Friday, September 24, 2004

The poor talk too much

I've noticed something about people who live in poverty: they talk too much. Whenever I talk to people in a bad way, they go on and on and on about their situation. You listen and nod and say "uh-huh," and wait for it to end, checking your internal watch and trying to decide if you have time for this, and it just keeps going and going. It can be really annoying, actually.

At first I took this as a danger signal, a sign that someone was trying to hustle me out of something by spinning out a good story. But I realized after awhile that this wasn't really the point (though some of the poor are by necessity good hustlers). I think that people whose lives are spinning out of control feel a deep need to tell their story. Putting the events of their lives in the form of a narrative is a way of trying to regain some measure of control over their destiny. Telling their life in the form of a story gives the sense that there is meaning and purpose and direction, and not just random tragedy after random tragedy.

It is sometimes said that the poor have no voice, but maybe this isn't accurate. They have plenty of voice, but their words are like the proverbial tree falling in the forest when no one is there to hear it. The wealthy and powerful don't need to talk much, because their voices have power, because people listen to their words, because their fiat ("let it be") becomes reality. They can afford an economy of words.

The poor are shockingly liberal with their words, spending them in fat bundles like devaluated currency. Listening to them is a way of giving them a power that they lack in almost every other aspect of their life. Who can measure the despair of the person who has no one to listen? What terrible acts might have been averted simply because someone was able to tell their story, and thus regain a sense of mastery over their own destiny, a sense of human dignity?

Peacemaking as listening: this is a theme on which we need to reflect. Telling one's story and having someone to listen and really hear may be an antidote to despair. How do we engage the power of listening?

Saturday, September 18, 2004

Spiderman and the limits of responsibility

A few weeks ago, after a very hectic period in my schedule, I allowed myself the almost unimaginable treat of going out to see a movie. I went to see Spiderman 2, which I figured would be a good escape.

Spiderman 2 is a movie about responsibility and the limits of responsibility. As Spiderman, Peter Parker is saving people's lives, but at a tremendous personal cost: he gets fired from his job for being late, he's flunking out of college, and he is losing the woman he loves. Peter is trying to figure out where his responsibility ends. How much of yourself, how many of your dreams, are you willing to give up for the sake of other people? How do you measure one person's desperate, life-threatening need against your own more mundane needs for comfort, regularity, security, romance? There is one amazing scene in the movie where Peter is trying to stop a runaway train; he spreads his arms out in front of the train in the form of a cross, looking as if he is being crucified.

After watching the movie, I met Eleanor and her two-year-old son Jacob at the grocery store. Eleanor had called me the day before, desperate, because she was out of food, she and Jacob hadn't really eaten for two days. Eleanor is homeless right now, she lives in a tent down by the river. Psychologists at the university tested Eleanor and diagnosed a developmental disability; her reading comprehension and mental development are at approximately a third grade level. She is functionally illiterate. The psychologists determined that she was incapable of holding down a job, but SSI denied her petition to go on permanent disability. So she is living on welfare, ticking off her two years of eligibility for "welfare to work." Except that she can't even collect welfare right now, because she lost her place to live, lost her mailing address, and they won't let you pick up welfare checks from the local office if you're homeless. Cuts down on fraud and overhead.

So I took her through the grocery store, buying milk and fruit and bread and soup and other staples. I took them out to dinner at a fast food place. And I put some gas in their car. And all the while, I'm thinking that I have bills, debts, responsibilities, that this is not something I can really afford.

What are the limits of responsibility? This used to be an easier question. Sure, fine, help whoever comes to you; after all, how often do people come knocking at your door? But what happens when it becomes a weekly or even daily event? When need opens up like an abyss before you, and you realize you could throw everything you have and your own self into that abyss and not even make a beginning of filling it? How many people with hungry kids do you try to feed before you have to say enough, no more, I have to feed my own kids? Where do you draw that line?

The miracle of the five loaves and two fish is telling us that in the act of sharing what we offer is multiplied, becomes enough to meet the need. But sometimes, in my darker moments, I wonder if it really works that way. You bless, and you break, and you give, but in the end it is still only five loaves and two fish, not really enough for a meal, the food quickly gone, the hunger dulled but not sated.

I think about how the disciples must have felt when they looked at that vast crowd and their slender resources. How they felt when the Lord said, "You give them something to eat."

Friday, September 17, 2004

The sacrament of compassion

I have made a new life decision. The decision is that whenever someone says to me: "Don't waste your time with so-and-so," or words to that effect, then I will know that I am


where I am supposed to be at that moment.

I have been trying to help a woman get copies of her naturalization papers, so she can get a passport and visit her brother in the old country. This woman has a significant mental handicap. She's sixty years old, but she dresses and wears her makeup like a child.

So someone found out what I was doing, and took it upon themselves to disabuse me of the notion, waxing at great length as to how people had tried to help her in the past... then the Church gave her over a thousand dollars in cash and the next week she came back saying she had lost it all or it had been stolen or something, can you imagine...

I can't imagine just handing her cash. Didn't anybody think that maybe, instead of just shoving a wad of bills at this poor confused childlike woman, they could have found something that she really needed and bought it for her? Clothes, bus passes, grocery scrip. Of course, that would have required some effort, some time to get to know her needs, to talk to her, to treat her like a human being... just forget about it, she's not going anywhere, you're wasting your time...

Fuck that.

You heard me.

The last time somebody pulled the "wasting my time" line on me I was trying to buy propane for an elderly man who was living in his RV without any heat, hot water, or stove.

...its not worth your time, he's a drunk, he's a bum, he's hopeless, he's...

He's a human being, created in the image of God. Infinitely valuable. He's cold, hungry, sick. Lonely. What matters is not so much the passport, or the propane. Its the expression of care. These are only the matter of a sacrament of compassion, the visible sign of an invisible presence.

Wipe that smirk off your face. Learn to see the world with new eyes. Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is within your grasp, you can reach out and touch it in the person standing next to you. It need not always be thus. If things do not change, maybe we are not trying hard enough. Maybe the problem is not "them," but "us."

You tell me I make no difference
At least I'm fucking trying
What the fuck have you done?


Monday, September 13, 2004

The downward pull of the Cross

September 14: Feast of the Holy Cross

Henri Nouwen describes the Cross as being symbolic of the "downward pull" of divine compassion, of God's willingness to enter into solidarity with our weakness and suffering.

Strange indeed, then, that in the modern Orthodox Church the cross has become symbolic of the "upward pull" of competition and advancement. For a priest to wear a cross is a sign that he is advancing through the ranks, moving up in the world of the clergy. The more ornate the cross, the more golden and bejeweled, the higher the ranking of the priest.

This is a sign of a deep spiritual sickness. Some of our priests and bishops seem to be possessed of a kind of rhinestone fetish, an obsession with jewel-encrusted crosses and medallia. As a possible antidote, let me offer the following words of St. Basil:

Why do you find gold so alluring? Gold is, after all, merely a kind of mineral, as is silver or pearl. Chrysolite, beryl, agate, hyacinth, amethyst and jasper: they are all nothing but stones. These indeed comprise the rainbow hues of wealth. Some you hoard for yourself, concealing them and covering their luminous facets with darkness, while the more precious ones you carry with you, filled with conceit by their sight of their luster. Tell me, what benefit do you acquire by whirling your hand about resplendent with gems? Should you not rather blush for shame, having this strange craving for pebbles, like the cravings of pregnant women? Expectant mothers sometimes gnaw pebbles, and you have a similarly greedy appetite for brightly colored stones: sardonyx, jasper, and amethyst.

St. Basil the Great, "To the Rich"

All the diamonds in this world
That mean anything to me
Are conjured up by wind and sunlight
Sparkling on the sea

Bruce Cockburn

Saturday, September 11, 2004

"Not mine" - a spiritual discipline

Recently I have been attempting to follow a small spiritual discipline: endeavoring to eliminate the use of the words "my" and "mine" (I had to end this sentence early so as not to say "from my vocabulary"). The idea behind this discipline is not merely the elimination of two monosyllabic words, but rather the complete reshaping of a way of thinking about the world and the things we use.

Every time I catch myself about to use one of these words, I ask myself how I think about the object in question. When I say "my car," I refer to an automobile that could serve the needs of many others during the hours it sits idle outside. "My house" should actually be a place of hospitality for many others. My clothes, my stuff, my books (OK, now this is getting personal); was all of this really put on the earth just so I could possess and enjoy it to the exclusion of all others? Why is it that the only way we know to relate to the world is through categories of ownership?

Some examples are more difficult. "My wife," for instance. We have pledged ourselves to each other, but is she really mine, my possession, some kind of chattel? Probably better to call her by name, respecting her unique identity as a person, rather than referring to her obliquely through myself.

After all, this is perhaps the only thing that is truly "ours" in this world: a name, nothing but a name, and even that we share with others.

"For 'mine' and 'yours'-- those chilly words that introduce innumerable wars into the world -- should be eliminated from that holy Church... The poor would not envy the rich because there would be no rich. Neither would the poor be despised by the rich, for there would be no poor. All things would be in common."

--St. John Chrysostom

Runners up to terrorists

Yesterday, Donald Rumsfeld told reporters in a press conference that the human rights abuses and torture that took place at Abu Ghraib prison were not as bad as those perpetrated by terrorist groups.

Great. Now we pride ourselves on being runners up to terrorists in terms of human rights. In the Olympics of human rights abuse in Iraq, we are the silver medalists.

Shock and awe at the ballot box, people. Shock and awe.

If your enemies are hungry, feed them
If they are thirsty, give them something to drink
For by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.

Do not be overcome by evil
But overcome evil with good.

Romans 12:20-21

PS Erasmus says that the "burning coals" of the above verse represent the fiery intensity of the love we are supposed to be showing. Just in case Donald Rumsfeld maybe reads this and gets the wrong idea.

Friday, September 10, 2004

Mark and Sheri

The other night, we had our new friends Mark and Sheri over for a few hours to our new apartment. We met Sheri on the street corner last week, holding a little sign, "homeless, please help." We talked for awhile. The next evening, my wife sent the kids down to her with a plate of her very special chile relleno. Later, she introduced me to her husband Mark (he works the opposite corner); Sheri wanted me to meet him so I could beat a little God talk into him, but I told them I'm not really all that pushy about the whole God thing. I invited them to come over to our place and get washed up sometime. So they came over, took a shower, washed their clothes (it had been two months), had some tea, and we talked.

Mark is a writer, he read some of his writing to us. He's very good, his writing speaks to the inner life of someone who has done a lot of thinking, a lot of contemplating, a lot of reflecting. He only has a seventh grade education, but he writes at a college level, and with a little polishing he could be a columnist, maybe a novelist. He wants to go to college and study writing. He has dreams, aspirations. But he's standing on the street corner, using his gifts to chat up enough money for their next meal. We are losing his skills to the street.

When it was all over, we said goodnight and showed them to the door, knowing that they were not going to get into the car and drive home like ordinary guests, but catch the tram back to their little park where they will try to live out another night without getting mugged or killed, lying huddled together in the darkness.

"Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none, and whoever has food must do the same." This was the teaching of St. John the Baptist, the content of the repentance he preached. His preaching is a preparatory message, a message of justice that prepares the way for the Gospel of compassion. To make ready the way of the Lord, "every mountain shall be made low, and every valley shall be exalted." A great and cosmic leveling must take place, "putting down the mighty from their thrones and exalting those of low degree, filling the hungry with good things, and sending the rich away empty."

Have we even made a beginning?

In this moment we are forgetting
What it costs, what it takes
For one perfect world
When we look the other way.

--Amy Ray, The Indigo Girls

The view from the side of the road

As he drew near to Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging... (Luke 18:35)

In the Gospel of Luke, we read that Jesus encounters a blind person "sitting by the roadside begging." In fact, this is where Jesus seems invariably to encounter the poor, the lame, the blind, and the lepers: on the side of the road.

In order to understand what it means to be on the side of the road, we must first understand what a road is. The Roman government developed a fantastic road system throughout the empire, including Palestine. The great "Roman Roads," some of which exist to this day, were constructed for primarily military and secondarily commercial purposes. The primary purpose for the existence of the Roman roads was to be able to move large numbers of troops throughout the empire as necessary. This made it possible to defend Rome's borders, but also to quell riots among the various indigenous peoples which Rome had conquered. The secondary purpose of the roads was to encourage commerce, since a robust economy was necessary to support the military through taxation. This is why the tax booths were located on the major thoroughfares, where taxes were collected in the form of a toll.

To be "on the road," then, means to be participating at some level in the state-sponsored quest for military dominance and economic prosperity.

What then does it mean to be on the side of the road? Those on the roadside are the ones who have been left out of the project of power and wealth. They are the poor, the blind, the lame, the oppressed, the downtrodden, the marginalized. We constantly read that, as Christ is traveling, he stops to interact with those on the wayside. We might even say that He defines His ministry primarily in terms of those on the side of the road. In Matthew, He replies to the emissaries of John, "the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the dead are raised, and the poor receive good news." And in Luke, at the beginning of His ministry, He proclaims, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."

The "year of the Lord's favor" that Christ proclaims is good news for those on the side of the road.

And if we are to call ourselves followers of Jesus, if we are to embrace His Gospel of the Kingdom, we must familiarize ourselves with the view from the side of the road.

Thursday, September 09, 2004

On "private" property

“But whom do I treat unjustly,” you say, ”by keeping what is my own?” Tell me, what is your own? What did you bring into this life? From where did you receive it? It is as if someone were to take the first seat in the theater, then bar everyone else from attending, so that one person alone enjoys what is offered for the benefit of all in common—this is what the rich do. They seize common goods before others have the opportunity, then claim them as their own by right of preemption. For if we all took only what was necessary to satisfy our own needs, giving the rest to those who lack, no one would be rich and no one would be poor.

--St. Basil the Great, "I Will Tear Down my Barns..."

St. Basil is extraordinarily clear here: everything is common, belonging to everyone, but those who are quicker or stronger or just plain low-down meaner end up with the preponderance of goods.

(For a great list of other quotes from the Church Fathers on social matters and other "traditional values," see

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

In the beginning...

At the Last Judgment
I shall not be asked
How many prostrations I made
Or how faithful I was
In my ascetic exercises.

I shall be asked
Did I feed the hungry
Did I clothe the naked
Did I visit the sick and the prisoner?
That is all I shall be asked.

--Mother Maria of Paris

This weblog is dedicated to continuing the legacy of Orthodox Action, the radical Orthodox Christian association founded by St. Maria of Paris. The members of Orthodox Action dedicated themselves to the task of caring for "the least of these": alcoholics and drug addicts, people who had been purged out of mental institutions, pregnant unwed mothers, tuberculosis patients, the poor and homeless. And when the Nazis came, they expanded their ministry of hospitality to hiding Jews, becoming part of the "underground railroad" of the French Resistance that was getting people of Jewish descent out of Paris and into the Unoccupied Territory. For this, Mother Maria was eventually sent to the Ravensbruck concentration camp, where she died on Good Friday, 1945 (for more on the life of St. Maria, see

Yet Orthodox Action was also a learning community, where the intelligentsia of the Orthodox Church in Paris came together to learn from one another. People like the philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev and the speculative theologian Fr. Sergei Bulgakov, along with Mother Maria, who was a philosopher and theologian in her own right, discussed how they might create a more just, more compassionate social order. It is my hope that this weblog, through comments and running dialogue, can somehow recapture some of this sense of community.

We in the Orthodox Church pride ourselves on having kept "the mind of the Fathers." But have we kept the heart of the Fathers, their radical commitment to justice and mercy? Or are we stuffing our cassocks into our ears and muttering the Jesus Prayer to drown out the screams of the dying? We have a long history of organized social endeavor: St. John Chrysostom, who was feeding and housing 3,000 people each day as the parish priest of the poorest slum in Antioch; St. Basil the Great, who founded the first hospital system in the Byzantine Empire; St. John the Merciful, working for radical social change among the refugee population of Alexandria; and St. Sampson the Hospitable, who founded a clinic that not only offered free medical care, but ensured that his patients were fed and clothed as well (see my profile). But how is this aspect of our tradition reflected in our everyday practice? Where are our hospitals, and shelters, and soup kitchens?

Possible topics for future discussion: liberation theology, socialism, the peace movement, living in intentional community.

We'll see where this goes...