- Do Not Be Afraid
by Andrew Boyd
- God and The Tiger
by Fr. John Cox
- Faith in a Faithless Generation?
an interview with Catherine Addington
- What Does Love Look Like?
by Fr. Sergius Halvorsen
By Fr. John Cox
Tiger tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night
what immortal hand or eye
could frame thy fearful symmetry?
You are on a mission. You are deep in the mountainous forests of the Annapurna Conservation Area in northern Nepal. You are here to photograph the elusive and majestic Bengal Tiger. For hours you have been working your way, slowly and quietly, through a narrow, misty, crevasse with little light and little visibility. You push through a gnarl of conifers at the end of the crevasse just as a breeze carries the mist away. The full light of the sun dazzles your eyes and you gasp. You are standing on top of the world; tower upon mighty, Himalayan tower scraping the clouds around you. The ground falls away into a clean valley beneath your feet, and there, the hunt is on! He is stretched out, full speed, every muscle taught, 11 feet and 900 pounds of elegant power, gliding with silent, lethal grace over the valley floor. You stand enthralled, camera forgotten, in reverent awe of the mountains and the tiger. This is fear.
We commonly use the word fear to mean psychological terror; the kind of gasping, clutching feeling you have when a strange noise awakens you in the night. This kind of fear is a bad thing. But scripturally the word fear has more to do with reverence, respect, and awe than with sweat-inducing night terrors. This is important to know because fear is all over our scripture; in a good way.
In Proverbs we learn that The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; (9:10) and that The fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever. (19:9) The prophet Jeremiah, speaking with the words of God, says, I shall give them one heart and one way so that they may fear me during all their days, so that all will be well for them and for their sons after them… so that they may never go away from Me. (32:39-40) Lest we think this is just an Old Testament thing, St. Paul says that, Since we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade others…, (II Cor. 5:11) and St. John the Theologian, in his Revelation, asks in wonder, Who will not fear you, O Lord? (15:4) Clearly fear is an important part of our relationship with God. In fact, it is essential. If you do not fear God you cannot love him.
Why? Because you meet God through the scripture and the services of the Church, especially in holy communion, and the One you encounter there is the Holy One who kills and makes alive; (Duet. 32:39) He is the source of all being; (Anaphora of St. Basil) He is beauty, truth, and love embodied; He is the One who hung on a cross, enduring the shame and pain – death itself – to give us eternal life and make us whole again. To meet this One and, in that encounter, refuse your reverence, your respect, and your awe is to behold the tiger and the mountains and yawn in boredom. The door to the heart of such a person is locked from the inside. Either they refuse to see God as He is, or, seeing Him that way, choose to pretend He’s no big deal. This is the opposite of love. This is a profound self-centeredness that makes love impossible. Love contains the capacity to be astounded, transformed, and humbled by another. You cannot love what you will not adore and refuse to be awed by.
Our God is a consuming fire. (Heb. 12:29) When we approach Him in the fear of God, as the priest says when he calls us to communion, that holy fire, ensconced in bread and wine, consumes our sins and fills us with the Holy Spirit – eternal life. The primary quality of this life is love; love for God, love for others, and love for the whole world. St. John tells us that this perfect love casts out fear of judgment or condemnation. So, the healthy kind of fear drives out the bad kind and makes us capable of bearing a love so strong it cannot die This is why St. Anthony the Great says The one who fears God will live forever.
Priest John Cox is Priest-in-Charge at Dormition of the Theotokos Orthodox Church (OCA) in Norfolk, VA. He is originally from Knoxville, TN where he was brought into Orthodoxy at St. George Greek Orthodox Church. Fr John is a 2011 graduate of Saint Vladimir’s Seminary, a husband, and father of four.
By Fr. Sergius Halvorsen
Today we are practically drowning in images of so-called “love.” Attractive, athletic men and women, dressed in the latest styles, seductively enjoying each other’s company on the deck of sleek yacht, on a tropical beach, or at a snowy mountain resort. Images like these are everywhere, and the not-so-subtle theme is desire. We are tempted to desire the attractive people, desire the material trappings of success, desire the luxury lifestyle. All of these images tempt us to say things like, “Oh, I just love that!” But what it means is that we desire to possess or consume something, or someone. In other words, we live in a world where selfish desire masquerades as love.
This is not a new phenomenon. Herod had a passionate desire for the opulent wealth of impossible mansions like the one he built at Masada. Herod had a passionate desire for women that he wanted, like Herodius his brother’s wife. Herod also had a passionate desire for the absolute power of a monarch; the kind of power by which a man could be beheaded by a simple command, “Bring me the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” (Mt. 14.8) Herod was not alone. Pontius Pilate also had a passionate desire for power, wealth and influence. At Pilate’s word armies would march, at his word prisoners could be released for political advantage, and at his word troublemakers could be scourged and crucified. Herod and Pilate were men who used their power and influence to satisfy their darkest desires.
While many may claim that they “love something” or “love someone” it is often just greed and lust masquerading as “love.” As anyone who has ever been the object of someone else’s desire knows that desire ultimately fails. The person that once said “I love you” begins to regard you differently. As the newness of the relationship fades, as arguments come up more often, we may find ourselves less and less “loved.” When desire is the fundamental motivation in a relationship, there is no reason to be faithful, after all, if something or someone else comes along that is more desirable then why not go after what makes you happy? John the Baptist and Jesus suffered terribly at the hands of Herod and Pilate precisely because Herod and Pilate were men who were primarily driven by desire, and not by love.
So, what does love look like?
Love is commitment, and we see authentic love in Jesus Christ who loves us precisely when we are unlovable. As St. Paul says, “God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” (Rom 5.8) The Son of God came into this world, lived among us, taught, preached, worked miracles, cast out demons, and proclaimed good news to the poor and liberty to the captives. (Lk.4.18; Isa 61.1) And how was he received? He was rejected, accused of blasphemy, arrested, mocked, handed over to lawless men, unjustly convicted, scourged, humiliated and crucified. If ever God had good reason to turn away from his people, it was when Jesus was crucified. If ever God had good reason to decide that mankind had gone one step too far in sin and arrogance, it was when men decided to kill Jesus. But love is commitment. God’s perfect love is God’s absolute commitment to remain with his people precisely when we are unlovable. And the depth of God’s love is nowhere more perfectly evident than when Jesus prays for the very people who are killing him. “Forgive them Father for they know not what they do.” (Lk 23.34) This is what love looks like. When the bride of Christ, mankind, abandons Christ the Bridegroom, our Lord remains faithful. Love is commitment, and receiving this love from God in Christ by the grace of the Holy Spirit, we love others with the same kind of love. We love our brothers and sisters not because they satisfy our desires, but because they are created in the image and likeness of God, and because Christ commands us to love, just as he loves us. (Jn13.34)
Rev. Sergius Halvorsen PhD. is Assistant Professor of Homiletics and Rhetoric at St. Vladimir’s Seminary in Yonkers, New York. He is the associate pastor at Christ the Savior Church in Southbury, CT and lives in Middletown,CT with his wife and three children. He enjoys singing, reading historical fiction and watching his children perform on stage and on the baseball field.
Thinking on the theme “Fear, Faith, and Love” we reached out to Catherine Addington, an Orthodox Christian and senior at New York University to speak about Faith in the Campus setting:
Wonder: What does a life of faith (specifically, our faith as expressed in The Creed, Holy Tradition, and Scripture) look like to you?
Catherine: The great thing about Orthodoxy is that it works for everyone. The Church really needs good Orthodox students as much as it needs good Orthodox teachers, chemists, mathematicians, cooks, soccer players, nuns, hairdressers, musicians, priests, poets…but for me, all three parts of that phrase are important. Right now, God has placed me in a position to be a good Orthodox student: that means being a good Orthodox Christian (praying every day, participating in the life of the parish, testifying to the truth of the faith when an opportunity arises) but it also means being a good student (supporting the school community, expressing gratitude in the form of learning, and striving to put my skills and resources to use in the service of others)! For me, a life of faith means orienting my particular daily grind toward holiness.
Wonder: What are some generalities about American college life that you have found to be true? found not to be true?
Catherine: Every time I asked people for college advice, they’d just blanket it: “Get involved!” I hated that before I got to college, because it sounds so general. And it is — but it’s also very true. I found that getting involved with school activities, such as volunteer trips or working at the theatre or writing for a school publication, was the best way to help me get a sense of my school and to find my place in it. I also found that my mental image of college — you know, that horrible red-solo-cup frat party in every bad comedy movie — was way off. I thought it was going to be hard to make friends without being a part of the partying scene, but I found that there were plenty of other students who felt the same way I did, and that we could support each other in creating an alternative to that environment.
Wonder: What has been the most challenging aspect of living a life of faith on campus?
Catherine: It’s been hard feeling like I need to defend my existence. Despite the active and diverse religious communities at my school, there is a general assumption here that all students are secular until proven otherwise and it can lead to some awkward situations — like that time I had to explain to our publication’s editors that an op-ed making fun of Justice Scalia’s belief in the devil wasn’t cool, or that other time a world history professor asked me to briefly explain Christianity because he didn’t feel the need to dedicate much class time to something so irrelevant. At the same time, each of these encounters has been a “teachable moment” that has ended up improving my relationships with my fellow students.
Wonder: What has surprised you about publicly identifying as a Christian at school?
Catherine: I’ve been surprised by the incredible support I’ve found at school. I actually converted to Orthodoxy during my second year of college. During that journey, I found a lot of support, especially from my two best friends (both atheists) and from the many devout students I met through NYU’s multifaith programming (mostly Muslim, Jewish, and Protestant students). I was worried that NYU’s “diversity” talk was just that, but my fellow students made a point of celebrating my faith and not just treating it as novelty. People showed up to my chrismation, they made sure there were vegan options during fasting seasons, and they asked how things were going at church — they really took an interest, especially because it was so new to most of them.
Wonder: How have challenges to your faith strengthened your relationship with Christ and your neighbor?
Catherine: I have found that it is really good for me being the only Orthodox Christian most of my fellow classmates know. Because I’m often put on the defensive for my faith, I’ve had to remember over and over again what it is I’m defending and why, and it has helped me stay close to the love I have for the Church. Plus, while there are a few other Orthodox students, and plenty of other Christians, I tend to be either the only or just the loudest Christian in the room most of the time and that comes with a responsibility to be a good “representative” of the faith. It’s often difficult, but over time I have come to think of that responsibility as less of a burden and more of a grace. I get to be the first experience of the Gospel for lots of my fellow students — what could be a greater blessing?
Wonder: What advice would you give to high schoolers advancing into colleges, universities, the military or workplaces about expressing, living, and having faith?
Catherine: Remember that places are only God-forsaken if we forsake them. There is no place on earth that you can’t live your life as an Orthodox Christian, even if it will look different for all of us. Try to use the challenging moments as opportunities to be in solidarity with other people who find themselves feeling like outsiders in your community, and to live your faith openly and with integrity.
Catherine Addington is currently studying abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Her writing has appeared in “The American Conservative”, “First Things”, and “NYU Local.” She will graduate with a B.A. in Latin American Studies from New York University in May 2015.
By Andrew Boyd
When I graduated college, I took a job in Greece and lived in a working-class neighborhood where nobody ever spoke even a little English. Coming home late from work, I was the relaxing and reading with relish my People magazine (the only English language publication I could find, please don’t judge). Suddenly, a note was pushed underneath my front door! This was both frightening and confusing, since the only people who knew who I was and where I lived were co-workers who had my phone number (and would therefore not need to communicate through cryptic door messages).
Now, my Greek then and now is not great, but I can kind of make my way through provided the letters aren’t in upper-case. The entire note, was, of course, in upper-case. Never fear, I was on the case! With my handy Greek dictionary, I spent the better part of the night trying to decipher the note. Hours later, frustrated and stressed, I was able to discern two words “Small” and “Dead”.
That freaked me out! No one knows I live here or who I am, and I get a note with the word “dead” in it. Was it a threat? Did they want me dead? Did someone out there not like a random American living in the building? Did my neighbors realize that I knew all about their illegal import/export business?
I couldn’t sleep. I was consumed by irrational fear. I locked all the doors in my house. I barricaded myself in my bedroom with my cellphone in my hand. I fell asleep at some point, and woke up early and stumbled about confused. Why was my cell phone in my bed? Was I going to call the police? I don’t even know how to do that in Greece (Hint: it’s not 911)? Irrational fear and crippling anxiety had taken complete control of me as my rational mind went on a quick vacation. I was left paralyzed by my own thoughts.
The Guards at Christ’s tomb in Matthew’s Gospel become “like dead men”, paralyzed in fear, at the appearance of the angel proclaiming the risen Lord. That same angel commands the women seeking Jesus to “not be afraid”. Those women depart from the empty tomb with an anxious mixture of fear and joy, where the risen Christ meets them to assure them one more time to announce his resurrection without fear.
Imagine for a moment how different the world would be if those women let their fear turn their joy, wonder, and amazement into my Greek irrational behavior, or worse the petrified fear of the guards, who were unable to move and ultimately unable to speak the truth of what Christ accomplished in front of them. Imagine if those women refused to share what they saw, if fear kept them from proclaiming to the world the joy of Christ’s resurrection, if the apostles never got the message about their messiah rising from the dead.
But what fears paralyze me? What keeps me from preaching the Gospel in its fullness to the weary world? Certainly my fear of spiders is on a different level than my fear of personal poverty? I know it’s fear when I keep Christ to myself. I know it’s fear when I wear my cross under my shirt. I know it’s fear when I tell my friends “I’m busy” instead of saying “I’m in Church proclaiming the Risen Lord.” It’s fear paralyzing me when I conceal from a needful world God’s gracious acts in my life.
Christ commands the women not to be afraid (I haven’t done the math, but I strongly suspect that “do not be afraid” is the most common commandment in the New Testament). He commands them to let the presence of his perfect love drive out their fears in order that they can more perfectly proclaim the joyous news of His resurrection. Being present in that healing love, they become the apostles to the Apostles, sharing the good news with those who would spread it to the ends of the Earth. The very foundation of Christianity is built in the commandment to not be afraid. Resting in Christ’s love, instead of our own fears, allows us to proclaim his Gospel.
So what did that note say in Greek? I brought the offending note to the office for translation by a co-worker. After I explained how upset and afraid I was (and asking him how to contact local police), he read the note aloud in Greek and every one of my colleagues stopped what they were doing to laugh at me. Here’s the note verbatim:
There is a small, dead bird on your outside balcony. Please remove it.
As we let go of our fears, we open the door for Christ’s resurrection to be proclaimed through us. Irritating anxiety gives way to the simple message that Christ has saved us from sin and death through his own death and resurrection. Join the women, cast aside fear, and share the news that Christ is risen.
Mr Andrew Boyd is the Director of Youth, Young Adult, and Campus Ministry for the Orthodox Church in America. He is a graduate of the University of Connecticut’s School of Business and the Master’s of Divinity program at Saint Vladimir’s Seminary. He works in corporate communications in New York City.
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by Fr. David L. Bozeman
I don’t suppose you want to hear about how great Salinger was or how instrumental Catcher was in shaping me as young person in the modern world. Maybe he was great. Maybe it was instrumental. Maybe not. Who can say? I didn’t care for The Catcher in the Rye the first time I read it. Holden Caulfield was obnoxious. And reckless. Nobody is that reckless. They couldn’t stand to be. Perhaps some people are that obnoxious so maybe Salinger had something there. No, it wasn’t Catcher that got me, but Franny and Zooey – those surprising short stories for any Orthodox who recognize the “Jesus Prayer” and The Way of the Pilgrim. Yes, Zooey, half of which takes place around a bathtub, did it for me. Salinger knew words. He knew characters. They could talk real good. They weren’t phonies. And who wants to read about phonies anyway?
So, I tried The Catcher in the Rye again, years later, after Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction and Nine Stories with the crushingly good “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” I had gotten to know Salinger by reading Salinger. And isn’t that the way of it? We can hate ideas. We can hate the idea of an obnoxious, rebellious, reckless young man kicking his way around New York City for a weekend. We can be offended by him. We can even be jealous of him in some ways and his apparent disregard for doing the right thing. And then we meet him. We get to know him. And he remains the same but we can’t hate him as an idea any longer because we know him. We may learn compassion. We may even start to love him.
So what do we do with it all when we are pressed upon by some sort of inclination to “deal” with these stories as Christians? What do we do with Holden as a character or his immoral antics? What do we do with every “goddamn” he utters or the way Zooey calls his mother “fatty” or calls her constantly by her first name? What are we to do as Orthodox Christians? Is there any redeeming factor to this kind of story? Should we even be looking for one? This is always the question for us: how do we live in the world and yet not be of the world?
I take a clue from Zooey himself as he talks to his sister Franny after she finds herself incapacitated by living with the “world” and all of its troubles and phoniness. She has retreated onto her mother’s couch where she silently repeats the Jesus Prayer hoping for some relief, for some escape. And Zooey says to her:
The Jesus Prayer has one aim and one aim only. To endow the person who says it with Christ-consciousness. Not to set up some little cozy, holier-than-thou trysting place with some sticky, adorable divine personage who’ll take you in his arms and relieve you of all your duties and make all your nasty Weltschmerzen and Professor Tuppers go away and never come back…you’re misusing the prayer, you’re using it to ask for a world full of dolls and saints and no Professor Tuppers (Franny and Zooey, 170-171).
As Christians, we are never called to escape, to set up a “little cozy, holier-than-thou trysting place with some sticky, adorable divine personage.” Rather we are called to be a light in the darkness. How often do we prefer our own little ghetto where we only see what we want to see and hear what we want to hear? We try to sanitize our way through life. I don’t believe that is very helpful to us or the world. Our calling rather, is to baptize and offer transcendence, to fulfill that which is lacking.
And it begins by rooting out our own phoniness. You can live your whole life as a phony if you want to. You can settle into it, get used to it. You can live with a heart of stone. It’s possible. It’s easy. But it won’t save you. It isn’t the narrow way. And I think that is what Salinger and so many other “recognized” writers were concerned with. They may not have had the answer, but they could sure ask the question.
And so I read Salinger. I read The Catcher in the Rye and all the others. I recognize the disgust that he was disgusted with. I see the phonies that he saw. And it speaks to me. And I am challenged once again to respond to the same phoniness, to the disgust, to the evil of the world as a Christian; to, as Hemingway famously said, “write one true sentence.” And if I can offer one true sentence in response, if I can make my whole life one true sentence, then maybe others will see that good work and glorify God in heaven.
By Fr. David Wooten
“To every man his little cross. (He sighs.) Till he dies. (Afterthought) And is forgotten.” – Vladimir, Waiting for Godot
I was asked often what it was that attracted me to the plays of Samuel Beckett in high school and college; Cold War classics like Waiting for Godot and Endgame seemed rather odd and dreary fare for a young man who was known to profess Christian faith. Godot’s two tramps, Vladimir and Estragon, exist in a unending loop wherein they are condemned to a silence and motionlessness that they can never, ultimately, escape. Such hopelessness—expressed as it is in absurdist minimalism with frequent pauses and stream-of-consciousness dialogue—stands in stark contrast to the glorious hope of life in Christ that we experience in the Scriptures and the Divine Liturgy. What was it that kept me coming back to these trapped, tormented souls?
Beckett and his audiences were just emerging from the horrors of the World War II, and while many people were immersing themselves in family life and newfound western prosperity, many had to reflect on the trauma of the world’s citizens’ slaughter of one another. For them, the contents of daily life were only distractions from the cold reality that they saw: nothing in this world ultimately matters, and we are stuck in a nihilistic experience that can barely be called a “life”—more like mere existence with no ultimate rhyme or reason to it. They were determined to call out the absurdity, tragedy, pointlessness, and injustice in the world around them, yet concluded that there really was, as the tramps say repeatedly in Godot, “nothing to be done.” The one for whom they waited, Godot (who, we should note, was not a metaphor for God by Beckett’s own admission), never came; the utopian vision of humanity never materialized and they were left, waiting, for what would never come.
When I reflect on this dark evaluation of life, it serves as a reminder that “in the beginning, it was not so,” that man was not in such a predicament at the time of his creation. Yet man, having the opportunity to grasp and take to himself the knowledge that only God could help him control, namely that of Good and Evil, chose to try and create Paradise without God, and became the prodigal with the Father’s inheritance, foolishly squandering what the Father had wisely invested. In short, man created an unwitting parody, a cheap copy, of what the Father had originally intended. The three aspects of Godot that most completely mark the work—timelessness, silence, and stillness—are all aspects of our walk with Christ that we as Orthodox Christians are called to embrace and live. Yet, as Godot clearly shows, when this life is lived for itself instead of in function of and relation to the Kingdom of Heaven, these three qualities become parodies of themselves, cheap imitations that mock us by reminding us of what we are not experiencing.
When Godot opens its second of the two acts, Estragon has absolutely no memory of the previous act’s event (indeed, we don’t know if it was a day or an eon before Act II when Act I occurred). And because this is the case, all people are treated with the same amount of disregard for their unwilling participation in time. Thus, the one hope to which man can look forward in Godot is that of being forgotten, just as he himself forgets and thus eliminates all meaninglessness around him. What a sad thing today that so many people live what they believe to be “disposable” lives—no more important that the paper we wrap our hamburgers in—with one day following another without any kind of rhyme or reason. Our life in Christ doesn’t (usually) change what happens in the time we have, nor does it make time go faster, but it does give us a change of perspective. Instead of crying “Forget this!” or believing we would or should be forgotten, Christ is our Godot (even if he wasn’t Beckett’s) and it is to Him we cry, “Remember! Remember me, O Lord, in Your Kingdom!” The timelessness which will know no end and always have a reason can inform us now, even in absurdity.
Silence is used as an avoidance technique in Godot. One of its appearances early on in the play, however, does not take the form of a drowning of the dialogue as much as it is a tool purposefully and consciously wielded by Vladimir to silence Estragon’s dreams. However, having silenced the voices of fear and despair, they are now are left with the horrifying meaninglessness within themselves. They embody Blaise Pascal’s observation: “All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.” Yet many Fathers of the Church teach us that when we silence our surroundings and our own thoughts, we are led to encounter, not the nothingness of a futile existence, but the God who resides in the human heart, as St. Macarius the Great told us.
Then there’s stillness. The most well-known stage direction of Godot is They do not move. The irony of this stage direction is its continual juxtaposition with an expressly stated desire to do just that. The first example of this is when Estragon and Vladimir are discussing the natures of the two thieves on either side of Christ at the Crucifixion:
Vladimir: One is supposed to have been saved and the other…(he searches for the contrary of saved)…damned.
Estragon: Saved from what?
Estragon: I’m going.
He does not move.
This double meaning is especially powerful, for Estragon’s statement of “I’m going” could have more than one meaning. Upon hearing that one would be damned to hell, Estragon possibly could have evaluated his own, already hellish existence and thought that hell would be the natural conclusion of such a trapped life. On the other hand, Estragon could have become a bit unnerved by his companion’s topic of conversation and desired to leave so as to try to flee this eternal destiny. At any rate, he is unable to move in all reality, and Estragon is either resigned to or forced into (respectively) having no power to shape his own destiny, be it eternal or temporal. The paralysis of our age is one of hopelessness, of fear, of futility. In the midst of this our God did not offer a Purpose Driven Life of motivational speeches and fairy godmother solutions. He came in and He suffered in a way that encapsulated total vulnerability and (apparent) futility perfectly. His reminder from the Cross is that the only real way to find rest is to cease from striving against the will of God and be still in His presence, not needing to run to this place or that person or that career path, but letting Him be enough for us, right where we are.
My professors always told us, “There’s no Pascha without Holy Friday; there’s no joy without sorrow; there’s no union with God (theosis) without self-emptying (kenosis) beforehand.” Sometimes, I’ve found, in order to appreciate anew what Christ has come to deliver to us, I have to look into someone’s darker point of view, someone convinced that God has forgotten, that His silence is really from a cold, barren cosmos, that we are abandoned beyond any help of deliverance. Sometimes it helps to remember when I’ve felt that—to be honest when I do feel that. Because if we can look even a moment into the abyss of the world’s cruelty and still bless the Lord for something, we’ve begun to remember the timeless One, our Godot, Who in silence and peaceful stillness speaks peace to weary prodigals and bids them trade in their struggles for their Eternal Father’s house.
By Catherine Addington
The truth was that Jay Gatsby, of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God—a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that—and he must be about His Father’s business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty. So he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen year old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end.
The narrator of The Great Gatsby, the title character’s next-door neighbor Nick Carraway, gives us this description after finally unveiling his friend’s early history. It is one of the only uses of explicitly Christian language in the novel, and it is shakily Christian at that, presenting Gatsby, and by analogy Christ, as a man whose intensely idealistic self-image does not match up with reality. And yet it is precisely in that exploration of superficial grandeur that the novel’s tragic message can most speak to Christians.
These few sentences strike at the tragedy of Gatsby, a man whose single-minded passion could have been considered virtuous had it not been committed to the wrong ideal. Throughout the book, Nick uses faithful language to describe Gatsby’s drive for his version of perfection: for Nick, Gatsby was “the most hopeful man I’d ever encountered,” a man who maintains a religious belief in the “future that year by year recedes before us.” He simply misorients all of that hope, looking to a blissful future in a material world that was not just fading in the eschatological sense but in a short-term socioeconomic one as well.
As Nick rightly observes, Christ was a servant of beauty. He sought it in the faith and perseverance of the poor and the afflicted, and he had his hope in the knowledge that his kingdom is not of this world. Gatsby perverts that search of beauty, reducing it to materialistic allure alone. Christ’s model of selfless love, promising holiness and eternal life rather than kingly power as its reward, finds no place in Gatsby’s conception of the world. Gatsby assumes love is a function of impressing someone with sufficient material pleasure, so he builds up his wealth and style in the belief that this alone will be enough to win over his lost love, Daisy Buchanan. It is not that he misunderstands love, exactly, but that love is not what he is going for. Daisy functions not as a person but as a symbol of the easy luxury and charm that he longs desperately to escape into.
For a fair amount of the novel, that seems to be working. Gatsby executes that illusion of wealth — arrived at by bootlegging and organized crime — so well that the novel reads like a success story before it becomes a melancholy reflection. He throws opulent parties, catches Daisy’s eye once more, and is much more of a legend than a protagonist for more than half the book. By drawing the reader into Gatsby’s world, Fitzgerald plays on a deeply held American ideal, as Jackson Cuidon and Alissa Wilkinson pointed out in their review of the 2013 film adaptation of The Great Gatsby. “We love this kind of thing, the person who comes from nothing. It tells us that anyone from anywhere can make his mark in the American landscape—that anyone can change the world. But what’s it like to be on the other end? … Do you want to be the self you made?”
That remade self stems from a self-loathing that Gatsby never seems to escape. The “American dream” that Fitzgerald invokes, and the fantasy life of Jay Gatsby, depends heavily on the assumption that it was not worth living life as James Gatz, the rural North Dakota veteran who had to pay for college by working a janitorial job on the side. It assumes that with wealth comes a more meaningful life, a more emotionally and spiritually fulfilling one, not just a materially easier one.
It is fundamental to the Christian view of humanity that we are made in God’s image and likeness. As Orthodox Christians, we consider one another icons of God for this exact reason, that we are manifestations of His beauty. It can be tempting to conflate that analogy with a worldview that prizes physical and material allure over spiritual truth, the way Gatsby does. It can also be tempting to interpret Christ’s command that we be perfect using the world’s, and Gatsby’s definition of perfection, dealing in earthly success alone. But The Great Gatsby dwells on the falsehood of this material “American dream” in much the way that Christ eschewed earthly cares. As we read Gatsby’s story, we should be mindful of the ways we ourselves confuse earthly and heavenly perfection. Let us not forget that the Christ who is now king of heaven spent his time on earth as a poor, traveling rabbi in backwater of the Roman Empire, and let us ensure that the James Gatzes of this world hear that message with loving care.
By Nathan Jekel
If you have ever been a student, chances are you have been instructed to read a book that you had no interest in. One such book that is often assigned to students is The Picture of Dorian Gray. Though this may seem at best a waste of time and at worst a pernicious attempt to disrupt your life, I am going to suggest that in reflecting on certain themes that it raises, you may reap spiritual benefits from Oscar Wilde’s novel. By interpreting the story of Dorian Gray through the lens of our faith, we can gain insight into how indulgence of the senses harms the soul the how one can receive spiritual healing.
The novel takes place in London in the late 19th century, chiefly among members of the upper class. The story begins as Basil Hallward, an artist, finishes a masterful portrait of Dorian Gray, a beautiful young man whom he has recently met. When Basil’s friend, Lord Henry Wotton, sees this portrait and expresses a desire to meet Dorian. Basil is reluctant, but Lord Henry soon achieves an introduction. Lord Henry is fascinated by Dorian’s innocence and avails him of his own worldview wherein the distinction between good and evil is unimportant and the purpose of life is the pursuit of sensual pleasures. Dorian, being young and naïve, is quickly captivated by Lord Henry’s lifestyle, and we see him begin to live solely for the indulgence of his senses.
The senses are our means of receiving information from the world around us. Every good thing and every evil thing that we encounter enters us by way of our senses. St. Nikodemos of the Holy Mountain says this in his Handbook of Spiritual Counsel: “Life enters when [the senses] are governed well and do not partake of their usual passions. Death enters when they partake of “corpses” as do the birds of prey; …when they eat rotted food as do the flies.” If we expose our senses only to good things – e.g. nature, scripture, and the divine services – we keep our minds and souls pure and unblemished. If we allow our senses to be barraged by the evil things of this world – e.g. violence, sensuality, and idle gossip – then we become enslaved to passions and worldly lust.
As Dorian becomes thus enslaved, he begins to destroy people’s lives through his cruelty and selfishness. He notices that for every terrible act he commits, his portrait – with which Basil gifted him – undergoes a physical change. Scars appear on the painted visage and the expression becomes cold and cruel. As the years pass and Dorian blackens his soul with wicked deeds, the portrait – which Dorian hides away in his attic – becomes ever more hideous, while Dorian himself remains unnaturally young and beautiful. How relevant this is to our own lives! The things of the world appeal to our senses, but under the surface they are “corpses” and “rotted food.” Likewise, the world teaches us to care painstakingly for our outward beauty and to ignore the corruption that lies within us. Let us waste no time in denying the world and confronting ourselves. As St. Isaac the Syrian says, “This life has been given to you for repentance; do not waste it in vain pursuits.”
When Dorian finally faces the reality of his situation, he does not repent but attacks his portrait in anger and despair. Like Judas Iscariot, who, racked with guilt for his betrayal of Christ, hung himself, Dorian felt remorse for his actions but did not seek forgiveness. St. Paul says in his Second Letter to the Corinthians: “Now I rejoice, not that you were made sorry, but that your sorrow led to repentance… For Godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, …but the sorrow of the world produces death” (2 Corinthians 7:9-10). When we examine our souls and see our sinfulness, we pray for Godly sorrow that we might repent and be forgiven. “Are you a sinner? Do not become discouraged, and come to Church to put forward repentance” (St. John Chrysostom).
The Church’s message to sinners – let us not tell ourselves that we escape this category – is not one of condemnation, but of hope. Christ himself said, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32). “I do not will the death of the ungodly man. So the ungodly man should turn from his way and live” (Ezekiel 33:11). The Church gives us many opportunities to retreat from the sensuality of the world and examine our lives. By following the prescribed rules of fasting, prayer, and scripture reading; and by attending the divine services, we will begin to detach ourselves from earthly cares and instead fill our senses with “every good and perfect gift” (James 1:17).
Having explored The Picture of Dorian Gray from the perspective of an Orthodox Christian, we have found that it has relevance to our own spiritual journeys. By enumerating Dorian Gray’s mistakes, we can be on guard against making similar ones in our own lives. So, whether you are a student faced with a reading assignment or anyone with an obligation to read a book, I encourage you to approach your reading with a mind that is open and yet firmly grounded in the teachings of Jesus Christ and his Church.