthodox Christian people, I may be protesting into the wind. Also, I’m aware of something in myself that is not as strong as it should be by now. I’m just a little bit afraid that below all my conscientious objecting, my insistence that faith is personal and not an adjective to be fixed to an occupation and publicly declared, I’ll hear just the faintest, triple crowing of a rooster wafting back to me on the breeze. 

https://paracletepress.com/products/lights-on-the-mountain

 

 

The Calling Hours

by Cheryl Anne Tuggle

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When my husband and I moved to Southwest Missouri from Texas nearly three decades ago, I had to get used to Ozark speech. Many of the words and phrases I found strange then are gone now, but it’s still possible to hear someone say “I don’t care to” as an expression of agreeableness, and an elderly library patron will still occasionally ask if they should return their books at the desk or “put them yonder” in the book drop. In Ohio, my new home since last month, I’m again getting used to familiar words being used in an unfamiliar way. People don’t mow their lawns here, they cut them. The thing on wheels that holds your groceries as you shop the supermarket aisles is a buggy, not a cart. And when a person has passed away, the obituaries do not list the time of visitation before the funeral, instead they give the hours as 5:30-7:30 (for instance) and say that is the time that friends may call. These are the “calling hours”.

Reading it in the newspapers, I find this expression interesting, and evocative. It causes me to think of loved ones long gone and those oddly warm reunions, those moments of coming-together, that take place in time of death, sometimes over meals, when friends are fonder and family closer, more willing to set aside their hurts and differences of opinion. But there is more than nostalgia to what interests me, what moves me, in the phrase. There is in it, I think, a spiritual lesson to be learned. A slight change of heart in the making.

Friends may call.

Reading the gospels, we see that our Lord had friends. And that he called on them. He sat talking in the shade of a tree with them in the heat of an afternoon, walked along dusty roads in their company and took meals with them in their homes. I’m awed to think of these conversations, how when the God-man sat back in his chair after a particularly good meal his hosts—his friends—must have felt bold enough to reveal their deepest thoughts, to ask the questions that had been burning like hidden fires in their souls. This, incidentally, is by dictionary definition, communion. If intimate thoughts and feelings are being exchanged, especially when the exchange is on a mental or spiritual level, then communion is taking place. It is not a far journey from that definition to Holy Communion, in which the most intimate exchange of all takes place, the spiritual meal in which Christ, the all-gracious Host, comes to give himself as food to the faithful.

Friends may call.

Again, I can’t help feeling the importance of these words, especially when on Sunday mornings I watch people linger longer and longer at coffee hour or trapeza, hesitant to end the fellowship.

Friends may call.

There’s no arguing the fact that while our offline relationship circles are shrinking, on social media they are growing ever wider. But just as there is no app for communing with Christ in the Eucharist—we must be physically present to receive, there is also no technological substitute for face to face communion with our fellow humans. We were created for intimate exchange. It is not just good and pleasant for brothers and sisters to dwell together in unity, it is crucial to our health, both physical and spiritual. If you have ever visited a monastery you have likely been briefly greeted and then offered a little something to eat and drink. This is because monastics know that what you have come hoping to receive: strength, healing, refreshment, begins when you are received in this way. As lay people, hosting one another is just as important. We may “like” the photos of lovely meals prepared and enjoyed in people’s homes that are shared on social media of course, but how much better to be in that home, tasting and seeing for ourselves, breaking bread together, eating and talking, and even laughing, our way into the intimacy that leads to trust, to the place where we can begin to unburden, work out our differences with forgiveness and understanding and, ultimately, to grow like-minded. In other words, the place where what begins with friends coming to call ends in authentic human communion.

In an old Greek cookbook of mine, there’s a recipe for koliva, the cake made of boiled wheat that is served in many Orthodox traditions to commemorate the dead. The recipe is introduced by the author with an anecdote about her husband, who loved the cake and often asked her to make it for him. “I want my koliva while I’m alive,” he said. I think this man was on to something. It’s time to call on our friends while we have them, while we’re both alive to enjoy the visit. And if at times this takes great effort, because there is also no arguing the fact that we are all busier than ever and often legitimately weary, I believe the effort will be rewarded, perhaps with renewed energy and greater strength. Almost always when I’ve roused my introverted self to attend a book discussion or had friends over for dinner—I’ve felt refreshed afterward and wondered why I don’t do it more often.

Friends may call.

Today is the day. Let’s seize it. This moment, and no other, is given for gathering to eat and drink together, to study, to share thoughts, ideas, joys and worries face to face. Now is the time for intimate exchanges to take place on a spiritual level. These are the calling hours.

*Photo by David von Diemar on Unsplash

 

On Reading Too Much

“And further, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.” (Ecclesiastes 12:12, KJV)

by John Clayton Pearlstein

During a recent talk with my spiritual father, we discussed books. Specifically, he asked which books I was currently reading. When I finished giving him the rather long list, he told me that during fast periods it’s best to focus on one book and explained that this is a good way to go about reading even outside of fasts. We can be so dense, he said, that God can usually only teach us one thing at a time. If we’re reading all sorts of books simultaneously then we’re probably not learning like we ought to. He went on to tell me a story about a monk whose spiritual father told him to read the 23rd Psalm. After a week, the father asked the monk how far he had gotten with the Psalm and the monk replied, “I got as far as ‘The Lord is.’” After another week, the father asked the same question and the monk replied, “I now have ‘The Lord is my Shepherd.’” The story goes that it took the monk the rest of his life to know the 23rd Psalm.

As my spiritual father explained it to me, we think we know something simply because we speak the language. When we hear the word “Shepherd” we say to ourselves “yeah I’ve got that.” For instance, he said that when we come to the Eucharistic consecration of the bread and wine in the Divine Liturgy and hear the words “Thine Own of Thine Own, we offer unto Thee, on behalf of all and for all” we think “I know the words ‘Thine’ and ‘Own’ etc. so, I’ve got it.’” But we don’t really know what those words mean. His advice to me was this: to slow down and focus on one book at a time; to read a book and really attempt to grasp what is going on and what is being said.

Realizing how deficient I am in knowledge, especially when it comes to the Orthodox Faith, I thought I needed to read as much as I could, and quickly. I see now that reading in that way will at best give me a head full of knowledge that will likely never reach my heart and, if I’m honest, will probably not even accomplish a head full of knowledge. It’s embarrassing to me how often I find myself saying “I’ve read that book but I’m not sure how much I could tell you about it.” And yet there are Saints like Saint Mary of Egypt who, although she had never read or even heard anyone else read the Scriptures, had them inscribed on her heart and quoted them to Saint Zosima, much to his amazement. Or like Saint Spyridon, who was also illiterate, yet was able to overcome the heresy of the much-learned heretic Arius and played a significant role in the formation of the Nicene Creed. I don’t hope to achieve anything close to what they did, but maybe if I slow down I can at least catch a few crumbs from the Table.

I hope to slow down. And by slowing down, I pray that through the Grace and Mercy of God something precious will actually find its way into my heart. Maybe the dullness that I’ve experienced in the multitude of words will be replaced by a few that become a flaming arrow that finds its mark and illumines the darkness of my heart.

Lord have Mercy on my pitiful efforts.

(I want to note that the guidance of my spiritual father was directed at me in private conversation, and that it was in specific reference to spiritual reading, though (for me) I think I could apply it to secular reading as well.)

In Praise of Senseless Acts

By Cheryl Anne Tuggle

I find it interesting that whenever a violent crime is committed and reported to be a senseless act, the media will spend days, even weeks, trying to make sense of it. Senseless, in my dictionary, is defined as “unconscious, having no purpose or meaning”. It is also defined as something that is “lacking in common sense; wildly foolish”.

If the first definition makes irony of the media’s attempts to find meaning in what they themselves describe as senseless, the second definition strikes me as important for the Orthodox Christian. Our faith—from “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty” to “and the life of the world to come” can be called wildly foolish, completely lacking in common sense, and rightly so. Only people who are devoid of all common sense could believe in the self-abasement, the taking up of our cross, that we are called to in Christ.

“I looked upon your Beauty, how shall I speak of what is unspeakable,” said St. Symeon the Theologian to the Lord, Jesus Christ. And as Christ’s adoring followers, St. Maria of Paris insists we are to try to understand every person as an icon of that Beauty, to bow ourselves down in humility before each one, to kiss their feet as we would the Lord’s. Such humility is a call to senselessness, of course. It is absurd. Bow before people who, if not completely bad, are mostly not good? Just as sure as you do that, they’ll step on your neck.

Yet while admitting it does not make good sense, there is something appealing to me, something almost romantic, in the idea of at least attempting to see the face of Christ in the downtrodden, the outcast, the mistreated, the homeless poor. But there is something decidedly less appealing about looking for Jesus in the control freak, the whiner and complainer, the money-grubber, the vain, the proud, the arrogant and the lazy. And the notion that there is in the gang lord, the drug dealer, the tyrant dictator, the woman abuser, the child pornographer, the mass shooter, a look about the eyes that should remind me of Christ’s is nigh to impossible to consider. (Yes, of course, Lord, these are yours. But surely not them.)

A couple of days ago, I opened an empty shoe box and removed the wadded tissue that comes inserted in any pair of new shoes. When I unrolled the first sheet, I found printed on the inside the image of a rose, complete with vine and leaves. It’s possible, I suppose, that the tissue was rolled and inserted by a machine, but it doesn’t matter. At the time, it was personal. Someone had done this thing, hidden this rose on purpose, knowing it made no sense to do so. I took a photo and posted it on social media, calling it an act of senseless beauty. In the days since, the tissue rose has become a personal metaphor, the illustration for that concept I mentioned, the one I find near to impossible to grasp. There is something my spiritual father has been saying to me for years. I’m paraphrasing to suit my purpose, but according to him the only way to overcome common sense—the primal instinct toward self-preservation that keeps you and me from responding to every person without exception as if they were Christ himself—is to commit senseless acts of beauty. To be wildly foolish for Christ’s sake is to open the hand and let go when everything is telling you to keep your fist tight. Senselessness, in this meaning, isn’t the foolishness of masochism, it doesn’t shelter evil and pretend that it’s good. No, this foolishness has only to do with turning against the evil in our own hearts, to begin to actively swim against the swiftly-moving current of self-will and make our way toward the headwaters of holiness. This foolishness is to love and bless when the whole world, and our own being, is saying to us, “curse”.

Very likely all we will ever manage of such acts will not amount to a printed tissue rose in the toe of a shoe, but you and I know from Tradition that even the faintest image of Christ’s sweet face has the power to heal. And if we grow tired of struggling upstream when it would be so much easier to swim down, we have only to think of the Mother of God, to see her gazing up at that face from the foot of the cross, at the beloved features of her son drawn with the pain and loneliness of the whole sin-sick world, and to remember that seeing the foolishness, the Divine senseless Beauty in His condescension, she bowed her head in humility and kissed His feet.

*The icon “Holy Napkin”; image credit: Uncut Mountain Supply.com