My favorite Jason Robert Brown song (or, music of heaven: a love letter to liturgy)

To me, it teeters on the very edge of metaphysical possibility to pick a single favorite song by Jason Robert Brown; but if the destiny of my immortal soul depended on it, my choice is emphatically “Music of Heaven” from the album Wearing Someone Else’s Clothes. It is not as technically impressive as some of his many other songs that I love, but manages so beautifully in its five-minute duration to distill a world of truth about the all-too-familiar “buffered self” longing to be cracked open. Listen, with special attention to its inevitable dramatic conclusion, and you’ll see what I mean.

The story goes that in 1997, JRB had to give up an engagement as an accompanist with the Broadway Gospel Choir (now known as Broadway Inspirational Voices) for another event out of town, but managed to make it back to New York in time to see the performance anyway. He writes in an old blog entry:

As someone who has only the most distant relationship to religious faith, I started the evening very skeptically, watching all these actors onstage emoting madly about their connection to God.  But the longer I watched, the more my skepticism turned to admiration, even envy: they were really experiencing something up there, they were really connecting.  Sure, some of it was showbiz, but I could see past that to the place where there was something sincere, something very powerful happening on stage. And ultimately, I felt more than a little tinge of regret that I was unable to connect the same way they did, even though I loved making that music more than almost anything else I played.  Being a professional cynic has its downsides, and I never felt that more keenly than that night at that concert.

Which reminds me, and to take us a little further back than 1997: it is said, with regard to the Christianization of the Kievan Rus’ at the tail end of the first millennium, that the envoys of Vladimir the Great discovered true religion in Constantinople when they saw the Divine Liturgy for the first time at Hagia Sophia. According to the Russian Primary Chronicle, they said, “We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendor or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We only know that God dwells there among men, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations.”

We in our own time with romantical hearts and some odd longing for the old days of empire can only imagine what spectacular beauty the delegates of the Grand Prince of Kiev experienced then. Timothy (later Kallistos) Ware writes that on the staff of Hagia Sophia in the year 612 were “80 priests, 150 deacons, 40 deaconesses, 70 subdeacons, 160 readers, 25 cantors, and 100 doorkeepers: this gives some faint idea of the magnificence of the service which Vladimir’s envoys attended” (from The Orthodox Church). Today the only things (in my purview anyway) that might hope to approach such numbers even remotely are the concert, opera, and Broadway stages. As for the average Orthodox church, forget it.

And yet, while I won’t begrudge those certain younger traditions of Christianity their gospel music, there is indeed a transcendent, otherworldly beauty in the Divine Liturgy that I have never found elsewhere in any human affair. It depends not on the numbers in attendance, nor on whether the music is simple Byzantine chant or more elaborate Russian hymns, nor on whether it is the midnight of Pascha or a regular Sunday, nor on whether it takes place in a hundred-year-old cathedral in the city or in a small parish in the outer boroughs… It is difficult for me to describe. Like “Music of Heaven,” it only reduces me in the end to saying, “Yes, I can say yes, let the music begin.”

Icon of the Divine Liturgy by Michael Damaskinos, 16th c.

Belief: a belated Paschal reflection (with assistance from Ratzinger)

Icon of the “Assurance of Thomas,” 16th c.

Because the Orthodox Church retains an older liturgical calendar as well as the Greek name of the feast of feasts more commonly known by the admittedly pagan-sounding “Easter,” Pascha appears untouched by the bland tide of secular culture that has turned its counterpart in the Western churches into a mere observance of rabbits and “renewal.” It is unambiguously about Christ, who is risen from the dead. While I wish to be clear that whether rightly or wrongly I have come to give credence to the witness to the resurrection abundantly laid out in scripture and in the early history of the church—and, not to mention, to take delight in responding “Воистину воскресе!” to the Paschal greeting—I fully acknowledge the sheer outrageousness of such a belief (to say nothing of the outrageous length of the midnight liturgy). But lest that give us modern post-Enlightenment types reason for arrogance, N. T. Wright says, “Proposing that Jesus of Nazareth was raised from the dead was just as controversial nineteen hundred years ago as it is today. The discovery that dead people stayed dead was not first made by the philosophers of the Enlightenment” (from The Resurrection of the Son of God).

I’m not simply trying to be cute, nor capitulating to the secular establishment, when I insist on the difficulty of belief. I still find it nearly impossible to trust people to whom the Christian story comes so effortlessly (this seems to be curiously most common among conservative American evangelical types). If the apostle Thomas himself couldn’t recognize the risen Christ standing before him, how much worse off are we? And yet, the religiously illiterate continue to lob the common accusation that the faithful only turn to religion for “easy answers” to the challenges of life.

To be sure, there is a common pattern in conversion stories where the previously infidel are moved to turn to God after some kind of traumatic event. But not even like Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus can we hope to be so lucky to have the divine Logos booming before our living eyes and knocking us to the ground; we in this disillusioned century have to settle for more mundane forms of falling off a horse. In my case, without revealing too much, it was a long-recurring pattern of self-loathing, combined with the realization of my lack of control over my life’s circumstances, which culminated in a major depressive episode not so long ago; and while our Lord’s mercy has given me a lot of hope since, as well as a renewed boldness to face daily living on this absurd planet, the moral demands of Christianity are unacceptably high to our present self-obsessed culture. So who exactly is giving easy answers? Compare the words of Saint Paul—that “ye are not your own,” “for ye are bought with a price,” (1 Corinthians 6:19–20) and that “whether we live, therefore, or die, we are the Lord’s” (Romans 14:8)—against the ancient but ever-pervasive delusion that the final creator of meaning and arbiter of truth is, conveniently, the self.

A final word, for now, with regard to belief and its relation to knowledge: I don’t know that Christianity is true in the same way that I know right now that I am writing at my desk. But as I say the Creed everyday (categorically without the filioque), I take a stand with the countless witnesses to the truth of Christ’s trampling down death by death, not least of all in the visible church which has stood for two millennia against the ebb and flow of ideological fashions. Cardinal Ratzinger, later my favorite modern pope Benedict XVI, wrote in his erudite Introduction to Christianity:

What is belief really? We can now reply like this: it is a human way of taking up a stand in the totality of reality, a way that cannot be reduced to knowledge and is incommensurable with knowledge; it is the bestowal of meaning without which the totality of man would remain homeless, on which man’s calculations and actions are based, and without which in the last resort he could not calculate and act, because he can only do this in the context of meaning that bears him up. For in fact man does not live on the bread of practicality alone; he lives as man and, precisely in the intrinsically human part of his being, on the word, on love, on meaning. Meaning is the bread on which man, in the intrinsically human part of his being, subsists. Without the word, without meaning, without love he falls into the situation of no longer being able to live, even when earthly comfort is present in abundance. Everyone knows how sharply this situation of “not being able to go on any more” can arise in the midst of outward abundance. But meaning is not derived from knowledge. To try to manufacture it this way, that is, out of the provable knowledge of what can be made, would resemble Baron Munchhausen’s absurd attempt to pull himself up out of the bog by his own hair. I believe that the absurdity of this story mirrors very accurately the basic situation of man. No one can pull himself up out of the bog of uncertainty, of not being able to live, by his own exertions; nor can we pull ourselves up, as Descartes still thought we could, by a cogito ergo sum, by a series of intellectual deductions. Meaning that is self-made is in the last analysis no meaning. Meaning, that is, the ground on which our existence as a totality can stand and live, cannot be made but only received.

In which I turn religious: a first attempt at some clarity

It will undoubtedly befuddle those who have known me for a long time to learn that I became a catechumen in the Orthodox Church this spring on the fourth week of Lent. That moment was preceded by two and a half years of “purgatory” in the Roman Catholic church, the church of my long-forgotten baptism; of letting my walls and buffers crumble pathetically as I inched toward a Christianity I had never known; which in turn came after a decade or more of lazy, unfocused agnosticism and occasionally militant atheism that lasted from my teens through my late twenties. I wish I could present a clear narrative of how I came to be where I am but the story is anything but a clear narrative; and if I start from the very beginning I would have to face the inevitable temptation of tearing apart the evangelical Protestantism in which I was raised as a child, of which my memories are not fond, and that task is better left to people much smarter and charitable than me anyway; instead forgive me, if you care, that you’ll have to settle instead for sporadic ramblings now and in future entries.

For some reason, even in the thick of my agnostic drift, I knew in my bones that one day I would adopt some kind of ancient religion, most likely Catholicism—not out of belief, nor even a desire for “community,” which I patently never wanted, but out of an inexplicable need for ritual, history, and tradition. I don’t know with what kind of spirit I was specifically cursed to carry such aberrant longings in this mad century, but apart from brief love affairs with Marxism and revolutionary thought (for which I have my Jesuit education to thank), I simply don’t recall any significant length of time in my life in which I automatically valued the opinions of loud, living people over the long-dead. G. K. Chesterton calls it the democracy of the dead: “Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about” (from Orthodoxy); though those of us more inclined to pagan superstition might be content to call it Capricornian nature.

So when I came to New York City five years ago I thought that finally I had the opportunity to sample a vast smorgasbord of cultural and spiritual offerings, only to be sidetracked from these lofty thoughts by the business of life as a graduate student. I found myself stumbling over a canyon not so unlike the one I encountered earlier in life when I began to doubt everything that I thought in my young naiveté was true: whether it was pure exhaustion, or the yawn-inducing reduction of music into theoretical systems in the classroom, or the village madman bearing news of the death of God finally catching up with me, I began to lose faith too in music, the pursuit to which I had devoted my life for many years; my only fortress of mystery in a disenchanted world; my final, feeble bridge to any real or illusory transcendence; and falling totally into the black hole of pointless existence would have meant the completion of my long journey of doubt.

But there I was, emerged somehow. I didn’t and still don’t know how fully—whether I still have a foot stuck in that hole, or an arm pinned down by a boulder from which I’ll eventually have to cut myself free—but it became clear in my flirtation with nihilism that I couldn’t deem it possible to see a strange, terrifying beauty as I did and sometimes still do in the notion of an absurd universe, or even in absurdity itself, without a firm but hidden footing in some vantage point beyond the canyon, or at least some protective bubble to keep the elements of chaos at bay. (Consider, as a related curiosity, the famous Pale Blue Dot photograph, and the proclivity of Carl Sagan types to derive moral meaning out of the apparent cosmic irrelevance of human life.) Is that conscience? The holy spirit? The will to power?

Pale Blue Dot, taken by Voyager 1 in 1990.

The horsemen of atheism had offered me freedom. Maybe I’m too dumb to know what to do with it—all I got was boredom, anxiety, and depression—but take a look around the glorious secular-liberal heartland and tell me whether the culture as a whole by which we’re surrounded has shown itself more knowledgeable about what to do with that freedom. To be sure, the culture offers plenty of attractive albeit short-term options against the symptoms of existential disease; but one day three years ago, even as I was under their numbing influence, I prayed that God, if he were real, would come into my life. I still don’t know whether he did at that moment, or whether he was there all along and I simply heard him for the first time. After all, it is often said that God’s language is silence; and the Gospels show that Christ did not demand the submission of the world against anyone’s will; he simply approached the gobsmacked fishermen and said, “Follow me.”

Whatever voice it was I heard that day I followed to a Catholic church the following Sunday morning. There is of course a longer story here about how I came to be unconvinced by that same church, and ended up instead in Orthodoxy, which I believe to be genuine Christianity, but perhaps in the future; that would require a little theology here and some history there, with which, frankly, as a mere catechumen I believe I have little business. In truth even though my interest in Christianity was largely intellectual at first (even a cursory survey of Catholic thought, in particular, ought to disabuse anyone but the most hopelessly ignorant of the notion that religion is for the weak-minded), I have little to say to anyone seeking faith on purely rational grounds. It requires a fundamental change of worldview, that not all truth in this mysterious universe is the kind that can be measured by instruments nor argued with words, against which strict materialists and the parties of reason seem to have some sort of dogma. At any rate, my initial interest in theology and the trappings of liturgy quickly dissolved into a more urgent interest in my own liberation from the cackling demons, whether literal or metaphorical, that have tormented and continue to torment me.

The Orthodox often call their church a hospital of the soul, and I think they have a better claim to it than the Romans do; it is for that more than any other reason, apart from the sheer mercy of Christ, that I’ve finally turned to it in my time of need. My mind, of course, being a seasoned doubter, swirls at all times with questions. I hope to address them here in due time.

In the beginning was the Hello World

Like Orwell (see “Why I Write”), I won’t pretend that sheer egoism and the desire to seem clever are not strong influences behind my starting to write here. Inevitably that will be tempered by the reality that to our present culture of vapid “content creation” and self-selling, cleverness is associated with neither religiosity nor the quiet pursuit of wisdom. All the better, as I dislike attention anyway. If you’ve stumbled upon this place, though, thank you and welcome—I’ll try to be artful if nothing else, though I have no profound literary ambitions here, and the “personal blog” is hopelessly out of fashion in 2019. But the personal is all I know, and I can tell you now that in my case, it consists these days largely of my slow crawl toward Orthodox Christianity. More on that in my next entry.

Icon of The Ladder of Divine Ascent, 12th c.