Miracles, Millions, and Love

I recently posted about St. Theodosius the Great, and this resulted in a long Facebook conversation with my friend Emma. I thought readers of the blog would find it interesting, so with her permission I share here an unedited transcript of our conversation (taken from my Facebook post, our comments on my post, and discussions on Facebook messenger).  She refers a few times to the movie “Millions”: here is a link to its IMDB page.

I will remind the reader that I am merely a layperson- please don’t take what I say as authoritative Orthodox doctrine! This is just a conversation between two friends grappling with questions of faith and kindness.


ME:


Today is the feast day of St. Theodosios the Great. I love this episode from his life:

One time when there was a famine in Palestine and a multitude of people gathered at the monastery, the monk gave orders to allow everyone into the monastery enclosure. His disciples were annoyed, knowing, that the monastery did not have the means to feed all those who had come. But when they went into the bakery, they saw that then through the prayers of the abba, that it was filled with bread. And suchlike a miracle was repeated every time, when the Monk Theodosios wanted to give help to the destitute.

theodosius

 

EMMA:

This reminds me of a scene in the movie ‘Millions’ (kind of weird movie). It’s hard to explain why out of context, but St Peter is speaking to a little boy (Edited from dialogue for clarity):

“Damian. Listen. One day I was with you know who – Jesus. And he went up into the mountains, and thousands of people followed him. The police said five thousand, five thousand. This kid comes up to us, about your size. He comes up with these loaves and fishes. Sardines. And Jesus blesses them, and passes the plate round.

Now the first person he passes it to, passes it on. He doesn’t take anything. He just passes it on. Do you know why? Because he had a piece of lamb hidden in his pocket. And as he is passing the fish, he sneaks a bit of meat out and pretends he’s taken it off the plate.

Do you see what I’m saying?

And the next person – exactly the same story. Every single bastard one of them has their own food. And every one of them is keeping it quiet. Looking after number one.

But as that plate went round, with the sardines on, they all got their own food, out and started to share. And then that plate went all the way round, and back to Jesus. And it’d still got the fish and the loaves on it.

I think Jesus was a bit taken aback. He says, ‘What happened?’ And I just said, ‘Miracle’.

And at first, I thought I’d fooled him. But now I see it was a miracle, one of his best. This little kid had stood up and… everybody there just got bigger.”

I guess it’s a bit off-topic from this miracle, but it reminded me of it and I like it so much I thought I’d share. I really like the idea that sometimes the ‘miracle’ is inspiring other people to help each other, something that I often think the stories you share of the Saints conveys better than the more traditional stuff I learned in Sunday school.

 

ME:

Hello Emma, I thought the comment you posted on my wall was absolutely lovely- thank you for sharing. I have a lot I want to say in response, but I am in the middle of finals grading hell right now, so it is going to take me a few days. For now, I just wanted to make sure you knew I appreciated it I hope all is well with you!

 

EMMA:

Hey, I’m so glad! I waivered a bit about posting it as I didn’t want it to be taken the wrong way 🙂 It’s always stuck with me, and even though I’m not religious now, it’s inspiring, and to me, such a good example of the true power of Faith – not to wait for the magic of God, but to be compelled to make good happen yourself.

Glad you enjoyed it! The movie itself is a bit strange but worth a watch, if for no other reason than to see this scene – they cast St Peter as a Geordie (from Newcastle in England) and the accent makes it even better!

No worries about a delay in replying, I know how it is with exam marking! 🙂 And congratulations on the book once again!

 

ME:

Emma, the parable of the loaves and fishes is one of my favourites, and I am glad you found this version of it meaningful! I have to catch this movie sometime.

My beliefs about miracles have shifted a bit in the past few years, and I think this shift is related to what you wrote in your comment. I first learned a “Sunday school” version of how faith works: that is you believe hard enough God will miraculously solve all your problems. But I have been realizing recently how miracles in Christian scripture and hagiography are almost always “participatory” in nature. Miracles happen in synergy with some form of human action, usually some great act of love or selflessness, not God working out a magic show with us in the sidelines. In the loaves and fishes story, the miracle happens in response to the little kid offering to share his little basket of bread and fish, even though they cannot possibly be enough to feed thousands. In Theodosius’ story, the miracle happens in response to him welcoming the hungry refugees to his monastery, even when his pantry is empty and the other monks get upset at him.

Sometimes in English bibles the word for “miracle” gets translated instead as “signs”, and perhaps this is a better translation. Miracles are a reminder that these acts of love are right, even when they are risky, even when it seems our efforts are pointless. Of course, often we perform these acts of love and no miracle comes in response: we indeed offer too little to make a difference, or perhaps we are even harmed by our act of charity. But we cannot fully predict what good will emerge from of our actions, and I think these miracles, sprinkled throughout history, are a sign from God that these acts of self-sacrificial love are good and worthwhile, even when we in our limited perspective don’t see the resolution we desire.

But I think we have reached the point where we disagree. I understand the scientist’s desire to demystify things, and so I think I get why you like the movie’s version of the loaves and fishes story. However, I consider the mystery behind these miracles essential, so I find this alternative, “mundane” version a bit unsatisfying. It is very important to me that these acts of love- sharing your bread with hungry strangers when you yourself don’t have enough- that they are so meaningful, so incomprehensibly powerful, that the laws of nature break in their presence. I don’t have the faith of Theodosius, or of the little boy with the basket of food. When I share, it tends to be in a shamefully calculating manner: I weigh how much I want to hoard to keep myself comfortable, against the expected benefit of my contribution, perhaps with some victim-blaming judgement thrown in to figure out if the recipient is “deserving”. But when I remember these miracles, I remember how little I really know, how shallow my human perspective is, how much I don’t understand about the consequences of my actions. I then trust my calculations less and I hope more, and out of this hope I give more freely. By the grace of God, if I do this enough, maybe I will slowly learn that faith of Theodosius.

For brevity I am omitting here boring parts of our conversation where I ask Emma permission to include her words on this blog post. We end with one last comment from her.

EMMA: Hey Darren, it looks good! I’m very honoured 🙂 Glad my little quote could lead to something nice!

You don’t have to post this bit, but I wanted to just round out the discussion WRT your last comment. I completely understand your point that the magic of some of the other miracle stories is exactly in that they are not ‘mundane’, but also what you say about that they still require an act of selflessness and faith – ‘participation’ – Theodosius inviting everyone in even though there wasn’t enough food. And, I also see the importance that it isn’t all just explainable by humans being sneakily nice – there is some unexplainable reward from God as well.

From an athestic perspective, I’ll admit that I can’t buy into ‘magic’ miracles (no judgement intended), but one of the things I like about the ‘mundane’ version of Loaves and Fishes, and even Saints’ stories like Theodosius, is that they remind me of the good of religion. I tend to get pretty cynical about religion, because in my eyes I see a lot of harm (in my opinion) done by people in the names of various faiths. And on my Newsfeed, though there are many Christians, few of them are inspiring examples of their faith (there are some exceptions, you among them!). They are quick to judge, and slow to show mercy or offer help. Now, they are only human, and I certainly am probably no shining example of much of anything myself, but I would be lying to say that it doesn’t influence my opinion.


But stories like these, where people are moved by their faith to do great things (and even little things that turn into great things) without knowing if it will be ok, remind me that there is a value that I share deeply with religion, and that anything that can inspire more goodness, more kindness, more selfless helping, whether mundane or miraculous, is something I can respect and support, even if I do not necessarily believe. It chides me from my cynicism a bit.

 

I hope that makes sense! And hope it’s clear I do not mean any disrespect (part of why I didn’t want to post on your wall; didn’t want anyone to take it the wrong way), just thought you might be interested in part of the attraction of these stories to a non-believer.

On a personal note, I really enjoy reading your posts/blog posts about your faith, and find them both refreshing and inspiring. Thank you!

 

Finding Orthodox Books in Malaysia

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I discuss Orthodox Christian books rather frequently on this blog, and I get questions once in a while on how to find them in Malaysia. It can be very challenging especially for physical copies of books. Here are some options I have been able to identify.

Ask me!

Send me a message using the contact page of this blog (https://orthodoxinmalaysia.wordpress.com/contact/). Especially if you live somewhere in the Klang Valley, I might know someone who has the book you are looking for and you might be able to borrow it.

E-books

If you don’t insist of a physical copy of a book, we have some good options.

Google

A lot of important Orthodox books are old, and thus do not have any copyright restrictions. I have been able to find some important texts online.

Christian Bookstores

There are plenty of Christian bookstores in big Malaysian cities. Of course, they will mostly carry only Roman Catholic and Protestant books, but you can find patristic writings occasionally, and I have seen a copy of the Orthodox study bible (pictured above) once.

Online Book Retailers

I know some Malaysians have had some success ordering books off Amazon and other online retailers.

Here are some discussions with instructions I have found online

Do you know of another way to obtain Orthodox Christian books?

Please share in the comments if you know another way to obtain Orthodox books!

Three years Orthodox

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I was received into Orthodoxy through the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America on the Sunday after Theophany, 2015 (new Calendar).  I have thus completed my third year in the orthodox church.  I suppose this is a good time as any for some reflection.

I came across this thoughtful quote by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn:

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

-Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Gulag Archipelago

I feel that this quote encapsulates the most important ways my thinking has shifted, having lived in the orthodox way for these three years. Contemporary secular morality defaults to dividing between “good people” and “bad people” (prompting the Solzhenitsyn quote above) and protestant thinking divides between “saved” and “unsaved” in a similar way. The “lifeboat analogy” is a very common part of protestant teaching: the idea that Christians are on a lifeboat, and our calling is to convince the rest of the world to get on.

In Orthodoxy,  the line between good and evil, between saved and unsaved is not between one person and another,  but within each person’s heart. For these first three years, the most influential lines of the liturgy for me has been these words in the prayer before communion, taken from 1 Timothy 1:15:

I believe, O Lord, and I confess that Thou art truly the Christ, the Son of the Living God, Who came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief…

I am very grateful how the Orthodox faith has such a healthy attitude toward guilt. We talk of sin as if it were a sickness, and the work of overcoming sin as if it were therapy. Whereas as a Protestant I believed that Christ simply and immediately removes the sin of the Christian, in the Orthodox faith Christ’s work of salvation in us is slow, gradual, and happens with our participation. We participate by being alert to our failings and repenting continually from our sins. If we do this right, we are too focused on our own faults to have time to judge the wrongs of other people. Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? A lot better to regard your own sins as much worse than the sins of those around you.

For these three years, Orthodox living has been a patient, painful process of spiritual growth: “destroying a piece of my heart” as Solzhenitsyn put it, or “dying to myself” as the New Testament says. I have slowly recognized the many ways in which I have been callous and hurtful to other people, and forced myself to confront the flimsy justifications I have made for awful behavior. I am beginning to see how I am often coldly dismissive of others’ hopes, needs and vulnerabilities,   and how my desire to correct others’ faults comes not from a place of love, but self-righteousness and judgment. Lord have mercy on me, a sinner!

But these realizations do not lead to despair, but to hope. I continually repent, I continually surrender my broken self, I continually acknowledge my helplessness before the God who can do all things, and today I look forward to  Christ’s victory over my yesterday failings.

It is not that I was unaware of these unhealthy tendencies before I became Orthodox. But as a Protestant my spiritual focus was outward- towards the unforgiven sin in the non-believers around me, towards the wickedness and injustice in society. I mostly saw repentance as something I did in the past, and I considered continually dwelling on my own sin after accepting Christ as something pathological.

I think I am in a healthier place now, but I am still very new to the Orthodox faith, and there is still a lot I don’t understand, and a lot that I am probably doing wrong. In particular, I hope in the next few years I will learn what it means to live an Orthodox Christian life in an unjust society. As a Protestant, I felt that I was more in tune with the plight of the poor and suffering. Now, all my energy and attention is focused towards my sin and my spiritual growth, and in building up the church in Malaysia. The author of Ecclesiastes writes that “in everything there is a season”, and perhaps my attention is focused inward just for this time. But in the lives of the Orthodox saints I see how so many of them sacrificed a great deal for the sake of the poor and oppressed, and how there was harmony, not contradiction between their inward spiritual formation and their outward action. I haven’t figured that out yet. By God’s grace maybe I will.