A life beyond this and the understanding of “more” is instinct to humans. If we don’t accept the options already revealed we will create ones that suit us because we truly do have a sense of eternity within. John Lennon sang “Imagine there’s no heaven…” and then spent the rest of the song describing his version of it. He could not escape something so deeply implanted, and neither can we.
In my family I am alone as an Orthodox Christian Priest and I wonder, at times, what that must be like for all of them as they try to understand why I am what I am and believe as I do. There’s really very few categories in our common world where Orthodox Christian Faith fits, and how do you explain the life of a Faith that is neither Roman Catholic or Protestant, neither liberal or conservative as they are commonly defined, and whose vision draws life from ancient roots and ideas sometimes unknown in the West?
For the most part, I think, we just live and let live and that’s not a bad thing. I love my family, nuclear, immediate, and extended, and I have no desire to force anyone to believe as I do. I follow an ancient way, a way sometimes incomprehensible in today’s world, but I have found it to be nourishing, deep, and also, interestingly enough, remarkably practical because it’s based on the lived experience of the Church in the world for many centuries. At best I hope my life is at least some kind of invitation to consider this way, at least I hope it’s not too much of an obstacle for those I love to overcome.
This can be challenging at such times as funerals. I am honored that my family would want me to be part of these events and I’m grateful for the invitation. Yet, there are times, as per the way I am following, where I cannot go exactly where that invitation would lead. When that happens more than anything else I want my family to know that I do love them, I do respect them, and what I do for the sake of my own conscience is not designed to judge them or the state of their souls.
The ancient Orthodox Christian Faith teaches that the human body was created by God as good and integral to what it means to be a human being. The “real” us is not just something housed inside of a shell of flesh but rather a unity created by God and designed for communion and relationship with God. It is therefore to be treated with respect before birth, throughout life, and even after death. The taking of human life by doing grievous harm to the body, for example, is always sin because it is an affront to life and the One who gives life. What my Protestant and Catholic friends and family may not know is that this respect for human life, for the human body is so deep that even in cases where a human life is taken with legal justification there is a penance, a time of reflection and repentance, required of the person who takes that life. If a Priest, like myself, takes a human life, even accidentally or with “legal” justification, they can be removed from their ministry. Deliberately harming or inflicting injury on the body, before or after death, is also considered to be a sin because the body is God’s creation and such acts are a kind of desecration of what God has created to be “good” a goodness not erased by death.
The human body, in the ancient Christian Faith, is also the temple of the Holy Spirit, a place where God dwells and grace is received and shared. Therefore it takes on the quality of the sacred, a holy place. The human body is essentially, in the ancient Faith, a church of a kind sanctified by God’s presence within. Sometimes people erroneously think that Orthodox Christians “hate” their bodies but that is never the case. Our desire to flee from using our bodies in the cause of sin is actually a continuing consecration of that which is a temple of the Holy Spirit and direction of that which God has made “good” towards that goodness for which it was designed.
Finally, our bodies are, in the ancient Christian way, the very bodies that God will raise again on the last day. They are not a carcass or a shell or a container but rather the very fabric of what will one day be a great miracle as God transforms them from whatever state they are in to something holy, good, and numinous. Our bodies which die, the temporary separation of the soul from the body, will one day be reunited with that soul in fashion where we have only a limited understanding but it will be good and it will never die again. Therefore such a body but in life and death be treated with reverence.
For all these reasons and more it has always been the practice of the ancient Christian Faith to physically place the bodies of those who are deceased into the ground, a body at rest in the hope of the resurrection, a body made good by God awaiting its final holiness, no mere shell but rather the very real substance that will be made beautiful and eternal by God at the end of time. Where people may see a cemetery full of old bones the ancient Christian sees a place of future miracle. Where people may see the body as something to be disposed of in the most sanitary and creative way possible we see a body laid to rest in hope like one who sleeps in anticipation of the waking at sunrise. Where others may see something devoid of life we see something, a body, that has been filled with the Holy Spirit, and one day will be returned to life by that same Holy Spirit.
And we bear witness to all of these things, these good and holy things, by the practice of burying those of us who have died (the actual unbroken practice of the ancient Church) and those who are Priests live that tradition by encouraging the faithful to walk through the time of death in this path, seeing in these things not some morbid attraction to the past for its own sake but rather the living witness to the wholeness of the human person, the sacredness of the body as the temple of the Holy Spirit, and the hope of the resurrection.
That being said, we deeply love our friends and family, and we respect their right to make decisions we choose not to make. Our practice of avoiding cremation or any other form of disposing of the human body after death outside of burial should never be taken as a judgement on either the people who have made the decision or the person whose mortal remains have been care for in this way. God alone knows the souls and hearts of us all. Yet in the same way as I am joyfully called to bear witness to Faith in every aspect of my life I am also called to bear witness at the end of life, and I will mourn with you, support you, and I will try to do all forms of kindness but in the unique role of a Priest I stand not just as my own person but also as symbol of the living, ancient, Faith of the Church and as such a witness I cannot participate in the formal services of a person, whoever they are, who has been cremated or has had their body disposed of by means other than intact burial.
That is a hard thing to say because I do love and I do care and I find myself, at times, in an uncomfortable position with people close to my heart. If there was nothing larger at play I would not worry and accommodate as best I could. Yet there is something larger at stake, an ancient witness to the reality of the human person and the greatest of human hopes. In these times such a witness is so necessary. That being said, I hope, some day, you can understand but until then know my heart is in deep sympathy, prayer, and caring for those who have departed and those mourn even if I, myself, for reasons I have tried to explain, is not at the front of the church.
this week and took a good man away, at least for a little while, as we watched, waited, and prayed. Prayer has its mysteries and hospitals have their limits and we discovered each again in the past few days.
There were the tasks, of course, things to do and arrangements to be made. Family gathered and joined forces as best as was possible in the face of such things. We all have our ways, I guess, of singing in the dark. Yet there was comfort there, a sense of belonging to something larger in the face of something that make us feel small. The visits, the food, the words, the tears, all of these are ways the living whole make sense of the loss of one of its members.
Perhaps doubt is a fashionable thing these days, skepticism masquerading as intelligence. Yet it also seems so irrational not to see the glimpses of the transcendent, of the more of us, in the face of death. Whatever we think we believe when we see those who have died, it’s easy for us to posit that there is something more in all of this, something more than cells and organs and biological material reaching its final state of collapse. It’s almost instinctual to presume existence beyond what we can presently see, in fact it may be that suppressing that understanding is actually more difficult than accepting it and this is part of the soulish trauma of our times.
And perhaps I am a relic of some long forgotten age but I believe there is more and my heart reaches out to it because that more seems to be good, even better, than what currently is. If such thoughts are a delusion they at least make me happy which is more than I can say for most of our culture’s delusions. If they are true then I become, as the creation story says, a living soul, something with the potential to travel beyond what I am and perhaps even know something of the life of God.
Death visited us again and my heart is broken and my mind is filled with as of yet unanswered questions. Yet there is within a still, small, voice that tells me there is more, and because there is more there is hope.
today. The sun is warm, and winter is giving way to better things. There are places to go and things to see, music to be made, and poetry to be written.
No more time for the recliner and the stale air inside the house. I have plans for a garden on the boulevard and where to to put my abundance of Brown Eyed Susans. Just a few degrees warmer and my bicycle will end its hibernation in the garage and together we will see what there is to see.
I am older now and therefore each spring is more precious, more unrepeatable. Walk while you can. Breather fresh air while you can. Make music while you can. Walk barefoot while you can.
She was a nurse of the “Old School” even back in the 1970’s when I first started working in nursing homes. White dress, white stockings, white shoes, and something you basically never see any more, the nurses cap.
She ran her floor tight, her wing of the White Bear Lake Care Center. Cares had to be done. No lolligagging around. Beds made with hospital corners and no sheet or blanket showing and the pillow in the right place. At the time I think most of us thought she was kind of a pain and we dreaded be assigned to her floor.
But she was right.
Her formality and precision I think, looking back, came from a place of wanting to do the best for people who often were in great need. Then and now, perhaps even more now, a nursing home is a place of last resort. Out of money, out of options, it’s the place you must go if you need too much care for home and too little care for a hospital. If there’s a pecking order in health care this is about as bottom as one can get.
So what can you give to people who’ve lost their home and almost everything of what they own except for a few pictures on the wall and a small closet of clothes? Beds made neatly. Rooms that are clean and smell that way. People treated like humans and not cargo. All of those things are love in deeds.
Dottie Morken, white dress, white hose, white shoes, and nursing cap in just the right place on her head was, in her own way, giving gifts of care to people who had virtually nothing left. She understood that even if you’re poor and sick and old that you still should have a well made bed, a clean place to sleep, and people caring for you who do it right the first time and every time. Perhaps some times we thought she was a witch when we wanted to get through things the quick and easy way but in truth she was an angel who watched out for people who couldn’t watch out for themselves.
Forty years later and I’ve returned to work in a nursing home. As I walk through the door to face whatever comes that day I realize she trained me well. Presuming she has passed from this life I hope she knows that a little part of her is still with me every time I try to make things “just so”. And I hope she’s pleased.
sting sometimes, with an uncanny ability to expose the lies we tell ourselves and penetrate beyond the carefully crafted exteriors of our lives.
Mostly, of course, we don’t wish to be disrupted from comfort, even if that comfort is an illusion and so we resent being exposed, challenged, and corrected, even by someone we would at least theoretically understand to be the Son of God. So we create exceptions, economias, and sometimes just flat out ignore what we don’t want to hear. Perhaps that’s why we sometimes leave the Bible on the shelf, pious in its placement but largely unread. We’re afraid of what we’re going to discover, afraid of what challenge may come our way if we open it and take what Christ says seriously.
Yet the wounds our Lord may give us are not the wounds of an enemy but the wound that a surgeon must necessarily do for the greater healing. Within all of us are spiritual cancers of various kinds, and all of them left unchecked would certainly take not just our lives but our souls as well. They have to go and if we are willing to accept the diagnosis and the treatment we can recover. If we choose to ignore the path of healing then we will lose the very life we think we’re trying to protect.
An enemy will always tell you what you want to hear but a friend will, when necessary, speak the truth even if that truth is troubling, or by our thin skinned society’s obsession with constant affirmation, offensive. When Jesus gets in our faces, despite what we may think at the time, he’s neither angry nor trying to hurt us. Rather, he’s trying to help us find the life we were actually meant to have in a world of illusions so real we often mistake them for fact. There is wisdom if we understand this.
there is no perfect place, no perfect job, no perfect church, no perfect life. In everything and everywhere there will be moments of joy and moments of challenge and nothing will ever be just the way you imagined it would be no matter how hard you try.
There’s a kind of disappointment in this. Surely one thing in this existence could be at least close to what you imagine it’s supposed to be. Yet, while some things may come achingly close, nothing will ever be “it”. In fact the closer they come the greater the disappointment when the flaw that mars comes to the surface. Just when you thought you won the prize, the reality of life does something to pull it from your fingers. It’s, perhaps, one of the most maddening things about being human.
There’s also a freedom, though, in this realization. Accepting there is no perfect anything on this Earth and in this life gives the gift of wisdom, of patience, and a release from the tyranny of perfection into the cool waters of grace. One can be set free to enjoy that which is beautiful and release that which is less so when you realize that a normal life will have parts of both. The good can also become more precious and the harsh can be more temporary when you realize all things pass and see life through this window.
And then there is heaven which seems, as I grow older, to be less like any image I have of it and more like an existence where I can simply “be” as I was meant to be because the presence of God will fulfill all my expectations and heal the imperfections and unrealities of my life. One of the great gifts of getting older is that having seen so much of the world over the years one realizes the quiet ache in your heart on even the best of days is a sign there is more and better and it’s closer than you think. Stepping through that door you realize you’re more at home there than any place your travels in this world may have taken you. Every beauty here is a sign of a greater one to come and every challenge is a reminder of a larger day when all such things will pass.
Ghana is warm and humid, busy, and full of life. Street vendors come to you while you’re stuck in traffic and quiet towns rest in the tropical sun. Ghana is color, tins roofs, skyscrapers, a country emerging out of a colony, and everywhere is a fertile green.
Six hours out by air from Amsterdam and you arrive in Accra, the capital. More than a million souls live in and about this city and like every city it has gleaming high rise buildings, government offices, streets swirling with traffic, monuments, and slums. There’s an unfinished look because people build as they have money, each story rising when the funds are there and resting incomplete when they’re not. As in the villages a raw capitalist energy flows where everything can be purchased right on the street and all prices are subject to debate. When you arrive you can feel the place is ready to become something extraordinary, a city of the world in its adolescence.
It’s a deeply spiritual place as well, this Ghana. Put away the idea of some sort of pagan Africa from the past. Everywhere there are churches large and small. In some places its hard to find a tree or a billboard without a poster for a revival, church service, or an “apostle” promising spiritual renewal. Cabs and businesses overtly proclaim the faith of the owner and the radio stations are filled with religious broadcasting. Like the street markets where vendors vie for your business the spiritual market here is full, crowded, and full of variety. Jehovah’s Witnesses are here. Latter Day Saints have contructed a magnificent temple not far from the President’s home in Accra. Every street seems to have a church of one kind or another and if not a church a mosque.
In this place the Orthodox Church is relatively young, a matter of decades and not centuries. Like other Orthodox communities in Africa it was the product not so much of colonial missionaries but of the Africans evangelizing themselves in a search for the roots of Christian Faith. There are people still living who were part of that original group of searchers and their descendants have entered the spiritual world of Ghana with the vigor and challenges of a new community of Faith. Everywhere, like the rest of the country, there is something to build, something to grow, and dreams for the future. Everything is needed from nuts and bolts to seminary training. Everything is in the process of being built. Everything is new like a bird stepping from the nest and learning to fly.
Yet there is also remarkable seriousness and maturity about the Church in Ghana. They’ve weathered some challenging times. They’ve created beauty from scratch and are tuned in to the people they seek to serve. There is a wisdom in this place and a depth of faith formed in the crucible of facing and overcoming obstacles that few in our world of convenience could, or would, ever understand. It’s a young church of old souls with an intentionality about being the Church that reflects the very best of our ancient Faith.
And, if somewhere along the line you choose to travel to this place, this Ghana, it will become your school. You may think your work is to travel to teach and explain but the larger truth is that you will be taught and you will learn. You may ponder the romance of serving abroad but you will discover that the faithful of this country will make you crushingly aware of how much needs to be done right around your own home. Ghana will teach you the Faith. Ghana will teach you humility. Ghana will teach you joy. Sit in the silence of the Holy Transfiguration Cathedral in Accra and you will begin to understand.