Dissolving our Dead. When will the greed-fed insanity end?!?


Dissolve and Flush: Funeralized Alkaline Hydrolysis.

The Newest Technology for Disposing of Dead Human Beings.

Excerpt from the article by

Rev. Ch. Harold W. Vadney, BA, [MA], MDiv
Interfaith Bereavement Chaplain/Thanatologist


In the West, interment, inhumation, entombment have been the traditional  methods of disposing of dead human bodies, that is, prior to the late 19th century with the revival of cremation as an alternative. Until about 1880, cremation was anathema, unless, occasionally, at times of extraordinarily large numbers or dead, such as during war time, during epidemics, or following natural disasters, mass graves or incineration of the corpses was preferred to avoid further catastrophe in terms of public health. Fire cremation was revived in the West as a quasi-pagan option attributed to non-Christian freethinkers and masons or simply to anti-social elements but then took a different tack by appealing to the public health and environmentally conscious elements in conventional society. Today, economic concerns both consumer and industrial take precedence. The dominant market economies in the industrialized West, particularly in the USA, UK, and some Western European countries, as well as the insatiable appetite of post-modern, post-Christian cultures for novelty and individualism, have left the door ajar for the entry into the funeralization professions of an industrialized process called alkaline hydrolysis (AH), an industrial process invented in the late 19th century as a way of dissolving in strong chemicals farm animal waste for use as fertilizer.[1]


“Omnes homines terra et cinis” Sirach 12:32

In a particularly beautiful description of how the pre-Vatican II Church thought of the human being, and in poetry that was possible only in a more sensitive epoch of human history, one reads:[2]

“The old Church holds on to her dead with eternal affection. The dead body is the body of her child. It is sacred flesh. It has been the temple of a regenerated soul. She blessed it in baptism, poured the saving waters on its head, anointed it with holy oil on breast and back, put the blessed salt on its lips, and touched its nose and ears in benediction when it was only the flesh of a babe; and then, in growing youth, reconsecrated it by confirmation; and, before its dissolution in death, she again blessed and sanctified its organs, its hands and its feet, as well as its more important members. Even after death she blesses it with holy water, and incenses it before her altar, amid the solemnity of the great sacrifice of the New Law, and surrounded by mourners who rejoice even in their tears, for they believe in the communion of saints, and are united in prayer with the dead happy in heaven, as well as with those who are temporarily suffering in purgatory. The old Church, the kind old mother of regenerated humanity, follows the dead body of her child into the very grave. She will not throw it into the common ditch, or into unhallowed ground; no, it is the flesh of her son. She sanctifies and jealously guards from desecration the spot where it is to rest until the final resurrection; and day by day, until the end of the world, she thinks of her dead, and prays for them at every Mass that is celebrated; for, even amid the joys of Easter and of Christmas, the memento for the dead is never omitted from the Canon. She even holds annually a solemn feast of the dead, the day after “All Saints,” in November, when the melancholy days are on the wane, the saddest of the year, and the fallen leaves and chilly blasts presage the season of nature’s death.”[3]

 

The Church of bygone days frequently used prose poetically and quoted liberally from the Church Fathers and even from the ancient philosophers and historiographers like Plato, Seneca, Socrates, Cicero many of whom, though pre-Christian, did not eschew the notion of the immortal soul.  St Augustine writes, “We should not despise nor reject the bodies of the dead; especially we should respect the corpses of the just and the faithful, which the Spirit hath piously used as instruments and vessels in the doing of good works…for those bodies are not mere ornaments but pertain to the very nature of humankind.”[4]

Cremation made an occasional appearance in isolated periods of Western history or in outlier regions where Christianity had not yet attained dominance; cremation was largely associated with non-Christian, pagan cultures.

In the East, in places where Hinduism and Buddhism had a firm foothold, cremation was and continues to be the norm. In some geographical areas such as in parts of Tibet, where the ground is unfavorable to interment and wood is a scarce and valuable resource, exposure of the corpse or dismemberment of the corpse and consumption by carrion-eating birds, so-called sky-burial or, in its form where the dismembered corpse is cast into a fiver for consumption by fishes, water burial, is practiced.

A similar practice of exposure is found in Zoroastrian communities in Iran, in the so-called towers of silence or dakhma, where the dead are brought, exposed, and consumed by vultures; the skeletal remains are then later collected for disposal.

While isolated instances of cremation are reported both in the Old Testament and in the New Testament, burial or entombment was conspicuously the norm. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, burning of a corpse was a final act of abomination, reserved for only the worst elements of society.

One of the common misapprehensions of the Church’s aversion to or discouragement of incineration of the human body as a routinely available option for final disposal is that it was associated with pagan or freethinker practice, or with attempts to dissuade believers from faith in a bodily resurrection. While this might have some historical substance and may be represented by some early writers, it is but a minor hypothesis.

Ancient flame cremation practiced by the ancients.

As Eusebius describes early Christian aversion to flame cremation in a statement that still holds plausible, “” they (the Pagans) did this (cremated) to show that they could conquer God and destroy the resurrection of the bodies, saying, now let us see if they will arise.” In other words, cremation was a challenge to the belief in bodily resurrection as taught and believed in the early Church.

Furthermore, no less a figure than Cicero advances the notion that incineration was of ancient practice in Rome, and suggests that inhumation was a practice that predated the Roman practice of cremation. In fact, some noble Roman families never permitted their bodies to be burned, and Sulla is said to have been the first Roman who ordered his body to be cremated after death, lest his bones should be scattered by his enemies.[5] The pontiffs of pagan Rome would not acknowledge a funeral to be complete unless at least a single bone cut off from the corpse, or rescued from the flames, had been de posited in the earth.

Ancient Greece and Rome did practice cremation at various points in their histories but the ultimate disposal of the remains continued to be burial; either a part not consumed by the flames or the “bones” of the cremated corpse were ultimately buried in the earth. Cremation was by no means consistently the norm or the preferred method of disposal in Greece or in Rome.

Pope Boniface VIII forbade all violent modes of disposing of the dead as savoring of barbarism. “The respect due to the human body requires that it should be allowed to decay naturally, without having recourse to any violent system;” so says Grandclaude. A forcible argument against cremation is also found in the Catholic custom of preserving and honoring the relics of the Saints and putting their bodies or portions of them in the altar. It would be no longer possible to have the most important relics of future Saints if their flesh were to be consumed by fire.

That brief sampling of ancient teachings and beliefs regarding the question of incineration of human remains, arguably a “violent system” of disposing of human remains, should suffice to provide a background for the remainder of this discussion. For a more detailed discussion, I refer the reader to the Reverend Bann’s article cited above.

It was only in the late 19th century that a cremation movement came into being, and then only owing to the deplorable conditions in the cities which were rapidly outgrowing their boundaries due to immigration from rural areas, and the resulting encroachments on the previously outlying churchyards and, with population growth and densification, poor sanitation, and high mortality rates, consequent overfilling of existing cemeteries literally to the point of overflowing.

The urban slums of the Industrial Age.

Such were the conditions that gave rise to the public health concerns of reformers who claimed that the dead in the cemeteries were evil, that their miasmas leached out into the water and the spaces of the living, causing disease, suffering, and death. It was the evil dead rotting in the earth and their juices that were public health enemy No. 1. The open sewers and living conditions of the larger cities, and the putrid waters of the rivers flowing through them, of course, were not to blame.

And so, an alternative method of disposal of the dangerous and filthy dead had to be found, one that did not threaten to gobble up valuable real estate, and one that could be justified in the face of Church and religious objections. Cremation was the most obvious answer for purifying the unclean corpses. After all, since time immemorial fire was the great purifier.

In the beginning, therefore, the initial impetus was the miasma theory of pestilence, and corpses were to blame. Then, around 1880, the germ theory of disease was born. It debunked the established miasma theory of disease, and stated that disease was caused by specific organisms, germs. No problem for the cremationists, who were quite agile in dropping the miasma theory and accepting the germ theory but corpses were not yet off the hook, so to speak.

If germs were the cause of many of the diseases afflicting the population, wouldn’t the putrid rotting corpse be germ heaven? And if you have all those corpses lying about doing nothing but what corpses do, that is, rotting and defiling the air with the aromas of putrecine and cadaverine. Those same rotting corpses were breeding grounds for pestilence and a simple hole in the ground was not very likely to contain the little vermin. Cremation, the great sterilizer, would be the cremationists’ next slogan. But it didn’t last long.

The interests of the economic-minded would carry the day both in terms of the environment and the economy, and that campaign agenda is with us to this day. Basically, the dirge goes: “Why allocate so much valuable land to the dead when the living can profit by it?” Land for the living! After all, as corporations like StoneMor can confirm, cemetery real estate and the real estate occupied by the cemeteries represents a vast fortune. Someone has to tap into it.

The countries of Europe afflicted with the spirit of rationalism had no problem dealing with cemeteries; they just overruled the Church and legislated that the state had ultimate control of the citizen in life and in death. The Church could fall back on canon law but ultimately had to acquiesce to the state’s overwhelming power, and so the cemeteries were secularized. Once secularized they were emptied and their occupants relegated to ossuaries or catacombs en masse, and anonymous in their tens, even hundreds of thousands. In many instances, their eviction from the cemeteries and relocation to the quarries was done under cover of night, in order not to offend the living or present an obstacle to commerce.

France was one of the first Western nations to desecrate consecrated ground and defile the dead.

In countries where the Church, Roman Catholic or mainstream Protestant dominated, the faithful were expected under established sanctions, to obey the doctrines of their faith. For most mainstream Christians, and for all Orthodox Jews and Muslims, cremation was an abomination, and burial in the earth or entombment were the only acceptable methods of sepulture. And so it remained until 1963, when the Roman Catholic Church relieved it’s ban on cremation and, while not encouraging cremation, did not censure those who opted for incineration as their preferred method of disposal. Upto then, those choosing cremation were pro forma classified as apostates, atheists, pagans, free-thinkers, or Masons.

The 1960’s was a decade of revolutionary reform in practically every aspect of life: politics, religion, morals, education, all of which ultimately found expression in attitudes towards life, death, dying and after-death.

Alkaline hydrolysis (AH)[6], aquamation[7], resomation[8], biocremation[9], call it whatever you like it all literally boils down [no pun intended] to taking a dead human body, placing it into a pressure cooker, adding water and chemicals, heating, cooking, draining, rinsing. The dissolved flesh and organic matter is then flushing into the sewer system. What is left is bones and any metallic or synthetic material in the body (artificial joints, pacemakers, sutures, etc.). The metal such as artificial joints etc. will be recycled or “repurposed.”  The bones will be dried and ground up into a sandlike powder and returned to the family or otherwise disposed of.

The actual patented process, alkaline hydrolysis (AH) is a process developed for waste disposal. “Waste disposal” is the actual term used in the patents. AH was developed for disposal of infectious or hazardous waste by dissolving it into a “safe and sanitary” end-product. In fact, the actual wording of one of the patents is: “it is an object of this invention to provide a system and method for safely treating and disposing of waste matter containing undesirable elements, such as infectious, biohazardous, hazardous, or radioactive elements or agents.”

AH was developed for dissolving, liquefying organic matter into a disposable liquid that can be recycled as a fertilizer or simply flushed down the drain. It’s actually a technology that was developed in the late 19th century for disposing of animal waste, and which was developed in the mid-20th century for disposal of farm slaughter waste and for elimination of medical school cadavers, is now being promoted as the new eco-friendly take on cremation. Alkaline hydrolysis a.k.a. water cremation a.k.a. biocremation —  in reality just using a Draino®-like chemical to dissolve the dead human body and flush the remaining human sludge down the drain into the public sewer system — is the new rage in technology. Some funeral homes in about 14 states, where the process is now legal in the United States are now offering it as an alternative to cremation. It’s disgusting and will be a hard sell, since it will be acceptable only to the really bizarre element out there. I hope to clarify some of the issues in this article.

 

 

This is not how human beings should be treating their dead.

Download the complete article here:
Dissolve and Flush_article draft


Notes

[1] See also History of Alkaline Hydrolysis by Joseph Wilson. Wilson is the chief executive officer of Bio-Response Solutions, one of the first companies involved in the industrialization and marketing of alkaline hydrolysis for the disposition of human bodies. Joseph H. Wilson, The History of Alkaline Hydrolysis, e-pub, September 2013, 3, http://www.goodfuneralguide.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/History-of-Alkaline-Hydrolysis.pdf last accessed on October 29, 2017). The original patent filed by A.H. Hobson, U.S. Patent No. 394982 (1888), describes the process as a “… process of treating bones, which consists in digesting the bones in an alkaline solution in the presence of heat, then separating and concentrating the solution, thereby forming glue, gelatine, or size, in then digesting the remaining hone in a strong alkaline solution, so as to completely dissolve the remaining nitrogenous matter, and bring-the same into a more readily assimilable form…” (Claim 2), and as “certain new and useful improvements in the treatment of bones and animal waste or refuse generally for the purpose of rendering the same more suited for fertilizing purposes, and for obtaining gelatine, glue, and size…” (https://docs.google.com/viewer?url=patentimages.storage.googleapis.com/pdfs/US394982.pdf last accessed on October 28, 2017).

[2] By way of precluding any possible suggestion of supercessionism, I would like to state from the outset that I am citing Roman Catholic writers in much of this discussion not because I am so biased but because I would rather use as my foundation a more systematized, mature, and stringent authority, which, if necessary can be attenuated or mollified mutatis mutandi in further arguments, rather than a more loose, liberal, or permissive approach as represented by the more progressive Protestant or post-Christian denominations. Although I practice as an interfaith chaplain, I am steeped in a more classical tradition than many of my contemporaries, and I ask that my readers take that subjective proclivity into consideration when reading my statements.

[3] Brann, Rev. H.A., DD, “Christian Burial and Cremation.” American Catholic Quarterly Review, Vol. X (Jan-Oct 1885). Philadelphia: Hardy & Mahony. p. 679. Reverend Brann provides a rather comprehensive background and discussion of Roman Catholic sources and thinking on cremation, which, in my reading, is remarkable in its tolerance, given the sociopolitical climate in which it was written (1885-6).

[4] De Civ. Dei Cap. XIII, p. 27, Vol. 41, Migne’s Patrologia.

[5] Desecration by scattering of one’s bones appears to be a thread running through much of ancient human history. Compare Sulla’s concern with the Biblical account (I Kings 31:12) of the incineration of the bodies of Saul and his sons to prevent desecration by the Philistines.

[6] US Patents 5,332,532, 6,437,211, 6,472,580, 7,183,453, 7,829,755, and U.S. Patent No. 7,910,788 (method).

[7] “Aquamation: A Greener Alternative to Cremation?” By Marina Kamenev/Sydney, Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2010 (http://content.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,2022206,00.html, last accessed on October 28, 2017)

[8] “Innovation in sustainable end of life choices” the slogan of the Scottish company Resomation®(http://resomation.com/, last accessed on October 28, 2017).

[9] “Biocremation. A Natural Choice.” (http://biocremationinfo.com/consumers/what-is-bio-cremation, last accessed on October 28, 2017)

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If you’re looking to put a face on the anti-Christ…


This is it!
Marc Zuckerberg, Founder of Facebook

Evil. Pure evil.

Facebook has destroyed human relationships, has created an idolatry that is unsurpassed in human history, has created more addicts than was ever imaginable. If the zombie generation of films can be called prophetical, they prophesied Facebook and it’s effects on what was once human. This anti-Christ has destroyed the minds of the masses, now he’s aiming for the intelligentsia.

Publishers might have to start paying Facebook if they want anyone to see their stories

You, your kids, the government, the churches have handed him POWER; he want’s absolute power. You and your children are Facebook and “social media” addicts, and like all addicts you are not aware of the fact of your addiction, and when told you are addicted, you deny your addiction. True?

Zuckerberg has taken your minds, now he wants your souls, the very essence of your humanity. Government and church have abandoned you, won’t you defend yourselves?

Evil. Pure evil.


Has the Church sold out to secularism, liberalism, unitarianism, inclusivism?


Interfaith Pastoral Care. Just what is it? Interfaith pastoral care is a hard nut to crack when a client actually is interested enough to ask the question., “What is interfaith?”

Is this reality? Even possible? Honestly.[1]

Some have suggested that we change, broaden our terminology to “interbelief” but I don’t really think that changes a thing; in fact, I think it complicates the conversation even more than “interfaith” does. It gets even worse when the innovators come up with a term like “interpath” care. It soon becomes so turbulent that it becomes obfuscating; it becomes an idiotic dialogue of nonsense.

The Office for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the Archdiocese of Chicago (RC) defines “the difference between ecumenical, interfaith, and interreligious relations”, as follows:

  • “Ecumenical” as “relations and prayer with other Christians”,
  • “Interfaith” as “relations with members of the ‘Abrahamic faiths’ (Jewish and Muslim traditions),” and
  • “Interreligious” as “relations with other religions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism”.[2]

[Aside: Some proponents of interfaith whatever have adopted the name “interbelief,” “interpath”; how far do we stretch “interfaith” before it becomes “intercultural”?]

In such places like the Public Religion Research Institute[3], we can examples of the glaring misinformation and mixed messages concocted by “interfaith dialogue” proponents can be found in the short article, “How Religious Affiliation and Attendance Influence Likelihood of Divorce.” [4] Here’s an extract from that article:

“A new study released in the American Journal of Sociology finds that “conservative religious beliefs and the social institutions they create, on balance, decrease marital stability.” The study’s authors note that by discouraging pre-marital sex and cohabitation outside of marriage, conservative religious institutions inadvertently increase the likelihood of divorce. However, Professor Charles Stokes, in reviewing the research, notes that couples who are embedded in religious communities tend to have lower divorce rates regardless of their theology.”

Excuse me, but isn’t that a contradiction? Or a glaring error in the American Journal of Sociology when it reports a misinterpretation of the published data. Isn’t the Am Jour Soc a peer-reviewed journal or at least an edited journal? The same article reports:

“In an effort be more inclusive of atheists, the St. Paul Interfaith Network has changed the name of its monthly community meeting to “Inter-belief Conversation Café.” In the Midwest, 2 percent of people identify as atheists.” [my emphasis]

Inclusivism = Universalism = Sentimentalism

Why can’t we just be people of faith and let the atheists be people of unfaith? 

I think that’s pushing the notion of liberal secularism and sentimentalism a.k.a. “inclusivism” right over the edge into oblivion. Forgive me, for I have “ismed” again! In articles appearing on sites with catchy names like, “The Friendly Atheist“, we read lines like: “I’ve heard atheists say something like, Atheism isn’t a faith, so “interfaith” excludes us by definition.” in articles with equally catchy — at least for atheists — titles like, “Minnesota Interfaith Group Changes Its Name to Become More Inclusive of Atheists.” Nothing like letting words and definitions govern your ethics!.[5] Why can’t we just be people of faith and let the atheists be people of unfaith?

We have all became amoral meandering idiots!

So even the atheists are claiming a piece of “interfaith,” though on somewhat shakier grounds, and on condition that you change your group’s name. In articles appearing on sites with catchy names like, “The Friendly Atheist“, and where we read lines like: “I’ve heard atheists say something like, Atheism isn’t a faith, so “interfaith” excludes us by definition.”[6] So what? In articles with equally catchy — at least for atheists — titles like, “Minnesota Interfaith Group Changes Its Name to Become More Inclusive of Atheists“—all 2% of them. Nothing like letting words and definitions govern your ethics! Girls using boys’ toilets, boys using girls’ toilets, women clergy, girl boyscouts. Where does it all end? Segregation became diversity; diversity became indiviudalism; we have all became amoral meandering idiots!

And the  St Paul Pioneer Press  while other proponents have proposed the term interpath dialogue. It seems that these groups are making a radical departure from what we know as “faith” to honor impossible inclusiveness while losing all focus and credibility. These groups are making the attempt to include or at least to avoid excluding atheists, agnostics, humanists, and such with no religious faith in traditional terms but who espouse ethical or philosophical credos.

What we now call post-modern or post-Christian might as well be called post-mortem; we can dilute the doctrines and dogmas (Truth) of world faith and belief communities to the point of losing all tradition and with it all sense of identity; we have lost sight of the fact that unity implies otherness and otherness implies identity.

Another example of how the concept of interfaith can derail and alchemically transmutate into a bastard creature of so-called religion-turned-social-program is the  About Interfaith IMPACT of New York State. (We have no idea why the “IMPACT” is uppercase.) According to their website,

“IINYS consists of congregations, clergy and individuals from progressive Protestant, Reform Jewish, Unitarian Universalist and other faith traditions. Together we work for the common good through progressive religious advocacy.  The interfaith Impact of New York State Foundation, Inc. is a charitable organization. Its mission is to Inform and encourage progressive faith based participation in public dialogue.”[7]

One of IINYS’s stated missions is to ensure a separation of Church and state but a closer reading of what their activities include is a direct contradiction of any separation and has nothing to do with any faith with which I am familiar. Key to understanding what interfaith in the IINYS is the word “progressive.” What this means is “secularization,” social “justice” programming (socialism), and is deeply imbedded in “state” (= government) activity and operations. Of course, you won’t find any mainstream faith or belief traditions represented on the “Reform” and “Universalist” board membership, because mainstream faith or belief traditions have clear and unambiguous statutes and doctrines, not an agenda of political activity clothed in smoke and mirror deception, and a blurring of the black letter of the Separation Clause. And that’s just one example of how “interfaith” is being marketed.

IINYS succeeds not only in confusing any coherent impression that the term “interfaith” may have implied by conflating “moral values” with “social programs,” a gaffe that distracts significantly, among other things, from the organization’s alleged principles, which should not come as a surprise given the intimate, almost incestuous relationship IINYS has with the profane state government of New York, itself in a state of disinformation and secular humanist and liberal materialism. Interfaith is equated with unabashed sentimentalism.

IINYS’s case gets even worse: the IINYS actually uses a P.O. box at the New York State Capitol to receive mail! Now that’s what I call Church-state separation.

They’ve pirated the word but killed the concept.

Another example of the perversion of the faith part of “interfaith” would be the Interfaith Medical Center of Brooklyn, New York. The only faith at IMCB would be faith in the idolatry of medical capitalism and market economy. Unfortunately, at this writing IMCB’s mission statement was “under construction.” They’re probably having a real tough time justifying the interfaith part of what appears to be an enterprise healthcare facility attempting to cater to the needs of a multiethnic community. So why not just say so and leave “interfaith” out of the game? Because “interfaith” means nothing but looks really good. Smoke and mirrors. They’ve pirated the word but killed the concept.

One thing is very clear: there has been no peace between human beings since the Tower of Babel because we all are speaking different languages; even when we’re speaking the same language, we don’t understand one another. There’s no need to imagine the catastrophic confusion that comes about when we attempt to use language to define or to discuss the ineffable, the transcendent like the mysteries of life, death or faith or belief in a transcendent state or spirituality. Imagine that when we have such difficulty distinguishing between religion and spirituality at all!

While I personally reject the alleged definitions of “interfaith” anything, I do understand the thought behind it and the problems of rendering “inter-“ anything intelligible to the point of being useful or implementable. Here are a couple that may help us to get our arms around the notion of what really should have stayed under the rubric of “tolerance.”

As a psychospiritual care provider, I have to confront this problem on a regular basis when I have people telling me, “She wasn’t religious at all.” But then they go on to tell me how she believed in God and in an existence after death; where my conversation partner tells me that she, the deceased, is now in heaven with her beloved spouse. Or “We want a spiritual service, not a religious service.” What do you mean spiritual but not religious? Now the great silence starts and I recognize that my dialogue partner doesn’t know what the difference is; in fact, she’s embarrassed and I have to save her now.

This becomes a particularly acute situation when I am facilitating a family conference for arranging a funeral or memorial service. During this conference I have to chop through suspicion, confusion, defensiveness, family secrecies, and so much more to establish a relationship of trust and authenticity in just a few sentences. I have to learn enough about a person, his or her family relationships, community involvements, likes and dislikes, habits and idiosyncrasies, end-of-life circumstances, and I have to do this without traumatizing my conversation partners or offending sometimes unspoken sensitivities. They didn’t each this sort of thing at my seminary institute, and they didn’t help very much in my many hours of Clinical Pastoral Education in a major trauma center, or in the nursing home or in the parish where I did my pastoral formation. My guess is that most of my instructors and mentors didn’t have a clue outside of what they were able to find in somebody’s book on the subject and what we brought to the table ourselves. At this point in my career-vocation, I can see why it’s something that you can’t just each or get from any textbook, because the lessons to be learned are as diverse as the individuals and families we, as pastoral care providers and psychospiritual guides are called to serve.

In fact, having written the term “pastoral care” I even balk at using that term because not all of the sufferers I companion think of themselves as animals, sheep, who require a pastor, a shepherd. Since we are finding ourselves increasingly faced with practically unlettered clients, clients who don’t read and who never were taught reading and writing skills, who tend to communicated in a few syllables or in emoticons, we, too, have had to develop second language skills, so-to-speak, and I don’t mean only in our liturgical, ritual, and Scriptural language, but in the language we use in the professional milieu and that we use in the care-giving milieu. This distinction does not discriminate between the lower socioeconomic or socioethinic groups but applies equally well to the so-called “educated” and techosavvy groups, who are just as language-challenged as a newly arrived immigrant but less likely to admit the importance of learning the language.

Furthermore, in strict terms, I’m not a pastor at all because I don’t have a fixed parish or congregation, so I’m not providing “pastoral” care as such. In fact, there are very few pastors who are called to do what I do and have to do in my vocation. Normally, a pastor has a congregation with whom he, nowadays also she, is in theory expected to be intimately familiar on an individual basis.  But we all know that today, just about every faith and belief community has succumbed to the post-modern sentimental hypocrisy of the happy-clappy social club, insincere hugging orgies, and idiotic grinning clubs we today call congregations. Or, even worse, the entertainment events in the guise of worship now offered by the megachurches springing up all over the place. Well, they’re cheaper than a ticket to a country western concert and the cappuccino at the java bar is pretty good, too, and cheaper than Starbucks. Music’s pretty cool, too. Maybe God will even show up one of these Sundays! Meanwhile, the show of raised armpits, gibberish cries of ecstasy and the Guinness Book of Records breaker show of hairy armpits will go on…and on. Thank you, Vatican II! Thank you, Facebook! Thank you, Beelzebub!

In recent years, I have found that I am providing a form of psychotherapy as well as spiritual guidance, so I more often than not will use the term psychospiritual care provider. It seems to come closer to what I really do, and doesn’t get the discussion bogged down in a quagmire of denominations, faith communities, belief traditions or spiritual path distinctions. Once we get past the icebreaking and the initial disclosure process, we are in a better position to explore religion and spirituality without treading on eggs.

Meanwhile, back in the conference room, we are sitting with the husband, the three daughters and the two sons of a woman recently dead, and we need to put together a chapel service and a graveside interment service the Saturday morning, two days hence. The funeral director has the easy job of prepping and embalming the body, dressing her, and doing her cosmetics, so that she is Barbie-doll presentable in her lovely imitation mahogany eternity capsule. The FD has the easy part, the dead don’t get defensive; they’re good listeners and don’t talk much.

“So, tell me a little about your mom,” or so the conversation starts.  “Well, I don’t really know where to start. What do you think, dad?” Now dad’s in the hot seat and hasn’t got a clue what the question is. So we start over again, this time I’m trying to recall the scanty information that the FD provided during our initial conversation about the case. And so I move on, now in reverse mode: “What kind of service did you have in mind to celebrate your mom’s, your wife’s life?” Here’s where we get right down to the nitty-gritty: religious, spiritual, non-religious/secular, humanistic (no religion). Mr. FD tells me that your mom’s records show that she declared herself to be Roman Catholic. The daughter-in-charge looks a bit dazed, “She did? Was mom Catholic, dad?” Dad puts on a sheepish look, “Yeah. We

both were. We got married in church and we had you kids baptized, too.” One thought rolls over my mind: “OMG! Just let them talk this one out.” Once they are done doing their own interviews, I can interject with, “It seems your mom did have a religious preference and that she had a faith tradition. You may be surprised but I have had situations like this many times where a parent or a grandparent gets so involved with caring for their family, that there’s just no time on Sundays to pack everyone up and march to church, and so the “religion” moves from the church to the heart. That’s not a bad thing. So I’m not surprised that your mom was busy being a good mom and a loving wife, and managed to keep her religion in her heart and worship there. That’s a beautiful thing. Don’t you think?” In unison: “Yeah. You’re right!”

And so we move past that hurdle, and we have something to hold on to. I have a starting point and the family has a very viable option, the service will be a religious service, but not “too” Catholic, because we don’t go to church and the kids won’t sit still through a lot of prayers. The conversation and sharing goes on beautifully from that point on, once a “major” question has been negotiated.

 

 

But what about the non-religious, or the so-called “quilted family system,” in which you have a mix of non-believers, and believers including the odd Buddhist, the Jew, the Presbyterian, the Evangelicals, Baptists and the de rigueur generic “Christians?” Is this interfaith, interbelief, or interpath? My categorical answer is: Yes. But it’s likely to be non-religious if it’s any of these.

You see, it’s hypersimplistic to presume to take any collection of denominations or traditions and call it by any name, let alone be crazy enough to think that you can properly address and avoid offending any or all of the traditions in the assembly. To be very honest, there are today so many flavors of Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism, Episcopalianism, etc.  Forgive me! for I have ismed.

The truth is that you can provide a service only along the lines of a single tradition – or no tradition — and, if you are not a listener or not well-trained, you run a risk of adoring adulation from some and condemnation as a heretic by others in the same group. The attempt to please all is doomed to please none.

This is because most institutionalized, mainstream denominations simply do not properly train or supervise their clergy – so as not to offend them or in order to allow the clergy to take the odd doctrinal or dogmatic detours to ensure that he or she keeps the pews filled and the collections abundant – so you can go to one service on one Sunday and hear one teaching and the next Sunday go to another worship service and get another take on the Gospel. Neither do the clergy properly and honestly form and educate their constituents; that’s why Christians are so diverse and so critical of and cruel to one another, while preaching some sort of love. Most tend to go where you have a preacher who says what they want to hear; once-a-week worship becomes a happy-clappy hypocritical quest for affirmation and acknowledgement. Orthodox doctrine is a thing of the past; institutionalized religion, the mainstream religions, like any institution are self-serving and self-preserving; it’s a market economy with hymns and incense. It’s ice-cream religion, vanilla or any flavor you’d like.

Meanwhile back at the funeral home, we’re just finishing up and have decided on a chapel service that will be based on the Rite of Christian Burial that will include Roman Catholic liturgical elements, even candles, holy water and incense, but will include some secular poetry readings, and a couple of “Protestant” hymns. The graveside service will be prayerful, moving and tearful. The family’s happy, the FD is over the moon, and I have my doubts.

On the way back to my office I’m pondering, “How am I going to pull this off, and still be able to have dinner with myself again?” That may have been a reason for considering self-harm years ago but today it’s just a pro forma start to “designing” a custom and personalized service we now call the “Celebration of Life,” rather than a funeral ritual.

It’s here that years of study, continuing education, lots of extradisciplinary study, interpersonal skills, creativity, and a lot of help from something I refer to as the Holy Spirit gets us all over the hump rather than in the dump.

In ministering to suffering in general and to those confronting an end-of-life process, death, and the rite of passage from ante-mortem to post-mortem life, we are forced to recognize the indisputable fact that suffering if anything,  while being a common thread running through all of humankind, is inextricably individual; the pain of bereavement is totally one’s own experience, each individual experiences it differently, and any attempt to provide an “inter-anything” type of psychospiritual care is a deplorable fake.

At some time after our birth we are presented to the community in a rite of passage ritual called “naming;” naming explicitly announces to the cosmos that here we have an individual, an “other,” who, for the purposes of distinction shall be called “Baby Doe.” Different cultures will ascribe different duties and responsibilities and different degrees of separateness of the new member but that new member is almost universally recognized as an “other.” Accordingly, the cookie-cutter funeralization rites and rituals of various faith and belief traditions, while they may at one point or another recognize the individual by mentioning his or her name, the overall presumption is that the departed one has indeed departed the community and, upon final disposition of the mortal remains, is no longer. Thank you, Dr Freud!

But this is as far from health reality as we can get. We have to reach back into our own history and bring back the family involvement, the maintenance of important connections with our dead; we have to learn from other traditions how to continue those bonds and how to grow with them.

A clergyperson who doesn’t hone the importance of acknowledging the “other,” the named one, the uniqueness of the deceased, and who doesn’t include the family to the maximum extent possible in the rites of funeralization, is shortchanging the deceased and the mourners! Continuing bonds with the dead is an intimate, personal necessity and not one in which church or community should be dominant; the annual memorial mass is one example of superficiality and ecclesial control. By far more effective is to light a candle at a holiday gathering or to light a candle on a special occasion, honoring the presence and memory of a dead loved one, or even the community of dead loved ones. Perhaps even observing a moment of silent reflection when the family gathers.

The Agape Meal

The early Church started in private homes in the family circle; for centuries it continued and evolved in the warmth and intimacy of private homes, the early house churches; this had less to do with persecution than with the Jewish Sabbath tradition and the primordial agapé meal! But then, the early organizers got together to set the rules and to enforce some control over the various “churches” as they were called in the different faith communities. Gradually, faith moved out of the family circle, out of the home, into the community assembly space, out of the core of the individual human being, until today, it has practically moved out completely. The lights are on but nobody’s home. We are the janitors of the soul, the concierges of the refuge; when we get the call, we prepare the place.

Faith, religious belief, spirituality still maintains an address in the human soul and still receives mail there; our job as clergy, ministers, chaplains, psychospiritual care providers have to keep that abode open, accessible and welcoming for the time when the prodigal has to return, open the mail, and pay the bills. All suffering, all grief, all healing, all transformation is addressed personally to the individual; all care has to do the same: it must be individual, or at least the individual must be provided with the tools so that they can do the DIY repair and maintenance.

Creating new labels for negligence or indifference or continuing cookie-cutter rituals is an affront to any concept of ministry, to any concept of community. We need to stop being narcissistically creative and start being humbly serving.

If we are going to allow any notion of “inter” to enter our lives, our praxis, our ministries, and from there into the lives of those who look to us for guidance, we are going to have to recognize and accept the fact that our churches, our faith and belief communities have become institutions and, like any profane or secular institution are governed by self-interest and self-preservation, all else playing a lesser role.  As a psychospiritual care provider it is my duty and obligation first to be tolerant and to recognize that it is arrogant to claim and impossible to be “interfaith,” “interreligious,” “interpath,” “interbelief,” and to claim to be any of these is to announce being nothing at all. Best to be wholly tolerant and wholly compliant with the explicit wishes of the deceased but even more so with those of the living, obviously, and to be guided by good and prudent discernment of the content of the sharing during the family conference.

The rites and rituals of funeralization should transform the dead into fonts of meaningful legacy and provide the living with psychospiritual nourishment and the opportunity for growth; this requires deep listening, sensitivity, creativity, humility, compassion, and patience. Ours is a vocation, not a job, that’s why the FD or some funeral home dilettante should not, must not be put in the position of providing psychospiritual care as a funeral or memorial officiant. Doing so simply makes the statement either that the funeral director or the funeral home does not know its limitations or boundaries, or that they simply are indifferent to the harm they can do by providing care outside of their competence, or both. Offering quick fixes like direct burial or direct cremation are careless and insensitive alternatives to providing the care and attention necessary for healing grief work and transformational mourning; even direct disposition services should offer, promote and encourage the services of a professional bereavement chaplain, even if it’s only to meet with the survivors in an informal environment and simply chat; the chaplain will know how to steer the sharing.

Epilogue

It’s astounding how few FDs actually make it a point to offer or even mention chaplain services. It’s even more disappointing to have to admit that most clergy never have a pre-funeral or pre-memorial meeting with the family to discuss the rites and rituals and why things are being done a certain way. Even fewer enlist the family’s participation in the actual service. This is a travesty of deathcare services both by the FD and by so called clergy. We owe the dead, the bereaved, mourners in general better treatment than this, especially if we are receiving a fee or a stipend to provide psychospiritual care!

In this article I have used the word sentimental and its derivatives but have not really defined it as I am using it. I owe you, my patient reader, the fairness of a definition. Sentimentality is fooling yourself into thinking there are easy answers. Sentimentality gives free rein to rank simplification, excessive feeling, particularly emotions, that have no place in actuality Sentimentality is a form of defense, a self-deception just like denial, and is used in order to avoid acknowledging more painful emotions, particularly anger, shame or guilt. So what would I propose to you as the opposite of sentimentality? My reasoned suggestion of an antonym for the term “sentimentality” would be “mature realism.” Mature realism Mature realism steering clear of cheap idealization just as we would steer clear of cheap grace; such realism requires the courage to examine the good and bad of everything, and further demands that we to search beyond the superficiality of our own emotions, motives and those of others that mislead us to think that there are easy answers to complex problems.[8]

Rev. Ch. Harold Vadney MDiv
Bereavement Chaplain/Thanatologist

 


[1]DAVOS-KLOSTERS/SWITZERLAND, 30JAN09 – Lord Carey of Clifton (VLTR), Archbishop of Canterbury (1991-2002), United Kingdom, Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, United Kingdom, Mustafa Ceric, Grand Mufti of Bosnia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Jim Wallis, Editor-in-Chief and Chief Executive Officer, Sojournes, USA, , captured at the press conference ‘Religious leaders call for the peace in the middle east’ at the Annual Meeting 2009 of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, January 30, 2009. ©World Economic Forum. swiss-image.ch/Photo by Andy Mettler.
[2] Source: Archdiocese of Chicago (http://legacy.archchicago.org/departments/ecumenical/Relations.htm, last accessed on October 22, 2017)

[3] The Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) describes itself as “”… a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to research at the intersection of religion, values, and public life…PRRI’s mission is to help journalists, opinion leaders, scholars, clergy, and the general public better understand debates on public policy issues and the role of religion and values in American public life by conducting high quality public opinion surveys and qualitative research”

[4] “How Religious Affiliation and Attendance Influence Likelihood of Divorce.” (https://web.archive.org/web/20160202185558/http://publicreligion.org/2014/07/the-morning-buzz-how-religious-affiliation-and-attendance-influence-likelihood-of-divorce/ last accessed on October 24, 2017)

[5] “Minnesota Interfaith Group Changes Its Name to Become More Inclusive of Atheists” (

[6] “St. Paul’s atheists are coming out of the closet” (http://legacy.archchicago.org/departments/ecumenical/Relations.htm, last accessed on October 24, 2017).

[7] Interfaith IMPACT of New York State (www.interfaithimpactnys.org, last accessed on October 24, 2017).

[8] I would strongly recommend the book Faking It by Digby Anderson. In that 1998 book Anderson and contributors present a scathing assessment of sentimentality in most of today’s institutions of modern culture. (Anderson, D., P. Mullen, Faking it:  (1998) The sentimentalization of modern society. London: St Edmundsbury Press.)


Message to Kirsten Gillibrand: Stop sending the message enabling personal depravity!


Republished with Permission, unedited, from the Smalbany Blog.

The opinions expressed in the article do not necessarily represent those of this blog; we do, however, appreciate the underlying principle of the author and his/her condemnation of Gillibrand’s fundamental evil and hypocrisy.

We have done our usual fact checking and find that the quotes and the emails are factual, as are the definitions and other references cited by the article’s author.


In our recent article, Kirsten Gillibrand is a Spammer, in which we blast the biatch for her onslaught of incessant bitching emails we were, and still are, finding in our e-mailbox, we suggested that “it’s election time” and that Gillibrand, like a cockroach, has come out of the woodwork. We were right, as most of you already know, she’s revving up her hormones for the 2018 election.

It’s disgusting how careless and stupid Kirsten Gillibrand can be. She doesn’t even know the difference between contraception and birth control; they’re very, very different, Ms Senator from New York. You have so much to say about the subject and women’s rights to make decisions about their bodies but you don’t even know what you’re talking about. What’s even more tragic and disgusting is that most of the women you’re talking about don’t know either! We are in favor and wholly support informed decision making. Unlike you, Ms Gillibrand!

We’d like to help educate our U.S. Senator from New York, the alleged woman, Kirsten Gillibrand. Here are some basic definitions you should learn, Ms Gillibrand:

Basically, contraception is technically “birth control” because if you prevent preventing the male’s sperm from meeting with the female’s egg you prevent pregnancy. No pregnancy, no birth. Contraception prevents pregnancy by interfering with the normal process of ovulation, fertilization, and implantation. There are different kinds of birth control that act at different points in the process, including: moral decision making ability, abstinence, the “pill”, condoms, diaphragm, IUDs, Norplant, tubal sterilization, spermicides, vasectomy.Basically, contraception is technically “birth control” because if you prevent preventing the male’s sperm from meeting with the female’s egg you prevent pregnancy. No pregnancy, no birth. Contraception prevents pregnancy by interfering with the normal process of ovulation, fertilization, and implantation. There are different kinds of birth control that act at different points in the process, including: moral decision making ability, abstinence, the “pill”, condoms, diaphragm, IUDs, Norplant, tubal sterilization, spermicides, vasectomy.

Birth control is more specifically defined as control of the number of children born especially by preventing or lessening the frequency of conception, preventing gestation (contragestation) or pregnancy after the egg and sperm meet, or the various forms of abortion. Generally technically, birth control is preventing the fetus from being born by killing it at some stage in its development, up to and even after it is full-term and partially out of the womb!

Is Kirsten Gillibrand a man in drag?
Gillibrand doesn’t respect women; she just want’s a cheap vote.

On October 8, 2017, Kirsten Gilibrand proves she’s got her head deep in her panties (if she wears any). She writes to her ignorant, irresponsible, dumbass supporters:

You need to see this news: Republicans in the House of Representatives just passed a ban on abortion after 20 weeks. Now, this disastrous bill is heading for the Senate – and the White House has said it “strongly supports” it!

This is a 20-week human being.
Kirsten Gillibrand wants to kill it.

Click here to read a truthful article, “This Baby is the Face of 18,000 Unborn Babies the 20-Week Abortion Ban Would Save Every Year,” about the 20-week abortionists, the one’s like Kirsten Gilibrand who want to kill babies.

And so do all people of values, people of faith, people of morals. Yes, even some Democrats, Kirsten. Beneath your message of diabolical scam concern for women, you’re hiding the pitch for money for your re-election campaign! Deceitful trollop!

“Really?! Instead of acting on gun safety, hurricane relief for Puerto Rico or any of the dozens of things we could do to actually help people, Republicans made THIS a priority? It’s unbelievable, and it’s downright dangerous.”

Excuse me! Uh, but are you suggesting that government should pass legislation banning guns or “gun safety,” as you so deceitfully put it, and punish the law-abiding majority for the actions of a tiny handful of lunatics or criminals”? That’s the Democrat way, isn’t it, Kirsten?  Or sure, Congress should pass legislation controlling the weather, and prevent hurricanes! The U.S. government has already crippled Puerto Rico by removing from the people any notion of self-respect by depriving them of any initiative. Part of the Puerto Rican debacle is your doing, Ms Gillibrand! Now you want to hand decision-making power to the ignorant, unwashed, and immoral. Yeah, Kirsten,— like affirmative action was a great idea —  we’ve got plenty of money to support more idiotic government failures. And pigs have wings!

She’s desperately trying to confuse issues and misinform her e-mail victims by attacking anything and everything going on in Washinton and in the country, following her diatribes with a pitch to send her money to support her campaign(s). Don’t fall for it. She likes her power and her tush in a cushy senate office, where she can pose and putz, acting out her despicable narcissism.

Her latest e-mail (October 9, 2017) s the most disgusting, in which she writes:

Republicans’ desire to impose their beliefs on what women can do with our own bodies is astounding and never-ending. But I have news for them: Women will NEVER stop fighting to make our own decisions for our own bodies.

Kirsten Gillibrand is sending a message that we’d expect from some sex-starved adolescent. “Let’s be have our fun! You may get pregnant but Kirsten will fund killing the baby for us. We don’t have to think. We’re covered. Let’s f**k!”

You stupid cow, Gillibrand! It’s not just Republicans, it’s people of faith, anyone with any morals and a sense of decency who want to stop the reckless and wanton irresponsible promiscuity of the poorly educated, badly informed, unparented, liberal breeding sows out there who can’t or won’t say NO! Stop promoting the liberal materialistic consumerism that keeps you in office and start promoting family and family values, parenting, schools and teachers interested in teaching and not focusing only union politics and their pensions!!!

Gillibrand’s plan for our young women!
Act like pigs and dogs.
Gillibrand’s plan will pay when you play.

You stupid cow, Gillibrand! You miss the point! The point is that when your stupid breeding sows don’t have the brains or are too drunk to wake up and say NO! to unprotected sex, that’s when someone else has to make the decisions for them: Keep your legs closed! That’s the decision you should be making with your body! Let me repeat: Say NO! and Keep your legs together! That’s pretty simple.

Your party, Ms Gillibrand, the liberal Democrap party, has destroyed the center of morality and education with your myriad failed so-called social justice programs; you and your Democrap party have destroyed the foundation of anything that used to be good in America, the family!!!

Yeah! You got it, Kirsten. Just cross your legs!
Why not wear a shorter skirt while you’re at it? Don’t you have any sense of modesty, dignity?

You stupid cow, Gillibrand! Say it outright! You want our daughters and sisters to be out there acting like whores, prostituting themselves for a drink or a meal, or just being stray dogs and humping any bastard that staggers into their loose embrace. Right, Kirsten? What you want is government funded promiscuity and forget the responsibility that goes along with the decision-making. Right, Kirsten? What you want is a good f**k any time, anywhere, anybody, and when things go wrong, you want a quick fix. Contraception. Birth control. Abortion.


You stupid liberal Democrat cow, Kirsten Gillibrand! Your political dirt is showing on your soiled immoral panties, again. If you missed it the first time, let us repeat it for you: It’s not only Republicans who demand that women act responsibly and morally, it’s people of faith, and all moral persons. We say if you want decision-making power, you have to be a responsible citizen. But you, Kirsten Gillibrand, probably wouldn’t understand that word, “responsibility.”

Gillibrand’s Message:
Trick for a Treat!

Now, let us anticipate the liberals’ response to our demand for women’s responsibility and moral behavior: But what about the male? OK. What about the male? You dress like a slut, you’re going to be treated like a slut. Get with the program. You act like a dog in heat, you’ll be treated like a dog in heat. Get a grip. You act like you have self-respect, you’re likely to get respect from others. Get your act straight.

Just say NO!
Say NO! to Kirsten Gillibrand!

The Editor

 


A Bit of History and Thoughts on the Holy Icon


A Bit of History and Thoughts on the Holy Icon

In the western Rome, Christian art first appeared in the catacombs, subterranean tunnels and niches hewn out of rock, and serving as burial vaults and tombs and funerary spaces up to the about the 6th century C.E., by which time they were being used almost exclusively for martyrs’ burial.

From the earliest times, the art of the catacombs was a teaching art. When Christianity was no longer a persecuted sect and was elevated to the status not only of legality but as the state religion, Christian art left the catacombs as did the overtly pagan symbols and moved rapidly and vigorously into becoming a unique genre, an authentic form of expression but not without substantial syncretism. After the victory of Emperor Constantine over Maxentius in 312, Christianity was officially recognized as a state religion. With emperors now joining Christianity, it led to massive conversions and consequently not only to diversification but also syncretism.

The tradition of funerary portraiture dates back to the ancient Egyptians, and some of the most exemplar and well-preserved “mummy” paintings are the Fayum tomb portraits. The Fayum mortuary portraits are dated collectively to the period AD 70-250 and went through a number of stylistic developments; they are hauntingly realistic in their detail as can be seen in the portrait of the young woman, which is striking in its naturalistic detail, especially the large, doe-like eyes which seem to draw the gaze into the portrait.

A bit of history might help to understand the unique place of the icon in Eastern Orthodox Christianity.

Byzantium was the crossroad between East and West, and included almost the entire Mediterranean basin. In the 330 C.E. Constantinople, the City of Constantine, became the imperial capital, the New Rome, the Rome of the East. In the centuries that follow it was to become the holy city that harmonized the profane with the sacred. In the 4th Century we find that Christ is no longer portrayed as a philosopher, but as the Master of the Universe, the Omnipotent One, Pantocrator; a new and strong bond is now being formed between the imperial state, particularly the Emperors and Empresses and the eastern Church.

One of the visions of Justinian I (527-565), the last of the great Roman emperors, was to achieve political and religious unity in the Empire. His reign was called “The Golden Age;” it was an epoch of exuberant spirituality and extraordinary artistic genius.

Rising from the ruins of the Western Roman Empire, Byzantium was itself the Eastern Roman Empire, and Constantinople was to become known as the Second Rome, the Rome of the East. Byzantine society and culture was closely associated with ancient Greece, and the Byzantine language was closest to classical and post-classical Greek. This linguistic kinship made the literature of classical Greece, of the Hellenistic world, and the writings of the Fathers of the Church  accessible to the Byzantines, and through these literatures, they internalized and adapted the ideas and the values it espoused.

Some of the greatest works of art of Byzantium[1] was literally and figuratively monumental, and is perhaps best recognized in the great architectural masterpieces, such as the churches of Saint Sophia, Saint Irene and Saints Sergius and Bacchus in Constantinople; these date from the middle of the 6th Century, and are attributed to the Emperor Justinian and his wife Theodora. On the other side of the Mediterranean basin, in Ravenna, Italy we find the most impressive series of mural mosaics dating from the 5th and 6th Centuries. A characteristic art form involved encaustic, a method using melted wax in which coloring pigments are mixed.

Minas of Alexandria Martyr, encaustic painting.

Under the emperor  Maurice (r. 582–602) the empire experienced some expansion until his assassination and the ensuing Byzantine–Sasanian War of 602–628, which exhausted the Empire’s resources and led to the substantial territorial losses during the Muslim incursions of the seventh century. In a matter of years the Empire lost its richest provinces, Egypt and Syria, to the Muslim conquers.

Thus, by the 7th Century Egypt and Syria no longer counted as part of the Byzantine Empire, and this period could accurately be baptized the dark ages of the Byzantine era, a period. The dark cloud till hover over the empire for almost two centuries: from the time of the Emperor Heracles (611 to 641) to Emperor Justinian II (685 to 711), a period of fierce wars against Islam, the Slavs and the Bulgarians, with various periods of ascendance and decline.

In the wake of the epoch of darkness, yet another crisis would test Byzantium: two iconoclastic periods mark both the history and life of the empire and of the Eastern Church. The first period of condemnation of icons as symbols of idolatry started with the reign of Emperor Leo III, or Leo Isaurian (717-741). Rejecting any depiction or portraiture of Christ and His saints, Emperor Leo III felt that such images should not be objects of veneration. The Council of 754 which convened in Hiereia, near Constantinople, agreed to a formal condemnation of the cult of icons. It denied that the mystery of Christ included both His divinity and humanity. In essence, iconoclasm was an attack on the Incarnation. During the iconoclast period painting as an art form was never completely abandoned;  the exception was sacred art. While the iconoclasts were desecrating and destroying sacred art their adversaries the iconodules (from Neoclassical Greek εἰκονόδουλος, “one who serves images”; also iconodulist or iconophile) were busy destroying and defacing their adversaries’ art. This internecine culture-ware continued until the arrival on the scene of two successors to the imperial throne after Leo III, Constantine (780-797) and Irene (797-802) who, guided by Patriarch Tarasius, convened the Second Council of Nicea, in 787 — more precisely, the Seventh Ecumenical Council — where the iconodules successfully defended the cult of the icons and their victory prompted the restoration of the cult.

The Church was thrown once again into disarray when Emperor Leo the Armenian (813-820) ascended the imperial throne, giving rise to the second wave persecution of the holy images. Leo was succeeded by Michael Amorias, who in turn was succeeded by Theophilus (829-842). With the help of Patriarch Antony I Kassymatas Theophilus resurrected iconoclasm by prohibiting all painted images, and any aid to iconodules. After his death in 842, his wife Theodora served as regent for their son Michael III. She was a devout iconophile, faithfully venerating icons despite the disapproval of the late emperor, her husband. Theodora arranged the release from prison of the painter Lazarus (Lazarus Zographos; a 9th-century Byzantine Christian saint), and in 843 she consented to the restoration of the icons.

The Empress Theodora is alleged to have said:

“If for love’s sake, anyone does not kiss and venerate these images in a relative manner, not worshiping them as gods but as images of their archetypes, let him be anathema!”

Theodora is commemorated for her role in the triumph of Orthodoxy, and is commemorated on March 11(the First Sunday in Great Lent). To this day, the First Sunday in Great Lent is dedicated to the restoration of the holy icons by Emperor Michael III and his mother Theodora, and the triumph of Orthodoxy over the heresies iconoclasm.

St John of Damascus

St. John of Damascus is the Orthodox theologian who is most credited with defending the use of icons in Christian contemplation, prayer and liturgical practice. In his treatise “On the Divine Images” he writes:

“If we’ve made an image of the invisible God, we would certainly be in error… but we do not do anything of the kind; we do not err, in fact we make the image of God incarnate Who appeared on earth in the flesh, Who in His ineffable goodness, lived with men and assumed the nature, the volume and the color the flesh.”

After 843, Cappadocia became an important center for sacred art. The region, developed in the 4th Century by St. Basil as a center for monastic life, flourished with hundreds of churches, the majority dating from the 11th and 12th Centuries.

A second period in the development of Byzantine art is the one after the 9th Century. We find also that the Byzantine piety is influencing greatly the development of small scale pieces, icons painted on wood. Icon studios start to appear, mostly in the monasteries in the East.

In St. John of Damascus’ work we find also his argument in favor of painted icons:

“Since the invisible One became visible by taking on flesh, you can fashion the image of Him whom you saw. Since He who has neither body nor form nor quantity nor quality, Who goes beyond all grandeur by the excellence of His nature, He, being of divine nature, took on the condition of slave and reduced himself to quantity and quality by clothing himself in human features. Therefore paint on wood and present for contemplation Him who desired to become visible.” (St John of Damascus, Great Defender of Iconography)

Byzantium flourished until the final mortal blow came with the Fourth Crusade, when in 1254 Constantinople was sacked by the Crusaders, and the empire was ultimately divided into the eastern and western provinces.

The so-called Macedonian period hosted developments of considerable significance in terms of the expansion of Christianity. During this period the Bulgarians, Serbs and Rus’ were converted to Orthodox Christianity, an event which permanently changed the religious map of Europe; the repercussions are still evident today. Cyril and Methodius, two Byzantine Greeks from Thessaloniki, helped to spread Christianity to the Slavs, and creating a written language for them the Glagolitic alphabet, the precursor of the Cyrillic script.

Leo IX, Bishop of Rome

In 1054, relations between the Eastern and Western traditions within the Christian Church reached a terminal crisis, known as the East–West Schism. The terminal event occurred on Saturday, July 16, 1054, when, as afternoon prayers were about to begin, Cardinal Humbert (Humbert of Silva Candida), a Benedictine, friend and legate of Pope Leo IX (a French bishop elected to the papacy in 1048), entered the patriarchal church of Hagia Sophia, strode up to the high altar, and placed there Leo’s papal bull excommunicating the Patriarch of Constantinople, Michael Cerularius. The cardinal then left the church and departed Constantinople. Shortly after this brazen arrogance, the Patriarch of Constantinople solemnly condemned the cardinal. Although there was a formal declaration of institutional separation, on July 16, when three papal legates entered the Hagia Sophia during Divine Liturgy and placed the bull of excommunication on the main altar. The so-called Great Schism was not an overnight event but was the culmination of centuries of gradual political, doctrinal and dogmatic divergence ultimately resulting in the reciprocal excommunication and inimical separation.[2]

The fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, and the invasion of the Balkans, marks the end of one of the most glorious and prestigious epoch in history. The Turks, Muslims, transformed the beautiful Byzantine churches into mosques.

Let’s now return to our consideration of the role of the icon in Orthodox Christian spiritual life.

The icon is not merely a piece of art, but an aid to contemplation and prayer. Wherever one places an icon that space becomes a sacred space set aside for contemplation and prayer; the icon is not an end in itself, but a portal through which we pass and “see” with our spiritual eyes a hint of the realm of spiritual experience. Anywhere an icon is placed (except maybe in a museum) a place of worship and prayer is set, because the icon is not an end in itself, but a window through which we look with our physical eyes at the Kingdom of Heaven and access the realm of spiritual engagement. The beauty of the icon may associate it with secular art but the icon by nature and purpose relates only the sacred; the icon is theology in paint on wood. According to the great iconologist and iconographer, Ouspensky, “The ways of iconography, as means of expressing what regards the Deity are here the same as the ways of theology. The task of both alike is to express that which cannot be expressed by human means, since such expression will always be imperfect and insufficient.[i] But both iconography and theology fall short of expressing the ineffable truths and “[t]herefore the methods used by iconography for pointing to the Kingdom of God can only be figurative, symbolical, like the language of the parables in the Holy Scriptures.”[ii]

The images in the icon tend to have a certain unity because of their “flatness” and the minimal use of shadow — the images neither converge nor diverge — they appear as themselves independently of how we might expect to see them in temporal “reality” — this characteristic represents their unity with the divine, the integrity of the subject with the divine. Unity presupposes relationship, relationship in turn presupposes otherness — but not separateness —, and the isometry affirms the otherness.

The experience of an icon is distinctly different from the experience of secular or conventional religious art; it differs from the experience of say the experience of music, poetry, sculptures, dance, because each of these involve some level of interpretation or analysis of how they represent our lives or emotions. The icon , however, engages us more fully, more completely, in fact, the icon reaches out to embrace us, inviting us to awaken into silence, emptiness, kenosis. The icon does something that the physical senses cannot, what the mind, the intellect cannot, what science and technology cannot do — the icon creates the possibility of a metaphysical interaction with pure potential, the icon endows us with an image of invisible spiritual Truth. The icon teaches that if we experience the Truth of the icon and become able to look at the world in like manner, as an icon, we may be blessed to see with spiritual “eyes” the uncreated Divine Light that fills the icon and shines through the dark veil of our sentimentality and the illusion we call reality.

But this experience requires quiet communion with what the icon represents beyond the point of the paint and the wood, we have to actively engage in the silent conversation.

The icon is an adjunct to Holy Scripture. The icon is instrumental in the transmission of the Eastern Christian Tradition and is visual Scripture. The language of the Divine is first silence and then symbol and metaphor; there is no language pure enough to communicate the Divine or the Holy Spirit. The image, symbolism, metaphor of the icon communicates in the language of the Holy Spirit, and complements Holy Scripture. That having been said, we must clarify that the person who prays through an icon transcends the purely aesthetic content of an icon, and allows us access to the spiritual realm otherwise imperceptible to us but in silent contemplation we can achieve a vague vision of the materially inaccessible. The icon is the vessel that reaches out to us and ferries us to that other shore.

The icon is not sentimental art. Sentimentality denies reality, denies the Incarnation. Sentimentality is reality through rose-colored glasses, pretty but not quite real. Sentimentality is wistful, ephemeral. In sentimentality, subjective reality all too readily intrudes and breaks in. There is no sentimentality or drama in an icon. An icon represents mostly spiritual engagement events and transfigured characters. The faces of the Divine persons, the Theotokos, the saints depicted in an icon are always devoid of emotion, and suggest virtue, purity, patience, forgiveness, compassion, love. For example, the icon of St Silouan does not show the deep dry wrinkles in the saint’s face or the hard lumpy calluses on his hand but what the icon does show features symbolic of his asceticism, his piety, his wisdom, his virtue, his holiness. His hands as shown in the icon are not personal but symbolic of the humble hard work done by the saint in the monastery mills, unlike the hands of some iconic figures which are depicted as slender, delicate, and clean.

Icons are also silent. Those who are transfigured have mastered the work of silence, a virtue cultivated in the monastic since the Desert Fathers. It would be a true general statement that the mouths of the characters depicted in icons are never open in speech, and there are no symbols that can indicate sound. There is a profound silence in the icon and this stillness and silence create a moment of contemplative engagement a prayerful atmosphere, an interacting with an awakening. The peculiar silence within and evoked by an icon is a wordless language, the language of silence.

Icons are flat and lack conventional perspective. Three-dimensionality or perspective is absent in the icon. Unlike the perspective observed in most conventional religious and secular art, or in sculpture, the icon is two dimensional, depth impressions are kept to a minimum. The perspective of conventional art and sculpture tends to create three-dimensional individuality in the piece, it occupies physical space. The icon is not of this world and does not occupy physical space as do physical objects. While the iconographer may suggest depth the flat frontal plane is predominant.

Natural objects may be recognizable and are rendered beautifully but remain symbolic, almost distorted, sometimes abstract because the purpose of the icon is not to represent the world in terms of physical reality or in the reality of the conscious mind but in terms of the deep mind, which communicates in the language of the spiritual, in symbols and metaphors, even silence. Buildings, books, etc. are likewise all flat but somehow, by their arrangement in the constraints of the depiction, seem to have dimensionality, even perspective of a sort.[3]

One type of perspective found in icons is called “inverse perspective”. We can observe inverse perspective frequently in the lines of architectural structures or buildings depicted in icons. The lines do not appear to converge at some point in the distance or on a horizon; they seem to extend towards the viewer, to converge on the viewer.

The treatment of perspective tends to include the viewer in the icon; the perspective embraces us, the viewer. It is this inverse perspective, too, that gives the viewer the feeling that the figures in the icon are looking out at them. We sometimes hear people say such things like, “The eyes seem to follow me. That’s an effect of inverse perspective.

One spiritual effect of inverse perspective is that the viewer is engaged in the space between the image and her/himself. I’d like to call this interstice the “grace space” because we are not drawn into the portrayed image or the depicted scene as in most conventional art but are embraced by the spiritual sacred space between us and the icon, a grace-filled space emanating from the icon.

It is the mystery of the saint that overcomes the dimension of space and distance; we are not distracted by decadent excess detail or impression of ubiquitous activity.  The flatness of the icon facilitates the viewer’s journey through the image into the spiritual dimension in order to enter into “living” relationship with the saint. Is the lack of perspective or “flatness” of the holy icon a defect or an imperfection? If it is it is deliberate, its purpose is not to distract but to remind the viewer that the icon is liminality, a threshold to the prototype.

The icon depicts its subject matter in terms of divine time (kairos) not linear time (chronos); we do not meet the prototype in history but in spiritual time.

Color symbolism is key in the icon. Traditionally there are two classes of color in iconography: the one class includes white (eternal life, purity), green (nature, growth, fertility, attire of martyrs and prophets), blue (the heavens, the celestial realm, the Divine, imperial majesty). The second class of iconographic colors include black (absence of life, void, renunciation of all that is worldly or material), brown (the chthonic, inanimate nature, symbolic of poverty, monasticism and asceticism). Other colors are hues of red (life, blood, health, fire, martyrs (blood, life) and seraphim (fire); purple (wealth, power, priestly dignity, royalty); yellow (sadness, misfortune).

“And there was light…”

 

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was without order, and empty; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light, and there was light. (Genesis 1 1:1-3, KJV)

The initial three verses of Genesis are inspire the beginning and the end of the writing of the icon. These three verses reflect the spirituality and deep meaning of icon writing: it is a process of creating something good from the formless, the process of writing an icon is the movement from being without form to being of Light; Light means the uncreated light of the Divine realm. The iconographer uses relatively common formless components and fashions a pure white space and moves from this formlessness to a vague, lifeless outline of the image, to completion of a fully transfigured figure with a name: icon. The dynamic of Creation is reproduced in writing an icon: the process moves from formlessness, shadow toward light.

We can, in fact, superimpose the movement from darkness towards the light in a person’s pilgrimage through life, aided by the icon as the portal between the temporal and the eternal, between the shadow and the light. Wherever one venerates an icon the icon becomes an extension of the liturgical mystery, that same mystery we experience in the sacred space of a temple, and so the icon becomes an integral part of the Orthodox Christian’s spiritual life.

As an integral part of the Orthodox Christian’s spiritual life, the icon is a sign of a new mode of being. In fact, far from being some sort of sentimental token of an ancient tradition, it takes on dogmatic significance through a sort of incarnation by which the spiritual becomes embodied, the invisible becomes visible, the indescribable and undepictable becomes perceptible and representable. The icon is both/and; it is both the story of Genesis and creation and the story of Incarnation and transfiguration. With these thoughts in mind, we can understand how the icon can become an object invoking contemplation and transfiguration in one upon whom it converges, because rightly the venerator does not enter the icon, the icon enters the venerator; whereas we generally think of a portal as some sort of liminality through which we pass, the icon has the reverse effect in that it traverses the liminality into us.

Just as when Divine Liturgy is celebrated, an angelic liturgy is simultaneously being celebrated, the temporal and the spiritual enter the Holy of Holies of the pure heart together, the past, present and future merge into one sacred time; a transformation takes place, and history and eschatology are brought together beyond time and space. We have a similar situation in the veneration of the icon: time and space are suspended, a liturgy is celebrated in the heart, all of creation is on a single plane, our center of gravity is towards the omnipresent light, we are in a state of enlightenment, illumination, ascension.

The paradisiacal harmony intended for us by the Divine but perturbed by ugliness, division, alienation, suffering and death, is renewed in the icon as it becomes a font of contemplation and prayer, as we enter a process of metanoia, and we experience a taste of joyful mourning, harmolipia, in which we acknowledge our brokenness and fragility while at the same time we perceive in the icon the inner light of the icon as it disperses the inner darkness and nudges us into the Divine Light. Paraphrasing St Paul in Galatians 2:20, “It is no longer I who live, but the mystery of the Divine process lives in me.”

In the presence, therefore, of the icon one moves from contemplation to deep spiritual prayer, we become inspired. Our detachment in contemplation becomes an ascetic process, we interact with silence, and a healing Christ-process begins, we transfigure into being that approaches communion with the mystery we call God. We become still though awakened in body, mind and soul, the mind becomes still and at peace, there is a surrendering receptiveness to mystery and beauty. In this moment we have died to the world and have engaged the work of silence.

Epilogue

As we stand before an icon and allow it to enter us, we enter into communion with the icon’s prototype. Ideally we will enter into a state of being possessed by an uncontainable love and intense compassion for all things; the chest will fill and the tears will flow. The spiritual heart is set ablaze with love of all creation, humankind, birds, beasts, all creatures, even adversaries, spirit and embodied. We have eradicated evil and the false spiritualities that have obliterated the divine in us, and have infected many with idolatry. The icon communicates the meaning of life, it exemplifies the communion of the material with the spiritual, the union of heaven and earth, and all the dualities that confuse our false reality. The union of the dualities and removal of the denial and suffering that infect our lives bring us closer to the realization of the eschaton in the immanent world.

We human beings are unique icons, we too can experience the iconic character of our companion human beings by allowing them to converge onus and engaging the holy, sacred “grace space” between us. Let us presuppose a unity with the divine each time we encounter the other, let that “unity” transfigure into relationship with the other, whose otherness should cease to be separation. Let the isometry affirm the otherness and uniqueness of the “grace space” created between each of us.  In fact, let us engage all of creation in like manner; creation is an icon, a liminality, a portal to bring us closer to unity with the otherness of the Divine.

The transfigurational face of the figure radiates the Divine Light to us as a mirror reflects the light of the sun. This is the face of the creature immunity with the Divine. We share in the saint’s engagement with the grace of the Holy Spirit, which awakens a sense of the “holy” communicate by the figure represented in the icon and the icon itself. The experience of the icon operates through the relationship mediated by the Holy Spirit in the “grace space” between the observer and the icon through the intercession of the saint represented in the icon.

In past centuries and even to some extent today, the icon provides illustrated “Holy Tradition,” while the icon serves as an invaluable essential to the living Orthodox Tradition and provides guidance and nurturing to the faithful one must be cautious not to sentimentalize or to idolize the icon. Our veneration is not to be directed to the object of paint and wood but to the prototype represented in it. The icon is a portal to the holiness of the prototype and we, the observers, in the medium of prayer, participate with the aid of the icon in that holiness.

Aside: I would advocate that it would be dangerous to approach an icon in ignorance of the hagiography it represents  or in a showing of purely sentimental piety.

One of the important roles of attending contemplatively to the synaxarion or the reading of the life of the saint of the day, whether the icon is venerated on the analogion in the temple porch or in our icon corner. While the general effect of the icon is that of the Gestalt of its symbology, that is, the “window effect,” the specific figure or figures or event represented in the icon is doctrinally and theologically important and should be appreciated in its inspirational depth. Regrettably too many of us entering a sacred space do not give a second thought to the many sacred gestures we surreptitiously make from an initial sign of the cross and its significance, to the humility of our prostrations, to the kissing of a holy icon, etc. The life of the Orthodox Christian is guided by the lives of the Orthodox saints, and their message and meaning is embodied in their icon. The icon serves to facilitate a spiritual and real connection between those who are contemplating it, the divine reality it re-presents, passage beyond its liminality into the spiritual realm of the otherwise inaccessible and infinite.

Just as we would never embark on a trip without special preparation, the transfigurational journey also requires preparation. Today’s Christians must take the notion and the necessity of preparation more seriously, whether it is the preparation for Divine Liturgy, veneration, contemplation of a holy icon, or for our death. While we may rush through the time and space of linear time, when we enter Divine time we forego the dimensions of time and space; there’s no rush or urgency to get somewhere. Once we cross the threshold we should be in a state of silent being, and that takes preparation.

The human face makes us human. It is not the face of a cat or a dog nor the face of disfigurement which is abhorrent. The human face in its organized form is specifically (as in species) “human.” Doctrine tells us that if the Trinity were material it would have a human face, and indeed the Incarnate Word did have a human face and so, by extension, the human face is the face of the divine. Because we have no real idea of what the Incarnate Word looked like, any one of us could be the countenance of the Incarnate Word.

Moreover, if human nature can be located concentrated anywhere it will be in the human face. It is the human face that reflects our physical, emotional, and spiritual condition. It is therefore only reasonable that the Divine should transpire in the human face and should communicate divinity. Just as we are given a unique face so too we receive a unique name and hence are endowed with a unique existence, a holy otherness that makes possible relationship, which becomes manifest in the communion of a mystical interpersonal eucharist.  Accordingly, our otherness in communion takes on cosmic dimensions.

We human beings are clay, products of the physical world but endowed with a higher soul, symbols available and perceptible to our physical senses are almost essential for our engagement of the spiritual. The icon is one of those objects providing such access; we can speak of the icon as providing a great deal more in its character of “visual theology.” The icon speaks to us in the language of symbols and that grammar of communication was formulated by the Church Fathers in its definitive form at the Seventh Ecumenical Council (Nicaea II) in 787 C.E. that language communicates in light, color, movement, lines, and silence of the icon.

We speak of the background of the icon as “light;” the icon is like a stained glass window admitting the brilliant light from outside, changed somewhat, into a dark interior of our inner basilica. According to St Augustine, that Divine Light is supremely brilliant, invisible in its supernatural clarity, and becomes physically visible to us by passing through the icon, just as the intense brightness of the sun becomes safely visible to our vulnerable eyes once it passes through the stained glass window of the material basilica. Indeed, Orthodox iconographical theology refers to the icon as a “window to heaven.”

The icon takes on a jewel-like appearance with the central figure set in the radiant gold of Divine Light, whose clarity and purity admits no shadow. Everything in the icon is bathed in that supernatural light and so appears uniform, in equipoise, and without stain or blemish.

Relics of St Silouan Athonite

Rev. Ch. Harold Vadney, Proto-companion
October 5, 2017


For Further Reading

  1. Arida, Robert. “Spirituality and the Person: The Vision of the Orthodox Icon”, from Sacred Art Journal, 1994, pg.11.
  2. Byzantine Museum of Athens, Holy Image, Holy Space; Icons and Frescoes from Greece, Greek Ministry of Culture,1988, Athens, Greece.
  3. Forest,J, Praying with Icons, Orbis Books, 1997, Maryknoll, NY.
  4. Grabar, André, Les Grands Siècles de la Peinture, La Peinture Byzantine, Etude Historique et Critique, Skira/Flammarion, 1979, Genéve. (Grabar, André. The Art of the Byzantine Empire: Byzantine Art in the Middle Ages. New York: Greystone, 1967. Internet resource.)
  5. Hart, Aidan. Techniques of Icon and Wall Painting: Egg Tempera, Fresco, Secco. Leominster, Herefordshire: Gracewing, 2015.
  6. John of Damascus Saint; Andrew Louth, Three treatises on the divine images. St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press Popular patristics series, no. 24. Crestwood, New York : St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003.
  7. John of Damascus; David Anderson. On the Divine Images: Three Apologies against Those Who Attack the Divine Images. New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002. Print.
  8. Ouspensky, L. and V. Lossky, The Meaning of Icons, SVS Press, 1989, Crestwood, NY.
  9. Ouspensky, L. Theology of the Icon, SVS Press, 1979, Crestwood, NY.
  10. Quenot, Michel . The Icon: Window on the Kingdom, SVS Press, 1996, Crestwood, NY.
  11. Schmemann, Alexander. The Historical Road of Eastern Orthodoxy. Crestwood, N.Y: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003.
  12. John of Damascus, On the Divine Images, SVS Press, 1980, Crestwood, NY.
  13. The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium. 3 vols. Oxford University Press, 1991, Oxford.

 


The Iconographer’s Prayers

A Prayer from Mt. Athos for Consecrating an Iconographer

Thou Who hast so admirably imprinted Thy features on the cloth sent to King Abgar of Edessa, and hast so wonderfully inspired Luke Thy Evangelist: Enlighten my soul and that of Thy servant; Guide his hand that he may reproduce Thy features, those of the Holy Virgin and of all Thy saints, for the glory and peace of Thy Holy Church. Spare him from temptations and diabolical imaginations in the name of Thy Mother, St. Luke, and all the Saints. Amen.

A Prayer Before Beginning an Icon:

O DIVINE LORD of all that exists, Thou hast illumined the Apostle and Evangelist Luke with Thy Holy Spirit, thereby enabling him to represent Thy most Holy Mother, the One who held Thee in her arms and said: The Grace of Him Who has been born of me is spread through the world!
Enlighten and direct my soul, my heart and my spirit. Guide the hands of Thine unworthy servant so that I may worthily and perfectly portray Thine Icon, that of Thy Mother, and all the Saints, for the glory, joy and adornment of Thy Holy Church.
Forgive my sins and the sins of those who will venerate these icons and who, kneeling devoutly before them, give homage to those they represent.
Protect them from all evil and instruct them with good counsel. This I ask through the intercession of Thy most Holy Mother, the Apostle Luke, and all the Saints. Amen.

Variant:

O Divine Lord of all that exists, You have illumined the Apostle and Evangelist Luke with Your Most Holy Spirit, thereby enabling him to represent the most Holy Mother, the one who held You in her arms and said: `the Grace of Him Who has been born of me is spread throughout the world’. Enlighten and direct our souls, our hearts and our spirits. Guide the hands of your unworthy servant, so that we may worthily and perfectly portray your icon, that of Your Holy Mother and of all the saints, for the glory and adornment of Your Holy Church. Forgive our sins and the sins of those who will venerate these icons, and who, standing devoutly before them, give homage those they represent. Protect them from all evil and instruct them with good counsel. This we ask through the prayers of the Most Holy Theotokos, the Apostle Luke, and all the saints, now and ever and unto ages of ages.”

A Prayer After Completing an Icon:

Thou, Thyself, O LORD, art the fulfillment and completion of all good things. Fill my soul with joy and gladness, for Thou alone art the Lover of mankind.
Let Thy grace sanctify and dwell within this icon, that it may edify and inspire those who gaze upon it and venerate it; that in glorifying the one depicted, they may be repentant of their sins and strengthened against every attack of the adversary.
Through the prayers of the Theotokos, the holy Apostle and Evangelist Luke, and all the Saints, O Savior, save us!
Amen.


 

Notes

[1] Byzantine art is a term applied to describe the genre of artistic works produced in the Byzantine commonwealth which included not only Byzantium proper but also Bulgaria, Serbia, Rus, including also Sicily and Ravenna, which had strong cultural ties with Byzantium, while in other respects being western other cultural aspects. The Byzantine period lasted from about the 5th century to approximately the fall of Constantinople in 1453. The term is also applied to the art of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

[2] It’s almost comical that the Roman legates announcing the excommunication were not aware that Pope Leo IX had in the meantime died, rendering the excommunication void; Humbert was cordially welcomed by the emperor Constantine IX but cold-shouldered by the Patriarch. Incidentally, the excommunication applied only to the Patriarch who subsequently responded by excommunicating the legates.

[3] One remarkable example would be the icon of the Hospitality of Abraham and the unique impression of depth and perspective created by the placement of the figures, and the lines of convergence created by the artist.

[i] L. Ouspensky and V. Lossky, The Meaning of Icons, Saint Vladimir Seminary Press, 1989, pp. 48-49.

[ii] Ibid.

 


United by Light: The Holy Icon of St Silouan Athonite


A Reflection on the
St Silouan Athonite Icon

An Icon Written by Sister Cecilia of the Nuns of New Skete, Cambridge, New York.

St Silouan Athonite
An Icon written by Sr Cecelia of the Nuns of New Skete

A Reflection by Proto-Companion
Rev. Ch. Harold W. Vadney B.A., [M.A.], M.Div.

It can be no coincidence that the first church constructed by the Monks of New Skete in Cambridge, NY, was called Transfiguration.
The icon is transfiguration. It does not receive its light from the outside, because the Light is its essence. Just as it’s impossible for anyone to illumine the stars, one cannot simply endow the icon with the Light, the iconographer’s inner vision has to become “theology” through deep, practiced spiritual contemplation. The circumincession, the perichoresis, if you will, of the artistic element with mystic contemplation matures to become the germ of a visionary theology, expressed through the iconographer’s authentic faith and living, the fertile ground from which the icon will emerge.

Compare the naturalistic photograph of St Silouan Athonite (left) with the iconographer’s depiction of the saint (right). While the saint is easily recognizable in the iconic depiction, the iconographer has incorporated a wealth of symbolic elements without lapsing into what we could term decadent iconography, an excess of stylistic detail.

Sister Cecilia’s icon is a beautiful rendition of the Orthodox saint, Silouan of Mount Athos, which I commissioned in 2017, and received on September 19, 2017, at New Skete Monastery (OCA), Cambridge, New York.

Generally, the icon shows the full torso view of the saint in his monastic attire, one hand in the gesture of deisis and the other holding a scroll showing one of his quotes in Church Slavonic. His name, the Venerable Silouan, appears on the left side in Church Slavonic, and “Athonite” on the right side in Church Slavonic. The Saint is depicted on an effulgent background of gold, symbolizing the Divine Light, and is gazing upward, to the vision of the Christ in the left upper corner, who from the heavenly realm is issuing rays of the uncreated light, which appear to be embracing the saint.

The icon in its style and execution is a masterwork of iconography.

Comparison of a photo of St Silouan with Sr Cecilia’s Depiction in the Icon.

The traditional execution of a holy icon is by intent and purpose not naturalistic, as I shall discuss below in terms of its stylized features, its flatness, two dimensionality (absence of depth or 3D perspective), and its points of convergence, traditional elements of style, color symbolism, etc.
Most remarkable is how Sister Cecelia was able to capture the naturalistic features of St Silouan’s face and render them faithfully but symbolically expressive in the holy icon of the saint.

When viewing an icon I find it especially important that the iconographer does not overemphasize the strictly personal and unique natural features of the subject but that the sacred artist renders them symbolically, which opens them up rather than focus the viewer’s gaze on a uniquely individual face. The face, though superficially true to the embodied saint, appears to transcend the physical, it is beyond the here and now but is yet present here and now. The depiction shows the saint not bound in chronos but liberated into kairos, divine time, right time. Correctly contemplating and engaging the saint’s countenance does not draw us into the icon itself but draws the iconic countenance — and all of its content — into the observer. Quite the opposite approach and effect that many might have or experience when observing a secular work of art or even some of the more naturalistic religious art.

Upon seeing the icon for the first time on September 19, 2017, at the Monastery of New Skete, my very first impression was focused on the eyes and the cheeks of the saint; it was as if a sob was swelling in my chest, as if I would at any moment feel the warmth of tears rolling down my own cheeks. The icon had entered me, filled me, and almost overwhelmed me. The softness of the overall expression is one of deep love, compassion, a hint of mourning but not the mourning of grief or loss, it’s an expression of the mourning of “not yet but soon,” a focus upon an unfathomable, ineffable point in infinity but attainable, a certain twinkle, if you will, in the eyes and just the hint of a hidden smile. Did the iconographer actually capture the essence of holy nepsis (νῆψις) in this depiction? Do all of these elements I perceived in the saint’s countenance distill down to holy clarity, nepsis? If ever I attain the gift of silence, I hope I can continue to receive the icon with at least a scintilla of such clarity.


We note the saint’s drawn face, the strong lines and the modeling around the saint’s cheekbones symbolizing the life of fasting and sobriety. The iconographer avoids the impression of harshness, though, by balancing these features with an expression of gentleness and dignity.

I find the expression on Silouan’s face to be one of enlightenment; it is opened by, to, for and through his love for God and, in consequence, his love for all of creation, for the “other.” The Light in the saint’s face is the light of Love and comes from contemplation of the infinite transcendence of the Divine. Another one of my favorite Greek words is χαρμολύπη (harmolipi). It’s a compound word based on the words for joy (think: “harmony”) and sorrow, “joyful sorrow” or a harmony of joy and sorrow. This is an emotion elicited by the facial elements of the Sr Cecilia’s icon, and is elicited by the inspired rendition of the saint’s facial elements.

Facial elements: While symbols, gestures, colors, objects all provide clues to the nature and the role of the saint being portrayed — the face is eminently important — particularly the eyes, lips, the brow and the forehead. These elements of the portrayal express salient characterological qualities to which our attention is being directed. St Silouan is depicted with the modeled sharp lines of the ascetic in high cheek bones and shallow cheeks. His wisdom is represented by a high forehead. Silouan’s gentleness an dspiritual power and compassion are clearly discernable in the iconographer’s rendition of the eyes — there is nevertheless a calm stillness in the facial expression. The one eyebrow is raised in a high arch, while the right brow is lower — the contrast of great understanding with great gentleness. The shadowing between the brows makes the impression of a puckering, an indication of sadness or compassion which, together with a hint of a smile on the lips created by the shadow along the saint’s beard flowing around the lips, compatible with the concept of harmolipia.

Eyes: Compare and contrast Deep set eyes, but not hollow, and with the effects of the brows — note that one (right) is higher than the other (left) — this emphasizes two contrasting aspects as represented by the effects on the eyes of the saint.

Mouth: tightlipped silence with a slight nuance of smile. The mouth in icon figures is never open; silence is a virtue perfected and embodied in those transfigured.

Cheekbones: high bone structure deep cheeks, the indicators of an ascetic life of fasting and moderation.

The beard is not disordered or in disarray, it is smooth, flowing, grey. The flow of the beard suggests a calmness, a peacefulness, a softness. The grey of the beard might symbolize a long life of commitment, engagement, experience, wisdom.

The saint’s attire is highly symbolic and in keeping with the holy tradition of the use of symbolic color in writing holy icons. For example, we note the color of the outer robe, the riassa; it’s a dark shade of grey with nuances of green. Earthy colors, the colors of humility. Likewise the rose-colored podryasnik or podrjaznik(подрясник), (under)cassock is a traditional earth color, the color of clay, the substance of humankind, a symbol of mortality and humility.

In iconic symbolism the robes of the great ascetics and monastics are depicted in black, symbolizing a life of renunciation of the world and ascetic discipline. In this depiction the ascetic’s or monastic’s undergarment are frequently rendered in earth tones, symbolizing poverty. In the St Silouan icon the saint’s undercassock is depicted in an earthtone, an Indian red hue or caput mortuum shade.

Noteworthy in this icon is the blue of the saint’s kalimavkion (καλυμμαύχιον), kalymmavchi (καλυμαύχι), or in the Russian tradition, the kamilavka (камилавка) and veil. In holy iconographic tradition, blue may signify heavenly or imperial characteristics, depending on the hue. Here, we can discern a certain divine spirit in the bluish component of the saint’s kamilavka. The nuances of blue in the kamilavka offset the harshness of the black of the vestment and serves to add a spiritual element to the harshness of ascetic life suggested by the black; if the kamilavka were rendered in total black, it would suggest a darkness or a shadow element alien to the holy icon but especially alien to this saint. It would be an inconsistent contrast with the divine, uncreated light that forms the background of the saint.

Hands Comparison: The Left is the right hand of St Silouan as depicted in the icon; the image on the right is the right hand of a conventional depiction of an icon martyr (note the long palm and slender fingers).

I found that the hands of this peasant saint to be uniquely expressive. The right hand is raised in a gesture of deisis (δέησις, “prayer” or “supplication”), the liturgical gesture of intercession and supplication. The deisis gesture is accompanied by the saint’s eyes directed towards the heavenly realm, towards the Word, suggestive of Silouan’s vision of the Christ, and towards the emanation of the Divine Uncreated Light (upper left corner).

The saint holds in his left hand a scroll, the symbol of the teacher, and on that scroll, in Church Slavonic, are the words of his teaching.
If one were to compare St Silouan’s hands as depicted in the icon by Sr Cecilia, it would be clear that they differ from the typical stylized hands seen in many icons. Unlike the delicate, slender fingered hands in many icons, Silouan’s hands are heavy with thick fingers, the hands of the hard-working peasant. This is a brilliant touch that I believe is intended to remind us that this saint, as blessed and as transfigured as he is, was still a creature who lived close to the earth. These are the hands of a human being who knew the travails of the flesh and yet attained remarkable spiritual maturity.

The Christ Vision

 

Detail of Text: “Venerable Silouan”

Text Detail: “Athonite”

Detail: The Scroll


Of Chickens and Ducks: A Taxonomy.


Republished with permission from the Companions of St Silouan Athonite


Those of us in the vocation of teaching or preaching sometimes find that no matter how we attempt to describe something, we fall short of the mark, that is, we just don’t have the wherewithal to communicate complex situations in terms our audience can fully embrace.


As I lay in bed one early morning unable to sleep, and immersed in reflection, I began musing and imagined the various Christian faith communities as chicken farms, and I created a taxonomy of about 4 categories of chickens. I reached for my journal and jotted down some key thoughts in order not to lose them. Once I found peace having jotted down the necessary mnemonics, I was able to doze off. I rose early that morning to reconstruct my dozy thoughts. Here they are:

There are Ducks among the Chickens

On the one hand we have the factory farms where the chickens are confined in large coops and fed a prescribed diet doped with various enhancers. These are the Roman or Western Rite Christians. They are kept in parochial coops, fed a diet of dogma, doctrine, catechesis, and Canon rules and regulations; they are under the chief keeper, the bishop, whose minions, the priests are the farm hands. The corporation headquarters calls all of the important shots for these chickens. It’s “systematic.” The lights in the coop go on timer-controlled, stay on for a set period of time, and then go off. Feeding is done automatically, mechanically by the hopper method — homiletics or liturgical preaching —, in the process of delivering  a premixed formula — a so-called liturgy —, which the clucks devour at set times, and then go on with their lackluster, routine lives until it’s time to make the trip to the processing plant. That’s category 1.

Factory farmed, raised systematically, kept in line by protocol.

Category 2, took shape when I turned my thoughts then turned to the chicken-metaphorical Eastern Orthodox Rites. Here I have free-range, cageless chickens, who roam about within a perimeter of dogma and doctrine. These chickens have relative freedom and autonomy, although the head farmer makes all of the major decisions affecting their lives and his farmhands live among the chickens, ensuring that they stay healthy, and keep the foxes and weasels at their distance. These chickens rise with the sun and roost when the sun sets. They have relative variety and color in their diets and it’s natural, no artificial additives; organic. These clucks are out there digging around and experience the mystery that is their life and the beauty that is their world. They live their live with relatively few rules and regulations, and finish their lives plump and clean.

Wandering and feeding in the beauty and mystery of creation.

There’s a third category of chicken in the chicken world I’ve conjured up. It’s the chicken kept by the guy down the road who wants his eggs fresh and his Sunday dinner just outside his door. Nice and convenient. This chicken is kept in a rather pedestrian, vulgar way, allowed to roam about, kept in a makeshift hutch or in a coop. Their keeper is not particularly well educated in chicken-care nor in what chickens need out of life so their diet and care is a bit haphazard and generally subject to their keeper’s idiosyncrasies and whims. Their keeper gets his chicken knowledge out of a popular magazine or off the Internet. No real plan, no real structure, each chicken has a personal relationship with its owner. Neighbors see these chickens and refer to them by the owner’s name: “There’s Joe’s chickens in the road again. “ “Or Amy’s chickens are in our backyard again.” With little or no supervision or protection, these chickens sometimes become road-kill or are taken by a fox or a dog. But they can also be happy chickens because they don’t know anything else, and they can be healthy chickens, but they’re good only for soup because they’re very lean and underfed; a bit tough at times. These are the non-mainstreamerspopular religious movements, sects, cults and storefront “churches.”

Backyard chickens.

Getting near completion of our taxonomy of religious chickens, of course, we have some chickens who fall somewhere in between these three groups, or chickens who get “rescued” by one or the other categories. They’re still chickens but a bit confused.

Finally, we have the un-chickens. These are creatures that think they’re chickens, look like chickens, act like chickens but are definitely not chickens. Fortunately, these bizarre items are rare and they do make the tabloids or National Geographic. They even manage to attract vulnerable followers, who think that these un-chickens are the real thing. Most of these un-chickens are charlatans, some may actually believe they are chickens, but they are easy to identify and can’t easily hide their deception from the discerning observer.

The Un-chicken. They look like chickens, act like chickens, but don’t know they’re un-chickens.

I would be remiss if I didn’t include the un-chicken category. These are not chickens at all but ducks who want to be chickens. These ducks leave their aquatic environment for dry land among the chickens. These ducks have lost track of their special gift: mythologically they inhabited and belonged to three worlds: the world of water, the world of dry land, and the world of the ether. Some would say that these ducks, if they were aware and awake, would realize that they mediated between the sky, the earth and the water. They are special. They think they’re chickens but they still sound like ducks and walk like ducks. Some of the chickens don’t even know there are ducks among them; some of the ducks don’t know they’re ducks. But in reality, you can’t mistake the ducks among the chickens but no one seems to mention the fact and no one makes a peep…or a cluck.

Moving freely between worlds.

And then there are the ducks. Wild and free. Diving into the depths or flying invisible paths. No words or texts are needed to guide them. They find their food along their journey’s course. They quench their thirst in fresh, living water. They live in all three spheres but belong to none in particular. Unlike the chickens who are earthbound and know only a circumscribed tract, the ducks share three worlds; they know the world under the reflective surface of the pond in which they dive, they know the dry land where they walk, and they know the heights, which they share with eagles. We might call the ducks among us the mystics or the contemplatives, those among us whose keeper is the Spirit.

The Spirit is in our midst!

Br Silouan …
A chicken in discernment to be a duck!


A Novel Venue for Developing True Spirituality: Companions of St Silouan Athonite


Some General Information About
The Companions of St Silouan Athonite

First of all and from the outset: This is not a religious group nor a denominational outreach. It is not a cult-in-the-making.


One nagging question that I have frequently posed is this: Why do most people think of spiritual care at the last minute, when someone is at Death’s door or when you are facing the dying process of a loved one? It’s like exercising and eating a healthy diet after the heart attack, isn’t it? Why not get started now.


This is an ecumenical, interfaith, non-denominations, judgement-free community of persons who are solely interested in companioning each other on their spiritual pilgrimages.

The inspiration for forming a wider group of spiritual companions came from my association with a Russian Orthodox Monastery in Northeast New York. The monks decided to resurrect a concept of a group of lay persons who would live some of the monastic values while in the secular world. These so-called companions of the monastery would apply, be considered as aspirants and then admitted to the so-called companions. They would subscribe to a rule of life, establish for themselves a prayer discipline, support the monastery in time and treasure, and make regular pilgrimages, either to the parent monastery or to some other monastery or retreat venue. It was a great idea but poorly organized. It was open to all faiths and, while it had an insignia identifying the companions, a small stylized cross, it still had the flavor of a very distinct Christian denomination. I couldn’t imagine a Buddhist, a Jew or a Moslem wanting to become a companion and having a cross as their insignia.

My patron saint is St Silouan of Mount Athos, St Silouan Athonite for short. I chose Silouan because of his humility and simplicity, his dedication to love and forgiveness, his compassion. Although Silouan was highly advanced in monastic ascetic spirituality and reached the height of monastic hierarchy as a Staretz or elder, a schemamonk, his humility and simplicity were legendary. Silouan, a Russian Orthodox Christian elder monk, who lived on the exclusive Greek peninsula known as Hagios Oros, the “Holy Mountain”, or Mount Athos, he lived values that transcended the Christian model and are the common threads of all the great world spiritual traditions.

As a professional theologian and thanatologist, a scholar of religion and psychospiritual care, I find that the vast majority of persons who call themselves members of a particular faith or belief community don’t have a clue about what their denomination teaches. Most ministers have no clue about what’s going on in interreligious dialogue, much less about their particulars. Most institutionalized religion has been caught with their pants around their ankles when it comes to credibility.

In recent decades we have all too often heard the ambiguous and practically meaningless phrase, “I’m spiritual, not religious.” Even the “spiritual” professional literature from the healthcare, deathcare and spiritual care disciplines can’t even agree on an across-the-board commonly held definition of what spirituality is! In fact, one publication did a review of the literature and found more than 90 different “definitions” of  spirituality!

In my professional practice I deal with end-of-life, death, dying, and survivors. I know the value of religion and I know the value of spirituality; I think I know where the one stops and where the other starts. Every time I think I’m sure, a situation arises that sets me back to square one.

One thing is certain: every human being is spiritual. There’s no doubt about it. Once you can admit you recognize that there’s something greater than yourself, that transcends your understanding, you have become spiritual. Now how you use that evolutionary revelation to best advantage and how you ease into it to make meaning of difficult moments, suffering, challenges is another story. To get the most out of your spirituality, you need companioning, guidance, others willing to talk about their spirituality and to share their insights.

That’s what this group, the Companions of St Silouan Athonite, is all about.

It’s an open group meaning that anyone inclined to explore the group can freely do so. What you receive from the group and what you give to the group is purely a matter of what you have at any given time in your journey. The pilgrimmage is self-paced. The requirements are your own.

The only formal hierarchy is me, the self-styled “Principal Companion,” actually the monitor of the group and the main person doing most of the work on this site.

In the near future, once the group shows signs of stability and growth, I will offer two levels of formal membership: Aspirant and Companion. The Aspirant is a candidate who has identified a sincere calling to companion others in developing their spirituality. The Companion is the person who has achieved a certain level of competence in companioning through personal discipline and involvement.

Initially, there is no commitment other than the personal commitment you make to yourself and to those with whom you have a relationship to follow the Simple Rule of the Companions of St Silouan Athonite. As the Companion community matures, we may ask for volunteer support or offer specific products for generating funds. Those products will be subject to the Community’s approval, basically all full Companions will have a say in what is offered and what is done.

At some point in time, again as the Community grows and matures, it would be great if we could have a Companions retreat once a year at locations offering retreat accommodations and meeting facilities.

The organization will be very loosely structured: Most of the site will be public access. That means that announcements, reflections, etc. will be public access.

Anyone interested in more intense involvement will be asked to “Follow” the site by signing up with their real name and their email. This means only that the moderator, I, will see who you are and know our email. You will receive an email automatically notifying you whenever a new item is posted. You can do the same for comments.

At some time in the near future, I will post an application form on this site. If anyone wishes to become an Aspirant they will fill out the form and email it to me.

To become a full Companion, you will fill out the same form but only after 6 months of Aspirancy, include an essay about your spirituality and the importance of being a Companion, and you will document your spiritual activities, retreats, spiritual direction, etc.

A full Companion will receive a letter of good standing and a Certificate of Companionship, both of which will have only sentimental value.

Very soon I will create a suitable “habit” for Companions. The habit will be a small item identifying the wearer as a Companion. It will likely be a lapel pin or similar item. Cost will be kept low, since the value of the habit is to be kept intrinsic and the habit itself is to be kept very humble.

Since most everything will be done digitally and the material for reflections etc. will come directly from my own resources or from material I’m reviewing at the time and find suitable for the Companions, no real overheads will be generated. As for the habit, the Companion will purchase that directly from the manufacturer.

I may from time to time suggest certain devotional items such as prayer ropes and the like or items to enhance sensual aspects of the spiritual practice. If I do so, I will also provide links to suppliers of such items. I do not have any financial interest in any of these suppliers but if one were to come about, I would announce that fact publicly to the Community.

Aspirants and Companions are accountable to themselves. If you misrepresent something you do your conscience is your judge, no one else.

Finally, all I ask is if you are seriously interested in becoming a participating member of the group that you contribute to the reflections or to the feedback about reflections. The only requirements are that you remain on topic, leave egos outside, and don’t bring any personal baggage on board. No proselytizing and not judgmentalism.

In closing, I do sincerely welcome your comments, recommendations, suggestions, even criticisms of me and only me. Comments should be made using the comments form on each post; they will be moderated and then published. If you don’t want what you write to be public please email me your thoughts to st.silouan.companions@gmail.com. Your email communications will be confidential and I now notify anyone concerned that I invoke clergy privilege should any law enforcement agency request insight into the emails. When I say confidential, I mean confidential.

As always, I am available at st.silouan.companions@gmail.com should you have any questions or concerns.

To view the Simple Rule of the Companions of St Silouan click here.

Looking forward to exploring the beauty and mystery of spirituality with you,

Peace and joy!
Rev. Ch. Harold Vadney BA, [MA], MDiv.
Principal Companion


Do our funeral homes provide only customer service or human service?


An Op-Ed Republished with Permission

We might ask the same question as regards our faith communities and so-called pastors.


As a provider of psychospiritual care to the bereaved, as a professional bereavement chaplain, theologian and thanatologist, I firmly believe that some things just have to be delivered locally and face-to-face; these include sex, making friends, spiritual care, funeralization services. Not necessarily in that order or priority ranking.


Grief work is not achieved in three days nor with an online consult. That’s purely and simply idiotic.

The saying goes thus: “Death is the great equalizer.” We are all equal in death. Presidents, kings, supreme court justices, movie stars, athletes all die, all decay, all go the same way as the homeless man on the corner. But would you think of direct burial or direct cremation for a president, a queen, Mohammed Ali? So why skimp on grandpa? We celebrate the deceased’s achievements in life, not the fact of his or her being dead. And we do it with pomp, ceremony, rites, ritual, tradition, dignity and respect. Virtual mourning is none of the above and the grief work is not achieved in three days nor with an online consult. That’s purely and simply idiotic.

Furthermore, a death is a social, political and community event. The emotions involved in the acute grief experience are far too complex and idiosyncratic to be amenable to one method, one technology, one dose. As a social, political and community event death care requires real community involvement, hands on, and that means a local group understanding the local cultures, a “neighborhood,” if you prefer. This is a physical community, complex, deep, involved, alive; not a virtual make-believe, conjured up community.

One more thing: We have to stop giving Jessica Mitford and her estate post-mortem kudos for a book and a sequel book that was not only self-serving and conflicted in its interests, but a masterpiece of biased muckraking appealing to the titillation lust of the masses and their denial of death anxieties. Mitford couldn’t attack Death itself nor could or would she attempt to attack institutionalized religion, so she went after the next best thing, the funeral services industry. I’ve cited Mitford several times on my various blogs so I won’t waste bytes on her here.

I place Mitford in the same category as Kübler-Ross in that neither of them can claim any objective or scientific credibility but their main contribution to Western, particularly American society, was to get people talking about death and deathcare services. That, my friends, was a big step in a society frozen in preadolescent fascinations, psychosocial pathological denial, anxiety and narcissism, steeped in materialist humanism and addicted to corporate-fed consumerism.

It’s progressively gotten worse with the public health problem of Internet Addiction Disorder and the pathological subset, Facebook Addiction Disorder, and the emergence of the multistate funeral services groups like Newcomer Funeral Services Group, Service Corporation International and their alter ego Dignity Memorial, and StoneMor, who have all added greed and indifference to the corporate mix of tastelessness and deception of the consumer public. and their dead Again, I’ve commented extensively on these ghouls of the funeral services niche so I won’t waste time or words on them here.

Newcomer, SCI/Dignity Memorial, StoneMor
Ghouls of Corporate Death Services

They want your money not your brains!

Like it or not, death is inevitable for every mortal creature from cockroaches to presidents and kings. No matter how you define or think about it, you will have to some day deal with death so get a grip. How you deal with the death of a significant other in your life, whether that loved one is a pet or a parent or a child–or your own death is a matter of what I will term befriending death. No, I don’t mean the superficial, make believe, virtual “befriending” most of you are addicted to on Facebook and other social media. I mean the kind of be-friending that involves learning about, nurturing an intimacy with, even trusting, welcoming into your world, and frequent contact. Being at ease with, acknowledging, being aware of death is key. That may sound a bit bizarre so let me explain.

Technology has evolved faster than we as human beings have done. We lag far behind technology in our understanding of it and our ability to wisely and prudently steward it. In fact, technology has overrun us and has taken over our lives; this can’t be denied. This fact has been used to the level of Dr Strangelove proportions by corporations and big business, and even by individuals with pathological ambitions like Donald Trump on Twitter and Mark Zuckerberg with the Facebook phenomenon. The medical, psychological and ethics journals are full of reports on the so-called Internet Addiction Disorder, which was described back in the 90’s, and now there’s a subset of that disorder termed the Facebook Addiction Disorder and the Internet Gaming Disorder, which all share the same symptoms as alcoholism and street drug addiction like heroin or the like. Of course, you don’t have to take my word for it, just go to Pubmed and plug in a couple search terms and you’ll get all the proof you’ll ever need of this fact.


Editor’s note: For those of you who are not familiar with Pubmed, it is the database and search engine maintained by the United States National Library of Medicine (NLM) at the National Institutes of Health; it provides access primarily to the MEDLINE database of references and abstracts on life sciences and biomedical topics. (Access Pubmed here. )


You have to admit you have a problem when you need Facebook to help you grieve!

The stimulus for this editorial, however, is not Newcomers or SCI. Nor is it Twitter or Facebook. The funeral service corporations and the social media and networking evils do figure in the theme of this communication, however.
If presidents and perverts have discovered social networking and social media, neither of which are social in the benevolent meaning of the word but serve a more sinister, asocial purpose of getting people hooked and then controlling them, just as the word “service” is used deceptively when used in conjunction with such greed mills as Newcomers or Service Corporation International.
The stimulus for this commentary is, in fact, an article that appeared in Forbes online, “Customer Service In Deathcare: How The Funeral Home Industry Cares For The Living” (contributed by Micah Solomon, MAY 26, 2017).—

Mr Solomon describes himself as a “customer service consultant” and “consumer trends expert,” — he doesn’t say how he got those credentials, though — catchy phrases but a bit too catchy to inspire any confidence or credibility. I’m a bit at a loss not at the What? but at the How? when Mr Solomon then goes on to say:

While some of my own work with the death care industry as a customer service consultant and consumer trends expert has been on innovation in the deathcare customer experience (methods for serving today’s far-flung bereaved customers by using connectivity, videoconferencing, and recording technologies to allow them to take part in memorial/celebration of life service) most of the work I do in this industry and that matters the most, in my opinion, is simply aimed at improving the customer experience, which, of course, is for the living.

Likewise unclear is Solomon’s terminology “far-flung bereaved customers” and “connectivity, videoconferencing, and recording technologies” to involve them in the “memorial/celebration of life service“. Maybe it’s Mr Solomon’s sense of compassion that is represented by his use of the term “far-flung” to describe the unfortunate mourners who are separated by distance from the event. Describing the bereaved as “customers” further chills the atmosphere he’s creating. Technical jargon like “connectivity, videoconferencing, and recording technologies” somehow put a damper on my sense that this guy has any clue about the nature of bereavement, acute grief, mourning, tradition, spirituality, cultural sensitivity, or even the characteristics of the vocation of funeral director. I’m therefore at something of a loss how he, with his frigid and disconnected technospeak, can improve the customer experience! This he leaves to the funeral directors he’s interviewing. Wisely so.

But even more poignant ar the three phrases caught my attention in that unimaginitive and deceptive title: “customer service,” “deathcare,” “funeral home industry.”

We alone, as moral agents and social actors, are responsible for what we do and how we do it

Inserting a bit of Kantian deontology that I’d like you to keep in the back of your mind while reading this, I’d like to say that we are not measured by what the other guy or gal does, but by what we do; we alone, as moral agents and social actors, are responsible for what we do and how we do it. It’s the quality of our values, morals and ethics that govern our behavior. As moral free agents we alone are responsible for what standards are used to guide our conduct.This applies not only to our inner forum, our conscience and how it guides us, but to the external forum, the community in which we live, work, and may disinterestedly interact.

Human service becomes “customer” service when an goods or services transaction forms the basis of the interaction

Customer service is at its most basic human service, service to human beings, human interaction, relationship building. By human services, I mean a broad range of interdisciplinary services whose commitment is jointly and individually to improve the overall quality of life in diverse populations through guidance in meeting basic human needs and support remediating real or perceived social challenges.  Human service becomes “customer” service when a goods or services transaction forms the basis of the interaction but it is still a subset of human services. Accordingly, customer service cannot separate itself from the humane aspect, the relationship aspect of its nature. The problem I have with the Forbes article is that, true to the materialist consumerist interests of Forbes, the article defines customer service purely in terms of selling and purchasing relationships but in the context of the so-called, malapropism, funeral service industry. Customer service must be human service, especially in the funeral services professions. Human service and hence customer service in this framework is near impossible on a corporate or industrial scale for reasons I’d be happy to substantiate in another article, if required.

Try doing this on Facebook or in cyberspace!

The second term that raised my suspicions is “deathcare.” We can defined death care as the care given to the dead or as post-mortem care. This would involve respectful and dignified custodianship and preparation of the dead body for whatever funeralization rites and rituals are appropriate as defined by the deceased individual during his or her life or as requested by the survivors. We must not oversimplify deathcare with the deathcare services businesses and industries that commonly provide services related to the dead body and death traditions, that is, preparation of the dead body (removal, embalming, cosmetology, etc.), funeral rituals, disposal (burial, cremation, etc.), and memorialization. The deathcare business includes for example funeral homes and their operations, including transporation services; containers like caskets, coffins, urns; accelerated decomposition services such as alkaline hydrolysis, cremation, etc.; cemeteries and burial plots, and headstones, markers, etc. What we most neglect in the discussion of deathcare services is psychospiritual care, and here we must include the professional bereavement chaplain and some but not most clergy.

The phrase that most raised my hackles is “funeral home industry.” First of all, the funeral home is not an industry. It may operate like a business but it is a professional operation requiring very specific training and licensure in most places. Most states require a trained and licensed funeral director to at least oversee the operations of a funeral home. The term “funeral home industry” is grossly misleading and deceptive because it creates an image of the traditional funeral home with all of its warmth and amenities together with the dignified and compassionate professional funeral director at its helm. Nothing could be farther from the truth if one looks at the funeral services industry, the more correct designation for the funeral services groups and corporations such as Newcomer Funeral Services Group, Service Corporation International (Dignity Memorial) or StoneMor, who operate more like waste disposal business than funeral homes. Remember corporations operate according to policies, procedures, protocols and most of all the bottom line and shareholder satisfaction. No room here for stuff like compassion, empathy, much less “human service”.

Their focus is twofold: dignified care of the dead and compassionate care of the living.

The traditional, community funeral home is a hub of interdisciplinary teamwork.

The role of the funeral services provider, more accurately the funeral services team, is just that: to provide human services. Those human services are provided by a team of specialists that range from the funeral home cleaning and maintenance person(s), to the housekeeper, the groundskeeper, the funeral home assistants, the behind the scenes professionals (the cosmetologist, the hair stylist, the embalmer), to the front of house staff (the assistants, the funeral director(s)), to the psychospiritual care provider (the funeral home chaplain or associated clergyperson). Their focus is twofold: dignified care of the dead and compassionate care of the living. The human services aspect persists far beyond the care provided with the first call, the removal, the arrangements conference, the chaplain visit and consultation, the visitation or the funeral; what happens at any of these milestones significantly affects the survivors during, immediately after the services, and well into the future, perhaps for years. That’s what the funeral services industry, the large groups, the corporations can’t provide but what the local family-owned funeral home pride themselves in: the human side of funeral services. So be clear on this point: once you start talking “industry” you are not talking “human”. Period.

So far I’ve taken issue only with three phrases that occur in the title of the article alone. But what about the remainder of the so-called article at issue? Well, there’s not much to say about it because the bulk of it is made up of questions put to three selected funeral directors and their responses. Their responses are totally acceptable in terms of the language, and to be honest I can’t find much with which I’d tend to disagree. The funeral directors seem to have their acts in order and say the right things. They are in a highly competitive business and have to be realistic, not necessarily traditional. Read into that what you like.

It should be clear by this point that I do not advocate virtual or technological or corporate solutions to anything as profound as the death experience or any occurrence of acute traumatic bereavement. Electronic signals, bits and bytes, virtual compassion just do not and cannot replace the warmth of human spirit, the compassionate embrace of a friend or loved one, the immediacy of the death experience, the real-ization of the death and its sequellae. The funeral home and its resident and on-call team members are the experts in offering compassion and comfort and no social networking scheme, no corporate disposal package, no virtual event and no DVD can replace the authenticity and true empathic response of face-to-face, human-to-human, verbal and non-verbal communications, the symbols and rituals that give meaning to this most mysterious of life events, death.

… some things just have to be delivered locally and face-to-face; these include sex, making friends, spiritual care, funeralization services.

This is what we do.

The Editor

 


Editor’s Note: Solomon’s self-description reads line a narcissist’s mini-bio: “I’m best known as an author, keynote speaker, consultant, and thought leader in customer service, customer experience, company culture, leadership, hospitality, innovation, entrepreneurship and consumer trends. I travel nationally and worldwide, and home base is metro Seattle. Reach me at 484-343-5881 or micah@micahsolomon.com or http://www.micahsolomon.com” We’ve contacted him for a comment on this editorial.


Acknowledgement: I’d like to extend my special thanks to my colleagues on LinkedIn, Ms Linda Williams M. Ed., M. Th., who describes herself as an Entrepreneur, Virtual Event Planner and Facilitator, Instructional Designer, Educator, Inspirational Speaker”.” Ms Williams describes her business, In-Person Away Virtual Events, as an operation that provides “our clients, their families, and friends with a virtual alternative to come together in an engaging, realistic and meaningful way, as well as host and attend social events, without breaking the bank on travel expenses.” Ms Williams does not advocate virtual resources as a substitute for real presence but only as a valuable alternative affording an opportunity to share where no other viable options are available. I agree.



Church, Companions on a Slippery Slope


Church Victim of Slippery Slope Logic

Passing through some of our local communities, I frequently notice churches, that is, the physical building, the places of worship, and what characterizes them. The structure, the upkeep, the appearances, the messages posted outside; these say a lot about the people these brick and mortar structure, symbolic representatives of the beliefs and communities they claim they serve. I often see the trite clichés like “God is home, come on in!” or “Be yourself; everyone else is taken” and similar trite slogans. Apparently the Roman Catholic Churches in this area, Ravena and Coxsackie, NY, have given up on being taken seriously so now these parish leaders, the pastors have to play cool cutsie, mimicking their Protestant and Reformist cohorts. Such silliness simply degrades the sacred space and makes idiots of those who still frequent them.

Contrary to what you have been led to believe, dear readers, churches are not where God lives [Thank God!], that is, churches are not God’s personal primary residence, they are sacred spaces where we can find safe, quiet space to reflect, meditate, be still, or engage in a conversation with the Divine, a practice we call prayer, but have forgotten – or never knew how to do it. Nowadays most conversations with God turn out to be like conversations with those twits exercising their thumbs on an electronic device; God’s trying to reveal himself to the twit who’s functioning with half a hemisphere.

Repurposing Our Churches

 Materialist-consumerists worship their new idols: mega-flat screens, surround sound, a nymph, and a bottle. Happy worshipping!

When I hear of closure of churches, merging of congregations, sale of church property, conversions of churches to art galleries, restaurants, even private residences, I feel a cold shudder. These churches have become like dinosaurs; they were once living, awesome organisms, and they thrived and nurtured similar life but at some time long ago they became sick, languished and died. Now all we have left of them are lumps of rock we gawk at in museums or use as paperweights in our studies. So, too, many of our former sacred spaces are now secular spaces where the inhabiting materialist-consumerists worship their new idols: mega-flat screens, surround sound, a nymph, and a bottle. Happy worshipping!

So where has God gone once evicted? God’s where he’s always been: in the dark silent depths of our hearts, unless we’ve replaced God there too with some idol like money, sex, a car, a political figure. Yes, O’Idolaters of Ubiquitous White Noise and Distractions, the Ultimate Truth still lies hidden in that wet, fertile, darkness deep within a human being (No, not a vagina!) but who nowadays with their stymied white-cane spirituality would dare explore the silence within when there’s so much to do in the world? Why would anyone want to become acquainted with their true self when they can invent another, more pleasant, acceptable self and transform it at any time. Who will know? You will. But you don’t care because you’ve been diving down that slippery slope for so long you wouldn’t know your true self if you tripped over it!

In my meanderings I spend time in churches, at meetings and conferences, on Internet forums, at monasteries, interacting with others in a variety of settings. I note the anxiety and the vulnerability of so many people; I note their white-cane spirituality, blindly pursuing some sort of agenda-seeking-to-become-a-religion, a tool for a virtual life; I listen to and become offended by the ignorance and narcissism of those claiming to be called to a vocation, as clergy, as lay religious, as lay ministers in churches, congregations, parishes; I frequently observe the infantile fascination of the unwashed when, in a strange ecstasy of voyeurism, they rub shoulders with monks, priests, nuns, or spiritual leaders, and they grin idiotically as if caught in an act of masturbation. “Hee, hee! Look at me!” Narcissism, too, is a form of idolatry. I have to wonder whether the gawkers or the gawkees actually realize the pitiable dynamic going on. It’s rather like the voyeurism of social media but worse. Worse because the so-called spiritual leaders are actually enjoying the worship, and the egos soar – and the wound deepens and festers, poisoning the entire mystical body.

If churches and faith communities are hemorrhaging members, the religious vocations are dwindling into membership cachexia. And like starving rats will go for anything that smacks of survival. For several decades now, the materialist consumerism and the dumbing down of society has left the message of higher truths and spirituality to languish in the shadow of anti-human propaganda, corporate greed, political narcissism, social confusion, despair and anxiety. Fear of loss is the underlying message everywhere we look. That fear is nourished by the messages we receive of time running out for something, anything, everything; fear the terror threat, fear the coming rain or snow showers, fear the threat represented by the guy next door, fear the North Koreans, fear the Russians, fear the illegals. What we need to fear is the false teaching in the poor preaching, we need to fear the pulpit politics, we need to fear the bigoted perp patrols.

Stuck somewhere in a learning curve…

We are stuck somewhere in a learning curve. But where? We need to learn to fear our own demise and ignorance thanks to the conflicting and contradicting messages we receive from the media, the poor performance of our education institutions, and the dishonesty and corruption of our political system. Add to that the failure of our Judeo-Christian religious institutions to teach correct doctrine and dogma, and to provide effective preaching in support of implementing doctrine and dogma into our day-to-day lives in furtherance of “happiness” and a “good end.” And it’s no wonder people are despairing and anxious. The only religion that’s growing these days is Islam and our response is to demonize it as a bunch of whacko terrorists. Doesn’t anyone see where this is leading? But then, when I was a kid it was the Roman Catholics and Protestants killing each other. Only the bigotry and creeds have remained the same; only the faces have changed.

Failing religious institutions and religious organizations and institutions are desperately prostituting themselves in a vain attempt simply to survive. But like our cultural and political institutions our religious and faith institutions are appealing to the lowest common denominator in the attempt to get what they can and run with it. It’s not working, people, that’s why you see so many storefront and strip mall micro-churches flooding into the vacuum left by mainstream institutions. Problem is this: the storefront and strip mall micros are just as bad as the movie-theatre or stadium megachurches, because they create their own ideologies, agendas, idolatries and there are plenty of sheeple to participate because they don’t know anything better. Thanks Vatican II and interfaith dialogue, ecumenism. Lights, cameras, action! Worship!

I can speak from personal experience made in a relationship with a monastic community in Northwest New York state, near the Vermont border. The monastic community there is comprised of monks and nuns, both referred to as monastics, mostly lay religious (as opposed to ordained clergy), living in community according to a formal rule of life. Work, prayer, rest. Sounds like the good life, doesn’t it?

The monastery is nestled between mountains on several hundreds of acres of forest and meadow. The buildings are far from the noise of the picturesque local village and the hustle and bustle of the “world.” The work life of the monks and nuns is what supports the monastery and keeps the lights on and food on the table. Support from benefactors, publishing, music, and retreats are icing on the cupcake. Spiritual life is divided into private prayer and liturgy in the beautiful basilica and the small temple church. You’d think they have it all and then some. Their outward appearance is idyllic; what’s going on inside is traumatic.

But writing books, hospitality for retreatants, dog breeding and training, and cheesecakes cannot guarantee survival. You see, just 50 years old in 2016, the monks and nuns are aging and more are dying or leaving than are being recruited. One of the problems is the fact that the bishops, though they support the concept of the monastery, do little to encourage monastic vocations. Why? Because they have a difficult time just recruiting priests for their parishes. Also because of the What’s in it for me? attitude of possible recruits, the consecrated life doesn’t offer much that can compete with the idols of the secular world. Schools and churches just haven’t taught higher values so we end up with materialist consumers who have no concept of spirit; they are virtually spiritually deaf, mute and blind. There’s a certain paradox, contradiction in so much that Christians today claim.

Get the *&%$# of my way. I’ll be late for church!

So where does an organization in decline turn in the desperate attempt to survive a couple of more years? Like the consumer society they live in, they are compelled to sacrifice quality for quantity. Like the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany reports in a recent issue of Sheaf, the official gazette of St Bernard’s School of Ministry and Theology, the Albany Roman Catholic Diocese reports “200 deacons and growing.” When you can’t attract young men to the priesthood you have to attract old men to the diaconate. Numbers not quality count; that’s why the permanent diaconate was revived by the Roman Catholic Church in the 60s to stem the decline in seminary admissions; in many dioceses the diaconate has become a boy’s club, a church country club, an organization of narcisistic logrollers. “My dad the deacon.” “My son the deacon.” “My wife, Mrs Deacon!”

Deacon Chic Coming Soon to Your Parish!

The Episcopal church has been ordaining “women” for decades; many (mostly gender ambiguous specimens) in the RC church are advocating ordaining women deacons and the reasonable expected consequence of this slippery slope is women priests! When does this comedy of errors, this farce stop? [Editor’s note: For those of our readers with limited vocabularies, a comedy of errors is a related series of amusing or farcical events involving a series of awkward missteps or other mistakes.]

Clergy or Special Ed Class?

In the 13th century, in about 1221, St Francis of Assisi, founder of the Franciscan Order, decided that there were many lay persons unable to join a monastery or live in a religious community, who were being left out of the Franciscan experience. He founded the so-called Third Order in addition to the First Order (the Franciscan Friars) and the Second Order (the Poor Claires). The Third Order has been around for almost 800 years now, and was thriving until recently, and it too is dwindling. The Third Order, like the First and Second Orders, is geriatric and dependent on an institutional walker. Even with the approval of the New Rule for the Third Order by Pope Paul VI in his Seraphicus Patriarcha, the Third Order is turning senile. Like so many once bustling religious orders, the Renewal of the Roman Catholic Church backfired, and now the main activity of the Franciscans is competing with the Evangelicals in the Third World or selling off Franciscan properties in the First and Second World, or burying dead Franciscans in this world. The Third Order is generally made up of old women, a few middle aged men, and some hyperpious (sociopathic) young adults. We can see where that’s going. You guessed it! They’re the one’s swinging the rosary beads in front of the abortion clinics and in front of state capitols, providing rich entertainment for the studs and trollops on their way to the hourly rate hotel around the corner.

OK. But can someone tell me how this works? How about you, Father?

More recently, the monastery I was discussing above, having had a previous community of married persons called “Companions” for some thirty years (1983-2014), until they either died or went off to nursing homes, decided that the monastic community had to generate some sort of alternative resource to support the monastery. Once the last Companion was shipped off either to the nursing home or to the cemetery, the building formerly occupied by the Companions was renovated and turned into a rather nice “guest house” where, for a “donation” of $80.00 a night, visitors to the monastery can stay. What the monastery did was to re-invent the “Companions,” who were originally married couples who lived together in an almost monastic community on the monastery grounds, and observed a life rule, and opened the new “Companions” to all faiths, all people who wanted to be “formally connected with the [redacted] monastery” and “deepen their spiritual lives.” The officially adopted and published rule of the new “Companions” calls them a “fellowship of lay people.” One of the purposes of the “Companions” is to “grow in wisdom” and to “understand the mystery of God.” If you haven’t caught some of the contradictions and inconsistencies in this, we’ll point them out to you below.

The Franciscan Third Order Cross.
(We did not have access to the Companions “distinctive cross” at this writing.)

Why become a member of this new “Companions” group? Well, according to the promo put out by the monastery, “They follow a realistic rule of life, wear a distinctive cross, have access to web resources dedicated specifically to the Companions, and help support the spiritual mission of “[redacted]. If all that sounds impressive, it’s not. Any adherent to any faith or belief tradition follows a “realistic rule of life”; “good”, that is, authentic Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, etc. all incorporate some sort of prayerful piety in their daily lives. Oh! You get to wear a “distinctive cross” by purchasing it for about $69.00. That’s nice but a name tag engraved on an attractive plastic plate would serve just as well as an announcement that: “Hey, look at me! I’m a member of a distinctive group and you’re not!” Didn’t we just note that narcissism is a form of idolatry? Isn’t this a form of pride, a lack of humility? Does the Cross have to be “distinctive”? Sounds like a Pharisee to me. Having access “web resources dedicated specifically to the Companions” is touted as another of the membership perks. We’d rather not comment on that one but if falls short of expectations, we hear.

Let’s face the facts: The monastery may be facing annihilation over the longer term if it doesn’t (1) come up with some sort of recruitment scheme for the long-term future of the community, and (2) come up with some sort of outside “support for its mission,” which translates into people who are able and willing to give in support of the community before it has to start selling off acreage. The old “Companions” committed their lives and fortunes to the monastic community; they’re gone now and so, too, probably are their fortunes. We expect that the monastery is looking to the new “Companions” to pick up some of the slack.

And this is how it’s gonna be!

Our study of the new “Companions” and its format would indicate that as an institution it doesn’t promise much. It’s too loosely organized, there are no real commitments, everything is pretty lackadaisical in terms of governance – or dictatorial, since one of the monks is the sole director and calls all of the shots. The members are scattered all over the place, so it will be difficult to convene them for any sort of gathering. There are no financial commitments such as dues and the monastery doesn’t offer discounts or financial incentives specifically for Companions so there’s no actual money coming in apart from the odd donation, and no reason for Companions to support monastery funds generation through purchases or participation in for-fee (Oops! I mean to say, “donation.” That’s church jargon for you pay a fee but they don’t pay a tax for the “gift.”)

We have heard that the director of the companions wants to organize a retreat this year for “Companions” at the monastery but that is getting lukewarm reception from “Companions.” Wonder Why?

If the new Companions were organized as a more local group, they would be similar to a parish confraternity, and their numbers would be strictly limited to locals who participate in the parish or church community. To get numbers you have to appeal to a wider geographical coverage, like the entire state or country. But the monastery’s denomination is not even mainstream. Yes, it’s Christian, and that poses a problem right from the get go, but it’s also a very minority Christian denomination. But realistically, of all the obstacles, challenges and problems facing the Companions is the reality that being a Companion doesn’t offer anything particularly special that can’t be gotten by anyone walking through the monastery doors. Excuse me, for I have erred! There is one thing that is reserved for Companions only: the “distinctive cross.” A special design only for Companions, and only one per Companion, please. Available only through the monastery online store for $69.00. Now doesn’t that make you feel special?

A major theme was discussed by the monastics in various meetings before the Companion program was formally started…

We’ve obtained information from one of the Companions, an email from the Director, forwarded to us for information. Apparently there was some back-and-forth among the Companions about the proposed undecided retreat date, and the Director, apparently a bit pissed, but his response is interesting. He states in his email that, “[t]he Companion Rule talks about a fellowship with [redacted monastery], this fellowship is with the individual Companion and the monastics of [redacted].” This means that the fellowship is not between the individual Companion and the other Companions and the monastics of the monastery; rather it is between the individual Companion and the monastics! The director says further that this was a “major theme discussed by the monastics in various meetings before the Companion program was formally started.” Too bad the people aspiring to be Companions are not clairvoyant or mind-readers because the Rule is not clear on this point! He points out rather clearly that the Companions are not obligated to “share…with other Companions,” “that if Companions want to reach out to other Companions” they can do so of their own “free will” (But why would it be otherwise, we ask?), and emphasizes that “participation with other companions is voluntary.” That’s all very nice but where’s the bloody companionship in the Companions?

Tell me! What will the monastics decide?

We are informed that in an introductory letter to Companions, the Director states that the principal and only form of communication used by Companions central will be online. Sound a bit exclusionist? But in the more recent communication he goes on to say that although they might have computers and be connected to the [i]nternet [sic; recte Internet] “Companions do not need to be ‘shamed’ if they do not post comments on the Companion forum.” It seems to us that by definition, communication is a key word in companionship. If the Internet is the primary mode of communication and the Companion Forum is the designated place for Companions, why don’t they communicate? The do, but behind the scenes, sometimes in confidential ambush. But this is not uncommon practice in religious institutions. Much is done in secret and much done in secret is evil.

As for the “retreat date,” the Director writes: “[I]t will be up to the monks and nuns of [redacted] to set the date…the same would apply if held off campus because the mosastics must have the free time to offer a retreat.” So much for a Companions’ retreat. Question: Who’s the retreat supposed to be for?

Still in the learning curve. But where?

What’s really disturbing is that the Director writes, “[t]he monastics are still within the “learning curve” of the Companion program.” We have learned that there have already been a number of casualties among the Companions due to the “learning curve.” If this so-called Companions group purports to offer so many significant benefits, how can they achieve these under the current conditions and in the midst of a learning crisis? Please don’t call us, we’ll call you. By the way, let us know when you’ve gotten past milestone (3) of the “learning curve.”

Fellowship

Just a final word on fellowship and companionship

Just a final word on fellowship and companionship for those who are interested. We do hope that members of religious communities of any tradition, and especially the Companions get to read and reflect on this: [Editor’s note: While we do use as our authorities excerpts from Christian Scripture, parallel concepts with substantial identical meaning can be found in any of the great belief traditions. Anyone familiar with the sacred texts of those traditions will have no difficulty identifying those similarities.]

The Greek word  “fellowship” κοινωνία (koinónia) as it occurs in the Christian Second [New] Testament means essentially a partnership, joint participation, communion to the mutual benefit of those involved. Christian fellowship, then, is the mutually beneficial relationship between persons of common interest or belief. We believe that Christians can have the identical fellowhip relationship with those outside the Christian tradition. So we’re OK with the use of fellowship in the Companions Rule, if that’s what is meant. We don’t think it is clear in the Rule, though. First DING.

The mystery and privilege that is human fellowship is that it exists because it has been enabled it by Divine grace. Those who believe the Christian Gospel are united in the Spirit through Christ to the Father, and that participation is the basis of what we generally tend to call fellowship, a first step to companionship. This special relationship confirmed by Jesus in his high-priestly prayer:

“I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:23).

The phrase translated by “complete unity” in this prayer is the oneness that believers seek to experience in true communion —companionship — with another, and by extension, with the triune God.

If the ground is fertile for fellowship, it will grow naturally, because it’s natural for human beings to want to be around people similar to themselves and, in time, one finds one’s self desiring, seeking out, and cultivating the companionship of people who subscribe to similar beliefs and values. As a member of a faith or belief community one’s beliefs, traditions and values may be countercultural, that is, they be in stark contrast to the world around you. That’s one of the reasons why for fellowship in relationship with persons with whom we can share, relate, converse is a very important gift.

Whether one is of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition, the lessons we can learn about fellowship are condensed in the Christian pastoral letters to the Philippians. Here are some of the lessons we can learn about true fellowship and that it means:

  • praying for one another (1:3, 4)
  • serving God together (1:5, 7)
  • partaking together of God’s grace (1:7)
  • trusting in God’s sovereign working in one another (1:6)
  • heartfelt affection for one another (1:8)

Our prayers should not, in our opinion, be constantly begging for something other than what we face. We should pray that we have the strength to accept what is happening to us as God’s love for us; we should not pray that the situation change but that we be changed by the situation. This is the basis of hope: accepting the moment in anticipation of a positive outcome. We should reflect on Paul’s prayer at Philippians 1:9-11 (paraphrased):

‘And I pray this, that our love may abound even more and more in knowledge and every kind of insight so that we can decide what is best, and thus be sincere and blameless for the day of reckoning, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through virtue to the glory and praise of God.’

So where does companionship fit in this scheme of relationship living? Companionship in the Second Testament has a very specific meaning as opposed to the concept of fellowship.

The original concept of companion, as we read it, has to do with journeying together (Gk  συνοδία (sunodia) — a journey together), or to receive or give access to one’s self (Gk. προσδέχομαι (prosdechomai), both involving the prefix σύν (syn), indicating the notion of being with, together with, in union, in communion. Companions are further described as σύντροφος (syntrophos) used to mean “nourished by” or in the sense of a foster-brother, brought up with; one’s companion. Other words translated as companion express the notion of accompaniment such as περιάγω (periagó) — to lead around or take around as a companion) or παραλαμβάνω (paralambanó) meaning to take along with oneself, to join to oneself to, to companion.

It seems that companionship is a relationship in which the participants emphasize achieving an almost profound intimacy with each other through individual growth and self-actualization and excellent communication sharing so that their best spiritual and temporal fruits can be harvested. Companionship implies a relationship characterized by its closeness, and is more intimate than fellowship. Shared culture, tradition and values can be the basis of sincere fellowship but companionship requires the willingness and capability of going even deeper, and requires a higher degree of development of self-awareness, self-reflection, authenticity, commitment.

Companionship involves trust, vulnerability; not sameness.

To be companions, we don’t have to be clones of one another. Likewise, the responsibilities and vulnerabilities increase with companionship, and the companion must anticipate some of the challenges. Companionship goes beyond fellowship in its requisite attention to forgiveness, reconciliation and genuine presence. Companionship adds to the definition of love the aspect of sacrifice of one’s own interests to nurture the spiritual growth of others.

Companionship may be thought of as a form of fellowship but companionship is built upon interchange or communication, and communion, that is, a closeness that exists among companions, those closely associated with one another in virtue of a life rule or standards to which they are committed and hold in common. The key in companionship is communication and the focus concepts that describe companionship are interchange, communion, sharing, dialogue. Communication means sharing reflections, perceptions, ideas, information, needs, support, resources, gifts, using words or other symbols, dedication of time and treasure, being accessible and present, or even body language and actions so that all members of the relationship understand these to be expressions of one’s commitment to the community of companions.

Unless we have chosen to forsake all that is society and isolate ourselves from any contact with human beings, and choose to escape human community by living in isolation in some remote wasteland, we live in a society. Living in a society means that we live in close interaction with other human beings, and that the interaction will necessarily fluctuate between pleasure and pain. We have to navigate the testy waters of human relationships each moment of each day; we have to tread water or drown. Again, Holy Scripture teaches us something about what to do when we feel that our space has been violated.

In companionship there is also vulnerability, and vulnerability can often lead to suffering, even if only unintentionally inflicted. Ancient wisdom teaches that “Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense.” (Prov. 19:11) To overlook an offense means to be able to understand what might have caused a person to offend you and to let it go. Christians generally believe that they are adopted members of the family of God and fellow members of the body of Christ. (e.g., 1 Co. 12:27; Rom 12:5; Eph 4:25)

Companions are Soul-Friends

Communication, accompaniment, forgiveness and reconciliation are the hallmarks of true companionship. If you are companions on a journey why would you vex your companion, and if you are aware you have offended your companion, you would likely go to great lengths ask forgiveness and obtain reconciliation. “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” (Matthew 18:23-24). We think that is a profound statement on companionship and the intimacy and communication that is seminal to the concept of being a companion.

And, of course, we do recite a familiar passage in our daily prayers, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” Regrettably, in our materialist-consumerism, in the political and social climate of today, we are really poor losers. Rather than practice the principles of our faith and belief traditions, the precepts of our institutions, and our true nature, we’d rather ambush, deceive, misinform, simply flick the bird to those who should be our companions on the journey of life. This is equally true for individuals as it is for our organizations and our institutions. We are on a slippery slope, a situation in which a relatively small and well-intentioned first step leads to a chain of related events culminating in some significant, usually unintended or negative effect.

Companions Together.
See beyond the monkey.


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