Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Paragon of Animals

Yet again, we struggle with grief and pain. Yet again, we are suffering the consequences of someone else's overwhelming hatred. We reel in agony, and we grasp those we love with renewed fervor. Is this the best we can do? Is this the gutter into which humanity must continually fall?

In the last six months, we've seen things like this happen three times in the United States alone. That is not to mention the horrible news of gang rapes and suicides, of lives shattered beyond all comprehension, of veterans turned away from the help they need for their suffering because we are all tired of the war they've fought for us, of the elderly left bereft of care because of a frozen political system, of every reason for hope to crumble.

But in the midst of it all, there are other stories. Some of us look after our neighbors, or are grateful to have neighbors looking after us. We hear stories of support from unknown corners, stories of love from strangers, helping hands offered, embraces given, compassion abounding, solidarity offered even from across the globe.

Image found at Meghan Casey's Tumbler Feed

Eleven and a half years ago, when religious extremists crossed the line into madness, into sociopathology, an entire nation reeled and fought for balance. I was surfing a site called Beliefnet a few days later, and someone posed the question, "What inspiration or scripture is helping you get through this time?"

I was not Christian at the time, and I could not recall anything that had helped me that came from a religious context. What did help me then was a speech from a science fiction television show called Babylon 5 that aired in the late 1990s. The speech was written - in the context of the show - by a character who had been a freedom fighter and a political prisoner, someone who had endured torture and disfigurement, had been driven by rage through anguish, and come out on the side of compassion and love. G'Kar's story inspired me, and continues to inspire me today. And interestingly, I think his journey is pretty consistent with the values and struggles of the Orthodox faith that I now practice.

So here is what helped me then, and what continues to help me now. Lord have mercy! Lord have mercy on us all!

The text of the speech follows this clip from the episode "Paragon of Animals" from Season 5 of Babylon 5.

Declaration of Principles of the Interstellar Alliance

The Universe speaks in many languages
But only one voice.
The language is not Narn, or Human, or Centauri, or Gaim, or Minbari.

It speaks in the language of hope.
It speaks in the language of trust.
It speaks in the language of strength
And the language of compassion.
It is the language of the heart,
And the language of the soul.
But always it is the same voice.
It is the voice of our ancestors speaking through us,
And the voice of our inheritors waiting to be born.

It is the small, still voice that says, We are One.

No matter the blood
No matter the skin
No matter the world
No matter the star
We are One.

No matter the pain
No matter the darkness
No matter the loss
No matter the fear
We are One.

Here, gathered together in common cause, we agree to recognize this singular truth, and this singular rule: that we must be kind to one another.

Because each voice enriches us and ennobles us, and each voice lost diminishes us. We are the voice of the universe, the soul of creation, the fire that will light the way to a better future. We are One.

by J. Michael Straczynski

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Star Wars and the Call to Orthodoxy

Four and a half years ago, while my sister was in labor with my niece, during a lull in the conversation, my dad asked me, "How in the world did a free spirit like you end up in the Orthodox Church?" I told him that it was as big a mystery to me as to anyone else. When he asked that question, it had only been a year and a half since my Chrismation. I was living 350 miles away from the parish in which I was Chrismated, and was floundering around trying to find a new parish home. So much about Orthodoxy was mysterious to me.

And it still is. That's one of the things I love about it. Six and a half years after walking into an Orthodox church for the very first time, the mystery of the Church deepens even more. 

I have thought a lot about my journey to the Orthodox Church since my dad asked that question. For a while I used to think that my journey to the Church began with my departure from a non-denominational Protestant church when I was 18. 

But it struck me the other day that I was initially imprinted for the Orthodox Church when I was 10, and that imprint became stronger in my 13th year. 

Because those were the years that I saw my first Star Wars movies. 

Of course, I didn't know it at the time. Or rather, I didn't know that the impact I felt when viewing those films would lead me to the Ancient Church. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

When I first saw a trailer on television for Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope, my first thought was that it looked a little stupid. I was ten years old, and all I remembered was the image of Luke Skywalker swinging over a chasm on a thin rope with Princess Leia in his arms. It seemed unrealistic to me. But after all my friends had gone to see it, I convinced my parents to drop me off at a movie theatre one afternoon, and I saw it in a packed theatre months after its initial release. I was riveted. It wasn't stupid at all! It was wonderful and exciting and it stirred something in me: a desire to find out who I really was, and to fulfill my destiny, which I thought surely was supposed to be heroic.

Three years later, I'd become a teenager, and Star Wars, Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back was released in theatres. I saw it. And then I saw it again. And again. And yet again. I saw it seven times in its original release in theatres. I cried every time Han Solo went into the carbon freezing chamber. I laughed when Han called Chewie a fuzzball, and I watched the bittersweet romance between an outlaw and a princess unfold. My best friend at the time developed a teenage crush on Harrison Ford. But my crush was different.

My crush was on Luke Skywalker. Not Mark Hamill, whom I knew was the very real actor who inhabited his character, who was married and seemed to be crazy in love with his wife. Rather, I was completely taken with Luke and his story. It is a story outlined in Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the existence of which I knew nothing at the time. But his story, I knew in my heart, had something to do with me. It resonated in me in a way that I hadn't experienced before.

Some of my favorite scenes in that film took place on the planet Dagobah, where Luke underwent Jedi training. Ever since then, I looked for a spiritual path that would challenge me the way Luke's training challenged him, and would allow me to plumb spiritual depths in the way that Luke's Jedi training encouraged him to do.

My life in a non-denominational Protestant church began right around that time, and I began to attend youth camps. They were actually training camps for young evangelists, and I attended them with small hope in my heart that I would find something there as compelling and interesting as what Luke found on Dagobah.

I never did find it at those camps. I found indoctrination, but never a real sense of who I was in that milieu. I got a very good look at who they wanted me to be, though. And I usually felt like an outlier. Eventually, the evangelical Protestant environment proved to be too rigid, judgmental, and contradictory for me to stay with it.

But I continued my love for Star Wars. And when Return of the Jedi came out, I was once again fascinated. I was older now, and wasn't taken in by the Ewoks so much as the internal struggle Luke faced when the Emperor goaded him into lashing out at his own father, Darth Vader, who was also supposed to be his enemy. And although I smiled warmly when Leia went after Han to rescue him, nothing moved me in that film more than seeing Luke Skywalker realize that he was making a big mistake in fighting his father, turn off his lightsaber, and face the Emperor, his real enemy.

Tossing aside his weapon, Luke says, "I am a Jedi, like my father before me."

I got chills. Every time I saw that movie and watched that scene, I got chills. This was what I wanted. I wanted my lineage. I wanted that kind of spiritual depth. I wanted that level of challenge. I wanted to face my own adversary with that kind of confidence and defeat him by not fighting, defeat him with the strength of love and forgiveness.

For twenty-four years after the release of The Return of the Jedi, I looked for those qualities. I identified them as being religious and spiritual, and that the fighting skill was an expression of the desire to defend oneself and those we love against all kinds of adversaries, internal as well as external. I looked all over the place, seeking spiritual training that would be as challenging and meaningful as Jedi training.

Most often, I found people who were willing to train me, but who also were so very human and flawed. I met some really amazing people, who were walking their own difficult paths, who were really doing some intense spiritual work, and helping me along as well. But I also met people who were only interested in training me how to be their follower, which was disappointing. The path that was my imprint, the Jedi path of Luke Skywalker, was not a path of personalities, but a path of deep spiritual tradition, of introspection, of defending the weak and helping those in need, of compassion and forgiveness. This was the path I truly sought.

When I first walked into an Orthodox church, in Isla Vista, California, I felt something that I knew was powerful. I had been imprinted for twenty something years that I'd recognize real spiritual power when I saw it. And I did recognize it. I felt something very old and very deep in that Orthodox Church. The building itself was fairly new; this parish had used the building that had housed a different kind of church. But it wasn't the building that gave me that sense. It was the architecture of the service itself. It was a short Vespers service, but it spoke of something quite old. One could almost say that I felt in this place a real sense of The Force.

I knew I liked it, and it captured me from that very first service. But I had no idea just how deep this path would take me. The spiritual life of the Orthodox is not legalistic, but it is rigorous. It is a path that requires that we give our all, that we push ourselves to the very limits of our capacity - for forgiveness, for temperance, for love. And then it asks us to push just a little more, to extend the envelope. Because beyond that comfortable envelope of fear lies God, in all His mercy and grace. And if we keep pushing the envelope, then one day it will burst, and we'll be bathed in all of that.

It's hard. It's harder than anything I've ever done. But this is the path.

Being Orthodox every day is like being Luke Skywalker on Hoth. You know you feel something and your intuition tells you a lot. Maybe some days you can even make your lightsaber wiggle around from 3 feet away, when you're trapped in a Wampa's cave.

But Great Lent is like being dropped off on Dagobah, with only a snarky Artoo unit, a half submerged X-Wing snub fighter, and survival rations. It begins with a giant lesson in humility, just like Luke finding out that he was about to be schooled in a major way by a diminutive green non-human Jedi Master. We have to relearn how to live, how to eat, and how to navigate around this alien world. We do have the Holy Fathers to guide us, but we don't always understand what they're saying. And they perform wondrous, miraculous acts that we simply can't wrap our minds around.

And just as Yoda says, we have to unlearn what we have learned. We have to unlearn the world, and its worship of wealth and power. We have to unlearn the limitations of our capacity for kindness and mercy. It is these limitations, and our limitations in faith and love, that keep us from our own miracles. Who among us has faith enough to move a mountain...or an X-Wing?

During Great Lent, we are sometimes faced with the darkest parts of ourselves. We have to face our own Dark Sides. And when we leave Great Lent, we may not be completely finished with the journey. That's why we return year after year...to Dagobah, for more training.

When we do leave, we come out to fight our spiritual battles, armed with the weapons of the spiritual life: prayer, fasting, love, humility. We fight our battles and we are wounded. We heal, maybe get a new robotic limb, train some more, and return to the battle. We help our friends and loved ones. We battle spiritual slavery and the hostile takeover of the galaxy by greed and hatred. And if we're very, very lucky, and if we have adhered to our training, we can look past our enemies' masks, and see them for the wounded human beings they are.

So thank you, George Lucas, for the spiritual life I have today, for opening a door to a world full of anguish, justice, love, mercy, discipline, and humility. Thank you for inspiring a sense of longing that brought me to the Orthodox Church, where I've worked harder than I ever have in my life, where I've undergone difficult and rigorous training, and where I feel the Force - the force of Divine Love and Mercy - all the time.

May the Force be with you.