The Heart of the Black Madonna

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Love in the Time of Ebola and ISIS

And I would add Ferguson. It is interesting the stark difference between what we see in the media and what I experience when I go on my morning walk in the canyons of Orange County California. I will not be here much longer, but I am trying to soak up the beauty of this unique expression of Nature in the midst of historic drought.

The dictum “As above, so below,” has it’s origins in the ancient Christian conceptualization of the meaning of Earthly existence. Thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven is another way of understanding this concept. The physical world is the Spirit manifest. When God said, “Let there be,” then what ever was spoken on the agenda for that time became a reality.

The great caveat in creation was giving Humans total and complete freedom. Freedom to the extent of completely denying the existence of the Spirit that permeates every molecule of matter. Freedom to choose to do disastrous things, freedom to choose life over death. Along with our freedom there comes evil, from which we are to encounter and transform.

We are told in the realm of virtual reality is that we must be in a constant state of helpless fear that the “other” will kill us either through violence or disease. We must avoid one another, isolate ourselves, arm ourselves and above all kill the other before they kill us, especially if they are bad, then it is almost a duty.

In the beginning of the most recent incursion of violence in the middle east, it was astonishing to me the passive acceptance of brute force as the only solution to the crisis. One person said to me, “there is no other option, this is a time where we humans just have to get this out of our system.”

What is the proper response to grave evil? How do we encounter real fear? Dr. Cornel West in a recent interview quoted Civil Rights activist W. E. B. Du Bois questions: How does Integrity face oppression? What does Honesty do in the face of deception? What does Decency do in the face of insult? And how does Virtue meet brute force?

West answers in the voice of Black Prophetic Fire, “ So, in the face of terror, in the face of trauma, in the face of stigma, 400 years of Black people wrestling with all three, what do we produce? This caravan of Love, this love train- love of justice, love of the poor, love of working people.”

In response to the horrors that Christians are experiencing in the middle east, there was an ecumenical prayer vigil in Orange County California. I had heard of plans for this event at a Byzantine Catholic Church in Anaheim. The woman who sat next to me at the after service luncheon was remarking how the terrorists must be stopped. I expressed my desire that we as a community of Christians try to find a new solution to dealing with evil since violence only prolongs the problem. She told me I was talking to the wrong person, that bombing was the only solution, and then talked about how much she loved coming to this church and asking how she could help with the upcoming Christmas craft fair.

Several weeks ago I attended a lecture regarding the state of Christians in the Ukraine. This was another eye opening experience as to how deeply people of faith are suffering in another distant land. While our local pundits proclaim oppression because mall greeters say “happy holidays” in stead of “Merry Christmas,”  groups of Priests from different denominations stood in solidarity with the protesters in Kiev, having prayer vigils and joint Mass in the midst of all the street violence, and shielding their parishioners from the brute force of the police. 

There were many tales of pastors in Crimea being kidnapped, tortured and killed. In response to this, the Clergy in the Ukraine are claiming a centuries old cannon law that forbids Christians to engage in war. If the priest knows that a parishioner participated in warfare, the fighter would be excommunicated. The soldier had to do 11 years of penance to be readmitted to the Church. The Greek Orthodox priest from San Diego who led the discussion said over and over, “War is brokenness, War is against God, we are not to participate, if we do, we are broken.” I would not call Orthodox Christian Cannon Law liberal by any stretch of the imagination, it truly astounded me that this was law dating from the first centuries of Christianity. The priest went on to say, “The just war thing, that is a Western invention, that goes against the spirit of the Word of God.”  Brave words from a man serving the military and  weapons manufacturing communities of San Diego, California. (This area is where Top Gun was filmed, if that gives you any indication of the environment.)

I took my father to the Prayer Vigil in Orange County. My name should be Popov, but the Ellis Island immigration agents in 1914 told my grandfather his name was too long. Popov means Priest, and my father told me his father always said “We are Priests, we come from Priests.” Evan Georgieff Popov came to this country to avoid fighting in World War 1. So, the descendants of Balkan Priests sat down in a beautiful modern Greek Orthodox church, flanked with choirs from three different congregations. The roster was impressive. Clergy from Syrian, Armenian, Greek, Russian, Coptic, and numerous Roman Catholic Churches processed down the middle aisle together. The sat in a very large semi circle in front of the ornate gold leafed mosaic altar of a 20 foot Virgin Mary with the Christ Child over her heart. Each and every denomination had a part in the lengthy service, from music, to readings, blessings and prayers. I thought, if it was not for ISIS, this gathering of congregations which have been split for nearly 1000 years would not be here together now.

The most profound aspect of the Vigil commenced with the sermon given by the home church Orthodox priest. The Homily began with the retelling of the numerous horrific tragedies perpetrated against Christians all over the Middle East and Africa. The theme of the sermon came from the New Testament Scripture found in First Corinthians.

“Brethren, it seems to me that God has put us Apostles on display, like those condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels and to men. We are the fools for Christ. To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated; we are homeless. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure; when we are slandered, we answer kindly. But thanks be to God who has given us victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!” 1 Corinthians 4: 9 – 13, 15:57

The Priest said in a thunderous almost accusatory voice, “What do we do in the face of such cruel violent persecution? We are Christians, we endure! And not only do we endure, we pray for those who persecute us! We pray that their hearts be changed, of course they are committing such terrible acts, they do not know Christ! Let us pray that they can come to know the Christ!”

The Vigil then went on with a community prayer, where we all read in unison a prayer for the members of the terrorist groups that are slaughtering and oppressing our Brothers and Sisters. 

"Help us to repay their evil with goodness that we might not be overcome by evil but conquer evil with good. Deliver us from anger and the desire for vengeance. So we pray for all those who fight in the name of the Islamic State: enlighten their minds and hearts... forgive them...."

We then took a collection to help the families that have escaped the terror.

I had found my home, the home for my troubled and weary heart, I had found the answer to the questions I had been asking for so long, what should be do in the face of this terrible tragedy, what can we do that is different? Instead of praying for victory in war and bombing, we were praying for the ultimate victory of love over hate. Instead of fearing our neighbor, we came together. As Christ said to his Father in Gethsemane, “Let them be one, as You and I are one.” For that moment in time, in deep loving response to the terror and suffering of those we had never met, we prayed for transformation, and we affirmed that our response to oppression, deception, insult and brute force as Christians is LOVE. Our job as we were told in Corinthians is to ENDURE, and our method is by coming together in community to support one another with what ever gifts and talents we have to give. 

It may have taken us 2000 years to get it right, but now we were behaving as Christ behaved. He forgave his oppressors, and here we were in the middle of tract houses and conservative populations praying for just that. The purpose of evil is to invite people to transform themselves for the better, to resist the evil and become better for it. I saw that in the service, and I see this happening the world over when people respond in loving kindness to unspeakable horror.

It is clear that the adversarial powers do not want us to come together, because that is where we find the Christ in action. The constant negativity and fear streaming through the airways and internet is spiritually significant, inspired by the evil one to chase us away from one another, so we can not experience and manifest the Christ. 

 The Angels and the Trinity know what we are capable of, which is why we have been given such a tremendous gift in our lives. They know we are capable of great deeds, of transformation, of endurance, of choosing life over death, and love over hate.

In the midst of the canyons in the early dawn hours I walk, the land burnt from past fires and parched from drought. I do see life, flowers blooming, lizards, birds and rabbits going about their business. In the death, there is life. In the great horror of our current age, there is hope and there is triumph in the face of the greatest evil ever known. All because of the goodness that ordinary every day people are capable of expressing in the face of immense challenges.

The Black Madonna speaks of endurance, this is one of the reasons they are Black and they are somber. They have been placed along the way of the stars to show us that our lives on earth are an initiation to something greater. The artists of old knew what was about to happen, and channeled love from above to companion us on our journey. We are told we will be given the treasures of darkness. We can endure, because we love. This is how we can find triumph and consolation in the age of Ebola, ISIS and Ferguson.

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