Ecumenism is Uncomfortable.

A few months ago, I wrote about ecumenism as a hard call. I talked about a few of the difficulties of living with the reality of Christ’s broken Body.

Recently, I’ve found myself confronting a very specific aspect of the lack of Christian unity. It might sound petty. It might sound odd. But for me it is something that I run up against on a near daily basis.

Ecumenism is uncomfortable. 

I really started confronting this in myself a few months ago. One of my dearest friends was getting married, and I was to stand up in her wedding. She and her now-husband are Roman Catholic; I’m Byzantine Catholic. They are devout Catholics who I know to have strong prayer lives, strong relationships with Jesus. I was happy that they were marrying.

But as the wedding drew closer, I had to confront something about the wedding liturgy and (more so) about myself. A few people had tried to condole with me about the difficulties of being a happy bridesmaid while feeling hopelessly single. But the reality was that I wasn’t jealous of my friend’s big day. Now, much of that is due to my love of her, but a bit of it also has to do with the fact that I do not want the wedding that she had. I want a traditional Byzantine wedding, and that isn’t what my friend had. Her wedding came and went; it was a beautiful celebration of the couple’s love for the Lord and for one another. But it was also a wedding that made me uncomfortable.

The wedding was very Western as is meet and just. They are Roman Catholics. It made sense that their wedding would reflect their faith tradition. And that meant that it didn’t look like my tradition. They took vows. They knelt. Guys, I had to kneel during the wedding liturgy. I was uncomfortable. As an Eastern Christian, I don’t kneel during liturgies. I love that my faith tradition allows me to make a profound bow during the consecration. Kneeling is a sign of humility, and I don’t object to it. But it is not my tradition.

I wasn’t in my tradition. I wasn’t in my “home space,” but rather I was a guest in my friends’ tradition. And we all know that the old saying says, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” So I chose love. I did something that made me uncomfortable. I don’t love kneeling during a liturgy, but that is Roman tradition. Our liturgies are different, and some of those differences can make me a little uncomfortable. I’m sure that my friends feel the same way in my church. It’s okay to be uncomfortable or to not understand a friend’s tradition.

Ecumenism calls us to love and respect our Christian brothers regardless of their traditions. This doesn’t meant that we live our shared lives boiled down to the common denominator(s). It means that we love one another actively. It means that we embrace what we share. We have a common Eucharist? Great, let’s celebrate that. We have a common Easter? Let’s find a way to celebrate together. We both really love St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians? Let’s talk about that.

Ecumenism also means that we need to learn about our differences and accept them. We can’t just shove them under the rug and pretend that they aren’t there. We need to work through them. Every now and again, I have very selfish moments in which I think that it would be better if I never married because none of my (maybe-possibly-someday) bridesmaids will be Eastern Christians and thereby will have no clue how to participate in my wedding liturgy. If I don’t marry, none of us will have to deal with awkward details like proper reception of the Eucharist or why there are no vows or whether to bow or genuflect. If I don’t get married, everyone will be spared a whole host of uncomfortable moments arising from ecumenical differences.

But at the same time, isn’t it important for us to see our differences? If we see them, then we can discuss them. We can talk about why there aren’t vows in the Byzantine wedding service and why they exist in the Roman service. We can talk about the differences between kneeling and standing during the consecration, the differences between bowing and genuflecting. These discussions can provide deeper understanding both of one’s own faith tradition and of those of friends. We can learn from one another and grow closer to unity through those moments.

The Lord calls us to unity. He does not call us to be a batch of perfect cookie-cutter Christians. On the eve of his Sacrifice, he did not pray that we would all be exactly the same. He prayed, rather, that we would be one as the Trinity is one. Each member of the Trinity is unique, and so we are called not to a unity of sameness but to a unity of diversity. This is hard. This requires being uncomfortable. But if we do this, then we can be a Church in whom the Father can rest well pleased.

So let’s embrace the uncomfortable, and let’s do it for love.

Behold, how good and how pleasant it is
For brethren to dwell together in unity!

It is like the precious oil upon the head,
Running down on the beard,
The beard of Aaron,
Running down on the edge of his garments.
It is like the dew of Hermon,
Descending upon the mountains of Zion;
For there the Lord commanded the blessing—
Life forevermore.

-Psalm 133

Holy (Bleep)!

On a recent revisit to The Grand Budapest Hotel, I found myself thinking about my love of Wes Anderson films as well as my friends who also enjoy those same films. I was looking at that particular demographic within my friends. The Wes Anderson fans tend to be humanities majors. Many of us would be defined by most of society as “good kids.” Most of us are practicing Christians. I can think of many reasons why we enjoy his films-color scheme, script/dialogue, characters, music, actors, lighting…the list could go on for a while. There are many things to love these movies. I mean…I’d totally let Wes Anderson plan my wedding.

image from Wikipedia

The movies are pretty brilliant. They’re intelligent, eccentric, witty, and at least a little crass. It’s that mix that got me thinking. In Grand Budapest, M. Gustave (skillfully portrayed by Ralph Fiennes) goes from poetic dialogue that is not common in modern cinema to crass conversations or swearing. As I listened to Fiennes go seamlessly from reciting poetry to swearing, I wondered why this particular group of individuals enjoys this brand of cinema. I have plenty of good friends who wouldn’t enjoy the crass language. So why do other friends and I enjoy Anderson’s portrayal of the human experience? We don’t all have some crazy mustard yellow fixation, do we?

Image from Wikipedia

Then I posed this question to my roommate who also enjoys these films. She provided me with an answer that resonated with me. Wes Anderson’s film reminds us that we belong to both heaven and earth. In other words, these movies show us a vivid and all-too real depiction of the fallen condition of humanity. Life is not a fairy tale. We are not yet perfect. We aspire to the skies, but we fall short far too many times. We want to perfectly crafted sentences that use elegant language, but life falls short. We fall short. And in our more base moments, we fall back on crass language.

Image from Rotten Tomatoes

That crass language is far easier to use than those elegant phrases. Many times, it feels far more appropriate to swear than to use poetic language. There is a certain impact to “fuck” that “‘Twas first light, when I saw her face upon the heath, and hence did I return, day by day, entranced, though vinegar did brine my heart, never w…” just doesn’t have. Poetry is beautiful, but it often lacks a certain level of baseness that is so intrinsic to our human condition. There is something utterly satisfying about swearing or speaking in crass terms. Both swearing and poetry fit the human condition; they simply fall into different moments of life. These movies acknowledge both the baseness (earth) and elegance (heaven) of the human condition.

Beyond just the language, the films present a world that is flawed. These characters aren’t perfect. Their lives are far from perfect. These are not the stories to which we necessarily aspire. (Okay, certain parts of them definitely look appealing.) But there is something charming and endearing about these stories. The flaws and the charm resonate with us. Many of us have dysfunctional families. Many of us want to do something dramatic or exciting. Adventure appeals to us. Some of us wish that we looked good in mustard yellow. We realize that life doesn’t always give us happily-ever-afters. Anderson acknowledges that, but he also helps us to acknowledge the humor in the dark moments. Life is filled with elegance, with humor, and with profanity. Somehow, Anderson blends these elements together and makes them thoroughly delightful.

Also, there is Courtesan au Chocolat.

Why do I write?

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Over the past few months, I’ve been thinking about why I write. Do I like to write? Does it make me happy? Does it allow me to interact with others? Does it help me to understand myself? What does it do for me as a person? What does it do for my relationship with the broader world? And how can I use my writing to shape the broader world?

More than anything, I believe that I write because I need to. I have to write. There are things inside of me that must come out. I experience the world through narrative. I have a near-constant narrative running in my head. I love stories. I love to hear stories and read stories and tell stories. I enjoy fiction; I enjoy nonfiction. I delight in narrative. I have stories inside of me, and I feel a need to tell them.

This can mean writing them on paper or typing them. I may destroy them after I do that. I may need to tell someone a story. (Most of the stories that I tell others are true. Occasionally, I create stories for little kids.) I’ve used the internet to share a few of my stories with others. But regardless of what I do with these stories, they run through my head. Sometimes, a line will pop unbidden into my head, and I have to write it down. Recently, I was sitting and working when the line “My parents didn’t raise me to be a failure. No, I became one on my own despite the best efforts of those around me.” just came into my mind. I don’t know what I’m going to do with that; it sounds like it could be the beginning of something. It feels promising me to me. I don’t know who the “I” is yet or why he/she is a failure.

But I do know that I have words coursing through me. I have stories that I think must be told. I come up with ideas that become my blog posts-these ideas that MUST get out of me. F. Scott Fitzgerald once said (emphasis mine) that you don’t write because you WANT to say something; you write because you have something to say. Oftentimes, I find that I feel that I have to write. Take this blog post. I was sitting on the couch reading a book when ideas started following and I felt like I had to let them out of me. It’s an experience that I can’t easily explain to others. I get ideas, and I have to let them out. I check my grammar and spelling later.

Writing is important to me because it allows me to express myself. My thoughts may not be worth much to others, but they matter to me. They may not pay for my daily bread, but they get convoluted if I don’t let them out of my head. I write to clear my mind and to organize my thoughts. I write to explore the world. I write because it helps me to experience the world. I don’t know how my writing impacts others-or even if it does. But I know that my writing helps me.

Book Review: Helena

Knowing my great loves of Evelyn Waugh and of St. Helen, my roommate recently bought me Evelyn Waugh’s book Helena. Helena is a novelization of the life of St. Helen based in the theory that St. Helen was born in Britain.

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The book entranced me. Waugh’s prose, per usual, was delightful. His descriptions drew me into the story and made me care deeply about what happened. The story begins with Helena as the daughter of a Roman governor (about age 16) living in Britain when she meets Constantius. She marries Constantius and gives birth to Constantine; then, history ensues.

Waugh presents Helena as a strong woman who lives her life seeking truth. She is not concerned with material possessions or earthly success. She wants Truth. This begins with her education as a teenager; her father is portrayed as a man who wanted his daughters to be well educated. Her early divorce from Constantius and her son’s absence from much of her life allow her to learn and explore the small world she inhabits. (And she does, as a woman, inhabit a small sphere.) She is deeply curious, and this desire to learn stays with her into old age. The picture of her exploring Rome and Jerusalem in her seventies is inspiring. She craves knowledge and truth in a way that should motivate others to do the same.

The novel is very Christian, which makes sense considering who Helena and her son are. Much of the last third of the novel focuses on Helena’s growing faith in Christ and her frustration with those who converted to Christianity because it was fashionable or politically beneficial. As I said earlier, Helena is a woman who seeks Truth. Her desire to find the True Cross, the Sign through which her son conquered at the Milvian Bridge, is the crowning jewel of her life. She has spent much of her life pursuing truth. Her crowning achievement is to attempt to share the Truth she finds with as many as possible. She wants the True Cross and the hope that it represents to be evident not only to her own place and time but to all of humanity.

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All I want to say is this: read it. Helena is beautiful. Waugh’s understanding of Truth is both encouraging and inspiring. You won’t regret it.

Lastly, I should admit that this book only strengthened my resolve to name my maybe-possibly-someday daughter Evelyn after my beloved Evelyn Waugh.

Dairy-Free “Cream”

How do I replace cream in recipes that require it? I have a few different methods, but I want to share one of my personal favorites with you.

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All that is in that food processor is 1 cup of tofu “cream cheese” and 1/4 cup of soy milk. That replaces the 1 cup of cream that was called for in the recipe that I was using. I throw the two in the food processor and give them a whirl. I occasionally throw in a splash more soy milk if I think that is necessary. And I think it turns out pretty darn well.

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And the people who eat these scones seem to agree with me about that. I’ve even gotten people who swear that they’ll never try tofu to treat these scones…and enjoy them.

Why Should I Pray for the Great and Holy Synod?

So you’re not Orthodox. That’s not your background or your profession. You’ve heard that the Orthodox Churches are having a big and important meeting coming up soon. (It starts tomorrow-Sunday, June 19.) Maybe you’ve had a friend suggest that you pray for it. But you’re sitting there thinking that doesn’t seem worth your while. Why should I as a non-Orthodox person pray for a meeting that won’t impact me?

There are many things that I could say, but I keep coming back to one word: love. Christ calls us to love one another as he loves us. (John 13:34) I may not be a member of the Orthodox Church, but I share a common belief with them in the Risen Lord Jesus. I have a special fondness for them as my brother (and sister) Eastern Christians. They are my brothers and sisters in the Lord. I am called to love them. We are all called to love them.

Prayer is, as the late Madeleine L’Engle once said, an act of love. When we pray for others, we are demonstrating our love towards them. I don’t know what the Synod holds for my Orthodox brothers, but I know that the Lord has called them to this moment. It’s a big moment; they haven’t done anything like this in over 1200 years. Think about that; they haven’t done anything like this since before the Great Schism. It’s massively important in terms of the work of God among His people.

Now it appears that four of the churches will not be attending. They are calling for the council to be postponed, but Patriarch Bartholomew says that’s not an option. The council will continue, and any and all decisions will be enforced regardless of who attends or doesn’t attend. With this in mind, our brothers need prayers even more. They are making decisions for their Churches in a difficult hour. They need wisdom and grace from the Holy Spirit. They need our love and our support. At this juncture, the best way that we can do that is through our prayers.

We are called to love our Orthodox brothers and sister as St. Peter and St. Andrew loved one another. Let’s support them in prayer. Let’s pray for each of the bishops who will be there. Pray for Patriarch Bartholomew who will be leading his brother bishops. Also pray for those Patriarchs who have chosen to not attend. Pray that God will bring peace and unity among the Orthodox Churches and among all Christians.

St. Andrew, St. George, St. Nicholas, St. Basil the Great, St. John Chrysostom, St. Francis of Assisi, and Sts. Vladimir and Olga, pray for the Great and Holy Synod. Pray for unity among all Christians!

Book Review: When Breath Becomes Air

Let me just start this by saying that if you haven’t read Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air, you need to do so. Immediately if at all possible. Julie at Knitted Bliss recommended it back in April, so I put it on my GoodReads list with plans to read it ASAP.

Paul Kalanithi was a neurosurgeon who was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer at the age of 36. He was married, finishing up his residency, planning to start a family soon, and looking out at a seemingly limitless future. And then, boom, cancer reared its ugly head in his life. The book is his response to that.

It is a beautifully honest portrayal of one man’s final months, and it is completely heartbreaking. I knew walking in that he had passed away more than a year ago, but I still found his death heartwrenching. I cried not only for the hole that he left in the world and for the potential that he will never get to live out but also for the lives that he touched, for the people who were immediately impacted by his passing from the world. In John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, one of the characters tells another that it would be a privilege to have his heart broken by her. I can’t find a better way to phrase my emotions at the end of the book. Yes, Dr. Kalanithi died, and it broke a piece of my heart when I reached that part of the book. But that heartbreaking was a privilege because it was a sign that my life had been touched by his.

It has been said by various brilliant thinkers that learning to die well is learning to live well. We don’t know the numbering of our days. What matters is that we live well and then die well. At the end of the book, Lucy Kalanithi says that her husband died with integrity, and the book he wrote as he was dying shows that. He was a man of integrity, a solid and good man. He was brutally honest with the reader about the difficulty of his last months. That honesty is one of the great merits of the book.

Kalanithi also shows a great deal of courage as he dies. He does not seem afraid of the end of his days on earth. From the time of his diagnosis, he went forward knowing that he was facing a hard road but wanting the best for his family. We are all leave this life at this point; despite our best wishes or hopes, we cannot avoid that. We need to live the way that we want to die. This book shows a man who lived and died with honesty and integrity.

For me, the lesson of this book is to live well. Live intentionally. Life may be hard, but the hard bits are worth it. Life is all what you make of it. Make it something good, something beautiful