Orthodox Thought for the Day


Sunday, August 25, 2013

A worthwhile new "read"

Deepen your encounters with God and others.  Orthodox brother, Dr. Stephen Muse, invites each of us to do just that.  To this end, he has written a superb new book titled, BEING BREAD.  Through various stories from his own life experience he gives us glimpses into the mystery of the self.  His stories are, in essence, ours as they relate to the struggles and passions inherent to each of us.  But, he does not leave us there.  Instead, he helps guide us toward encounters with God and those around us that can be transforming.  His narratives are imbued with an Orthodox phronema (mindset) that make them particularly meaningful. 

Twenty-five vignettes give insight into encounter and what it can mean for us and for the nourishment of the world, i.e., "being bread."  Stephen's spiritually honest narratives open doors for our own personal examination.  What we learn can spur us toward growth, allowing us to actually find genuine meetings between the Living God and those whom He has made.  Therein, of course, lies LIFE.  Especially helpful are the gentle, yet probing, questions at the end of each piece meant to engage us further and provide (sometimes surprising) clarification for our own lives.

BEING BREAD encourages introspection.  You’ll find its content suitable for personal devotions or for a spiritual reading group.  In my opinion, it's an offering that meets a need for Orthodox readers who are actively seeking to deepen the quality of their momentary brushes with God and humanity.

Below is one of the chapters from BEING BREAD.  Consider reading it aloud because the word choices paint a vivid picture which you’ll enjoy just by the sound of it alone.  I'm guessing that most readers will be able to relate to at least one snapping turtle experience of their own.  Enough.  Give it a read--you'll be glad you did!

BEING BREAD—available from your local Christian book seller. $19.95, published by Orthodox Research Institute, ISBN 978-1-933275-65-9.  BEING BREAD is also offered at a significant discount by both www.amazon.com and www.barnesandnoble.com.  Some of you may even have an arrangement with these on-line shops that allows for free shipping right to your door.   

BEING BREAD-an interview with Stephen Muse: 

The mark of contemporary man is that he really does not listen…I know people who are absorbed in ‘social activity’ and have never spoken from being to being with a fellow human being…Love without dialogue, without real outgoing to the other, reaching to the other, and companying with the other, the love remaining with itself—that is called Lucifer.  Martin Buber 

One day I stopped the car to render assistance to the largest snapping turtle I had ever seen:  a veritable one-eyed giant at least two feet wide at the center.  The kids and mom watched as dad had his first encounter of a close enough kind with this enormous and opaque alien presence, silent and still as a Dominican Friar as his radar took in the approaching menace now towering above him with unknown intent. 

Grabbing him by the tail like my friend’s neighbor, who says he nonchalantly drops them in a bag, clearly was not going to work with this behemoth.  I reached out with both hands for the opposite sides of his armor.  The sudden unceremonious Harumph! he gave me after he hunkered back into his shell and exploded like a jackhammer, his jaws flashing for a fraction of a second more like a mako shark, let me know he was not exactly thrilled with my approach.   My leg muscles spasmed, and the hairs on my neck stood up like straight pins as the adrenalin surged through me. 

Now I was more excited than one should be when considering the best way to pick up a thirty pound razor-lipped, battle-hardened, special forces turtle on a singular mission to drag his armor plated self across the steaming July-heated asphalt.  I reached for a stick, still thinking to pull him out of harm’s way before some other unfeeling dinosaur on four wheels decided to nail him to the pavement just for the sheer entertainment of it.  When his jaws clamped down, I read the message with my hand loud and clear.  Had it been my finger, it would have had emergency room written all over it.  I let go. He was not interested in my help.  I do not think he even liked me!  He certainly did not understand or care about my good intentions to render assistance. 

With my newly acquired respect for the old mossy-back, I stood away and watched with awe as he continued his pilgrimage in his own good time.  Humbly walking back to the car on rubber legs amidst the laughter and imitations of the whole scene by the kids, I was thinking to myself, “Just because you feel a strong desire to help someone doesn’t mean they want you to or even that you will know how, even if you think you do.” 

Transformative encounter in its depths is always a meeting between strangers, evoking awareness of the unplumbed parts of ourselves.  Even in familiar relationships, the fire that lights up the path of intimacy arises from sparks created by direct contact with the untrammeled bedrock of the soul beneath the familiar.  Approaching the apophatic mystery of a person with the presumption of already knowing how to help someone simply on the basis of past history, or by virtue of having had many years of experience, ordination, a license or an advanced degree or whatever else is presumed to take the place of real presence, genuine loving interest and a willingness to be taught by the other, is a recipe for disaster. 

Even a seemingly slow and plodding tortoise of a person, after downing enough of that potent elixir of unconfessed sins, losses, addictions, tragedies, and betrayals amassed over a lifetime, can temporarily morph into a mythical, fire-breathing, armor-plated snapdragon just waiting to take off a finger or spit out venom on anyone who dares to speak or listen in routine, clichéd ways indicating an unwillingness to risk a personal encounter.  Such fire-breathing is frequently in its depths a person’s prayer to God who may seem just a little too frightening or a little too distant to be vulnerable enough to be affected by the slings and arrows of their outrageous misfortunes to even bother crying out.  A person’s spiritual pain may be rage at God for being such a cruel taskmaster.  Or maybe it is the universe’s indifference or any variety of the other false faces endlessly painted and projected onto God by our own self-judgments posing as knowledge about the other.  The proverbial “log in my own eye” inevitably swings back as if from God, hitting me on the head until I give up and absent myself or reactively attack back.  Persisting in faith with and for each other, means we are likely to catch a glimpse of parts of our own unexplored selves. 

Paul Ricoeur observed somewhere, “The quickest way to the self is through the others.”  Jean Paul Sarte added, “The other is hell.”  The truth is that we become ourselves by our willingness to go through hell with and for the sake of the other.  The risk of vulnerability and involvement are what together ignite vitality and passion.  The price of admission is tolerating the anxiety and uncertainty along the way as you move off the edge of the map of the known world where fear of mythical sea monsters begins.  Then like Jacob we wrestle face to face in the darkness with an unknown unconquerable alien presence receiving a blessing in the process.  One approaches here a mysterious work encountered by the saints that dwells in the deeper fathoms of the human heart where, as St. Makarios the Great observed:  There are dragons and there are lions; there are poisonous beasts and all the treasures of evil.  And there are rough and uneven roads; there are precipices.  But there is also God, also the angels, the life and the kingdom, the light and the Apostles, the treasures of grace—there are all things. 

To truly encounter another requires passion-bearing.  One must be willing to be affected in his or her own self at the same depths and to the same degree as the person she or he encounters.  This is why the Way of Christ is both desired and feared.  Entering the silence and struggling in the darkness confronted by one’s own and another’s neglected and abandoned heart is at points like encountering a wild and wounded snapping turtle.  God is not tame.  Neither is the heart, nor the world present in the depths of our fallen human capacity for sin or that of our neighbor’s, in spite of the pretty psychological clothing and custom designer-surgery garments of skin we wear to pretend otherwise. 

To the degree that we actually reach out and touch the wounds we discover in ourselves and one another, it will indeed draw blood—if not from us, most certainly from God who is waiting there, to meet us in our private hells where we most fear to tread.  In such encounters, the Spirit begins to speak in sighs too deep for words and the miracle of redemption begins. 

1Homilies 43.7; trans. George Maloney, Pseudo-Macarius: The Fifty Spiritual Homilies and the Great Letter (New York: Paulist Press, 1992), 222. 

Questions for Discussion: 

1.      What kind of listener am I?  Do I seek to discover the world of another beyond my own projections?  Am I more interested in being listened to than in listening?  Do I always need agreement in order to remain in relationship with people because differences of viewpoints are threatening to me? 

2.      Who have been snapping turtles in my life and what have I learned from the encounters?  What have I discovered from praying for my enemies?  Do I seek to understand others on their own terms in their own context or do I assume they are just like me? 

3.      When have I been willing to go to hell with and for the sake of another as a free gift of love?  What blessing did I receive from this experience?

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