Facing Death

Heartbreaking. Both of them …

Such a sad smile at 2:26  He must have known that it would be his last and that his time was short. I can’t watch this without crying. No one will ever perform this like he did. He owned this song. Memory Eternal +

 

 

A friend of mine told me how all this reminded him of of the elephants who visited their human friend and conservationist Lawrence Anthony for his funeral  and made their way back to his homestead in South Africa on the anniversary of his death. Intrigued I looked it up, and indeed  “Wild elephants gathered ‘inexplicably’, mourning death of ‘Elephant Whisperer’. Author and legendary conservationist Lawrence Anthony died March 7. His family told of a solemn procession on March 10 that defied human explanation here

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And here, esp. @4:38 to the end

Oh, this sting of Death!

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Seconds from death: Amazing picture of lion eyeballing hapless wildebeest among top wildlife images of year 2016

Oh! Death’s breath! 

Arise, O my soul, O my soul, why sleepest thou? The end draweth near, and thou shall be confounded.  Arise, therefore, from thy sleep, and Christ our God, who is in all places and filleth all things, shall spare thee.

 

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Rage, Rage At the Dying of the Light

Or, The Hollow Gaze Of a  Beast

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I am beginning to think that I am secretly a bear. I definitely have the social skills of one. I am as voluble as a bear during hibernation, and as attached to my room as a bear to its cave. In all honesty, I am continuously amazed anyone still wants to talk to me given how bad I am at keeping in touch. The simple reality is that I function in a state of amazement. I have rewritten this paragraph so many times; I can find no better way to describe this. I function like a stunned being. I go through the motions I see in other people; I do what it takes to be functional in this world. But deep down, I am paralysed.

I once saw a huge bull being taken to the slaughterhouse. I was in my monastery in Moldavia at the time. The animals know. The know perfectly well that behind that big door there is death. Many of them go wild, and desperation takes over. Some times, their hearts fail and they collapse, so they have to be dragged inside. I remember this bull: a huge, beautiful animal. I remember its stare. Its muscles had completely frozen; there was no movement at all – not a blink, not a sound. At the centre of that heard of bellowing animals, fighting to escape death, I remember that hollow, frozen gaze as the bull was pushed by three men towards the gate, inside the slaughterhouse.

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I function very much like that stunned animal. When I look in the mirror (which I purposely try not to do) I recognise that gaze. There is something of that in everyone. Often times, I switch off as people talk to me about their holidays and homes and plans. I switch off and I try to recognise that frozen gaze in their eyes: beyond the noise, beyond the superficial glitter of life, that hollowness is always there. It is imprinted in us. It is part of what makes us who we are, part of what makes us human.

I suppose this is my apology for failing to always keep ‘on schedule’ with posting here, recording our podcasts and so on. I am sorry. I am aware I should be doing more, especially as many of you continue to support the monastery even through these periods of silence. Perhaps you feel something. Perhaps you yourselves recognise something in this silence.

I have prayed to make sense of this desperation. I live with a perfect hope that we shall all survive the slaughterhouse, but this hope comes with an equally perfect awareness of the hollowness of this life. I have prayed to make sense of this. I have also prayed that I loose neither the hope, nor the desperation; living with both creates an intense tension, and that tension feeds my heart. I have an intuition that this tension will lead me to Life.

If I have learned something so far, it is that I must protect and treasure this life, because the seed of Life is buried in it. The hollowness of this life, its senselessness, its pain have taught me that I myself can only get as far as the gate of the slaughterhouse. If there is any hope to make it beyond that gate, if there is any hope to survive it, it does not come from me. I cannot be my own saviour. I cannot be anyone’s saviour. This is a tough lesson to learn and impossible to fully accept without the grace of God. I am nothing without a Saviour. It is a tough lesson, but we cannot run away from it. Horrid as it feels, this is the foundation of all our hope.

Just think how different things could have been, had Adam stared into his own hollowness and accepted it, instead of collapsing at the feet of the devil. Had Adam accepted this truth, had he accepted that he cannot be his own saviour, has he reached out for a Saviour, this world would have known a different history. Perhaps this is the point of it all: to learn the lesson Adam has not; to stare into the hollowness of our being and not despair, to not collapse as he did, because we know that a Saviour has taken on the form of this hollowness and lifted it up to Life.

http://www.mullmonastery.com/monastery-blog/the-hollow-gaze-of-a-beast/

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The Hollow Men by T.S. Eliot

Mistah Kurtz – he dead.

A penny for the Old Guy

I

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when 
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar

Shape without form, shade without colour, 
Paralysed force, gesture without motion;

Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death’s other kingdom 
Remember us – if at all – not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men 
The stuffed men. 

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IIEyes I dare not meet in dreams
In death’s dream kingdom
These do not appear: 
There, the eyes are
Sunlight on a broken column 
There, is a tree swinging
And voices are 
In the wind’s singing 
More distant and more solemn 
Than a fading star.Let me be no nearer
In death’s dream kingdom 
Let me also wear
Such deliberate disguises
Rat’s coat, crowskin, crossed staves
In a field
Behaving as the wind behaves
No nearer – 

Not that final meeting 
In the twilight kingdom

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III

This is the dead land
This is cactus land
Here the stone images
Are raised, here they receive
The supplication of a dead man’s hand
Under the twinkle of a fading star.

Is it like this
In death’s other kingdom 
Waking alone
At the hour when we are
Trembling with tenderness
Lips that would kiss
Form prayers to broken stone. 

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IV

The eyes are not here
There are no eyes here
In this valley of dying stars
In this hollow valley
This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms

In this last of meeting places 
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of this tumid river

Sightless, unless
The eyes reappear
As the perpetual star
Multifoliate rose
Of death’s twilight kingdom
The hope only
Of empty men. 

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V

Here we go round the prickly pear
Prickly pear prickly pear
Here we go round the prickly pear
At five o’clock in the morning. 

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion 
And the act
Falls the Shadow

For Thine is the Kingdom 

Between the conception
And the creation 
Between the emotion 
And the response
Falls the Shadow

Life is very long

Between the desire
And the spasm 
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow

For Thine is the Kingdom 

For Thine is
Life is
For Thine is the

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but with a whimper. 

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Because I Could Not Stop For Death

 

People are so beautiful it hurts. We all have this beauty in us, this otherworldly potential to be so much more than what we settle for. At times, this awareness is the only thing that makes sense of this senseless existence, its very foundation, the star calling us forward, the purpose of this flesh. Most of the times, though, it makes life ever more painful, because it throws light upon the dark truths we have spent a lifetime learning to ignore.

Someone’s asked in an email from where I get the strength to keep going. The raw answer is: fear. Fear and desperation and the knife-like breath of death I see slowly and implacably eating me from the inside, consuming the beauty within myself, the beauty within you. I look in the mirror and I see a caged animal, waiting in line to be sacrificed. I live with the awareness that none of the breaths I’ve taken, none of the things I’ve felt and done have life within themselves.

The most painful thing I live with, the heaviest weight I carry is the total, perfect knowledge that there is no memory here to preserve even the slightest trace of our sparks of life.

I look in the mirror and I see nothing that will survive death. I stare at this nothingness and life becomes a desperate attempt to outrun death. At times, this turns into pure isolation, and no island can be far enough; no darkness thick enough to cover me. Other times, for very few and rare moments, this turns into white silence. A bright blanket of silence that covers my mind like rarefied air. Up there, in those rarefied clouds, floating high above death, there is Rest, there is Peacefulness.

 

 

Source: Father Seraphim –The Mull Monastery at http://www.mullmonastery.com/uncategorized/someones-asked-in-an-email-from-where-i-get-the-strength-to-keep-going/

The Sisyphus Myth

 

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An Orthodox Theology of Time – IV / V

Time as Woundedness and Time as Decay, Growth unto Death.  How do we primarily experience time as fallen beings? Do we experience it as change or, more precisely, mutability, that is, a growth unto death? 

 

“To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,/ Creeps in this petty pace from day to day/ To the last syllable of recorded time,/ And all our yesterdays have lighted fools/ The way to dusty death. […] it is a tale/ Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,/ Signifying nothing.” (Shakespeare, Macbeth, V.v. ll.)

 

First we experience fallen time as constant change or ceaseless movement in a cycle of death that can be seen cyclically in the seasons, which move in a circle like a snake swallowing its tail. Winter follows Autumn and Spring follows Winter just as death follows old age and old age is not the end, for out of our death comes the birth of our descendants. Thus all of time is a perpetual repetition of death since the moment that things come into existence, changing from non-existence into being, they straightway move back again from existence into non-being.

This experience of fallen time is what Pozzo, in Waiting For Godot, expresses when he cries furiously at Vladimir:

Have you not done tormenting me with your accursed time! It’s abominable! When! When! One day, is that not enough for you, one day he went dumb, one day I went blind, one day we’ll go deaf, one day we were born, one day we shall die, the same day, the same second, is that enough for you? [Calmer] They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.

 

Second, we experience fallen time as unending desire. Once we desire something it lacerates our whole being until we possess it and our desire for that thing is then satiated until the thing possessed tempts us into some new perversion and the vicious circle begins all over again. Man’s life, then, is like this vicious circle insofar as he is continually turning around while facing his own self like it was a household idol, as The Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete puts it: “I am become my own idol, and have injured my soul with passions.” Luther expressed this fallen circularity of time well when he says that homo in se incurvatus or man is turned in on himself.

 

… St. Gregory of Nyssa  has a nice image to convey this hopeless cyclical perpetuum mobile. It is of a man fruitlessly attempting to climb uphill in sand and never making any progress. It is the spiritual life where one’s house is built not on the rock of Christ but on the sand of spiritual illusions:

“He [the passionate man] is like those who toil endlessly as they climb uphill in sand: Even though they take long steps, their footing in the sand always slips downhill, so that, although there is much motion, no progress results from it.” 

[Also, remember here The Myth of Sisyphus: The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.]

Third, we see time as decay in memory—Schmemann’s “evil time.” In evil time, we remember the past as perpetually lost like a ghost that must relive its own murder.  Thus we remember continually and cannot change the death of our spouse, our mother, our child, or worse, a moment of humiliation by our spouse, our mother, by us of our own child. We cannot choose our past, for deliberation is a mark of future action in the present, the choice between what we would like to have happened and what actually happened remains only an undying craving for another world, as T. S. Eliot acknowledged: “What might have been is an abstraction/ Remaining a perpetual possibility/ Only in a world of speculation.”(T. S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton”, I, ll.6-8 in Four Quartets).

Each of these faces of fallen time points to our fundamental need, in time, for time’s renewal in Jesus Christ.

Source: http://www.bogoslov.ru/en/text/2668945.html

To Be Continued

For Part V go to https://orthodoxcityhermit.com/2015/12/18/memory-made-clear-and-serene/

Between Son and Mother

A virtual, photographic pilgrimage to shrines in Greece and Cyprus dedicated to the Feast of the Mother of God Presentation or Entry, Entrance, Eisodos in the Temple (November 21)

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Iconography of the Entrance of the Theotokos at Hilandari Monastery–MOUNT ATHOS

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The Monastery of Panagia Hozoviotissa in AmorgosENTRY96entry7

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Panagia Malteza of Santorini

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Panagia Odigitria of Kimolos

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The 11th Century Church of Panagia Kapnikarea in Athens

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The Monastery of Panagia of Machairas in Cyprus

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No one stands between Son and Mother

Give us salvation


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“Today, the most pure temple of the Savior, the precious bridal chamber and Virgin, the sacred treasure of God, enters the house of the Lord, bringing the grace of the Divine Spirit. The Angels of God praise her. She is the heavenly tabernacle.”

 

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Footfalls Echo In The Rose-Garden

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This heartbreaking commentary belongs to a “broken” father and priest, Fr Aidan (Alvin) Kimel, whose second son Aaron died by suicide. Fr Aidan preached his funeral homily and prayed the committal over his casket. In Father Aidan’s words, Aaron’s “death has shattered his life and the lives of his wife and children; has changed and traumatized him at the core of his being, in ways that he has not yet begun to fathom”. This post’s heartfelt and poignant ruminations had us all in tears and haunted us ever since reading them. Never before has T. S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets” become so transparent and pellucid. Dearest Father, I am asking your blessing, and offering my poor prayers. I find your blog very inspiring and your words resonate deeply within me. I am so sorry about Aaron’s death, especially that it was suicide. That must have been a very difficult homily to give. I pray that you and the rest of your family will be put back together from the shattering. Memory eternal, Aaron!

Eclectic Orthodoxy

First Movement

Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future / And time future contained in time past.

I live in time, bracketed by a past I can neither change nor retrieve and a future that beckons, disappoints, and terrifies. I am never satisfied with the present, never content. I am torn apart in time by time, fragmented.

Years ago I read Jean Pierre de Caussade’s The Sacrament of the Present Moment. The secret to holiness and contentment, he writes, is abandonment to the divine will given in the present moment: “To find contentment in the present moment is to relish and adore the divine will in the succession of all the things to be done and suffered which make up the duty to the present moment.” I can see the logic, but only rarely have I been able to practice such deep surrender…

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O Death, Where is Thy Sting?

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Let us contemplate our own mortality and ‘refute’ the nihilism of ‘mercy’ killing with artworks of Beauty. Classic Christian art such as ‪Purcell’s Elegy for the Funeral of Queen Mary can be so uplifting! Let us also draw upon all Art that has something of God in it, or that through it something of God can be refracted, such as Kurosawa’s Dreams and Rumi’s poetry.

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Purcell’s Elegy

Man that is born of a woman

hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery.

He cometh up, and is cut down like a flow’r.

He flee’th as it were a shadow,

and ne’er continueth in one stay.

In the midst of life we are in death:

of whom may we seek for succour,

but of thee, O Lord, who for our sins art justly displeased?

Yet, O Lord God most holy, O Lord most mighty,

O holy and most merciful Saviour,

deliver us not into the bitter pains of eternal death.

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For sublime Purcell please go to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AYELAu9hqdU

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Kurosawa’s Dreams ends with a funeral procession for an old woman in a village that plays like a wedding. Instead of mourning, the people celebrate joyfully as the proper end to a good life. The whole village turns out for her funeral. Kurosawa stages the funeral procession as a celebration of a life. Music is played, a song is sung, people dance in the procession as if it is a parade, and it’s a joyous scene. At the end, the traveler picks and places his own flower on the rock like the children before him.

For Kurosawa’s last Dream, watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rEEOfJdGzcQ

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As for Rumi, the mystic poet and Spiritual Sufi Master, let the ecstatic vision of his hauntingly beautiful ‘Death’ poem speak of itself!

When I die …

When my coffin

Is being taken out

You must never think

I am missing this world.

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Don’t shed any tears,

Don’t lament or feel sorry

I’m not falling

into a monster’s abyss.

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When you see

My corpse is being carried

Don’t cry for my leaving,

I’m not leaving,

I’m arriving at eternal love.

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When you leave me

In the grave

Don’t say goodbye.

Remember a grave is

Only a curtain

For the paradise behind.

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You’ll only see me

Descending into a grave.

Now watch me rise.

How can there be an end?

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When the sun sets or

The moon goes down

It looks like the end,

It seems like a sunset,

But in reality it is a dawn.

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When the grave locks you up,

That is when your soul is freed.

Have you ever seen

A seed fallen to earth

Not rise with a new life?

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Why should you doubt the rise

Of a seed named human?

Have you ever seen

A bucket lowered into a well

Coming back empty?

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Why lament for a soul

When it can come back

Like Joseph from the well?

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When for the last time

You close your mouth,

Your words and soul

Will belong to the world of

No place, no time.

For Rumi’s “When I Die”, please watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SEwJm-RPhNE

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  • Icon on top: Harrowing of Hades, fresco in the parecclesion of the Chora Church, Istanbul, c. 1315;  raising Adam and Eve is depicted as part of the Resurrection icon, as it always is in the East.

Just Remember That Death Is Not The End

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In the last two days the subjects of death and euthanasia have come up frequently on Christian websites. For example, yesterday I read an article in Pravoslavie.ru from the National Review concerning a Dutch doctor who was sued for “Saying No to euthanasia”. Christian Headlines.com say that in Quebec doctors are being forced to comply with the assisted suicide (ie. euthanasia) programme even if they are morally opposed to it.  For anyone who may still have doubts as to where all this “end-the-suffering-by-ending-the-sufferer” cult may lead to, I would recommend Fr. Philip LeMasters’s recent post http://blogs.ancientfaith.com/easternchristianinsights /2015/09/27/an-orthodox-christian-argument-against-physician-assisted-suicide/.

I would like to add my own protest along with other Christian voices to the gross distortion of God’s commandments that I believe “mercy”killing to be. What a gross, appalling violation against the essential sanctity of all Life! How profoundly evil, ugly and merciless such a vision of ‘mercy’ death is!

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Today, rather than any debate, let the haunting beauty and profound spirituality of two Tavener classic works’ refute their arguments. Tavener’s Song for Athene and Funeral Ikos are deeply moving musical works which convey God’s grandeur and sovereignty over life and His overcoming of death. Tavener converted to Orthodox Christianity in 1977, and his compositions after that date are in his own words “icons in sound”, heavily influenced by Byzantine ecclesiastical music. He said he wanted to produce music which is “the sound of God”. In his recent book, The music of silence, Tavener said “If you listen to the music of the East, somehow the divine is already there. It is – which is a parallel with the eternal ‘I am’.” Ivan Moody, the noted Orthodox musicologist and priest, argues that Tavener’s music has “dynamic stasis” in its attempt to convey the theology and spirituality of the Orthodox Church.

Tavener’s Song for Athene is one of his best-known works, since it was sung at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, consisting of the Hebrew Alleluia (“let us praise the LORD”) sung six times as a ‘refrain’ to excerpts from the Eastern Orthodox funeral service and from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In the Byzantine tradition a continuous ison, or drone, underlies the work, adding a profound solemnity in the face of death. Mother Thekla, an Orthodox nun and Tavener’s ‘spiritual mother’ wrote the lyrics. “Let flights of angels sing thee to thy rest” from Hamlet overcomes the ugliness of death; “the Choir of Saints have found the well-spring of life and door of paradise”. “Come enjoy crowns and rewards I have prepared for you” emphasizes the final triumph of life over death. The opening of the song in Tavener’s words should be very tender, “with great inner stillness and serenity”. This corresponds to the Orthodox hesychastic tradition of stillness in prayer, whereas the climactic crescendo, conveying “the resplendent joy in the Resurrection”, the heart of the Orthodox faith, seals appropriately the end of the piece.

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Tavener’s Funeral Ikos is a musical setting of words for the Orthodox Service for the Burial. The words offer great consolation, but they soberly admonish us to prepare for the gateway to Paradise as well.

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Why these bitter words of the dying,

O brethren, which they utter as they go hence?

I am parted from my brethren.

All my friends do I abandon, and go hence.

But whither I go, that understand I not, neither

what shall become of me yonder; only God,

who hath summoned me knoweth.

But make commemoration of me with the song: Alleluia.

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But whither now go the souls?

How dwell they now together there?

This mystery have I desired to learn,

but none can impart aright.

Do they call to mind their own people, as we do them?

Or have they forgotten all those who mourn them

and make the song Alleluia.

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We go forth on the path eternal and as condemned,

with downcast faces,

present ourselves before the only God eternal.

Where then is comeliness?

Where then is wealth?

Where then is the glory of this world?

There shall

none of these things aid us,

but only to say oft the psalm: Alleluia.

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If thou hast shown mercy unto man,

O man, that same mercy shall be shown thee there;

and if on an orphan thou hast shown compassion,

the same sball there deliver thee from want.

If in this life the naked thou hast clothed,

the same shall give thee shelter there, and sing the psalm:

Alleluia.

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Youth and the beauty of the body fade

at the hour of death,

and the tongue then burneth fiercely,

and the parched throat is inflamed.

The beauty of the eyes is quenched then,

the comeliness of the face all altered,

the shapeliness of the neck destroyed;

and the other parts have become numb,

nor often say: Alleluia.

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With ecstasy we are inflamed

if we but hear that there is light eternal yonder;

that there is Paradise,

wherein every soul of Righteous Ones rejoiceth.

Let us all, also, enter into Christ, that all we may cry

aloud thus unto God: Alleluia.

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For TAVENER’S SONG FOR ATHENE, please watch https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2ma_Ouv74_8

For TAVENER’S FUNERAL IKOS, please watch https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4ZRrbixpVV0

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Sources for Tavener’s music:

http://www.theguardian.com/music/tomserviceblog/2013/feb/19/contemporary-music-guide-john-tavener

http://www.gimell.com/recording-john-tavener—ikon-of-light—funeral-ikos—the-lamb—tallis-scholars.aspx

http://www.fulcrum-anglican.org.uk/articles/contemplating-tavener/

http://www.naxos.com/mainsite/blurbs_reviews.asp?item_code=8.555256&catNum=555256&filetype=About this Recording&language=English.

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/13/arts/music/john-tavener-dies-at-69-composer-with-eye-on-god.html?_r=2&

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Die Before you Die

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“If you die before you die, you will not die when you die” (Greek Orthodox monastery)

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“… This week, I noticed a pattern in popular music of our time that I had not noticed before. It was something I heard in song lyrics. I’ll quote some for you from a few different songs:

So cut me from the line / Dizzy, spinning endlessly / Somebody make me feel alive /
And shatter me. (Lindsey Stirling / Lzzy Hale, “Shatter Me”)

Don’t let me die here / There must be something more / Bring me to life (Evanescence, “Bring Me to Life”)

How can the only thing that’s killing me make me feel so alive? (Parachute, “She (For Liz)”)

I could lie, couldn’t I, couldn’t I? / Every thing that kills me makes me feel alive. (OneRepublic, “Counting Stars”)

Do whatever I’m yours / Do whatever I’m sure / Anything, anything, anything, anything to feel alive (Jhené Aiko, “Drinking and Driving”)

When everything feels like the movies /Yeah, you bleed just to know you’re alive (Goo Goo Dolls, “Iris”)

Those are from six different songs. I could quote lots more like this, but this sample should suffice. These are all popular songs from the radio.

So what is the pattern? There are two things here. First, there is a cry out to be made to “feel alive” or to “come alive.” I did a Google search on a large popular song lyrics website, and there were nearly 1,100 songs that mentioned wanting to “feel alive.” Almost 1,300 used the phrase “come alive.” 100 used the phrase “bring me to life.”

I started clicking around when I saw this pattern and looked at the full lyrics to a few dozen songs. And the second pattern I noticed was that this language of wanting to feel alive was often paired with language about death and/or violence. For many of these lyricists, the key to feeling “alive” was first to die, to feel the pain of violence or to commit violence.

… So what is the point of this little tour through pop music? This is just one way of taking the temperature of our culture, of getting a sense of where we are as a people. There is a sort of anesthetization of life these days. We’re always trying to feel better, to feel entertained, to feel alive. And our pop songs sing about violence—even self-violence. And the movies and TV get more graphically violent. And the consumption of pornography is nearly off the charts. And we watch wars in other countries on TV as a perverse form of entertainment. …

Compare all this violence with Apostle Paul’s words: “I bear in my body the brand-marks of the Lord Jesus.” …  Into our culture of virtual violence and screaming out for the feeling of life come these words of the Apostle Paul: “But God forbid that I should boast, except in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through Whom the world is crucified to me, and I to the world.”

It’s not clear exactly what Paul means when he says that he bears in his body “the brand-marks of the Lord Jesus.” But he is probably speaking of his own suffering, that he has been physically wounded for his confession of faith. Paul is no stranger to violence. He feels pain. He is beaten. He is thrown into prison. He will be beheaded. Paul knows about violence. He knows about death.

… Paul embraces the death of the world! And he embraces his own death. But not because he just wants to feel alive. He embraces death because he knows that in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ is life. He embraces death because he knows that he himself must be crucified with Christ so that his death can be joined with Christ’s death.

This is the paradox of our great hope as Christians—that we seek life, just like the pop songs! And we seek death and even violence, just like the pop songs! But it is not just any death or any violence that brings us life. It is the suffering and death of Jesus, to which we join our own suffering and death by repentance, by confession, by the sacraments, by love.

… The pop songs get it right, but not quite right. There is more to life than merely “feeling alive.” Life is not found in mere violence and death. Life is found in sacrifice and resurrection. Life is found in Jesus Christ, and in His Cross we therefore glory. Like Paul, we boast. Like Paul, we are crucified to the world, and the world is crucified to us. And death is slain. And we are made truly alive. And with Christ we will rise from the dead.”

Source: Road from Emmaus blog

By Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick

http://blogs.ancientfaith.com/roadsfromemmaus/2015/09/13/you-bleed-just-to-know-youre-alive/

Memento Mori

There’s something about abandonment that resonates strangely with the human spirit; and the sight of human buildings reclaimed by nature has a twofold effect. Firstly, it hints at hidden histories, at stories and perhaps lives lost – but more powerful still, is the underlying message that reminds us how all things must one day return to the earth. How interesting it is then, to contemplate the decline of our monuments to religion: more than mere function, these structures carry the weight of our beliefs, our dreams, our hope and our faith.

From time to time in my travels, I’ve come across the derelict remains of churches; some of them boarded and fenced off in city centres, others left to rot in fields or forests. I felt it was about time I shared a few of these locations … and so here are five of the most memorable religious ruins that I’ve had the opportunity to explore.

THREE ABANDONED CHURCHES AND A CELLAR FULL OF SKULLS

Derelict Church and Bell Tower, Bulgaria

I came across this first site one year ago – on Boxing Day, to be precise – nestled amongst bushes and tumbled stone walls, in the middle of a remote Balkan village.

The village was much like many others in the area; half a dozen houses clustered around a potholed road, and half of those properties most likely uninhabited. Over the past couple of decades Bulgaria has seen radical depopulation in its more rural settlements, as young people typically move to the cities – or now, increasingly to other EU nations – in search of work. As a result, many of Bulgaria’s more remote villages have begun to look a little starved of life and vitality.

From the road it didn’t look like much more than a collapsed barn; the creepers and brambles already taking a hold on the old stones, pulling them down in a deadly stranglehold. It was a war memorial in the graveyard that caught my eye, however – a peculiar, kneeling figure, sat atop the Bulgarian crest and brandishing a WWI-era rifle. The face seemed somehow twisted at first, but the more I looked the more I read a profound pathos etched into that stone mask.

I walked through the graveyard to the derelict building behind, a structure I’d barely given a second look until then. Here though, approaching from the main entrance I was greeted by the faded yet familiar symbols of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church; and stepping through an arched double doorway, for just a moment I was able to imagine the building whole.

At a guess, I’d say the church had been built sometime in the early 19th century. It wasn’t until 1878 that Bulgaria finally achieved independence from Ottoman rule, before which these people were strictly forbidden from building churches that rose taller than the invaders’ mosques. As a result, Bulgarian Orthodox churches built before that were typically dug deep into the ground, to form semi-subterranean spaces of worship that wouldn’t offend their Muslim overlords.

This building, approached by a series of three stone steps descending into a shallow, one-storey church, seemed to fit the mould perfectly.

The site also featured a bell tower, built in a more ornate style and topped with a proud cross, which would certainly have been raised post-liberation – such an unashamed statement of christianity would never have met with Ottoman approval. In fact, during those years even bells themselves were banned from churches; the subjugated Christians would rather have made do with wooden clappers, that drew less attention to their heathen practices.

It was sad to see the church, along with its more recently acquired bell tower, in such a squalid state of disrepair; the roof had long since been stripped, leaving nothing of value and only old, moss-covered stones to hint at what had once been here. Such is the nature of depopulation, however. With only a handful of elderly residents left, there was barely a congregation to be found in the village – let alone the work force required to keep the church and tower well maintained.

The sun was setting by the time I left the main body of the church. I glanced up at the stone tower as I crossed the graveyard, and at that moment I caught the reflection of sun beams glinting dully on the brass body of a bell. Immediately, I knew I wanted to climb the tower.

The bell tower wasn’t tall, perhaps little over four floors high by average building standards. What made the climb difficult however, was the state of the wooden staircase within. Some steps were missing altogether, others splintered, grown over with moss, while just a few seemed to promise the illusion of stability.

I spread my weight across as many steps as I could at any given time, taking the climb at a painfully slow rate. The structure creaked and groaned in protest, as I crawled up the rotten corkscrew.

At last, however, I made it to the top. Coming round one final corner of the warped and weathered staircase I met a square of blue above – where day’s last light was spilling in through windows in the stone to illuminate the bell ringer’s platform.

Pulling myself up and onto the larger beams that formed a floor for the tower’s topmost chamber, I caught my breath and looked out at the view – the sleepy hamlet, the lake beyond, the mountains disappearing into mist. In all the years this church and tower had suffered the onslaught of the elements, wood and stone giving way to the inevitable pull of natural decay, the view itself had likely never changed. Now that I was here, I couldn’t resist but ring the bell. It tolled a deep and dissonant sound that echoed out across the landscape … but by now there was no one left to hear it ring.

Christ the Savior Cathedral, Kosovo

In November last year I took a trip to Pristina, the capital of Kosovo. One of the sites I explored that week was an unfinished cathedral, located in a park just off George Bush Boulevard.

The building – titled the “Christ the Saviour Cathedral” – is a perfect example of the Orthodox form with its tower and dome, its simple cross placed up top. Here however, in the largely Islamic capital of Kosovo, the unfinished building stands out in sharp contrast against its surroundings.

Nowadays this building (and what it stands for) is caught at the heart of a heated political debate.

Construction began on the cathedral back in 1995, when it was intended as a place of worship for Pristina’s Serbian Orthodox population. Things would soon change however, with the outbreak of the Kosovo War in February 1998. The construction project was stalled as war ravaged the country, Albanians pitted against Serbs in a battle for independence. The following years would see attempted ethnic cleansing, bombing raids and eventual UN intervention … and by the time the Republic of Kosovo had been established as an independent nation in July 1990, the unfinished Serbian cathedral in its capital had become an uncomfortable reminder of their past oppression.

Built on the grounds of Pristina University, the Christ the Saviour Cathedral remains a brickwork shell to this day. It isn’t guarded, and the construction team never got as far as giving the building doors which might be locked to keep out trespassers; and so I sauntered in freely, to explore the vast brickwork arches and domes of a cathedral that never was.

While some Kosovo Albanians have called for the complete demolition of the building – branding it a symbol of the regime of Slobodan Milošević – there are others here who like it just the way it is. Speaking to an Albanian Muslim friend just a few days later, I was told that there are some in Pristina (and particularly amongst the younger population) who consider this ghostly shell a kind of trophy;

“Every time I look at this ruin, it reminds me of our victory against the Serbs,” my friend told me over burek and macchiatos.

Inside the cathedral I caught the scent of something foul, and turning a corner, I found that the altar space had recently been used as a public toilet. Whether this too carried a political message – or was simply the work of someone who’d been caught short in the park – I’d never know.

Abandoned Orthodox Church, Romania

Perhaps the most beautiful building featured on my list, this Romanian Orthodox church was also the most severely dilapidated.

The church lies on the edge of a tiny village, surrounded by open fields and roughly an hour’s drive from Bucharest. I never would have found the remote location on my own, but rather I made the trip with my Romanian friend Ovidiu, and co-conspirator Nate (the man from Yomadic).

Ducking beneath a lintel of jagged, severed bricks, we stepped into the church through a breach in one wall; a breach created after one large section of the building had torn away altogether, to crumble into the long grass.

Immediately I was struck by the simplistic beauty of the place. Frescoed walls and pillars in warm shades of orange, delicate arches and the most exquisite murals painted in blue, gold and red.

Unlike the building above, which I had witnessed being pulled aggressively apart by power tools and bulldozers, the ugly work of human hands and gas-fuelled vehicles of destruction, the atmosphere in this place was altogether different. Here there was a sense of balance, a serenity about the decay, as green growth sprouted out of old bricks … and vines reached in through windows to steal the minerals back from the very walls themselves.

The death of this church was a beautiful thing, a painless passing wrapped within the loving arms of mother nature.

Though the space inside was small, we spent a good long while exploring it – most of that time poring over faded frescos, admiring the painstaking detail in every scene. At one point we even climbed up onto the walls themselves … moving slowly, ever cautious not to dislodge the stones. From the broken end of the nave we looked down on the altar from above, our view level with the bell tower that somehow, against all odds, stood tall and square above the ruin even now.

Outside the church, where the graveyard bordered onto a small village square in which children chased chickens and three old women in shawls had sat on a wooden bench and watched us pass, there stood a gatehouse.

Like the church, this building too had clearly seen better days – but for now at least, it managed to maintain some structural integrity. I decided to climb it.

Stood beneath the stone archway, I ran my hand through the space where once a staircase would have been – wet chips of rotten wood now hanging in heavy cobwebs, while the chewed-off ends of steps still jutted out of slots in the wall at regular intervals. There was a square hatch above, leading to the tower room with its balcony – but 10 feet up without a ladder, I wasn’t going to get there on my own.

Using Ovidiu as a human climbing frame, I managed to get a hold on the ledge above … before pulling myself up and over the lip, rolling into a square grey chamber adjacent to the central tower.

The space inside the upper portion of the gatehouse had, apparently, long since been taken over by the pigeons. Moving through the mounds of muck and feathers, I crossed to where a wooden hatch opened onto the central tower. Above me, sunlight streamed in through a wide rent in the tin roof.

The main tower of the building had lost its floor – where once the boards had been, now only a couple of wooden planks extended from one end to the next, a delicate balancing act above a 10-foot drop.

I put my best foot forward, placing it on the wooden beam with the hope of crossing, and making it out onto the balcony beyond. It wasn’t to be, however; the moment I put weight on the wood I felt it shift beneath me, the surface crumbling to a grit with the texture and consistency of coffee grounds. I took one last look at that door opening out onto the balcony, then looked down again to the powdery mess my foot had made of the walkway.

Nope, I thought, not worth it.

Before we left, the churchyard had one more surprise in store for us.

Beneath a nearby tree there sat a heavy stone sarcophagus, its lid carved with ornate script and a sculpted wreath. At each corner, the tomb was supported on stones fashioned into the shape of feet.

I was just admiring the letters carved into the tomb, when I spotted a square hole opening up in the earth beside the sarcophagus. It was deep – too deep to make out the bottom – and suspecting I might be stood above some kind of buried crypt, I began looking around for the entrance.

We found it, sure enough; a series of slab-like steps that descended beneath the graveyard, into a deep, dark chamber filled with stones and rubble. The space wasn’t large, and felt all the more cramped for the piles of broken things which had been cast down from the opening above. There were cracked tombstones, pieces of pillar, even shards of splintered wood; presumably from coffins.

And after that we bid the church farewell. In one sense it was tragic to see such art left out to rot, and I wondered why no effort had been made to preserve it; the more time I spent in and around that building however, the more I experienced an inexplicable feeling that everything was exactly as it should be … and from then on I was simply grateful for the opportunity to admire the church before it had been swallowed back into the earth altogether.

Monastery Crypt, Bulgaria

My last location was not abandoned; neither was it a church, strictly speaking, but rather a picturesque little monastery nestled beneath a cliff in the mountains of Bulgaria.

While the monastery itself was undoubtedly beautiful – not to mention unique, at least in terms of structure and geography – my main reason for visiting the place was a small, half-buried chamber that would usually not be seen by visitors.

Stepping around the corner of a chapel, we followed the graveyard path that wound around and down; a flight of stones steps descending to the cellar door. We tried the handle and though the door was stubborn to open – the wood swollen from moisture – it had been left unlocked, as expected.

Inside the dim chamber beyond, a number of wooden boxes had been stacked in clumsy piles, a muddle of mismatched chests and caskets. “костилница,” read lettering on the wall: “Ossuary.”

Many of the boxes were labelled with names, presumably corresponding to the one-time owners of the bones that lay inside. I wondered where these bones were headed – or if these wooden boxes were indeed the final resting place of monks, martyrs, or whoever else this may have been in life.

Not all these holy bones were hidden though, and on a recessed shelf at the back corner of the crypt were arranged a series of human skulls. Following the same tradition I saw on my recent visit to a Czech ossuary, these bones had been boiled clean … but after that, the monks here had painted names and dates across each skull in delicate brushstrokes.

The effect was strangely beautiful; a repurposing of death, skulls used in place of headstones. These bones had served as vessels of information in life, why not allow them to continue to speak beyond that point?

It did trouble me a little to see the bones left open to the air … the skulls on the shelf showed signs of disintegration, while the stacked boxes were beginning to collapse under the weight of those piled above. Perhaps, though, such desire for preservation is itself an unnatural urge – maybe it’s healthier to accept the passing of time, and to embrace the inevitable decay that comes with it. These skulls seemed to serve the purpose of memento mori in every sense: both a reminder that all things must end, and also an admission that such processes can yet be beautiful.