Monday, June 25, 2007

Yup, I Like to Listen to John Denver

Recently, I came across some compilation CD’s of John Denver’s music. Yup, that John Denver, the guy who sang “Thank God, I’m A Country Boy,” “Leaving On a Jet Plane,” “Take Me Home Country Road,” “Calypso,” “Rocky Mountain Him,” and “Annie’s Song.” I guess I should be, but honestly I am not in the least bit embarrassed to admit that I have always loved John Denver’s music. Right now, as I’m writing this, I’m listen to Denver singing “Fly Away” as duet with Olivia Newton John, another favorite singer from when I was a mere lad.

Every once and again in our spiritual life I need to reconnect with the gentler side of life. Too much gentleness and leisure, like too much toughness and discipline, leads to a lopsided spiritual life. Likewise, if I spend so much time focusing on spiritual matters that I lose sight of the common human experiences that God uses to slowly lead us to Himself. John Denver’s music does a think a good job of reminding me of the beauty of creation, friendship, and the ordinary, though by no means insignificant, love between a man and a woman. He also speaks of the darker aspects of human life, grief, loneliness, fear, and disappointment that I am too willing to overlook or minimize.

I have to always be careful that we not underestimate, much less hold in contempt, these ordinary human experiences. All of these can, and are, taken up by Christ into the life of the Most Holy Trinity and transfigured—deified as the Greek fathers were fond of saying. It is above all in the celebration of the Eucharist, when, in the Name of Jesus Christ, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, I offer my life to God the Father and, miracle of miracles—He accepts that offering with all of my shortcomings and sins. And not only that: the Father transforms what is earthly and created in my offering into something Heavenly and Uncreated and returns the offering of my life to me in Holy Communion.

And when I receive back that offering transformed by the grace of the Holy Spirit, I receive not only my own life, but also the life of Christ. And in Christ I receive into myself, even as I am received, the whole Church, His Body. And in receiving Christ, Who in the Incarnation has freely united Himself to the whole human family when He took on our nature, I also receive humanity. And even this is not enough; since humanity is both microcosm and a macrocosm of the whole creation, in Holy Communion, creation itself becomes a part of me, even as I am a part of creation.

The challenge of the Christian life is living out the reality that in Christ nothing is really alien to me. Sympathy or pity for my neighbor, creation, and even myself, is easy since sympathy allows me to stand outside of all of these. But communion in Christ demands of me empathy—the willingness to actually suffer along with others. This means that I have to be able to find another person’s pain, and another person’s sin, in my heart—I need to allow their pain to be my pain and to understand that their sin is really mine as well.

On the Cross Christ accepts on Himself the pain of our, my, sinfulness. God in Jesus Christ does not simply pity fallen humanity; He doesn’t stand outside of the human family. No, it is on the Cross that God identifies with us, He makes our sinfulness, our shame, His own even at the cost of His own life.

To come back for a moment to John Denver, I think for me the delight of much pop music, whatever might be its artistic merits, is that it gives expression to the common elements of human life. Granted this is not often done with any great depth, but that is its charm and value.

When I was younger I was quite taken with being serious, I wanted to have serious conversations about important matters. That was (and is) all well and good, but it also reflected my own self-importance and lack of charity. I was zealous. But zeal, says St Isaac the Syrian, “is a lack of compassion for our neighbor in his weakness.” I was so zealous, that—after she actually convinced me of its importance—my wife had to teach me to make “small talk.” Far from being unimportant, small talk, like flirting, is the willingness to demonstrate to another human being that he or she is worthy of our attention, that they are interesting or beautiful. And this is without a doubt one of the most precious gift we can give one another human being.

St Maximus reminds us that we ought not to prefer one person to another based on their character. That is to say the significance and value of human life is objective—the thoughts of a philosopher, the struggles of a great saint, don’t make them f any greater significance in the eyes of God then the thoughts of a simple and illiterate man or the struggles of an ordinary husband or wife make them of less value to God. It is worthy noting that for most of His earthly life, Jesus was rather an ordinary carpenter. And it precisely because He was so ordinary, so “dead common” as our British friends might say, that Jesus was such a cause of agitation of the religious and secular authorities of His time.

If I can’t, or won’t, find God in the midst of the ordinary circumstances of life, I’ll never find Him anywhere else either. And what can I offer Him if I can’t, or won’t, offer to God my life as it is really is with all its ordinariness?

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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