23 April 2011

Con Lento.

A few days ago I finished reading Alexander Schmemann's Great Lent. And quite honestly, I thought it was amazing.

Often, it is difficult to find succinctness in writing about faiths with a great deal of mysticism within their doctrines. Orthodox Christianity is one of these, and readers unfamiliar with much of Orthodox writing would be astonished at how much meandering goes on, even if the book itself is fairly brief. Part of this comes from the many (so very many) translations done by people familiar with the religion in question but not terribly at home in English, but not everything is the translator's fault. Often the meandering is beautiful and enlightening -- but if you're a kid trying to figure out why you're vegetarian part of the year, it gets a little confusing. (Trust me on that one.)

Great Lent does not have this problem. Schmemann was educated in Paris and, later, worked with St. Vladimir's Seminary in New York. He is at home in the English language, and seems to understand how to use it to explain things to people (possibly from spending a lot of time working with students). Great Lent is very brief -- the book proper is just over 100 pages, though my copy included another article as an appendix that pushed it up to 130-odd -- but very engaging and, what's more, actually educational. Schmemann's explanations for some of the unusual aspects of Orthodoxy (the strict fasting rules, the attitude towards communion and confession, the use of icons and, indeed, the very wording of the liturgy) are clear and comprehensible, and he doesn't fall back on vagaries like many writers. Indeed, some passages are very beautiful, and I have them earmarked for future quotation (because I do that).

Nor does he condemn those who don't understand what he's talking about or were unfamiliar with the ideas and beliefs behind Lent in the Orthodox Church. Instead, his writing is energetic and, at times, cheerful, though he sometimes veers into a near-polemical intensity which can be a little off-putting.

However, the book never becomes strident, nor does it ever become mean. Schmemann seeks to educate, not to intimidate, and his goal is fully met in this book.

10 April 2011

Writing Things.

So, I've done yet another edit of my epic tale of virtual education in the near past, which is untitled, unpublished, and, for all statistical purposes, unread by anyone (other than my magnificent sibs, my mom, and a couple of nice people at the school I used to go to). I get ridiculously into that story when I'm working on it. I'm pleased with it, to be honest.

I also have submitted some stories and poems to various venues, though, in case anyone needs reminding, my poem "Clotho's Favor" is still up over at Eternal Haunted Summer.

In other (epic) news, I've got a retelling of... erm... that weird fairy tale with the six brothers who were turned into swans and the sister who made them shirts and saved them. This one. Here's an English translation of the Grimm brothers' version. Apparently, there are more of these, which is news to me. But it's one of my favorite fairy tales and has been for a long time -- though, in typical fairy tale fashion, it's the things that aren't explored in the original that stick with me. Most significantly, what are the implications of having a brother whose arm is a swan's wing? What does that do to the person who was supposed to help him? (And before anyone asks, no, I haven't read Daughter of the Forest. Yet.)

Anyway, my poem takes the form of a post-hoc letter from the sixth son, the one left with a swan's wing, to his sister, now married to the king, with her thoughts interposed. The timeline in mine is somewhat different than the Grimms' version, but I claim artistic license on that. The brother's letter is in free verse, while the sister's thoughts are set in unrhymed iambic tetrameter. (I suck at scansion, and it was the best I could do.) I'm hoping to finish it soon; my wonderful baby sister has given me some good suggestions on elements that need to be included. Then my little saga will toddle off down the submissions pipeline, and we'll see how he does.

In other news, I'm reading La Vie Mode d'Emploi by Georges Perec, and had a lovely afternoon at this place. I love book festivals and literary festivals; I can smell my own. (And since this is France and deodorant is always optional and generally ineffective, I mean that literally.) Also, I am knitting more stuff, and crocheting things, too. Pictures to follow, perhaps?

08 April 2011

Not Magical History.

John Binns' name has made me and some of my Harry-Potter-loving friends giggle a few times, seeing as it's the name of the singularly boring professor who teaches History of Magic at Hogwarts. However, the Binns responsible for An Introduction to the Orthodox Christian Churches is quite the opposite of a boring ghost. For one thing, no revenant could have created so lively a voice; for another, it's... y'know... not a history of magic. What Binns has done is to create a readable, interesting breakdown of Orthodox Christian belief in its various facets, covering both Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian churches, as well as the Greek Catholic and other Uniate belief systems.

Binns writes from the perspective of a terribly well-informed outsider:  Although himself a vicar in the Church of England, Binns is part of the Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius at Cambridge, as well as being the author of a number of books on topics in Orthodoxy. However, his sympathy with Orthodoxy of all stripes is very tenderly displayed throughout An Introduction..., and he is, thankfully, quite gifted in explaining the finer points of doctrinal issues and, equally importantly, why seemingly trivial issues can have ramifications far beyond what one might expect. He explains the Chalcedonian/non-Chalcedonian divide clearly and gracefully, and also casts a thoughtful eye over the events leading up to and surrounding the schism between the Eastern and Western Churches in 1054. Unlike a number of Byzantinists -- whose foci are, admittedly, elsewhere -- Binns is not content to let the Papal Bull lie, and identifies as more important the increasingly disastrous Crusades as the true culprit in permanently dividing the East from the West.

Binns is equally adroit, however, with the more modern history of the church, elucidating in the latter chapters its transformation from a church of empire, to a church oppressed, to a church that is, sometimes to its own detriment, often quite nationalist. He makes careful use of examples, and even when discussing more modern issues revolving around recent, delicate maneuvers towards ecumenism, he is at pains to be fair to all sides.

I honestly found An Introduction to the Orthodox Christian Churches to be not only quite readable, but also very enjoyable. I preferred it to my (admittedly flawed) memory of The Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Kallistos Ware's seminal text. Binns' elegant writing on the topic also encouraged me to begin reading this, which I also am thoroughly enjoying. I am very pleased to have finally found the time to read An Introduction..., and I look forward to seeing what else John Binns may have to say upon this more fascinating and dearly-held subject.