A Song and the Terminally Ill

Weekend Fisher at Heart, Mind, Soul, and Strength has in the last week been running a series on spiritual resources for the terminally ill and their caregivers. Now, where I’m placed in my life’s journey has not found me interacting closely with the terminally ill. However, it so happens that this Sunday afternoon our choir visited a terminally ill member of our congregation who is (had been) a member of the choir. I hadn’t gotten to know at all over the past year so we haven’t been visiting until now. But … to the point.

As our final song, our choir sang St. Simeon’s prayer (in the west the Nunc Dimittis) :

Νυν απολύεις τον δούλον σου, Δέσποτα, κατά το ρήμα σου εν ειρήνη,
ότι είδον οι οφθαλμοί μου το σωτήριόν σου,
ο ητοίμασας κατά πρόσωπον πάντων των λαών,
φως εις αποκάλυψιν εθνών και δόξαν λαού σου Ισραήλ.

or more usefully

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word:
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;
A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.

This is a song well known in Orthodox liturgy as it is part of the Great Vespers service, which in the States is sung every Saturday night.

On the drive home, we were discussing in our family whether this was appropriate to sing in the presence of the dying. I think it is, for that is the precise context of St. Simeon’s urge to speak these words. He has now seen the Christ child and is, as an elderly and likely infirm man … ready to depart … life. The common usage of this song is at the end of a service, and often “now let thy servant depart” is taken as to depart from this place of worship and return to secular life. However, that is now what was meant in the original context. So in that regard, as a song for the dying … it both is appropriate and may provide some comfort.


Philokalia Monday: Evagrius Ponticus on Discrimination and Demons

I return to blogging my way through, by reading and commenting on the four volumes of the English translation of the Philokalia. This work is, to quote wiki, “Other than the Bible, and a handful of writings by early Christian Fathers, the Philokalia is by far the most influential and widely admired example of Eastern Orthodox piety in print today. It is featured prominently in another much shorter well-known book called The Way of a Pilgrim, in which a Russian traveler learns to pray from various people he meets on his travels and by reading the Philokalia.” This work is a collection of writings from the fourth through at least the 15th centuries. The length of excerpts included in the Philokalia is somewhat indicative as to how large an impression they have made on the theology as practiced by the Orthodox. Our next author for today and the upcoming few weeks is Evagrios Pontikos.

It is said of Evagrios that “He possessed to an exceptional degree the gifts of psychological insight and vivid description, together with the ability to analyze and define with remarkable precision the various stages on the spiritual way.” In this work Evagrios talks extensively of demons. Today’s Freudian influenced materialist people would reject the notion that demons swarm around tempting us to do those things we should not. One might, at the onset of reading such texts, misquote Barth (on Genesis) who if I remember the quote correctly said, “I don’t care if the snake spoke, what’s important is what he said.” The point being, it’s less important whether demons are materially detectable, measurable, or “real”. What’s important is whether the psychological insights are useful and helpful in turning us and helping us center our thoughts on God and a Godly life. So with that in mind, we begin with 23 “texts” (short essays or thoughts) on Discrimination. Continue reading →

Future Essays: A Bibliographic Note

Well, on the plane rides and with the benefit of much airport terminal … time for reflection and reading. I read, or more precisely started to read some fascinating interconnected books. Just a few years ago, a man by the name of Origen following St. Paul’s advice to fearlessly put all Truth to the service of God started the East and the whole Christian Church on a program of putting philosophy to task as a tool to understand theology. This program continues apace, even if modern philosophers have set this task (by and large) to the side.

The first book, based on when it was written, was suggested by sagacious commenter jpe (who blogs too sporadically at L’esprit d’scalier). Recently a number of essays and discussions have centered around volition and free-will. A similar discussion occurred when I had encountered in a book by Vladimir Lossky the remark that modern ideas of personhood can be traced to patristic efforts in Late Aniquity to understand the Chrisitian notion of Trinity. jpe (Mr jpe?) had suggested getting Jean-Paul Satre’s Being And Nothingness. In fact, what I did read so far, has much to offer in our ongoing discussion on volition and will in the light of deterministic nature (or not) of man.

The second book, of which I spent unfortunately spent somewhat less time reading, was John D Zizioulas Communion and Otherness: Further Studies in Personhood and the Church. Sartre in his book spends some efforts defining in a precise manner what is mean by one’s being (person) and the “Other”. Mr Zizioulas takes this (as well as a number of other modern philosophical efforts on being and other) ties this into the patristic thinking on the same subject. The main reason that I spent a little less time with this book, is that it became apparent that at least a conversational understanding of what Sartre was talking about was going to be necessary to not just get completely lost in my reading.

For my third book, I started reading Aristotle Papanikolaou’s Being With God: Trinity, Apophaticism, And Divine-Human Communion. Mr Papanikolaou’s project in this book is straightforward. In the 20th century the Eastern Church has had two leaders in modern theological thinking/writing, being Lossky and Zizioulas. According to this book, both start with the same premises:

  • A commitment to be faithful to the patristic tradition,
  • and that an ontology of divine-human communion is the basis for their understanding of theological epistemology.

Both come to different conclusions. In short, Lossky moves in the direction ala Pseudo-Dionysus and St. Gregory Palamas, that of mysticism, apophaticism, and hesychasm are the mode of that communion while Zizioulas holds that communion to be contained in the Eucharist within the divine liturgy. This book is a discussion of the arguments, differences and similarities of these two theologians in this project.

Anyhow, I’m going to be reading these books for some time as I attempt to make sense of these books and what their authors are trying to teach.

Reflections on Genesis: Noah’s Sons & Babel

Two final small stories, who’s length belies how much they have to offer. The first is on Noah’s sons and considers the problem which vexed many a Medieval King. Passing on a legacy and temperament from father to his sons. The second, a problem becoming far more important in today’s world, the relationship between man, God, and our technology. The notes for my final discussion group session on early Genesis read from a philosophical point of view below the fold.
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Volition and Choice: Uninformed Beginning

To get the ball rolling, as I’ve noted I’m going to attempt to consider choices, free-will and … all that. Before going into “the literature”, I thought it might be instructive to put to pen/paper (or ePaper anyhow) some ideas on this matter. I suggested some texts I might look at, put forth here, and a lively discussion followed (or lively as it gets in my quiet corner of the ‘sphere).

Anyhow, what follows (below the fold) is the dreaded bullet list of points on volition.
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Volition and Choice

As mentioned yesterday, I’m thinking of starting an investigation into volition and choice. It is said for example we cannot choose to fall in love. What, if anything, can we choose to do? If we cannot actually choose anything what is left of ego.

Starting with Google, sources in this investigation will include:

  1. Plato’s Protagoras and The Laws.
  2. Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics
  3. Paul’s letters in the New Testament
  4. And the what I might glean from the patristic writers from late Antiquity (Evagrius?).

Any other suggestions are welcome.

I’m off to pick up #2 daughter from her gymnastics class. I have to say it’s a wonderful thing when your kids can amaze you with their accomplishments. For a quite stiff and unlimber middle aged guy the flexibility of young aspiring gymnasts is mind-boggling. I’m bringing the first on the list with me to get started on this little project.

Quoth Dame Stein

St. Edith Stein, born in 1891 in Breslau to a practicing Jewish family, she lost her faith in her teens. A brilliant student, she became only the 2nd female in Germany to get a PhD in philosophy writing her thesis on empathy under the phenomenologist Huserl. In 1921 however, after her experiences as volunteer nurse in WWI and a reading of the Life of St. Teresa of Avila she converted to Christianity. In 1933 she became a Carmalite nun until she was martyred in Auschwitz in 1942. She was canonized a Saint by Pope John Paul in the 1990s. Some quotes from the introduction of Finite and Eternal Being (from the gasp library). In this book, (or at least the introduction) it begins:

A preliminary exposition of the doctrine of act and potency of St. Thomas Aquinas is to serve as a an avenue of approach. [the remainder of the paragraph elided ]

The distinction between potency (possibility, faculty, power) and act (actuality, actualization, efficacy) is related to the ultimate problems of being. And the discussion of these concepts leads immediately into the heart of Thomistic philosophy.

On the the point of my quotes here:

Much more serious is the complete separation of modern philosophy from revealed truth. It [ed: philosophy] no longer sees in revealed truth a standard of measurement with which to test its own findings. Nor is it willing to have theology assign to it certain tasks for the solution of which philosophy would then have to use its own specific ways and means. It not only considers it a duty to confine itself to the natural light of reason but it is determined never to reach out beyond the world of natural experience. It wants to be an autonomous discipline in every respect. This ambition has cause modern philosophy to become to a large extent a godless discipline. And it has led, moreover, to the division of philosophy into two separate camps in which two different languages are spoken and in which no attempt is made to arrive at a mutual understanding.

While it is true that the physical sciences have good call to reject revelation as part of their discipline, philosophy has less call for its failure to address the same.

The Annual Training Plan Model

Fitness in cycling is a tough task master, for you can’t procrastinate. If you want to perform well in the late spring and summer, then now is when you have to lay in long tough hours on the bike. Living in a place where the weather doesn’t … uhm … cooperate that means lots of hours in a basement and not outside on the endless road. If you don’t prepare, there is little you can do even a month or two ahead of the date. If you’re fitness isn’t there, it isn’t there. You can try to cheat, pump up your VO2 max with some hard interval sets in the days before an event, but if your endurance isn’t there … lot’s of groveling at the back (or off the back) of the pack will be your fate. Fitness and strength are things you can’t “cheat” at, but need to be slowly worked up.

Training cycles (periodization or varying the workload in a regular periodic fashion to ratchet yourselves into top condition), rest days, hard days, BT (break-through) workouts, interval sets, and lots of other training esoterica figure prominently in the weeks and months of training. Fitness is never static it’s either improving or the reverse. Via Training Peaks, I set up a list of my weaknesses, strengths, hours I intend to spend training, my “A”, “B” and “C” races which determine when I hope to peak in the year. From that a plan to best reach my goals, work on my weaknesses as well as keeping those things I’m good at tuned.

Why do we so often suspect that is not the case for our intellectual and spiritual life as well. In the next week, between Christmas and New Year, I have some time off from work. I’m going to try to lay out my “Training Plan”, set goals and try to set a plan and how that goes, eh?

Picking on Mulberries

Over at Mere Orthodoxy, the possibly pseudonymous tex has been pondering unassailable truths. While I don’t have the facility with philosophical jargon with which he is comfortable I’d like to offer some thoughts on the matter.

tex is considering the problem of the existence and utility of unassailable truth. He writes:

Something is unassailable in two possible ways:
1. There is no way of testing the validity of the thing and so it cannot be assailed in any way
2. All the things that support the thing are tested and found to be true and to rest upon a final principle which is itself true; that is, the attempted assailing if you will, was unsuccessful.

And it seems he is not so happy with the first, and thinks the 2nd is rare. tex also points out that the there is another possibility, that

A foundation need not be unassailable at all; however, an assailable foundation comes with a price. It must constantly be defended and upheld, and all the beliefs that flow from it cannot be known to be true (insofar as the foundation is not known to be true and is thus assailable).

Now, it might be that “truth” is not the most useful criterion. Mathematics in the 20th century failed in the Russell/Whitehead programme to axiomatise and make itself internally consistent. Godel’s little theorem showed that programme to be flawed. However mathematics, while thus not being able to be shown as “true”, still has two other, perhaps better, criteria which drive it along in the remainder of the 20th and 21st centuries. The other virtues of beauty and utility drive mathematical intuition and research. Perhaps these two criteria when taken hand in hand in an indirect fashion touch truth in a way more fundamental than is immediately apparent.

In the same way that Riemann’s seminal doctoral defense was beautiful and in fact useful giving rise to differential geometry and general relativity, good philosophy and theology can be internally (logically) beautiful and useful. If a foundation and its accompanying edifice touches, ala Aquinas and Augustine, and unites natural science, philosophy and ethics with the spiritual and theological … if it is useful and beautiful (and perhaps Good), is “unassailable truth” even still a requirement?

Physics uses the assailable yet beautiful Mathematics to develop a representation or a model of the truths hiding in Creation. These models are not “truth”, but are in fact representations and models of reality, i.e., the truth for which they seek. Likewise, philosophers and theologians should (if in fact they do not) realize their models as well are merely representations of the truths for which they seek. Beauty, utility, and perhaps the guiding light of the Spirit are signposts lighting the way. Godel dooms any particular model, but … not the project.

David and Achilles: Reflections on Femininity

This is the third in an ongoing weekly series of essays (+ roundup) comparing and contrasting two great heroic/epic stories which served similar functions for two dissimilar societies in a similar era. Those two stories are the Story of David from 1st and 2nd Samuel and the Iliad by Homer. This week’s topic, to get this project started, is to discuss, contrast, and compare the openings of the two stories. The first week’s essays were on the openings. My essay was here. The roundup is here. The second weeks essay is here (there were no contributed essays, alas).

Next week’s essay will discuss friendship. Specifically, the friendships between David and Jonathon contrasted with that of Achilles and Patroclus (for “extra credit” throw in discussion of Gilgamesh and Enkidu). As per the usual the idea is to contrast, compare, and discuss the similarities and differences found in these two stories. Then venture a few thoughts on what this might say to us in our modern times. Please, if you have anything to offer, e-mail me by Sunday at 8pm EST, and I’ll include it in a roundup of all the posts entered. I will post my essay Thursday, I hope. 😉

Femininity, in a story of very masculine heroes, like David and Achilles? Well, to be honest, women do not play a major role in either story. To focus our thoughts, I thought it might be helpful to investigate three relationships, two from the David story and one from the Iliad. These relationships are: David with Saul’s daughter Michal, David and Abigail, and Hector and Andromache. What in these stories can we glean the authors might see as women’s virtues? How are they similar? How do they differ? What light might they shed today?
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David and Achilles: The Duel

This is the second in a weekly series roundup of essays comparing and contrasting two great heroic/epic stories which served similar functions for two dissimilar societies in a similar era. Those two stories are the Story of David from 1st and 2nd Samuel and the Iliad by Homer. This week’s topic, to get this project started, is to discuss, contrast, and compare the openings of the two stories. The first week’s essays were on the openings. My essay was here. The roundup is here.

Next week’s essay will be a little more open, and at a request will be on comparing women. Pick two ladies from each story. Pick a pair of scenes in which they feature (that would be four scenes two for each). As per the usual, contrast, compare, discuss the similarities and differences, and then what this might say to us in our modern times.

David and Goliath. If any story is famous it’s that one. Menelaus and Paris … the story highlights the cause behind the conflict of the Iliad … but their duel is less famous. Both of these stories start by describing the combatants.
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Query for Later in the Week

OK, I’ve got two questions and to be honest, it germinated with thoughts on my up-and-coming essay on “The Duel”, but bear with me.

What’s the worst thing that can happen to you? Is it Death, dishonor, loss of friends and/or family, loneliness, betrayal, … or something else. The second question is related, how do you think most people would answer that question?

I have a suspicion that unlike previous era’s, this age finds Death the ultimate bugbear. But, I turn this over to the floor. What happenstance do you fear the most?

I was going to write an essay on this tonight, but I decided I’d take a “poll” first, on what my gentle readers think the answer is first … and then I’ll ponder out loud (as it were) on that topic.

David and Achilles: Openings … Collected

Well, I didn’t get any entries this week for essays on “The Openings” of the “Story of David” (1st and 2nd Samuel) and the Iliad. However, I did get a number of interesting comments, a topic request, and a very interesting essay + blog post on David’s Story from Tom Graffagnino. His post is …. “See Saul Teeter-Totter”.

Next Thursday I will be posting an essay on “The Duel”. I will collect essays until 7pm Sunday night (Central time or -6 GMT). My idea for duels to investigate would be David vs Goliath and Paris and Menelaus. For Jim (and his class?) who are currently reading the Odyssey, another good possibility for comparison might be Odysseus versus Polyphemus, which while not a classic duel perhaps shares enough elements with a duel to be considered comparison to David’s encounter with his giant.


Sean McMyrth posted a late entry in a comment. Here it is reposted in full: (below the “fold”)
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David and Achilles: The Openings

This is the first in a weekly series (and hopefully roundup) of essays comparing and contrasting two great heroic/epic stories which served similar functions for two dissimilar societies in a similar era. Those two stories are the Story of David from 1st and 2nd Samuel and the Iliad by Homer. This week’s topic, to get this project started, is to discuss, contrast, and compare the openings of the two stories.

Next week I thought we’d discuss the Duel. Dueling was a tradition which lasted until well into the 19th century. Since then, the gentler side of our culture has weeded it out. However these stories come from a time just a tad earlier than our era and the concept of a duel, not just to settle individual honor but to act in the stead of combat between two armies, was not out of bounds. The Iliad is replete with examples of two warriors duking it out where the other warriors are honor bound not to interfere. I thought we’d concentrate on just two duels … one from each story. David v Goliath and Menelaus v Paris (I had thought to include Achilles v Hector as it seems to leave our second protagonist, Achilles, out of this enterprise, so if you feel like adding that into your discussion feel free). And I just had a comment from Andrea R, to write about the women in both tales … given the testosterone laden topic I’ve suggested for next week, I figure it is only fair if we swing the other way the following week. 🙂

So on to “The Openings” (below the fold):
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An Idea to Share

While on a short bike ride tonight I had a nifty idea for a series of blog essays. In fact, I thought so highly of it (hmm hubris anyone?) that I thought it would be even more interesting if I could presuade a few other bloggers to do the same thing. I’d collect them and also post links to them over at “BlogWatch”. Hopefully generating interest, traffic, and thought provoking/fun discussion for everyone involved. If, in subsequent weeks, others are interested, we could share hosting of the list of essay links in “Carnival” style (I don’t need to hog the “glory”).

With no further ado … Here it is:

The idea is to compare and contrast two heroic stories from almost the same eras but from very different cultures. The two stories I had in mind were the Hebrew heroic story … that is the story of King David in Samuel I & II … and the Greek heroic poems from the same era by Homer … that is the Iliad (and perhaps the Odyssey). I had in mind perhaps posting once weekly (say Thursdays) on the similarities and differences – to contrast and compare the stories of David and Achilles. We could write on the same subtopic on this theme each week. For example, for next week I was thinking we could write on the openings. To compare and contrast the Iliad‘s immortal opening cadences to the more subtle (tender?) vignette of Hannah giving up of Samuel, her firstborn, to the Temple.
Other topics might include,

  • Musing about what makes a hero a hero. Compare what makes David a Hero to the Hebrews and Achilles a Hero to the Acheans.
  • Compare how the two cultures (and authors) treat Death.
  • How are the two Heros flawed. How do these flaws impact their stories.

Other suggestions for topics of course are welcome. Is this a good idea, or just too weird? Anyhow, for next Thursday if I drum up any other takers or not, I’m going be working on an essay on the first topics listed … the openings. After all, it’s always worthwhile to be especially careful with beginnings. 😉

One final note on translations. Personally, I’ll be using the Robert Fagels Iliad translation (you can find an Amazon link in my extended book list). I also prefer Robert Alter’s The Book of David as a translation for 1st and 2nd Samuel.