Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Abundant Life in the Blooming Desert

The Star Wars community tends to boil things down to a lowest common denominator.  While we all have Wookieepedia bookmarked and a vast knowledge TIE fighter models, we find the conversations being whittled down to likes or dislikes, goods or bads.  We polarize our conversations instead of finding deeper levels of understanding through true understanding, dialog and compassion.  If you think I’m nuts, have you ever persuaded someone with your theory about who Snoke is?  When talking to someone with an opinion on midichlorians, have you changed your mind?  There is a call to something greater, though.

These interactions are given a vivid form in the tragedy of Darth Vader the Selfish.  The hopeful, young, newly-freed slave, was said to have no thought for himself, but only a desire to do good for others.  By the time Anakin is romping with Padme and the spaceticks on Naboo, his desire for a simple and dictatorial Galaxy has replaced his former hope.  He has devolved in his thinking from love and service to order and simplicity.  This is the reward he gained.  In his desire to have everything, he found just that – and nothing was lurking on its heels.  He gained some sort of command of the world, but lost his compassion and relationships in the process.
We need to only look at the outcome.  Amputated, burned, widowed, disowned.  All possible joys were either thrown away or subsequently taken from him as a result of his choices.  He had no legs of his own to stand on, nor a hand to caress the cheeks of his loved ones.  Scalded on the inside, fresh air was torture.  Food – the simple joy of the community table – lost all of its savor.  He aimed for an indulgent life and ended up with nothing.  This is vividly described in some of the New Canon literature, such as Lords of the Sith and the comics.  St Augustine said that sin is when one becomes curved in on himself.  The commonwealth of the world is sacrificed for some sort of selfish gain, but finds that the just reward is damnation.
It is the selfish human element that reduces things to the small bits.  It is a base form of interaction that only wants to get its own point across.  But let us not fret over this cautionary tale for too long.  There is an antitype, and it is good.  There is another way, which leads to blessedness, fullness, joyfulness and a requited love.  Ironically from the modern point of view, it is the ascetic way of life.  You see, when you claw for everything, you will often end up landing in the mud.  When you are willing to sacrifice everything for the other, the greater blessings flow back.  This is love; this is freedom from being owned by selfishness, materialism and fleeting success.  “Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.”
Last Sunday was my penultimate Sunday with my current congregation.  I said very plainly in my sermon this crucial statement:  “If you have heard me say anything at all, let it be this:  Love is always about the other person.”  To give, to sacrifice, to empty yourself – these are the highest virtues that a human can exercise.
My favorite theologian (I would have doubles of his trading card, if there were one), Fr Alexander Schmemann commented on our topic at hand.  “I am more and more convinced that nothing, absolutely nothing, is achieved or solved through discussions, arguments, debates – an aberration of our times…Anything that convinces, or converts others, grows in solitude, in creative quiet, never in chatter.  It does not mean that a creator should not have a universal vision – he must have.  The error of our times is the belief in words, leading to their complete devaluation (The Journals of Father Alexander Schmemann 157).”
Fr Alexander is describing the life of exile from the known world, not in despair, but in the hope of the age to come.  At times of great importance and weight, the most powerful statement may be that of Master Yoda: “Into exile I must go.”  Before he leaves, in a perceived disgrace, he passes on some crucial information to Obi-Wan Kenobi.  “In your solitude on Tatooine, training I have for you.”  Hold on: if they are leaving in shame, what use is there for training?  What is good about life in a dust bowl?  Through their ascetical efforts, they will emerge greater, stronger, more creative and powerful.  The path for Obi-Wan was not in vocational fulfillment, but in the beautiful struggle in the desert.  And, I hope you caught my unnecessarily veiled allusion, that the desert is not necessarily the home of sand and Jaxxon’s mortal remains, but the absence of this age’s pursuits in service to the greater future of redemption.
These ideas are kicking around in my head these days since the season of Great Lent is quickly approaching.  It is a tithe of the year where we set aside earthly delights (for the Orthodox tradition, that means many dietary restrictions, almsgiving, a reduction of pleasurable pursuits and more attendance at the divine services).  Through the setting aside of the admittedly good things of this life (among them Philly cheesesteaks and fired up barbecue grills), we are moving in the sure hope of the greater things of the age to come.  The ascetic struggle, the current life of denial and self-control, is a profound statement of hope in the promise of the Kingdom of Heaven and a school for the better appreciation of the Creation in which we will live out our lives on this side of the eternal repose of our souls.

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